March 16, 2011
Value Picks in the Outfield
I’m pinch-hitting for Rob McQuown this week on the outfielders beat, as he is busy performing more advanced calculations down in the BP server room than the guys at NASA. You don’t have to ask me twice who’s performing more of a public service.
Yes, that Tony Gwynn, the one who hit .204/.304/.287 for San Diego last year before being unceremoniously cut loose. You’d think that a 591 OPS in your age-27 season would earn you a one-way ticket to the finest buses in the Pacific Coast League, yet Gwynn found himself lucky enough to land in the only spot desperate enough to give him a chance and a major league contract: the left field quagmire in Los Angeles.
Gwynn actually has more than just a shot to make the roster – he’s got a growing chance at substantial playing time. Consider the current mix of Dodger outfielders: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons. Most figured that left field would be a platoon share between the lefty Gibbons and the righty Thames, with Gwynn getting at most some innings as a defensive replacement in left or as an off-day fill-in in center and right. But Gibbons, despite his hometown tale of redemption, has done everything in his power to give his roster spot away. After leaving winter ball early due to vision issues, Gibbons missed a week of camp with the flu, and he’s managed just two singles in 22 plate appearances before leaving camp to deal with further vision concerns. If you can’t see, you can’t hit, and that’s on top of the fact that Gibbons probably wasn’t going to hit anyway even with working eyes. Add that to the fact that while Gwynn is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, neither Gibbons or Thames are making anyone forget about Manny Ramirez in the field, and you can see how Gwynn has plenty of opportunity to wedge his way into the majority of at-bats in a platoon with Thames.
Besides, Gwynn has had an excellent camp, hitting .321/.387/.429 entering Tuesday. (Here’s where you first point out, and then I agree with, the fact that spring stats don’t matter due to the small sample size and varying competition. I agree that they shouldn’t matter. But let’s not pretend that they don’t when we’re talking about a new arrival making a first impression on a new manager.) That’s in the 3rd-most appearances of any Dodger this spring, which says something about how much Don Mattingly wants to see him, and it doesn’t even include that he’s stolen six bases without being caught, indicative of new first base coach Davey Lopes’ dedication to the running game and Gwynn’s wheels.
Of course, all the opportunity in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t produce, and that’s where the real question about Gwynn lies. Gwynn claims that his horrendous 2010 was due in part to finding out that his father had cancer (the elder Gwynn, thankfully, is reportedly doing well in his battle) and partly due to an injured wrist which required surgery. It’s also fair to note that Gwynn did have a much better 2009, with a .350 OBP, and despite the rest of his troubles in 2010, his ISO and BB/K rates have each improved each year since 2008. So there’s a small amount of hope there.
Gwynn’s a buy-low candidate and may only be worth noting in the deepest of leagues, but the Dodgers are desperate for both outfield defense and on-base percentage. It’s the best case scenario for them that he wins the job and pushes Gibbons to the bench or worse, and with prospects Jerry Sands and Trayvon Robinson unlikely to be ready before midseason, Gwynn could get a chance to prove himself in Los Angeles.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have Mike Morse, who isn’t much of an outfielder and doesn’t have great speed, but just might murder a few baseballs. With Josh Willingham off to Oakland, the only outfield certainty in Washington entering camp was Jayson Werth, as they haven’t quite figured out how to suit up his ridiculous beard just yet. Morse entered the spring in a battle with Rick Ankiel, Nyjer Morgan, and Roger Bernadina for playing time at the other two spots, but has performed so well in camp that GM Mike Rizzo claims that Morse has all but won the left field job, thanks to hitting five homers and batting nearly .500 so far as a follow-up to his strong 2010.
Morse was a third-round pick of the White Sox back in 2000, and, despite seeing MLB time in every season between 2005 and 2009, was never really able to get his career on track due to injuries and a PED suspension. He was even sent down twice early in 2010, but after getting recalled on June 1, he made his mark, hitting 15 homers with a .291/.351/.534 line over just 291 plate appearances. If he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify, his 870 OPS would have ranked 24th in MLB, ahead of Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard, and Andre Ethier. Morse is massive–listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds (which may be conservative)–and didn’t show a platoon weakness last year, hitting for an excellent 999 OPS against lefties and an acceptable 806 against righties.
So what’s in store for Morse this year? We certainly don’t want to put too much stock into spring stats, though he’s of course off to a great start, but if he plays every day he would seem to be an intriguing option as part of the middle of a Washington lineup that includes Werth, LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman. It’s hard to think that he won’t get his homers while in the lineup, and while you might take the 15 PECOTA has him pegged for and be happy, there are not too many guys who are largely under the radar who could potentially bash 20 to 30 dingers. Morse is one of my big sleepers this year, if only for the potential, however small, of a huge payoff. Judging by his spring start, he’s on the right track.
Rajai Davis, Toronto Blue Jays
Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, because Davis certainly has holes in his game, in that he’s never shown any power, and his on-base skills have been inconsistent. Still, since he’s spent the bulk of his career in Pittsburgh and Oakland, it’s easy to forget that Davis possesses elite speed: over the last four seasons, only three players have more steals than he does, and he’s amassed that total with an 80 percent success rate.
The 40-50 steals that Davis has generally been good for is useful enough and alone probably makes him worth a fantasy roster spot, but what makes Davis particularly interesting now is his move from Oakland to Toronto, where he’s likely to bat leadoff for the Jays. He’s going from an Athletics squad that finished 26th in MLB in slugging to a Toronto crew that led the league in that department, so it’s not hard to think that Davis picks up some extra runs this year when he’s trotting around the bases on homers by Jose Bautista and company rather than watching the feeble Oakland attack fail to strike. That possible bump could turn a player worth owning for steals alone into a player who is adding value in the runs department as well.