September 18, 2003
One of the favorite terms of baseball officials is "development path," used to describe the gradual improvement of a prospect into a major league player. As Nate Silver's PECOTA system shows us, most players follow a somewhat normal path of improvement and can be classified into a certain type of player depending on their skill set. Some low-level shortstops are that in name only, really possessing offensive skills destined for a corner spot. Others are highlight-reel defenders who hit like pitchers, but amaze and entertain with their prowess in the field. Occasionally, though, we run across a prospect that simply bewilders, showing wildly different skill sets in different years, and making future projections a bit trickier.
Jose Lopez is one of these players. The 19-year-old shortstop from Venezuela has made a name for himself and has responded well to the Mariners' willingness to push him quickly through the system, being one of the youngest players in the league during each of his first three professional seasons. However, his performances have been anything but consistent, and the reports on him are nearly as confusing.
Year League AB BA OBP SLG 2B 3B HR BB K 2001 Short-Season 289 .256 .309 .329 15 0 2 13 44 2002 High-A 522 .324 .360 .464 39 5 8 27 45 2003 Double-A 538 .258 .303 .403 35 2 13 27 56During his professional debut at age 17--as the youngest player in the Northwest League--Lopez failed to impress offensively, but earned raves for his work in the field. He didn't embarrass himself at the plate, but he was labeled as a future Gold Glove shortstop that would hit enough to not hurt you in the bottom of the order. His arm strength, hands, and agility were all praised, and he was considered one of the best defensive shortstops in the entire Seattle organization.
Last season brought an aggressive push to the California League, skipping over low-A Wisconsin, which made him the second-youngest everyday player in the league. He responded with a monster year that no one could have predicted, leading the league in hits and showing legitimate power. While Lopez still didn't walk much, his remarkably low strikeout rates were encouraging, and scouts raved about his ability to make solid contact with pitches anywhere in the strike zone. Along with the offensive surge came questions about his glove. He gained some weight, was inconsistent in the field, and didn't show the same quickness to the ball that he had the year prior. However, 18-year-old shortstops that can hit .320 in high-A ball don't grow on trees, and Lopez was anointed one of the best prospects in the game.
He missed most of Spring Training in 2003 with an ankle injury, but was able to break camp with the Double-A San Antonio Missions. The Mariners, rightfully, did not feel that Luis Ugueto was ready for Triple-A, and assigned him to San Antonio as well. While Ugueto certainly doesn't have the long-term value that Lopez does, he is a better defensive shortstop than Lopez. Seattle decided to platoon Lopez and Ugueto between second base and shortstop, giving time to both at each position. However, Lopez gained even more weight and appeared to lose a step, causing some to wonder if he will be able to stay at shortstop in the future. The Mariners claimed they were attempting to teach him versatility when they sent him to third base for 10 games, but many feel that they are preparing for the inevitable shift down the defensive spectrum.
While it is easy to look at his .303 on-base percentage and dismiss him as a free-swinger, Lopez's season with the bat is more intriguing than you may think. The Texas League has outgrown its reputation as an offensive haven, instead becoming a collection of neutral ballparks, with the bandbox in El Paso remaining as the only extreme offensive park in the league. Woolf Stadium, where Lopez played his home games, is the best pitcher's park in the league, depressing run scoring by 8%. The differences showed up in his performance, as he hit just .245 at home but .279 on the road, with his peripheral numbers remaining consistent. He also managed 50 extra-base hits, a rather remarkable total considering his age and build.
At the end of his three seasons, Lopez has been compared to remarkably different players. After 2001, he was the next Omar Vizquel. His 2002 season drew him comparisons to Roberto Alomar. After a 2003 season viewed as something of a disappointment on the surface and questions about his future position, he is now being mentioned with former Mariner turned Devil Ray Antonio Perez. Those who saw him everyday, however, still claim he has a bit of Miguel Tejada in him.
PECOTA does not offer much assistance either, as his similar players are all across the board, while none of them are solid matches. He is just as comparable to Luis Rivas as Miguel Cabrera, and you would be hard pressed to find two major league players with less in common. This leads us to the conclusion that Lopez could develop into a second basemen of marginal value and little power, or alternately, become one of the best young hitters in the game after shifting to third base. That is quite the range of possibilities, and does not give us much insight into what to expect from Lopez in the future.
Realistically, Lopez does not have Cabrera's power, and does not profile as that kind of hitter. His swing is tailored for low line drives, and his frame would not support the upper body strength Cabrera possesses. He is deceptively strong, however, and his ability to drive the ball is legitimate. Were he to shift to third base, his power would become simply average, though he has the hands, reactions, and arm strength to be an elite defensive player at the hot corner. However, his offensive value is almost completely tied to his ability to play a premium defensive position.
History has not been kind to players who have had their defensive abilities questioned while in the minor leagues. Or, put another way, those who are rumored to be switching positions almost always do. With his solid performances as a teenager, including spending an entire year in Double-A, Lopez projects to have impact ability as a shortstop. The question that looms over his head will be his ability to stay at the position. The answers will only come from Lopez himself, and his willingness to work hard and improve with the glove.
Before you go, I feel compelled to direct you to The Newberg Report, where Jamey Newberg has finished posting a fantastic series of interviews with Grady Fuson. If you are interested in player development--and you probably are, since you are reading this column--you will thoroughly enjoy Jamey's chat with the Rangers assistant general manager.