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July 25, 2012

The Lineup Card

8 People Who Could Use a Change of Scenery

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Brandon Belt
Brandon Belt burst onto the scene in 2010 and was, in Kevin Goldstein's words, "the biggest breakout in the minor leagues in 2010."It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Belt was the Giants’ fifth-round selection in the 2009 amateur draft, and all he did in his professional debut was zoom from High-A to Triple-A, hitting a cumulative .352/.455/.620 with 23 home runs, 22 stolen bases, and an outstanding walk-to-strikeout ratio of 93-to-99.

His huge professional debut earned him a shot at making the parent club in 2011, and he did just that. He started at first base in the Giants 2011 Opening Day game against the Dodgers. After struggling in his first 60 plate appearances hitting a paltry .192/.300/.269, the organization decided it was in Belt's best interest to continue his development with Triple-A Fresno. He was recalled at the end of May, but he sustained a fractured wrist after getting hit by a pitch and landed on the disabled list. He wouldn't get back to the majors until late July that year. His playing time was sporadic, and the vicious cycle of being in and out of the lineup began.

It is more of the same this year. Belt opened the year with the Giants, but he has been shuffled between starting and sitting. Manager Bruce Bochy has turned to offensive stalwarts such as Aubrey Huff, Brett Pill, and Hector Sanchez in favor of Belt. Early in the year, he'd often bench Belt against left-handed pitching, because as a left-handed hitter it would be crazy to think Belt could hit his same-handed counterparts. Of course, Belt has actually hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching in his career, with a .298/.368/.548 against southpaws and .204/.311/.338 against right-handed pitchers, but why let the facts get in the way?

Belt hasn't done himself many favors securing an everyday lineup spot, as his .316 wOBA is no great shakes for a first baseman. The thing is, the Giants’ alternatives have been worse. Instead of letting Belt work through his struggles, the team has insisted on removing him from the lineup to work things out. The Giants’ broadcast team and beat writers have mentioned time and time again that the team is tinkering and toying with his mechanics, to which I ask, why? Has it been established that his approach is poor and incapable of succeeding against big-league pitching, or is the constant changing of his approach and mechanics that are to blame? It can't be easy for a player to play knowing that a bad game could result in benching. It's easy to point to the stats all the time, but there is a human element to the game of baseball; robots don’t play the game. Perhaps it would be in Belt's best interest to play elsewhere, where he'll be able to have some leash and play the game in a way that allowed him to burst onto the prospect scene and reach the majors in just his second professional season. —Josh Shepardson

2. Justin Upton
When the team owner questions a player's production and effort, and the general manager openly discusses listening to trade offers for that player, it's a pretty clear sign he needs a change of scenery. Say hello to Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton. He finished fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting last season. He has three years and $38.5 million left on his contract, but it appears his time in Arizona will be over by the end of this season. Upton went into Tuesday night's game against the Rockies hitting .276/.362/.412 with eight home runs in 373 plate appearances and has been successful on just 11 of 19 stolen-base attempts. In leading the Diamondbacks to the NL West title last season, Upton had .289/.369/.529 slash line with 31 homers in 674 plate appearance while going 21-for-30 on steal attempts. Upton has contributed just 1.5 WARP this season compared to 4.5 in 2011. Considering he is just 24 and isn't injured, it's safe to assume he can return to last year's levels and maybe beyond. It just doesn't seem like it's going to happen in the desert, though, so it's time for the Diamondbacks to trade Upton, whether it is before next Tuesday's deadline for making deals without waivers or during the offseason. —John Perrotto

3. Justin Smoak
Could Justin Smoak use a change of scenery? Probably. Would it make a difference? Hard to say. It's one of those "give it a shot and hope for the best" situations at this point in his career.

Smoak, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade just two years ago, has done nothing at the big-league level that you'd like to see a first baseman do. His career slash line is an anemic .215/.297/.365 in more than 1,200 plate appearances. This year, at age 25, he would kill for those numbers. That the Mariners, the American League's second-lowest-scoring team, sent Smoak to Triple-A while he was leading them in home runs speaks volumes about his present and future with the organization.

Smoak doesn't hit, and he doesn't play anywhere other than first base. And now he doesn't play in Seattle. Maybe the latter should be permanent. Maybe getting him out of the place where he is "the guy traded for Cliff Lee" would help jump-start Smoak's career. Maybe it wouldn't, but what he's doing right now can't continue forever.

Here's a thought: Trade him to Cleveland for Matt LaPorta. If you can't improve the situation, at least make it different. —Geoff Young

4. Gordon Beckham
A few years ago, Gordon Beckham looked like a saviour near the keystone for the White Sox. Drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft as a shortstop, Beckham ranked as the top college infielder available and posted a strong showing in his first taste of pro baseball. Kevin Goldstein dubbed him the Sox' top prospect entering the '09 season, saying Beckham "has the rare potential to become a middle-of-the-order run producer who also plays in the middle of the infield," and projected him to have "a good batting average, high on-base percentage, and 20-25 home runs annually."

Beckham quickly lived up to his scouting reports. After just 59 games playing on the farm, Beckham became the White Sox' big-league third baseman in June 2009. He made an immediate impact, blasting 14 homers and knocking 28 doubles en route to a .270/.347/.460 triple slash in 103 games. Though he garnered just six votes in the Rookie of the Year voting, it looked like the White Sox had a fixture for Kenny Williams to build a team around.

Since his brilliant rookie campaign, Beckham has failed on a scale equivalent to a fellow Beckham—David—in his first go-around with the Galaxy. The baseball Beckham has converted to second base and has seen his on-base percentage plummet gradually from .347 in '09 to .317 in '10, .296 in 2011, and .288 in '12. His slugging has picked up slightly from its all-time low of .337 in 2011, but it's still a lowly .360. For the last two years, Beckham has kept his TAv in the .230 range.

The White Sox' coaching staff turnover hasn't helped, and it seems the best possible way for Beckham to revive his career would be to blown from the Windy City. It's possible that the 25-year-old Beckham just hasn't been able to make adjustments after pitchers adjusted to him. However, working with a new hitting coach in a new city could be a project worth pursuing with a huge potential reward. —Stephani Bee

5. Bobby Valentine
Do you ever get the feeling that trying to pick a good manager for a team is kinda like trying to set up two friends on a date? In your head, it works out great. They have a lot in common (they both like baseball!) and their personality quirks seem to complement each other. Besides, wouldn't they be soooooooo cute together? The problem is that not all of these... OK, almost none of these.... arrangements actually work out. (And if it goes really bad and you were the one who introduced them... duck!)

And so we come to the tale of Bobby Valentine and the Boston Red Sox. On some level, the match made sense. Valentine had credentials as a manager, both in MLB and in Japan, and wanted to show he could still do it in MLB. He was a legend at drawing attention unto himself (and presumably away from his players.) After the heartbreak of last September's epic (epic, I say!) collapse that got blamed on the failings of the cerebral Terry Francona, even if Bobby V wasn't Mr. Right, he just might make a good rebound. The team already had a solid veteran core, and Valentine's "Damn the torpedoes!" approach to media management would hopefully keep the Boston press entertained, and more importantly, contained. The problem, as we have seen, with "Damn the torpedoes!" is that it works best when there aren't a lot of torpedoes around.

Might Bobby Valentine benefit from a change of scenery? The problem with change-of-scenery arguments is that they assume that the player (or in this case, manager) would fall into a setting that precisely suited his personality. Valentine would probably do well being the entertainment on a re-building team where the players need time and space to do the boring work of getting better at baseball. He's clearly got a lot he can teach, but would the players appreciate his cult-of-personality ways to listen long enough to learn it? Is that gig out there and available? —Russell Carleton

6. B.J. Upton
A change of scenery is long overdue for Melvin Emanuel Upton, a.k.a. Bossman Junior. A perpetual trade rumor, perhaps no player's name has run through baseball's rumor mill with greater regularity than the Rays' enigmatic outfielder. Now in the last year of his contract and with the team staring down the barrel of a meager 16.9-percent shot at the playoffs, the stage appears set for Upton to begin his campus tour of future employers.

The longest-tenured player on the club, Upton probably sees the Tropicana roof in his nightmares, and he surely longs for the opportunity to field fly balls against a backdrop of blue skies. He began his career as an error-prone shortstop, and though the Rays would give Upton plenty of opportunity to chase his dream of becoming the next Derek Jeter, 153 errors over a three-year span convinced the team to give up on the project. He debuted in the big leagues at just 19 years old, but the defensive struggles necessitated a return ticket to Durham at age 20, and he was denied a September callup despite a bat that appeared ready for The Show. An erratic arm precipitated a short-lived stint at the hot corner, and Upton found himself at the keystone before finally settling into his permanent residence in center field.

Upton's bat took off in his first full season with a .300/.386/.508 line at age 22, though the performance still stands as his career high in each of the slash categories. His '07 BABIP of .393 was predictably unsustainable, but few pundits foresaw a power outage that included an 80-point drop in ISO the following season. B.J. connected for just nine homers in 640 regular-season plate appearances in 2008 before exploding for seven bombs in the first two rounds of the postseason, teasing power potential that has yet to fully materialize. The last four years have seen Upton settle into a .240 hitter with plenty of steals but power that comes and goes, a performance that has been more useful to fantasy managers than to Joe Maddon. The elder Upton sits in his theoretical prime as he enters free agency, turning 28 years old in August and leaving the door open for a mid-career rejuvenation in a new environment with revised expectations. —Doug Thorburn

7. Cole Hamels
After playing for parts of seven seasons and making two World Series appearances—including a championship—Cole Hamels had the opportunity to reach free agency for the first time in his career. Hamels has been one of the better pitchers in baseball over those years, posting an ERA+ of 125 during that time. The Phillies are reportedly trying to finalize a long-term, big-money contract with him, but Hamels’ pitching isn’t any kind of secret. If he changes his mind and walks he’ll get his money somewhere, so the question becomes this: Why would he want to sign on to the sinking ship that is the Phillies?

The theme here is players who need a change of scenery, but I don't think Hamels needs a change of scenery right now so much as he will immediately upon putting pen to paper on that contract with Philadelphia. The Phillies are in last place, which doesn't preclude them from being in first place a year from now. What does preclude them from being in first place in a year is a large and inflexible payroll footing the bill for one of the oldest rosters in baseball, and a poor farm system ill-equipped to help the major-league squad. None of that will matter much to Hamels if the Phillies pay him exorbitant money that he can’t get elsewhere. But that begs the question: Can the Phillies really pay Hamels more than he'd earn elsewhere? The lefty's services will be wanted by a number of large-market teams during the offseason (including the Dodgers and possibly the Angels, both in Hamels' native Southern California). Unless the Phillies are somehow over-paying Cole Hamels beyond what the Dodgers could give him (a doubtful possibility), he should get out while he still can. —Matthew Kory

8. Francisco Liriano
Obviously, I don't actually know whether Francisco Liriano would do better with a change of scenery, but boy has he always been an unusual fit in Minnesota. Liriano gets strikeouts, and the Twins, with only a very few exceptions, don't get strikeouts: Since 2000, the top nine strikeout rates by Twins (minimum 100 innings) have been produced by just two pitchers, Liriano and Johan Santana. Scott Baker sneaks into the next tier, but Liriano has five of the top 14 strikeout rates for post-millenium Twins starters, and his rate this year would be fourth-best. He has struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings; the rest of the Twins pitchers who have made at least seven starts this year have strikeout rates of 4.9, 4.1, 4.7, 6.4, 5.4, 5.6 and 3.2.

If you live in a region that has long been a manufacturing center of, say, car wash machinery, your region enjoys a competitive advantage that makes it extremely hard for another region to cut into the market. There are clusters of business supporting that industry in your region, support that other regions don't have and support that takes years to develop by typical market forces. But if your region wants to get into a different industry, it faces disadvantages. The Twins are in the pitch-to-contact industry. They are not in the strikeouts industry. Does this matter? Are the Twins' pitching instructors, trainers, rehab coordinators, etc. just as equipped to help a pitcher like Francisco Liriano as they are to help a pitcher like Brian Duensing? I don't know! But maybe they aren't. Maybe they don't pick up guys like Liriano because they're not as good at helping guys like Liriano, and because they don't have the infrastructure to support guys like Liriano. Maybe. This is just maybe. (Maybe all the stuff at the beginning of this paragraph is wrong, too. It took about 14 tabs open to various Wikipedia pages to piece even that much together.)

You might note that Santana, the other guy at the top of the Twins' strikeout leaderboard, did just fine. So maybe not. —Sam Miller

13 comments have been left for this article.

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Premium Article Pebble Hunting: Two Go... (07/25)
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The Lineup Card: 8 Thi... (07/18)
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