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July 25, 2012
The Lineup Card
8 People Who Could Use a Change of Scenery
1. Brandon Belt
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
3. Justin Smoak
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.
4. Gordon Beckham
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
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
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
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
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