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September 19, 2012

The Lineup Card

Six Toolsy Players Who Haven't Put It Together

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Daniel Bard
Theoretically, this should have worked. But once again, my father's warning that "everything works in theory" rears its ugly head. Daniel Bard had a 97 mph fastball and was the understudy to Jonathan Papelbon. When Papelbon left for Philly, it was assumed that Bard would take over the closer's role. Then again, someone in the Boston front office remembered that a good 200-inning starter is worth much more than a 60-70 inning closer, even if the closer feels like it's a more important role. And so, they asked Bard to become a starter.

It didn't work. Bard, in an attempt to put less stress on his arm, started throwing a 93 mph fastball so that he could pace himself over six innings. He also started throwing more hooks and changes. And he wasn't very good at it. He has since gone to Triple-A and re-converted to reliever, leaving the Red Sox hoping that they didn't permanently damage him. Bard is a cautionary tale. Yes, a starter is more valuable than a closer, all else equal, but don't assume that all pitchers are completely fungible. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Francisco Liriano
White Sox pitcher Francisco Liriano took a no-hitter into the seventh inning last Saturday against the Twins. That certainly was not a shock, as the left-hander has no-hit type stuff and is capable of making history every time he takes the mound. In fact, he threw a no-hitter against the White Sox for the Twins last season. In the Saturday start, Liriano wound up allowing one hit and two runs in seven innings while striking out nine. In his previous start eight days earlier, Liriano gave up five runs in five innings against the Royals. That earned Liriano a brief demotion to the bullpen.

And that is Liriano in a nutshell. When he's good, he's great. When he's bad, he's awful. Liriano is one of the few pitchers in recent times who hasn't made a full recovery from Tommy John surgery. He had the operation in 2006 and has never thrown as hard or with the same kind of command since. Yet Liriano shows enough flashes of being brilliant that you can't help but believe he will put it all together one day and become a full-fledged ace. That hope is fueled by the fact that Liriano is 28. He can become a free agent after the season, and it will be very interesting to see what the market is for him. Someone is likely to pay a bundle for Liriano with the hopes of getting a big payout. It might happen. Then again, it might not. With Liriano, it's too hard to tell. —John Perrotto

3. B.J. Upton
Underachiever. That’s a tough word to slap on somebody. OK, maybe not on a Brandon Wood or Andy Marte, who went through the minors with incredible prospect hype only to play a combined 574 uninspired major-league games. No, my choice is one of the Brothers Upton, who came up with equal prospect hype and has played way more games on his own at a significantly higher level, and yet we still feel  underwhelmed by his career to date.

B.J. Upton actually has six full seasons under his belt and another 95 games split between his age-19 and -21 seasons, so he is approaching 1000 overall (951) with free agency on the horizon this fall. He has a .256/.337/.420 line (105 OPS+) with 197 doubles, 20 triples, 113 home runs, 437 RBI, 231 stolen bases, and 528 runs scored under his belt. He has the athleticism and health (to date) to log at least a decade and a half. Yet here I am saying he’s underachieving.

That’s the curse of expectation. The then-Devil Rays made him the second overall pick back in 2002 behind Bryan Bullington (oh, Pittsburgh), and while he is part of a robust first round that produced Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Nick Swisher, Denard Span, Jeremy Guthrie, and eventual teammate Scott Kazmir from the 15th pick and on, he is the only top-five pick to make a significant impact (Adam Loewen and his 0.2 rWAR account for only other positive value in the quintet). Meanwhile, only Zack Greinke (29.6) and Prince Fielder (18.7) have out-rWAR’d him among top 10 picks.

The expectation, fair or not, was for him to produce on the Fielder level or above. Sure it’s only 5.3 rWAR between Fielder and Upton’s 13.4 mark, but even Swisher (16.2) and Span (15.8) have outdone him to date. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page: I’m not saying Upton is a bust, but rather that he has failed to live up to lofty expectations boosted by his .294/.391/.467 line in 1421 Triple-A plate appearances. When he is locked in (like he is currently, as luck would have it), his raw power will blow you away considering it’s coming from his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame. At his best, he is a power/speed combo on par with the best in league (think: Braun, Kemp, CarGo, etc.), and these last two months prove that: He has 14 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 181 plate appearances since August 1.

Maybe Upton feels like an underachiever because of the high watermark he set in his first full season. In 129 games in 2007, he had a .300/.386/.508 line (all career highs) with 24 home runs (a career high unless he smacks two more this year), 82 RBI (yep, a career high), and 22 stolen bases (a career-low actually). Sure he had 154 strikeouts (28 percent), but his walks (12 percent) made them more palatable. The following year he improved those numbers to 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively, though his walk rate dipped to nine percent the following year followed by a pair of 11 percent seasons and just a meager seven percent this year. Meanwhile, the strikeout rate has risen almost yearly since: 24 percent, 27 percent, 25 percent, and back up to 28 percent again this year.

So we are left with a mid-prime Upton entering free agency as an above-average power/speed centerfielder who was once excellent on defense, but appears to be declining if you put stock in the numbers. For their $9.1 million, the Rays are more than happy with the 13.4 rWAR, 105 OPS+, 23 fWAR, and 110 wRC+ they got from Upton, but off the record, their front office would probably tell you they expected more. Those 2007 numbers justified his second overall pick and Baseball America’s second overall ranking in 2004, but unfortunately he seems to have gone the George Costanza route since, leaving us wanting so much more. —Paul Sporer

4. Gavin Floyd
A few days ago, I watched Gavin Floyd pitch against the Tigers. He gave up a leadoff single, and Miguel Cabrera added an infield hit in the first, but for the first hour that was it. Floyd struck out seven batters in the first four innings and allowed only the lone two hits. The rest of the batters: three groundouts, an infield fly, and a routine fly ball. Just dominant. Gavin Floyd’s final line on the day: 4 2/3 innings, four hits, three runs, all earned, a walk, seven strikeouts. What a letdown.

***

Gavin Floyd has everything. He’s got the body: 6 feet, 6 inches. He’s got the pedigree: fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft. He’s got the health: at least 30 starts each of the past four years, though this year he will likely start only 28 or 29 (until the postseason, at least). He’s got one of the best pitches in the league, his curveball. And he can hit 95 from time to time. He hasn’t been derailed by any of the things that derail top prospects. He’s just not that great.

The guys like Floyd—seven Ks per nine, three walks per nine (oh my gosh; I just checked and those are his exact career marks. My word.)—are the most frustrating, because they seem so close. If they could just add another strikeout per game, maybe they’d turn into Jered Weaver. If they could just cut another walk per game, maybe they’d turn into Dan Haren. It seems so close, and it makes you so hopeful, in a way that a low-strikeout guy, or a high-walk guy doesn’t. Gavin Floyd is a perfectly fine pitcher. But he seems so close to being a great one, and he’s probably not.

***

I’m watching Floyd again, on Tuesday night. The Royals lead off with a walk, and the third hitter doubles, and Billy Butler drives both in for a two-run first inning. Here we go again. Gavin Floyd’s final line tonight: Seven innings, five hits, two runs, a walk and three strikeouts. What a tease. —Sam Miller

5. Cameron Maybin
On August 18, 2007, 20-year-old blue-chip prospect Cameron Maybin, in just his second game in the majors, hit his first big-league home run. That home run just so happened to come off some guy named Roger Clemens. It was his only home run in 53 plate appearances for the Tigers that year. He struggled in his brief look that year, but that's what raw 20-year-old ballplayers are supposed to do. There was good reason for Tigers fans to be excited about what could be with Maybin, but that excitement shifted to the Marlins’ fan base when he co-headlined a large package used to net Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

He would play parts of three seasons with the Marlins, struggling with strikeouts and getting jostled between the minors and majors. The club essentially gave up on Maybin following the 2010 season, sending him to the Padres for a pair of relievers, Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. Dealing a pre-arbitration-eligible 23-year-old who ranked atop the organization's top prospect list signaled the Marlins must have decided he wasn't capable of developing into their long-term answer in center field.

Maybin's first season with the Padres was a success, and he accumulated 2.8 WARP. His .264/.323/.393 slash and .266 TAv weren't jaw-dropping, but coupled with his stellar center-field defense, were enough to convince the Padres to extend him a five-year and $25 million contract offer with one club option in 2017. He made huge strides in his strikeout rate from 2010 to 2011, reducing it by over six percent. Maybin retained his passable walk rate and still had the tools to suggest further gains to his offensive game could be on the horizon. Unfortunately, he hasn't improved this year; instead, his entire slash line has regressed and his TAv has drop a tick as well. At 25 years of old and with approximately 1,700 plate appearances in the majors, there is mounting evidence that what we see is what we're going to get with Maybin. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could take a step forward, and everything could click. However, that is becoming less likely. As it stands, Maybin is a good major leaguer, but I always felt he could become much more. —Josh Shepardson

6. Clay Buchholz
Expectations were understandably high for Clay Buchholz when, on Sept. 1, 2007, the then-23-year-old right-hander fired a no-hitter in his second major-league start. Armed with three plus pitches, "smooth mechanics," and "fearless intensity," Buchholz was lauded by Kevin Goldstein as  "one of the few pitching prospects around with true ace potential." But that potential has not yielded elite results.

 
Walks and homers plagued Buchholz in his first lengthy go-round in the majors, as he issued 41 free passes and served up 11 big flies in just 76 innings in 2008. His 72 strikeouts provided a silver lining and were reason for optimism, but then, the following year, he managed only a 68:36 K:BB over 92 frames. Buchholz's outstanding 2.33 ERA in 2010 belied a 3.58 FIP, and that mark was also deflated by an unsustainable home-run rate (nine in 173 2/3 innings) that promptly regressed in 2010. The 1.8 WARP worth of value that Buchholz amassed in 2009 remains his career high.
 
Buchholz's 2011 season was marred by a stress fracture in his lower back, and he missed nearly a month of the 2012 campaign with esophagitis, but even when he has been on the mound, the results have been decidedly mediocre. With a 4.46 FIP and just 118 strikeouts in 174 2/3 innings, Buchholz checks in at exactly 0.0 WARP through 26 starts this season, making him one of the many Red Sox who fell short of their expectations in the months that led up to the August blockbuster with the Dodgers. 
 

Some pitchers find ways to do more with less, compensating with command and guile for what they lack in stuff. Buchholz—blessed with a 93-mph fastball, a knee-buckling (as Nick Markakis could attest) curveball, and a Bugs Bunny changeup—on the other hand, seems particularly adept at doing less with more.  Signed to a four-year extension worth nearly $30 million in April 2011, Buchholz was expected to blossom into a right-handed complement to Jon Lester atop Boston's rotation. And while he's just 28 years old, the early returns on that theoretically team-friendly deal are not pretty. —Daniel Rathman

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