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March 8, 2013

Overthinking It

Ready For Their Close-Ups?

by Ben Lindbergh

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For every top talent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado who claims a regular role from the moment he makes the majors, there’s a veteran who bounces around for years while he waits his turn for a chance to start somewhere. The following 10 players are looking to make the leap to full-time starter status this season. But do they have what it takes to succeed in their expanded roles, or will they be busted back to the bench?

Brandon Moss, Athletics, 1B
Moss’ power output was impressive last season, but it was partially a product of aggressive platooning by Bob Melvin, who limited him to only 62 PA against lefties. Chris Carter’s departure opens a path to more playing time for Moss (and speaks to Oakland’s confidence that he can repeat his success), but it will also make it more difficult to protect him against southpaws.
Can he stick? No. A’s batting coach Chili Davis worked closely with Moss to get him to embrace his pull power, so it’s possible that his pre-2012 stats are deceptive. But the 29-year-old’s projection isn’t pretty: .238/.301/.421 with subpar secondary skills, which wouldn’t come close to cutting it at first base.

Lorenzo Cain, Royals, CF
Cain probably would have started in Kansas City last season had his body held up, but a groin strain and injuries to his hip flexor and hamstring kept him to 244 plate appearances.
Can he stick? Yes, if he’s healthy. He won’t hit any better than he did in 2012, but his defensive value means he won’t have to in order to be an acceptable starter in center.

Chris Carter, Astros, LF
Carter could see some time at first base and DH for the Astros following the February trade that ended his stay in Oakland, but his path to a prominent role lies in left field, where he’s played only 61 games as a pro.
Can he stick? Yes. Carter won’t be an asset in the field or on the bases, and PECOTA projects him to strike out in almost 30 percent of his plate appearances, which would keep his average low. However, it also projects him to hit 27 homers, and that kind of power would keep him in what figures to be a lousy lineup. The Astros’ left fielder last season, J.D. Martinez, posted the worst WARP in the National League in only 113 games. That’s a low bar to clear.

Tyler Greene (SS) and Justin Maxwell (CF), Astros
The Astros are the only team on which 29-year-old utility guys and fourth outfielders look like potential starters. Both Greene and Maxwell were successful college hitters coming out of the 2005 draft, but neither has had the same success in the majors, and Maxwell hasn’t stayed healthy.
Can they stick? Yes, but only on the Astros. PECOTA projects Maxwell to make Chris Carter look like a contact hitter, whiffing more often than anyone but Mark Reynolds and matching his career .217 batting average. Green’s projected 27 percent strikeout rate and .296 OBP aren’t encouraging, either. However, both players run well and play good defense at premium positions, so they could survive the season.

Justin Ruggiano, Marlins, CF
In Baseball Prospectus 2012, we called Ruggiano an “organizational soldier” and “a Quad-A player and nothing more.” But the 30-year-old former 25th-rounder looked like something more last season, when he hit .312/.374/.535 for the Marlins in 320 plate appearances after being dealt by the Astros, who’d signed him as a minor-league free agent.
Can he stick? Yes. Not because he’ll hit like he did in 2012 again, but because he plays good defense in center and will be wearing a Marlins uniform. It’s either him or (gulp) Gorkys Hernandez.

Chris Stewart, Yankees, C
Stewart is a lifetime .217/.281/.302 hitter who’s never made 200 plate appearances in a season, but Russell Martin’s offseason departure left him slated to start at age 31. His strengths are his skilled receiving and a strong arm, and his only in-house competition is Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, and Bobby Wilson.
Can he stick? No. Stewart is the best option on the Yankees’ roster right now, but no catcher has made it to 400 plate appearances with a TAv as low as his projected .237 mark over the past two seasons. As good as his glove could be, odds are that the Yankees will eventually tire of seeing Stewart make outs and search for an outside solution.

Tyler Flowers, White Sox, C
Flowers was supposed to be Chicago’s catcher of the future when he was acquired in the December 2008 Javier Vazquez deal, but his bat went backward, and that future has been slow in arriving. Now 27, he’s appeared in only 108 big-league games over parts of four seasons, but with A.J. Pierzynski in Arlington, he’s slated to start in 2013.
Can he stick? Yes. Flowers’ strikeouts and low batting average mask impressive patience and power for the position. Not only does PECOTA call for him to hit 17 homers, but it projects him to walk 57 times in 457 PA, which would be more than twice as many free passes as Pierzynski has drawn in any single season. In addition, Flowers’ arm and receiving skills rate well.

Luis Cruz, Dodgers, 3B
The Dodgers project to lead all of baseball in player payroll by a wide margin, but they’ve entrusted their Opening Day third-base job to a 29-year-old who’s making the major-league minimum. Cruz, who hit .221/.275/.260 in 56 games from 2008-10 and didn’t play in the majors in 2011, parlayed a hot half-season in Triple-A into regular playing time for Los Angeles after Dee Gordon got hurt last July.
Can he stick? No. Cruz is projected to post a .235 TAv, the lowest figure for any starter aside from defense-first shortstops Adeiny Hechevarria, Brendan Ryan, and Clint Barmes. Although he doesn’t strike out often, he walked only 10 times (including one IBB) in almost 300 plate appearances last season, which explains how he recorded a sub-.300 on-base percentage in nearly 5,000 minor-league trips to the plate. If his bat doesn’t send him back to the bench, the Dodgers’ need to move Hanley Ramirez to a less demanding defensive position probably will.

Andy Dirks, Tigers, LF
Dirks hit .322/.370/.487 in part-time duty last season, while right fielder Brennan Boesch managed only a .240/.286/372 line. Torii Hunter’s arrival left room for only one of the two to start, and Dirks appears to have the spot sown up.
Can he stick? Yes. Dirks won’t replicate his BABIP-driven stats from last season, and he could be a below-average hitter in left, but the 27-year-old owns a respectable major-league line against lefties and adds enough value beyond the batter’s box to succeed as a starter.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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Pebble Hunting: Baseba... (03/08)
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Overthinking It: The A... (03/07)
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Overthinking It: The N... (03/12)
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Raising Aces: Under th... (03/08)

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