As spring training approaches, almost every player looking for a bounce-back season claims to be in the best shape of his life. Pirates infielder Casey McGehee is no exception; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Bill Brink tweeted on Thursday that the first-year Bucco has lost nearly 25 pounds and “cut [his] body fat in half.” The premise may be as clichéd as any in baseball, but there is reason to believe that McGehee is not whistlin’ Dixie.
The 29-year-old McGehee will begin the 2012 season with his third NL Central organization in the last five years. A 10th-round pick of the Cubs in 2003, he was claimed off waivers by the Brewers after a cup of coffee in 2008, and unexpectedly took off when handed the keys to the third-base job midway through the next season. McGehee hit .301/.360/.499 in his first year with Milwaukee, then followed that up with a .285/.337/.464 campaign in 2010, contributing 2.0 and 2.6 WARP in those seasons, respectively. But the wheels came off last year, and he was traded to the Pirates for reliever Jose Veras in December.
That swap may prove a shrewd gamble for general manager Neal Huntington, as McGehee’s sudden plunge may be at least partially attributable to bad luck. His walk rate held steady at 7.5 percent, and while his strikeout rate ticked up from 15.2 to 17.3 percent, that rise was not accompanied by an increase in swings-and-misses, which remained at around 7.4 percent. The 62-point drop in batting average was chiefly due to a 57-point dip in BABIP—and McGehee’s batted-ball profile was essentially the same as it had been in 2010, suggesting that factors beyond his control were at play.
The greatest concern is McGehee’s power decline. Only 8.6 percent of his fly balls cleared the fences in 2011, leaving him with just 13 homers in 600 plate appearances, a year after he drilled 23 in 670 trips to the box. To make matters worse, three of those big flies came in one game—a wacky affair with the Cardinals on August 3, during which McGehee accounted for nearly a quarter of his home-run output for the season, and almost a fifth of the 2011 gopher balls served up by opposing starter Edwin Jackson.
To date, McGehee’s value has been entirely tied to his bat, as his glove has ranked below average in each of the past three seasons. But that may change if his off-season conditioning has the desired results. Improved agility could help McGehee both in the field and on the bases, and versatility could be his ticket to playing time in Pittsburgh, with Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones currently slated to start at third base and first base, respectively.
If McGehee rediscovers his 2010 form, he’ll be well worth the $2.3-2.7 million the Pirates will pay him in arbitration. Fantasy owners may also want to consider a late-round flier on McGehee, particularly because the hot corner is one of this year’s shallowest positions.