Booms and busts: First basemen
On Thursday, I kicked off a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks of players I expect to break out ("Booms") or decline ("Busts") in notable fashion in the coming season — a process inspired by all of the preview/promotional media hits that I do at this time of year. I haven't created hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, no promises that the aforementioned players' OPS will increase by at least 50 points or that they'll help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that they'll wind up below the Mendoza Line and lose their jobs, making you the laughingstock of your 5x5 league. In fact, these aren't particularly fantasy-targeted because I don't think about RBI totals or batting average very often, as my spotty track record of fantasy baseball finishes can attest.
These are established players — not rookies — that I've studied and have my reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, entry into or exit from the prime age range of 26-29 all come into play. Thus far, the catchers are in the books, so we turn to the first basemen.
Yonder Alonso, Padres: The seventh pick of the 2008 draft by the Reds out of the University of Miami, Alonso placed in Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list four times, topping out at 33 last year after being sent to San Diego in the Mat Latos blockbuster. Having gotten his feet wet with the Reds in the previous two seasons, he was clearly big league-ready, and he held down the Padres' first base job all year. His raw numbers (.273/.348/.393 with nine homers in 619 PA) weren't all that impressive, but in the stifling environment of Petco Park, that was still good for a .278 True Average, smack dab at the MLB average for the position.
A closer look shows that while Alonso's home/road splits weren't substantial (sub-.400 slugging percentage in both), he did show more power as the season went on. After hitting .259/.333/.346 with just two homers through the end of June, he delivered a more respectable .286/.361/.438 with seven homers the rest of the way. With Petco's fences coming in, the now-26-year-old should be able to build on those numbers; he may not hit 20 home runs, but his on-base skills will make him a valuable player.
Eric Hosmer, Royals: A top 10 prospect coming into the 2011 season, Hosmer made a solid debut with the Royals, hitting .293/334/.465 with 19 homers after arriving in early May of that season, and even bigger things were expected of him in 2012. Instead, he began the year in a funk that he couldn't shake, and posted an OPS below 700 in all but two months, June and August. Cheating on fastballs made him susceptible to breaking stuff, and he got too pull-happy, hitting a slew of groundballs into defensive shifts. His overall BABIP fell from .314 in 2011 to .255, and on balls that he pulled, it fell from .301 to .206, 107 points below the major league average for lefties. Having reviewed videos with his new hitting coach, Jack Maloof, and undertaken a new fitness regimen, the 23-year-old should be able to put last season behind him, iron out both his mechanics and approach, and rebound to be a productive hitter. Even so, he won't live up to his elite prospect status until he can raise his showing against lefties above the .228./283/.305 he has hit thus far.
Logan Morrison, Marlins: After flopping last year and cleaning house both during the season and over the winter, the Fish don't have many recognizable names besides Giancarlo Stanton. The 25-year-old Morrison is one of the few, mainly because he's young (25) and still in his pre-arbitration years. After hitting a combined .259/.351/.460 from his mid-2010 arrival through 2011, he slumped to .230/.308/.399 with 11 homers in 93 games last year. An early May knee injury sapped his power as well as his batting average on balls in play (.248, down from .295 in his first two seasons); he went on the disabled list with a right knee injury in late July and had surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in September. He was cleared to run last week, but exhibition appearances are still at least a few weeks off, and Opening Day could be a stretch, so he could be a slow starter, but with Gaby Sanchez having been traded to the Pirates, Morrison won't have to clomp around leftfield anymore. If he can stay healthy, he has the plate discipline and power to hold his own in the first base pack.
Brandon Moss, A's: Moss had knocked around the majors for parts of five seasons with the Red Sox, Pirates and Astros prior to last year, hitting a meager .236/.300/.382 with 15 homers in 749 PA — the bulk of it in 2008-2009. He had drawn just 33 major league plate appearances over the previous two seasons while serving as organizational depth at Triple-A when he was recalled by the A's in June after Daric Barton once again failed to produce. Manager Bob Melvin used him as the short half of a platoon with Chris Carter and the results were astonishing; Moss hit .290/.363/.643 with 19 homers in 234 PA against righties — unprecedented success given his own track record, and the sixth-highest OPS for any hitter with at least 200 PA under such circumstances, behind Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera, all of whom have much longer histories of raking against righties. His .357 BABIP under such circumstances was 55 points above his career mark against righties, and even given that burst of power, he struck out an astronomical 32 percent of the time against them.
As great a story as it was for a 28-year-old to finally establish himself at the major league level, that kind of production isn't likely to be sustained over his next 400 or so PA against righties, though he's still got a shot at solid numbers if Melvin can protect him from lefties as well as he did last year, when Moss had the platoon advantage 79 percent of the time. Justin Smoak, Mariners: This one feels like kicking a man when he's already down, but the idea that Smoak's September showing (.341/.426/.580 with five homers in 101 PA) indicates that he's finally turned the corner is a flimsy one. A 2008 first-round pick who ranked as a can't-miss top 25 prospect in 2009 and 2010, Smoak has hit a dreadful .223/.306/.377 in 1,421 PA overall, a sizable sample. While some of that owes to Safeco Field (.210/.296/.343 with 14 homers in 561 PA), his career road numbers (.237/.308/.408) indicate that his problems run much deeper. His pitch-recognition skills, particularly against quality secondary offerings, have long been an issue, and it should take more than one month of improved performance to convince anyone otherwise. Now 26 years old, Smoak is about to feel the squeeze when it comes to playing time, because sometime this year, top catching prospect Mike Zunino is likely cut into the Jesus Montero experiment behind the plate, bumping the latter to DH and Kendrys Morales to first base. Unless Smoak can show radical improvement, he could soon be out of a job.