By Jay Jaffe
Last week, I started a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for players I expect to break out ("Booms") or decline ("Busts") in the coming season. I don't have hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, and I won't make any promises that players' OPSes will spike and help you rule your fantasy league -- or conversely, that they'll wind up below the Mendoza Line or go on to lose their jobs. In fact, these aren't particularly fantasy-targeted assessments because I don't think about RBI totals or batting average very often.
These are established players — not rookies — whom I've studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury and entry into or exit from the prime age range of 26-29 may all come into play. Thus far, I've done the catchers and first basemen, so it's to the keystone that we head. The players are listed alphabetically within each category.
Jose Altuve, Astros: Officially listed at 5-foot-5, the diminutive Altuve has developed such a cult following that his modest height has become a unit of measure. Lost in his newfound fame — and his All-Star status, even — is the solid step forward he took last year; after debuting with a .276/.297/.357 line in 234 PA in 2011, he batted .290/.340/.399 in 630 PA and stole 33 bases in 40 attempts. He showed a bit more power, but more importantly, his walk rate more than tripled, from 2.1 percent to a still-low 6.4 percent. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate remained level, so his strikeout-to-walk ratio dove from 5.9 to 1.9. All in all, it was a fairly impressive showing for a 22 year old, and the bet here is that Altuve continues to develop into a credible top-of-the-lineup hitter and a valuable cornerstone in Houston's quest for a turnaround.
Jason Kipnis, Indians: A second-round pick out of Arizona State in 2009, Kipnis was supposed to be central to the Indians' rebuilding process -- a two-way second baseman without any significant holes in his game. He took a step toward fulfilling that destiny after reaching the majors in the second half of 2011, hitting .272/.333/.507 with seven homers in 150 PA. And when he jumped out to a hot start last season, he appeared to be a star in the making. But like the rest of his team, he couldn't sustain that early pace; after hitting .280/.342/.450 through the end of May, he slumped to .246/.331/.343 the rest of the way, with just six homers over his final 448 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, Kipnis' rate of home runs per fly ball sank from 20.6 percent in his brief 2011 stint to 9.7 percent last year, and as usual, the truth of what to expect moving forward probably lies somewhere in between. His minor league track record shows very good power (.297/.378/.486), with his isolated power numbers — and sample sizes — increasing the higher he rose: .153 at Low-A, .178 at High-A, .191 at Double-A, and .204 at Triple-A. Given that, one has to figure that the soon-to-be 26 year old can outdo last year's .122 mark (on .257/.335/.379 hitting) and restore muscle to an offensive game that already includes decent plate discipline.
Rickie Weeks, Brewers: Though he played more than 130 games for just the second time in his major league career, Weeks finished with his lowest batting average (.230) and on-base percentage (.328) -- and nearly his lowest slugging percentage (.400, six points higher than his 2005 rookie mark) -- of his Milwaukee tenure in 2012. A closer look shows that he dug himself a deep hole during the season's first two months (.158/.292/.294 through 212 PA), but he rediscovered his form to put up much more typical numbers the rest of the way (.260/.344/.445 in 465 PA). What happened? The ankle injury that cost him six weeks in 2011 apparently lingered into last season, causing him to alter his stance and his approach; notably, that early stretch included a .212 batting average on balls in play and a 31 percent strikeout rate, both well off his pre-2012 norms (.309 and 23 percent). Over the final four months, his showing was back to business as usual (.312 and 18 percent). Weeks is now on the wrong side of 30, and while that's reason to be concerned given the tendency of second basemen to decline earlier than other positions, I'm convinced he'll rebound — though admittedly, his penchant for injuries may complicate things.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox: There's already plenty of reason to be low on Beckham, who, after being picked eighth in the 2008 draft and making a strong 2009 debut, has failed to advance any further. He hit a cumulative .238/.303/.362 over the past three seasons, including .234/.296/.371 last year — while playing in a hitter-friendly park, no less — with defense that hasn't been good enough to make up for it. The White Sox have tolerated his poor performances and lack of maturity, failing to bring in any credible alternatives at the keystone, as though their patience will magically pay off. Even though Beckham is still just 26 years old, I'm increasingly skeptical that he'll ever turn the corner.
Marco Scutaro, Giants: Traded from the Red Sox to the Rockies last winter, Scutaro spent the first four months of his age-36 season looking as though he was done, or at the very least running short on oxygen (.271/.324/.361 in 415 PA). Yet after being dealt to the Giants on July 27, he hit a sizzling .362/.385/.473 in 268 PA down the stretch, then earned NLCS MVP honors and helped his new team win a world championship. The Giants signed Scutaro to a three-year, $20 million deal as they basked in the afterglow, and while I hardly think it's out of the question that he can be worth that price over the life of the contract, my enthusiasm is tempered by his age, home park and other indicators. Scutaro's overall .319 batting average on balls in play was well above his pre-2012 career mark of .293, while his 5.9 percent walk rate and 7.2 percent strikeout rate were well below his previous marks of 9.1 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively. Basically, he was putting a whole lot more balls into play and finding holes in the defense. I just don't see him sustaining that combination to the same degree in 2013. Dan Uggla, Braves: The rare Rule 5 pick who emerges as a star, Uggla batted a robust .263/.349/.488 in five seasons with the Marlins, but he hasn't come close to matching those numbers in two seasons since being traded to the Braves. After hitting .233/.311/.453 with a still-useful 36 homers in 2011, he sank to .220/.348/.384 with 19 homers last year. His 94 walks led the league, but his career-high 14.1 percent unintentional walk rate was well above his previous career rate of 10.1 percent -- the kind of spike that often indicates a player adjusting to a loss of bat speed before his performance declines further. Given that he's now 33 years old, and that he's coming off his highest strikeout rate in five years (26.7 percent), that explanation is increasingly likely. Note that Uggla's low 2012 batting average wasn't a result of bad luck on balls in play; his .283 mark was only 11 points below his previous career mark. He's not without value, but with three seasons and $39 million still to go on his contract, he could well become an increasing drag for the Braves.