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 2013. 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 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 catchers, first basemen, and second basemen, so it’s to the hot corner we turn.
While there's plenty of top-tier talent at the position, I'm struck by the paucity of players I expect to take significant steps forward relative to those at the spots I've already examined. It's not like we should expect significant improvement from guys like Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Chase Headley, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman or Aramis Ramirez, David Freese, Todd Frazier or Evan Longoria, all of whom put up stellar 2012 numbers (when they were available). Meanwhile, I have my reservations about youngsters such as Brett Lawrie and Mike Moustakas, just not enough to file them under potential Busts. The players are listed alphabetically within each category.
Manny Machado, Orioles: The number three pick of the 2009 draft, Machado came into last year — his age 19 season — ranked among the game's very best prospects: fourth on ESPN Insider Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects list, sixth on that of Baseball Prospectus, 11th on that of Baseball America. After he held his own at Double-A over the first two-thirds of the season (.266/.352/.438), the Orioles, who surprisingly found themselves in a playoff chase, made the bold move to call him up, asking him to switch from shortstop to third base on the fly. Machado's production was uneven (.262/.294/.445 with seven homers and nine walks in 202 PA), but he showed impressive power and poise for a player who had just turned 20, and his defense was at least slightly above average according to the major metrics. With J.J. Hardy under contract through 2014, Machado is set to stick at third base, and while he'll have to improve his plate discipline to unlock his full potential, his ceiling is so high that any advance forward will make him a force to be reckoned with.
Kyle Seager, Mariners: A third round 2009 pick who reached the majors in mid-2011, Seager has been one of the few decent hitters in an otherwise execrable offense since his arrival. His raw 2012 slash stats (.259/.316/.423) don't look like much, but in Safeco Field's parched environment, that was good for a .273 True Average, four points above the MLB average third baseman — not bad for a player in his age 24 season. A closer look at Seager's splits reveals the extent to which Safeco has been his personal nightmare; he has hit .215/.296/.311 with five homers in 412 plate appearances at home during his short career, compared to .298/.333/.501 with 18 homers in 440 PA on the road. As a lefty hitter, he won't be helped to quite the same extent as a righty would given the changes to the Safeco Field dimensions, which take their biggest bite out of left center field. That said, he does tend to pull fewer balls and use the whole field more than the average lefty (23 percent of those in play for Seager, compared to 28 percent for all MLB lefties over the past two years), which should help his cause. Couple that with some expected age-related improvement, and he could be an even bigger asset in a lineup that needs all the help it can get.
Luis Cruz, Dodgers: The owner of a career .221/.275/.250 big league line in three partial seasons, Cruz was well into his 12th professional campaign — the organizational fodder phase of his career — when he got the call from the injury-depleted Dodgers last July. Sliding over from shortstop to third base after Hanley Ramirez arrived, he emerged as a fan favorite via a .297/.322/.431 showing that included 40 RBI in 296 plate appearances, not to mention "Cruuuuuz" t-shirts in the team store. Alas, his success could prove to be short-lived. Cruz has considerable gap power (51 doubles in 601 PA last year between Albuquerque and Los Angeles), but his 2.7 percent unintentional walk rte puts extreme pressure on him to maintain his .320 batting average on balls in play, and the bet here is that major league pitchers will adjust more quickly than he will. The Dodgers have no shortage of alternatives at third base, including Jerry Hairston Jr., Juan Uribe (if they don't release him) and even Ramirez if fizzled prospect Dee Gordon makes his own adjustments and forces his way back to L.A., to say nothing of the possibility that the team could upgrade in midseason using their considerable financial might. Thus Cruz is on a short leash, and may not last the season as a starter.
Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson, Braves: With the retirement of Chipper Jones and the trade of Martin Prado, the Braves are left with a major hole in their lineup, and the solution they appear to have cobbled together could be a problem. The 25-year-old lefty-swinging Francisco hit just .234/.278/.432 in 205 PA last year — for a .240 True Average — showing ample power but poor command of the strike zone, with a 34.2 percent K rate and a 4.3 percent unintentional walk rate. The 28-year-old righty-swinging Johnson hit a superficially more attractive .281.326/.451 in 528 PA split between Houston and Arizona, for a .264 True Average, with similarly awful plate discipline (25 percent strikeout rate, 5.5 percent unintentional walk rate) coupled with lousy defense. On paper, it would appear that the team at least has the makings of a passable platoon, but Johnson has hit just .255/.294/.372 in 360 PA against lefties during his career, while Francisco has largely been shielded from them, hitting just .190/.224/.222 in 67 PA against them. The duo might show enough power against righties to get by, but ultimately, they'll be a drag on the lineup. Michael Young, Phillies: Young probably isn't as bad as last year's .277/.312/.370 showing, but then he almost certainly isn't as good as his 2011 line of .338/.380/.474 suggests either. Split the difference and adjust for the Rangers' hitter-friendly environment and that's a .266 True Average across two seasons. Throw in some expected age-related decline for a 36-year-old, not to mention regular duty at a position he plays poorly (-13 Defensive Runs Saved per 1,200 innings, the equivalent of 135 games), and you've got a replacement level player, if Young's -0.3 WAR over the past two seasons didn't speak loudly enough already. Even with the Rangers paying $10 million of Young's $16 million salary, you can expect general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel to persist in their commitment to Young if he scrapes bottom, which won't end well.