Last week, I kicked off my second go-round of Booms and Busts, in which I highlighted a small handful of players at a given position whom I expect to take significant steps forward or backward. I have no hard-and-fast criteria for those players, no promises of fantasy league dominance or skyrocketing statistics for the Booms or slides below the Mendoza Line for the Busts. But between poring over projections, identifying players in changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entries into the prime age range of 26-29 years old, there are players I'd like to earmark before the season begins, for better or worse.
Note that I won't be including rookies among these picks — those will be saved for another cycle — and I'm hoping (but not promising) that I won't choose anyone from among last year's picks. In the spirit of accountability, I'll revisit those picks at each position, and see what I've learned (or haven't); they'll be judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. Having covered the catchers and first basemen, we've reached the keystone, a position where players tend to flame out earlier than most.
Jedd Gyorko, Padres
With a funny name and a thick physique that's drawn comparisons to a fire hydrant and a garden gnome, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Gyorko isn't the easiest player to take seriously. As a rookie in 2013, he showed not only that he could hit (.249/.301/.444 with 23 homers) but that he could handle the conversion from third base to second. According to Defensive Runs Saved, he was one run below average, and via Ultimate Zone Rating, he was 1.7 runs above average. His low on-base percentage, 6.3 percent walk rate and 3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio indicate that his plate discipline could use some work, but he does go deep into counts (3.89 pitches per plate appearance), and his power will play even in Petco, where he homered 13 times in 259 PA. Expect pitchers to accord him more respect in 2014, and for him to take a solid step forward in his age-25 season..
After batting .281/.368/.452 with 14 homers and 16 steals as a 19-year-old at Double A Frisco in 2012, Profar entered 2013 as the consensus number one prospect in baseball. Having done the opposite of clearing out their infield logjam by signing Elvis Andrus to a long-term extension and giving Ian Kinsler a pass on a position change, the Rangers started Profar's season at Triple A Round Rock, but when Kinsler hit the DL for a stress fracture in his rib cage, they recalled the phenom.
Profar started hot, with 10 hits in his first 27 at-bats, but he couldn't maintain that torrid pace. Once Kinsler came back, the rookie was pushed into a thoroughly unfamiliar utility role, one that included a fair bit of DH duty. In all, Profar hit just .234/.308/.336 in 324 plate appearances, topping 100 PA in only one of the four-plus months with the team. It may not have been the optimal use of his age-20 season, but with Kinsler traded to the Tigers, second base is now his own, and I'm hardly alone among those who expect his combination of tools and skills — including an exceptional arm, mature approach at the plate and strong baseball instincts — to start bearing fruit.
For the fourth year in a row, Phillips hit exactly 18 homers, and he actually set a career high with 103 RBIs, but his slash stats (.261/.310/.396) each represented his lowest marks since 2003, when he was overmatched as a young Indians second baseman. His defense, which had been 51 runs above average from 2007-12 according to Defensive Runs Saved, dipped to +1, though to be fair, his 8.6 Ultimate Zone Rating still appeared to be business as usual. His 1.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference.com version) represented a steep drop from his 3.8 in 2012, and whether you use that version or FanGraphs WAR, he's lost three wins in two seasons.
I'm not one to dig into the non-performance narrative tropes, but after a season marked with other controversies — gripes about his contract, squabbles with the media — Phillips endured a winter of trade rumors and a whole lot of talk about the $50 million still remaining on his deal, and he is now giving reporters the silent treatment. Maybe he's entering his age-33 season with a chip on his shoulder and will rebound, but I don't think this will end well.
Even if the departure of Robinson Cano didn't exactly catch the Yankees on their heels, general manager Brian Cashman's bargain bin approach to second base — as well as third base — isn't anything that will fill their fans with confidence. Roberts once ranked among the AL's top second basemen; from 2004-09, he hit a combined .290/.365/.438 while averaging 12 homers, 35 steals and 4.2 WAR a year. A spate of injuries — back, abdomen, hip, hamstring, and concussion — have limited him to a .246/.310/.359 showing and an average of just 48 games per year in the four seasons since then.
Roberts played in 77 games last year, his high since 2009, but hit just .249/.312/.392 en route to 0.7 WAR. Even at the low price of $2 million plus incentives, he doesn't inspire much confidence, though at least his salary won't be an impediment if New York decides to bring in somebody else.
Last Year's Booms (graded Pass/Fail):
• Jose Altuve, Astros: The pint-sized Altuve earned All-Star honors in 2012, batting .290/.340/.399, swiping 33 bags and developing a considerable cult following for a player stuck on a 107-loss team. I particularly liked the improvement of his strikeout-to-walk ratio from his 2011 debut, which turned him into a credible top-of-the-lineup hitter. Alas, his walk rate regressed from a still-low 6.4 percent in 2012 to an untenable 4.8 percent in '13, and when combined with dips in his BABIP and power, he slid to a below-average player. I still want to believe, but for 2013, this was a FAIL.
• Jason Kipnis, Indians: Though he faded after a hot start in 2012, I liked Kipnis for his two-way ability and his minor league track record for power. Sure enough, he showed considerable pop, as his isolated power jumped from .122 to .168, but that was just one of many things that went right; his BABIP jump from .291 to .345 helped as well. In all, he hit .284/.366/.452 with 17 homers and 30 steals, climbing from an already-solid 4.0 WAR to 5.9 and leading the Indians to the postseason for the first time since 2007. PASS
• Rickie Weeks, Brewers: Weeks hit just .230/.328/.400 despite playing in 157 games in 2012, just the second time he topped 130 in his major league career. Over the winter, it was revealed that he had played through an ankle injury that altered his stance and approach and led to a .212 BABIP. He finished strong, and I figured that would carry over with better health. Nope. Instead he hit .209/.306/.357, didn't play after Aug. 7 due to a hamstring injury and was essentially Pipped by rookie Scooter Gennett, who hit .324/.356/.479. FAIL
Last Year's Busts:
• Gordon Beckham, White Sox: The eighth pick of the 2008 draft has been backsliding since a strong 2009 debut. He didn't backslide any further in 2013, but he lost eight weeks to a fractured hamate and hit .267/.322/.372 overall. Thanks to a BABIP that rose from .254 to .299, Beckham's on-base percentage jumped 26 points over his 2012 mark, but even so, it was a substandard year. He finished with just 0.8 WAR. Same old Beckham. PASS
• Marco Scutaro, Giants: A stretch-run and postseason hero for the Giants in 2012, the 37-year-old Scutaro appeared primed for regression, particularly on the heels of a new three-year, $20 million deal. While he couldn't match the sizzling .362/.385/.473 he hit after being acquired from the Rockies the year before, his .297/.357/.369 line in 2013 was good for a career-high 112 OPS+, and he mad an All-Star team for the first time in his 12-year big league career. Score that E-4 on my part. FAIL
• Dan Uggla, Braves: Two straight years of decline in Atlanta, particularly accompanied by a spiking strikeout rate made this an easy call from the outset, but even I didn't expect Uggla to tank as badly as he did in 2013. He hit .179/.309/.362, was 19 runs below average in the field and lost his job amid a .123/.315/.175 skid following in-season LASIK surgery. PASS
Scorecard: 3 PASS, 3 FAIL Running total (all positions thus far): 9 PASS, 7 FAIL