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The Strike Zone

Booms and Busts: Designated hitter

With a full offseason of rest and recovery, can Victor Martinez improve on his 2013 season? (Gene J. Puskar/AP) With a full offseason of rest and recovery, can Victor Martinez improve on his 2013 season? (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Late last month, 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’ve mostly avoided choosing anyone from among last year’s picks. In the spirit of accountability, I’ve revisited last year’s picks at each position, to see what I’ve learned (or haven’t); they’ve been judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. In all, I've been satisfied that when it came to last year's picks, my correct calls outnumbered my incorrect ones by a margin of more than two to one (68 percent). I hope to improve that figure with this year's series, which wraps up with the designated hitters.

BOOMS

Nelson Cruz, Orioles: Cruz had already hit 27 homers, three more than his 2012 total, when he accepted a 50-game suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis Clinic in early August. Though he returned in time for the Rangers' Game 163 play-in, his 0-for-4 showing was of no help as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Even so, his .266/.327/.506 line (123 OPS+) represented his best showing at the plate since 2010, and it seemed as though Cruz could count on a reasonable payday as a free agent. However, the qualifying offer he received from the Rangers slowed his market, and while the Mariners showed interest, Cruz settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles.

On paper, it looks like a good match; Baltimore's designated hitters delivered just a .234/.289/.415 line last season, and Camden Yards rates as one of the few American League ballparks that are even more friendly to right-handed power than Whatever They're Calling That Ballpark In Arlington these days. Cruz's defense isn't quite as bad as his reputation might suggest (-12 Defensive Runs Saved for his career, −3 for 2013), but if the O's keep him as a DH, perhaps they can keep him off the disabled list due to yet another hamstring injury, and Cruz can remind the Rangers that they could have done a lot better as far as filling their own DH slot (see below).

Victor Martinez, Tigers: After missing all of 2012 due to microfracture surgery on his left knee, Martinez struggled mightily to regain form upon returning. The 34-year-old righty hit just .228/.273/.305 with two homers through the end of May, striking out an uncharacteristically high 12.5 percent of the time in that span (he was at 9.1 percent in 2010-2011) and producing a meager .249 batting average on balls in play. He homered three times in the first week of June, however, and put up a line that could stand with his pre-surgery form the rest of the way: .336/.394/.490 with 12 homers, a .343 BABIP, and a 7.7 percent strikeout rate. He even dabbled in the field, making 11 starts at first base and three behind the plate. In light of that rebound, I'm willing to bet that even at age 35, Martinez is a decent bet to improve on last year's final numbers (.301/.355/.430 with 1.2 WAR) now that the rust is gone.

BUST

Mitch Moreland, Rangers: Moreland spent the first two months of his age-27 season looking as though he had turned the corner on his career; suddenly, he was able to hold his own against lefties, making himself into an everyday player. He was hitting .288/.338/.561 through June 5, helping to pick up the slack for an offense that desperately needed it, but things just weren't the same once a hamstring strain bumped him to the DL. Though he returned just 15 days later, Moreland hit just .189/.272/.345 with 11 homers for the remainder of the season, finishing at .232/.299/.437 (98 OPS+), with career lows in both batting average and on-base percentage. Whatever magic he'd shown against lefties before getting hurt evaporated as quickly as it appeared, and he was a liability against pitchers of either hand. The Rangers upgraded first base considerably when they traded for Prince Fielder, but Moreland isn't that easy to get rid of; he's penciled in at DH, yet another position where the team's failure to plug a sinkhole (.245/.313/.385) probably cost them a playoff spot. Moreland now has 1,560 major league plate appearances under his belt, and a 100 OPS+. That isn't much help from a bat-only spot for a team that expects to contend.

Last Year's Booms (graded Pass/Fail)

• Travis Hafner, Yankees: Even given injuries that had limited him to 66 games in 2012, Hafner seemed worth taking a $2 million flier on given the potential benefit of uniting his left-handed power stroke with Yankee Stadium's short rightfield porch. It worked like a charm for the first 60 games of the season, as Hafner hit .253/.363/.507 with 10 homers, seven of them in the Bronx, but he played through shoulder pain before going on the disabled list in late July with a rotator cuff strain and managed just one more game thereafter, finishing at .202/.301/.378. FAIL

Kendrys Morales, Mariners: Morales missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 due to a freak fibula fracture but made a solid return to action in 2012. Upon being traded to Seattle, he figured to benefit from Safeco Field's changed dimensions, particularly when swinging from the left side; he did, hitting .282/.339/.472 with 12 homers at home, compared to .272/.333/.425 with 11 homers on the road, and his 123 OPS+ represented not only a slight bump up from his previous year's 119, but the second-best mark in the league among regular DHs. PASS.

Last Year's Busts

• Luke Scott, Rays: Scott's ongoing injury troubles and inability to hit lefties put him in the same camp as Hafner, but as I wrote, "Unlike Pronk, Scott neither has a history of elite production (as far-removed as it may be) nor a favorable home ballpark to boost his production." Limited to 291 plate appearances by a pair of DL stints due to calf and back woes, Scott hit .241/.326/.415, and while that washed out to a 108 OPS+, the yield was just 0.3 WAR. PASS

Last Year's Caught In Between

David Ortiz, Red Sox: Torn as to which way things would break for the 37-year-old Ortiz after he missed most of the second half of 2012 due to a strained Achilles tendon, I was prepared to put Ortiz into my Booms, but late news of further inflammation in both heels led me to move him into a category all his own, as I was suddenly more skeptical about his ability to stay healthy for even 500 plate appearances. Though he opened the year on the disabled list, Ortiz hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 homers, then added five more in a postseason fireworks show that ended with him winning World Series MVP honors. I figured he would remain among the position's elite even if he approximated his 2010-12 level (.296/.391/.558), which he pretty much nailed, but I can't quite call this a PASS or FAIL. Let's just say it's a PUSH.

Scorecard: 2 PASS, 1 FAIL, 1 PUSH

Running total (all positions): 38 PASS, 17 FAIL, 2 PUSH
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