Michael Saunders' terrific showing at the WBC may be a harbinger of his season to come. (USA Today Sports)
By Jay Jaffe
Over the past two weeks, I've introduced a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for players I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. As I've noted each time around, I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, and I won’t promise that a player's OPS will spike and help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that he will wind up below the Mendoza Line or go on to lose his job. 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. If you've missed any of the positions thus far, you can catch up here.
Rightfield was the second-most productive offensive position last year, with a cumulative .273 True Average, though even so, that was down seven points from the year before, and still the position's lowest mark since 2006. Players such as Jason Heyward, Alex Rios, Torii Hunter and Shin-Soo Choo all rebounded from down 2011 showings, but others such as Jeff Francoeur, Brennan Boesch and Hunter Pence tailed off noticeably, and injuries cost the likes of Nick Markakis and Jayson Werth considerable time. In picking players for this, I found several more whom I might have written up as Busts than Booms, but ultimately, I reined myself in. The players here are listed alphabetically within each category.
Michael Saunders, Mariners: Saunders was a good candidate to breakout even before he won MVP honors in Pool D at the World Baseball Classic by going 8-for-10 in three games for Team Canada. He was a strong enough prospect that he ranked as high as 30th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list back in 2010, though he looked like a total bust when he "hit" just .196/.263/.306 through his first 635 major league plate appearances from 2009-2011.
Franklin Gutierrez's injuries and the Mariners' general crapitude allowed him to get a longer look last year, and while his raw slashline (.247/.306/.432 in 553 plate appearances) didn't look like much, that was good for a .279 True Average in Safeco Field's run-squelching environment. His home/road splits show that he hit .262/.324/.469 on the road, but just .229/.28/.390 at Safeco. That latter set of numbers should improve given the changes to the park's dimensions, which cut down the left-centerfield distance by 12 feet; Saunders, who pulled 33 percent of his balls in play (compared to 28 percent for the average lefty) should benefit at least a bit more than most. Couple that with some expected growth for a 26-year-old, not to mention a chance to face the Astros' pitching on a regular basis, and I expect him to emerge as one of the Mariner lineup's more productive hitters.
Jayson Werth, Nationals: Werth flopped mightily in the first year of his seven-year, $126 million deal, batting .232/.330/.389 with 20 home runs for a Nationals team that went nowhere in 2011. He missed roughly half of last season with a fractured radius that required surgery, but he nonetheless managed to be productive with the stick, batting .300/.387/.440 in 344 plate appearances. He homered just five times in the regular season, including two in 231 PA upon returning, but at least part of that owed to his loss of strength due to injury.
The other part, as he revealed last week, was that he was using a lighter, more balanced bat. As his wrist heals, he's considering going back to the heavier model, which should restore some of his pop — and likely his strikeouts, given that his K rate dropped from 24 percent to 17 percent — but it's good to know that he's capable of adapting to find a comfortable compromise if that's what his health dictates. Through all of his ups and downs, Werth has hit .273/.370/.473 since the beginning of the 2007 season, and while he'll be 34 in May, I expect he'll continue to be a productive hitter, with enough value to justify this year's $16 million salary, if not the $20 million level to which his pay will balloon in 2014.
Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees: Ichiro's bat looked DOA last year in Seattle (.261/.288/.353 in 423 PA), but it came to life upon his late-July trade to the Yankees (.322/.340/.454 in 240 PA) — so much so that general manager Brian Cashman signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal in December, the only multi-year deal he handed out all winter. Going forward, the problem isn't just that Ichiro has age (39) working against him, it's that his performance against lefties has totally collapsed, though it's been concealed by a shiny batting average (.292/.319/.343 in 686 PA over the last three years, .284/.291/.358 in 237 PA in 2012). Cashman had already done a lousy job of scaring up possible options to serve as the short half of a platoon — namely Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz — before both Curtis Grandeson and Mark Teixeira suffered injuries that will shelve them into May. The concern here is that the team's depleted depth and Ichiro's star power will buy him more playing time than he deserves. I'd love to believe that playing for a contender will continue to invigorate his bat, because as he showed last fall, he's a tremendously entertaining player when he's producing — but I just can't ignore the direction in which most of the arrows are pointing.
Shane Victorino, Red Sox: Victorino split last year between the Phillies and Dodgers, and saw his performance fall off considerably; his .255/.321/.383 line set career lows in all three slash categories, and was well off his .279/.355/.491 showing in 2011. While it's reasonable to hope for a rebound — as the Red Sox, who signed him to a three-year, $39 million deal, clearly are — the problem is that the 32-year-old switch hitter has struggled greatly against righties over the past three years (.244/.311/.390 in 1,366 PA, compared to .317/.392/.551 in 512 PA against lefties), with an even wider split last year (.229/.296/.333 in 472 PA vs righties, .323/.388/.518 in 186 PA against lefties). He still has speed (39 steals in 45 attempts) and above-average defensive ability even if all of those animatedGIFs suggest otherwise, but the higher offensive bar in rightfield could negate any gains with his glove. I'm pessimistic, to say the least.
Delmon Young, Phillies: