Booms and busts: leftfielders
So far I’ve covered catchers and infielders in this 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 on the catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops, so it’s time to head to the outfield.
Given its spot on the defensive spectrum, which runs DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C, leftfield is a position where the offensive expectations are high, and defensive responsibilities relatively minimal. Yet in recent years, many major league teams have moved light-hitting speedsters who may best be suited to centerfield over to the position, as exemplified by Scott Podsednik, Juan Pierre and Brett Gardner. For the Yankees, who play in a ballpark with a huge leftfield space, that makes sense, but for other teams, not so much. I noted this trend last spring, along with the fact that in 2011 leftfielders had hit for a post-1949 low in terms of True Average (a measure of his runs produced per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments), with a .263 mark — lower than centerfielders or rightfielders, both of whom have more defensive responsibility. As a whole, the position rebounded to a somewhat more typical .270 last year, and with hitters like Mike Trout, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton likely to see more time there in 2013, it could go even higher. Note that I’m not looking at the upper tier of talent here, I’m hoping to provide insight as to which direction a handful of players closer to the middle of the pack are headed. The players are listed alphabetically within each category.
Matt Joyce, Rays: The 28-year-old Joyce has already shown himself to be a reasonably productive player at the major league level, but his numbers took a significant hit last year after he missed four weeks with an oblique strain in June and July. He was batting .279/.387/.512 with 11 homers in 239 plate appearances when he went down, but slumped to .202/.291/.343 with six homers in 223 PA upon returning. Overall, he finished at .241/.341/.429, numbers that were 18, four, and 53 points below his previous career levels, respectively. He should be healed by now, and with B.J. Upton departing for free agency, Desmond Jennings switching to centerfield, and Wil Myers eventually arriving to take over right, Joyce will slot into leftfield, where he made 28 starts last year. Given his meager showing against lefties (.201/.288/.325 in 265 career PA), it’s still likely that Joe Maddon will shield him by shifting Ben Zobrist from second base, but that rates as a positive when it comes to Joyce’s production, not a negative.
Justin Upton, Braves: After a breakout 2011 in which he hit .289/.369/.529 with 31 homers and placed fourth in the NL MVP voting, Upton sprained his left thumb in the season’s first week, and lost about 100 points in the slugging department, hitting .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers. Though he never went on the disabled list and only played nine fewer games (150) than the season before, that apparently wasn’t gritty enough for managing partner Ken Kendrick, who called him out publicly, or for manager Kirk Gibson, either, and so in January, general manager Kevin Towers sent Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson to Atlanta in exchange for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three lower-level prospects. The move takes the 25-year-old Upton out of a bad situation on one contender and moves him to a better one (and a slightly easier position) on another, this time alongside his brother. It’s reasonable to be concerned that he’s leaving a hitter-friendly environment where he’s posted an OPS more than 200 points higher than his road line, but it’s quite possible that he’s been shielded from making the necessary adjustments to hit in more neutral environments; forced to do so in his new surroundings, he could fully unlock the potential that made him the overall number one pick in 2005. I’m comfortable betting that he approaches his 2011 level (which he was on par with in 2009) instead of remaining at his 2012 one.
Jason Kubel, Diamondbacks: In his first season in Arizona, Kubel hit a superficially attractive .253/.327/.506, but given both his hitter-friendly environment and DH-caliber defense in leftfield, he simply wasn’t worth that much. Baseball Reference.com’s version of Win Above Replacement valued his season at 0.8 wins, while Baseball Prospectus’ version pegged him at 0.3 wins, even with his offensive line boiling down to a .286 True Average. This wasn’t a one-season aberration either; via B-Ref, he’s averaged 0.3 WAR over the past three seasons, while via BP, he’s at 0.5 during that span — a poor return on investment for a 31-year-old making $7.5 million this year. Towers would have done better to keep Upton and deal Kubel to an AL team where he could DH full time. At the very least, Gibson would be well-served by benching him against lefties, given his .238/.308/.383 line in 928 career PA, and .234/.291/.446 line in a career-high 203 PA last year.
Nate McLouth, Orioles: Once upon a time, McLouth appeared to be a minor star in the making. From 2007 through 2009, he hit a combined .265/.353/.467 and averaged 2.9 WARP per season for the Pirates and Braves, with the hiccup his production suffered upon being dealt to Atlanta in mid-2009 easily dismissed. Alas, he sank below both the Mendoza Line and replacement level in 2010, and wasn’t a whole lot better either in 2011 or the first half of 2012, when a brief return to Pittsburgh went sour; he hit just .203/.312/.313 across a 671 PA spread over those two and a half seasons before drawing his release. The Orioles picked him off the scrap heap and he recovered to bat .268/.342/.435 in 236 PA, shoring up a lineup sinkhole, and they rewarded him for his efforts with a $2 million contract, a slight raise from last year. As a platoon player, McLouth isn’t awful for a leftfielder (.257/.346/.447 against righties for his career), but he’s a liability against lefties (.223/.303/346). Yet general manager Dan Duquette failed to do more than presume that injury-plagued Nolan Reimold could pick up the slack, and already he’s missed time this spring due to a shoulder injury, a new ailment for his collection of concerns. McLouth’s production, which already might be light for a bat-first position, could be even lighter if he’s overexposed.
David Murphy, Rangers: Count this as yet another over-30 lefty in a larger role than his skills may merit. Not counting his brief 2002 work, Murphy set across-the-board career highs with a .304/.380/.479 line with 54 walks in 521 plate appearances en route to a 3.0 WARP season. He even hit a sizzling .347/.405/.440 against southpaws, albeit in just 84 PA — 84 PA driven by a .433 batting average on balls in play, at that. It was an excellent showing, but one well above the established level of a player with a career .280/.339/.447 line coming into the year, not to mention a .253/.298/.349 in 511 previous PA against southpaws. With Josh Hamilton gone, Murphy is likely to spend even more time in the lineup as the everyday leftfielder than before, and if he regresses, he’ll be a drag on the offense.