Maybe it's because I'm presently watching a basketball game, but I can't help but be struck that these position group previews are a lot like former NBA center Oliver Miller. Like Oliver, these posts bring a lot of meat and fill space, but can also score with some regularity. Also like Oliver, while it's been readily apparent since their debut that this series had a short shelf life, you'll still be surprised how much you miss them when they're gone.
After one hell of a two month stretch, Alejandro De Aza has earned the starting center field job, and is the presumptive leadoff man. That's a lot of newfound responsibility for a soon-to-be 28 year-old with only 388 career major league plate appearances, but two months of recent superlative performance at the big league level is two months more than everyone else who will be mentioned in this post has.
De Aza posted a .329/.400/.520 line in 171 plate appearances last season, while playing great defense in center field, and stealing 12 bases in 17 attempts. Obviously if he did that all season, he'd be MVP. M-V-effin-P. The world of baseball would crumble in his hands.
But since we're not ready for a waiver claim guy to win MVP, his numbers need to be picked at.
He's fast, but that .404 BABIP he put up is grade-A lunacy. At least 50-60 points needs to be knocked off of that. His pop was slow-developing as a youngster, so his .131 ISO in the minors could undersell him a bit, but he likely can't be counted on for 60 extra-base hits in 2012 either. His 9.9% walk rate from 2011 also exists on the outer realms of anything he's ever shown to be capable of.
Alejandro's platoon splits were significant last season, and he's been so thoroughly hidden against lefties throughout his career (only 64 of 388 plate appearances) that it may betray a significant deficiency. If Brent Lillibridge is busy elsewhere, Fukudome isn't really a superior option when trying to protect De Aza.
While it's unlikely that he's really worth 36 fielding runs above average over a full season like UZR projected, De Aza looks the part of a truly above-average defender in center field, and as such can be a true asset even with Alexei Ramirez-level production at the plate. If his 2011 numbers can really be treated as a starting point, then he has plenty of room to fall back to that.
Anything more and he should be elected president.
Adam Dunn has it easy, he only has to overcome one soul-sucking season. Alex Rios hasn't been fully himself since 2008. In '09, his power (and luck) abandoned him completely, resulting in Toronto letting him go on waivers. In '10, a monster, MVP-calibur month of May covered up a season otherwise spent treading the waters of mediocrity, followed by 2011 and 700 weak groundballs hit to short.
Throughout that stretch, his groundball rate grew steadily, his power became a shadow of his peak, and now he's a confused deer in the outfield too.
Soooo, about that recovery!
The good news is that Rios probably performed as poorly as he possibly could given the tools he still has. It's really hard to hit .227 while hitting 13 HR and only striking out 11.9% of the time, and it's really hard for a guy as fast as he is with such a strong arm to play such poor defense. Any increase in luck or tweak in approach at all should yield more hits and more competence.
He's being moved to right field, so that should help a fair bit, or at least make his mistakes less meaningful. Now the next time he waits 2-3 seconds to make a decision on a ball that's falling out of the sky, Alejandro De Aza will run in and catch it and totally not blow out his Achilles doing so. There's been a much balleyhooed change in his batting stance displayed in Spring Training, which points to an emphasis on working all fields, or even hitting the ball in the air again!
It's been too long since Rios has been able to hold form for the majority of the season to expect a peak performance again, but a vigilant response to last year's struggles should stave off a repeat disaster.
That's pretty disappointing for someone owed $38.5 million over the next three years, but you gotta set the bar low for last season's worst hitter in the AL
Dayan Viciedo fully loaded is a truly remarkable thing.
Unfortunately, due to circumstances hopefully beyond his control, that linked-to home run was arguably the only real glimpse of Full Dayan at the major league level. A Spring Training thumb injury sapped him of his power early in the season, his mid-summer tirade against AAA pitching went ignored by management, and the thumb injury cropped up again after the All-Star break thanks to a fall.
By the time he received what was essentially a September call-up, some combination of fatigue, lingering discomfort, and over-eagerness resulted in a punchless shell of the Viciedo everyone was ready to love. His strikeout rate over 20%, he racked up extra-base hits at a Juan Pierre level, and his troubling platoon split ballooned. It doesn't help that he looks awful so far this Spring.
The belief has to be that this is still the guy who was overqualified for AAA last year. In fact, he should be better than that guy, because that guy was still nursing a not-fully healed thumb. Viciedo miraculously dragged his walk rate up toward league average (and maintained during his month in Chicago) last year, feasted on righties plenty in AAA, and has the sort of raw power that doesn't seem close to being fully harnessed. With this roster set-up, a hitting prospect like Viciedo should be handed the keys and given all the time he needs to adjust to the league. He should be something by the end of the year, even his final stats shake out around average.
Viciedo has a short stocky build, and while young, really needs to save a lot of runs with his arms to be an average defender.
And what an arm! Powerful and accurate, a throwing arm may be the least useful tool for an outfielder, but Viciedo's is going to be a joy to behold all---well, for a few months, up until people just stop challenging him.
Kosuke Fukudome is the 4th outfielder, and he's a fine 4th outfielder.
He's not the ideal 4th outfielder, because his ability to play center field is, well...it's the type of ability you use sparingly (especially at his age). Given his recent history as a starter, and his left-handedness, Fukudome not so much the typical reserve outfielder designed to play all over in a pinch, as corner outfielder insurance.
Insurance in case Alex Rios or Dayan Viciedo completely falls to pieces, or if Adam Dunn falls to pieces to such a degree that Viciedo slides over to the DH slot, or if De Aza's leg explodes into wood splinters and Rios has to play center again. In any of these cases, Fukudome can slide in, play regularly, and get on base enough for such a cheap salary that it will take years before anyone starts to resent his existence.
There's a concern about Kosuke, since he ended 2011 with an even bigger dull thud than his previous three seasons. Hopefully part-time play can counteract his frankly bizarre tendency for front-loaded seasons.
Fukudome is clearly on the decline, and there's a reason no one came calling with a full-time job for him, but he has a utility; he can get on base. In part-time play, that should be well-utilized.
Who knows where Lillibridge will be? He's currently being trotted around at every position of the infield. That doesn't seem like quite the travesty if you remind yourself that he has a high-strikeout approach that's only saved by massive power that he's never shown outside of last season, and that his defensive heroics were more likely sparked by superlative athleticism than great instincts or familiarity with the position.
He's probably still the best reserve centerfielder on the roster, and is bound to see some time as a result.
Like most groups on this roster, the outfield has an alarmingly wide range of possible outcomes. The only former All-Star (Rios), is probably the starter least capable of All-Star level production, the presumptive MVP of the unit is an injury-prone waiver claim, and Viciedo is simply a talented rookie, doomed to experience all the pratfalls of being a talented rookie. The back-ups seems competent, though.
All of this prognosticating will be irrelevant once Lillibridge steals a starting job and has a 85 HR, 395 K season that goes down in history as the craziest nonsense ever witnessed.