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Dave’s Guys: The Hitters

Pitchers and catchers report this week. Yes, it’s the most anti-climactic day in the history of the world, but the symbolism is real: when these guys start unpacking their bags and taking physicals, baseball is back. And so, our attention begins to shift. We now talk about 2010 as the current season, no longer referring to it as “next year” or “the upcoming year.” It’s now “this year.” And that’s exciting, even if the actual details behind pitchers and catchers reporting is not.

So, to kick off the start of the looking ahead season, I’m going to do two posts today on guys that I feel like I am more optimistic about than the general consensus. For various reasons, I like these guys more than the projection systems or the wisdom of the crowd. These are the three hitters that I think will surprise people with how well they play in 2010.

Carlos Guillen, Detroit

Whenever an older player has a bad season, it is always attributed to age-related decline, no matter how the drop-off comes or how severe it is. If they regress a bit from prior performance, well, that’s normal, they’re getting older. If they decline a lot, they fell off The Cliff. There’s hardly ever any allowance for the fact that it could have just been a bad year, especially if it looks like a player is trending downwards.

This basically sums up the thought process on Guillen, I think. His wOBAs have gone .390-.361-.359-.328 the last four years, and he’s now 34 years old, so the assumption is that Father Time is just catching up to him. Except that, when you look at his core statistics, that isn’t really true. His .177 ISO last year is above his career average. His BB/K was normal, though his strikeouts went up a bit. His HR/FB% and LD% were both right around his career norms. The 30 point drop in wOBA is all BABIP, which went from .321 to .267. Even if he’s slowing down, I see no reason to believe that reflects 100% skill reduction. Guillen’s still a good hitter with both power and patience, and he shouldn’t be written off prematurely.

Cliff Pennington, Oakland

As one of those decent-at-everything-great-at-nothing types, Pennington avoided hype while climbing the minor league ladder despite being a former first round selection. His lack of power is usually one of the first things people will mention, but he’s not David Eckstein or Luis Castillo – he hits the ball hard enough where you can’t just throw him a fastball down the middle. He controls the strike zone well, makes good contact, and is a pretty good baserunner, plus he offers the benefit of being a switch hitter.

If he can show enough glove to stick at shortstop, he’s one of the better young players in the game at the position. Yet, he’s almost never talked about outside of Oakland, at least as far as I can tell. Most teams would love to have a guy at SS with Pennington’s offensive abilities, and if the A’s end up as contenders in the west, don’t be surprised if their shortstop is one of the reasons why.

Melky Cabrera, Atlanta

He’s been around long enough that its easy to forget that he’s just 25 years old. He gets labeled as a tweener, because he’s not a great defensive CF or a great offensive LF, but guys like this are often better than people realize, and there’s still upside left with Cabrera. He’s a really good contact hitter and strong enough to add to his current gap power levels. He doesn’t even have to add all that much power to turn himself into a legitimate 20-20 threat.

He may not look like a classic corner outfielder, but Cabrera can play, and I think Braves fans will be pleasantly surprised with what he offers. His defense is going to be a solid plus in a corner, and he’s not far from being a quintessential #2 hitter. Given his physical skills and age, don’t be surprised if he locks down an outfield spot in Atlanta for the next several years.