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The Curious Case of Cameron Maybin

We’re pleased to welcome another talented writer to the FanGraphs team – Paul Swyden will be writing regularly for us going forward, and we think he’ll be a great addition to the site.

When Cameron Maybin was traded in November, it seemed as though the Padres were just trying to pick up a low-cost center fielder, as broken down by Dave Cameron here. They then went out and traded for, and extended, Jason Bartlett, and signed Orlando Hudson, seemingly saying that since they couldn’t afford anyone more expensive than Aaron Harang to upgrade the rotation, they’d upgrade the defense around that rotation instead. But this demands a question: does Maybin fit that plan?

At the time of the deal, the Friars already had Tony Gwynn, Jr. in the fold. Coming off a year in which he was 11th in the Majors in UZR, and third among center fielders, keeping Gwynn around seemed like a good idea. However, with Maybin on board, the Padres non-tendered Gwynn in early December, making the center-field job Maybin’s to lose in the process.

There’s a good argument to be made that Gwynn simply isn’t an everyday player, even with a glove that might be well above-average in center field. Gwynn has been in the Majors since 2006, but has never started more than 96 games in a season and never more than 87 in center. And while his glove does carry his anemic bat, it doesn’t carry enough to make it worthwhile when he hits like he did in 2010.

The reason could also be that Maybin has promise defensively in addition to some remaining offensive potential. In his four years in the Majors, 53 players have played 1,000 innings in center field. Of that group, Maybin’s UZR/150 of 5.6 ranks 16th, clustered in a group with Drew Stubbs (5.2), B.J. Upton (5.7), Austin Jackson (5.9) and Ichiro Suzuki (6.6). Gwynn’s UZR/150 of 16.8 is more than a win better, and is good for fifth place, but looking at the four-year totals we can see that Maybin isn’t inferior to Gwynn in every respect. While Maybin’s arm is nothing special, it’s been better than Gwynn’s, which ranks as eighth worst out of the group of 53. And since neither score well in ErrR, most of the difference between the two can be found in RngR. Here, the difference is considerable, approximately two wins, but perhaps there is promise for Maybin in this area as well.

Maybin’s overall score of 49 in the Fans’ Scouting Report last season wasn’t stellar, but the sample is somewhat small due to his up-and-down stints in the majors and a general lack of Florida presence in the FSR voting. From the details that do show up in the report, we can see the two areas where Maybin scores well are related to range: Acceleration/First Few Steps and Velocity/Sprint Speed. Maybin’s marks in each category are more than one standard deviation above the mean, which is promising. Also promising is the FSR’s of both Andres Torres and Josh Hamilton. Both saw bumps of 10+ points in their overall FSR scores from 2009 to 2010 after they had big jumps in their innings played. Perhaps with more playing time, Maybin may see a similar bump, as fans get a better appreciation for his physical abilities with regular viewings.

In Florida, Maybin may have been dubbed the Marlins center fielder of the future, but they rarely treated him as such. In April 2009, they started him in 23 games before condemning him to Triple-A New Orleans on May 11, and he wasn’t brought back up until rosters expanded in September. This past April, he managed to double that total, with 47 starts through June 6. But again, after underperforming, he was benched for more than a week following a 1-4 showing, and then was optioned back to New Orleans on the 18th. He wasn’t called back up until the end of August. That’s not the behavior of an organization that is committed to a player’s future.

Despite this jerking around, Maybin has shown flashes – albeit amongst long stretches of mediocrity or worse – that he does have talent in the field. He may never be as glovely as Tony Gwynn Jr., but he probably isn’t as bad as his 2010 fielding marks would have you believe. Perhaps if given a longer leash this year in his still-young age-24 season, the Padres will be the organization that reaps the benefits of that talent. It should tell us something that a team so focused on defensive upgrades this winter was willing to bring him in to replace Gwynn to begin with.