What did you know about Alejandro De Aza in the middle of July last year? My guess is, “not a whole lot”, if you’d even ever heard of him at all. For my part, I have a vague recollection of him jumping right from Double-A to claim the Opening Day center fielder job with Florida in 2007, which lasted for all of about a week before he broke his right ankle. He returned late in the year, failed to hit, and then missed all of 2008 after needing surgery on his left ankle during the spring. For most of the last three seasons, he’s been bouncing between Triple-A & the bigs for the Marlins & White Sox, putting up superficially nice minor-league stats (.309/.372/.479), but never getting much of a chance to play at the major-league level and largely settling into a career as a barely-thought-of Quad-A player. (Which is still nice work if you can get it, I suppose.)
That all changed last July 27 when the White Sox got involved in the Colby Rasmus/Edwin Jackson three-team deal, opening up a spot on the Chicago offensive roster with the departure of Mark Teahen to Toronto. At the time, GM Kenny Williams claimed that De Aza was getting called up to do more than just fill out the bench, noting that the ineffective incumbent in center, Alex Rios, was going to have to “take a backseat”. De Aza provided the margin of victory with a homer in a 2-1 win over Detroit in his first game and never looked back, hitting .329/.400/.520 with 12 steals over 171 plate appearances, good for a .401 wOBA and 2.8 WAR in barely a third of a seasons’ worth of play. It was a stunning performance from a guy who had entered his age-27 season with a career .242/.286/.325 line in parts of three big league seasons, though no doubt fueled in part by an absurd .404 BABIP.
For all that, no one was quite sure what to make of De Aza heading into 2012. Was he a flash in the pan, taking advantage of small sample sizes and September pitching, completely unsustainable over time? Or could be he the next Mike Morse, a late bloomer slowed in part by injuries who showed his skill at the end of one season before completely breaking out the following year? The White Sox made room to find out by moving Rios to right field, trading Carlos Quentin to San Diego, and mercifully dumping Juan Pierre.
The various projection systems, it should be noted, held a relatively optimistic view of De Aza. Five of the six projections you’ll see listed on his player profile page pegged him for 20 steals or more, while three suggested he could hit double-digit homers if given a full season of playing time. Those totals may sound modest, but only 12 other center fielders (plus Rios, who won’t be in center any more) managed to reach both of those levels in 2011.
After five games so far in 2012… well, it’s foolish to say that we know for sure what he is. It’s only been five games, okay? That said, there are signs that De Aza might actually retain some of his 2011 performance and continue to be a valuable fantasy contributor in 2012. Most importantly, the White Sox are showing confidence in him – he has batted leadoff in each game so far – and he did homer on two consecutive days earlier this week to go along with five runs scored. Though it’s somewhat troubling that he has yet to draw a walk, that was rarely his problem in the minors, with a career .365 OBP in parts of nine seasons.
If De Aza can manage to improve his base-stealing skills – something which he admits is a work in progress – he could potentially be an intriguing blend of power and speed, especially if your league has the LF/CF/RF setup rather than OF/OF/OF. Owned in less than half of Yahoo! leagues and fewer than 10% of ESPN leagues, De Aza has transformed himself from a Quad-A lifer into someone to watch closely.