There is no greater intersection of fantasy and ‘real’ baseball analysis than the Spring Position Battle. How better to reap the rewards of good number-crunching than the correct prediction of the winner of the lion’s share of playing time at a given position? It’s one of fantasy baseball’s best moments.
And there’s no easier place to look for this feeling than the worst teams in baseball. The worse the team, the younger the team, the more likely they’ll allow an inexperienced young man to steer the helm at a given position. The Pirates, for example, currently have 30(!) players with three years or fewer experience on their 40-man roster.
Follow this string of thought to the end, and you’ll inevitably end up looking at the team being run by the worst GM in baseball (if Tim Marchman is to be believed). There might be some debate about whether or not it’s more important to feature your best players up the middle, but it’s got to be a given that it’s not a good sign to go into camp not knowing who is going to make up your keystone combo. (The name of that combo should really be a clue.)
So we come to the Royals. At the incumbent starting shortstop position stands Yuniesky Betancourt. By WAR, he was the worst position player that qualified for the batting title last year, costing the Royals $2.2 million on top of his $3.375 million salary. He accomplished this (little) feat by walking only 4.1% of the time while also displaying below-average speed (3.9 speed score, 5.0 average) and power (.106 ISO, .155 MLB average). The worst part for such a ‘key’ defensive position? He had a -23.9 UZR/150 last year, which would be less worrisome if he didn’t also feature a negative rating for his career. I’m struggling to find something good to say, but apparently his demeanor can be even worse than his performance.
Let’s just say he doesn’t offer too much of an obstacle, should, say, Mike Aviles step to the fore. Aviles was once a too-old for his leagues prospect that tore his way through to the major leagues with good contact rates and not much else. He was once over-rated, yes, but now seems under-rated. His injury hurt his good contact rates (90.7% in the zone down to 85.6% last year) and sapped his average power (.155 ISO down to .067 last year). As exhibits in his favor, I submit his minor league ISO (.167) as well as minor league walk and strikeout rates that were virtually identical to his rookie year numbers. Aviles may not have been as good as he looked his rookie year, but he wasn’t as bad as he was last year.
In defense of his defense, there’s no real evidence that it’s terrible, despite the fact that he’s played all over the diamond and his general manager had the (misguided) idea that he needed to acquire another shortstop. His UZR/150 was great in his rookie year (+31.6 UZR/150) and bad last year (-12.7 UZR/150), but Total Zone had him as a positive defender at shortstop in the minors. The Fan Scouting Report pegged him as better than Betancourt even in his poor ’09. Aviles scored better than his competitor/teammate in every category… but arm strength. And now he’s coming off of Tommy John surgery. On the other hand, we must consider the case of Cesar Izturis, who had TJ surgery in 2005 and last year the fans say he sported an arm that was a little better than Stephen Drew‘s and a little worse than Jason Bartlett‘s. Izturis had surgery on 9/16/2005 and returned in mid-June 2006. Aviles had his surgery 9/07/2009.
The normal caveats apply. This is is the Royals, we have no idea what’s going on at second base with Alberto Callaspo and Chris Getz (a post for another time), and every recovering arm is different, but in the interest of being unequivocal: By mid-June Mike Aviles should be starting at shortstop for the Royals.
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