Friday, 12 July 2013

This Week In Making My Second Base Predictions Look Foolish: Brett Lawrie?

Sometimes when I find myself with the free time to sit down and write something it's a bit of a chore to come up with a topic. This was not one of those times. For days now, the Blue Jays corner of the Twitterverse has been abuzz with just two topics and now that #TheBarHasBeenRaised (my sincerest congratulations to Steve Delabar) it's all about Brett Lawrie. Specifically, it's all about the possibility of Brett Lawrie playing at second base when he returns from his current rehab stint with the Buffalo Bisons during which he has, and will reportedly continue to be, a second baseman. He also spent a bit of time at the two bag while rehabbing from the rib injury he sustained in the spring. While the team maintains that nothing is imminent with either a pending trade or permanent position change, Gibbons has been very supportive of Lawrie's potential at second base, saying "[Lawrie] is an above-average third baseman as it is. But you look at his physical abilities, he's got a chance to be a great second baseman too. You look at the range factor and things like that, and it might be a nice combo, him and Jose up the middle for a few years." Hmm...

Reactions to the potential move have been mixed. On the one hand, the thinking goes, the Blue Jays moved him off second base for a reason and he's developed into an elite defensive third baseman whose cannon of an arm would largely be wasted at second. On the other, the Jays have been suffering an offensive black hole at second base so Lawrie couldn't help but be an upgrade, and the same range that makes him so great at third would also play very well at the keystone sack. Personally, I don't think that either viewpoint does the possibility justice because the move doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's not all about Lawrie and where he would be best, but rather about the team and how they can maximize all of their assets, so let's look at how moving Lawrie to second might help them do that.

For starters, positional versatility is never a bad thing, and I feel like Lawrie's value is similar, if not higher, at second base than it is at third. Sure his arm is "wasted" (although I'm sure Brandon Phillips and his patented double play from the knees would disagree), but second base is considered a more difficult position on the defensive spectrum so his range there is potentially even more valuable than his arm is at third. It's easy to understand why Gibbons might be salivating over a Lawrie/Reyes middle infield. It's tough to imagine a more athletic double play combo and the move would probably be worth it just for their nightly contributions to the highlight reel. If they're going to find out about Lawrie at second, I can't help but feel that now is a pretty good time to do it. The rehab assignments have given them the opportunity to see him at the position with nothing on the line, and their current lack of offense from the position has given them a great justification for the experiment. I agree that they moved him off the position for a reason, but I believe (with admittedly no first hand knowledge of the situation) that it had a lot more to do with their need for a third baseman than with Lawrie's shortcomings at second. He was drafted as a catcher, so even if he was shaky at second before his move to third, I would imagine all the work he has put in to become an elite infield defender will translate very well at the present time.

It's true that there is a greater concern with injury at second, with hard sliding players crashing into his back as he tries to turn a double play, and Lawrie hasn't exactly demonstrated a great regard for his own health and well being so far in his career. To me, this is probably the best argument against moving him over to second. However, the dude is a tank with a temper and would likely give as good as he got, for better or worse. This doesn't change the fact that second basemen have a tendency to break down quicker than third basemen, but if someone took liberties with him they'd probably only do it once because there would be a high hard tag waiting for them next time and if injuries became a concern he can always be moved back to third. I just have a hard time believing that a ball player built the way he is can continue to be so injury prone. With the exception of the two rib injuries, his others have all been pretty clearly caused by freak incidents or incredibly poor decisions and haven't been chronic (unless you consider poor decisions chronic). At least he's further from any camera bays at second right? That's my own baseless speculation on the matter at least. I'm not a doctor. What the hell do I know?

So let's say we call the defense a wash because his arm isn't as much a factor at second, but his range is more valuable. Since second base is a more challenging defensive position than third the offensive expectations are less, so the offense he would provide at second would stack up far better against his peers at the position than it is likely to at third. League average wOBA for second basemen this season is .304, and at third base the average is .320. So far this season Lawrie has posted just a .280 wOBA, but given his non-existent spring training and the fact that the team admits that they rushed him back from injury, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that he regresses back towards something like his career .330 wOBA. If he does, he's above average at either position, but way more above average at second than third. Given the league wide shortage of quality second base talent, it should be a lot easier to upgrade the offense in other ways than it would be to go out and find a second baseman.

I still don't think it makes much sense to move him unless it coincides with another addition to the team. Swapping Izturis and Lawrie might upgrade the middle infield defense (and I say might because we really don't know yet, it might be a total failure) but it doesn't do anything for the offense. What it does do, however, is allow Anthopoulos to search for upgrades at positions that should be much easier to fill. Most likely this would mean third base, but it could also mean in the outfield or a 1B/DH type of bat. I'm not too interested in getting into specific players, because I feel like trade speculation is almost always pointless guesswork and I'm a busy guy with little time to waste. Ok that last part wasn't true, but I'm still not going to speculate so don't try to make me!

I think the most likely move would be to look for an upgrade at third base if Lawrie proves himself capable at second and the quest to upgrade the position externally continues to be fruitless. It would be the least disruptive to the rest of the team and would push Izturis to the bench, which I would be totally fine with. I think he's best suited in a utility role anyways, and while he's been turning his season around recently, counting on even league average production going forward is probably an absolute best case scenario. However, if you can have a league average-ish player coming off the bench you're doing alright and it would be a definite upgrade for the Jays in the bench department.

Another possibility would be to find a right fielder and move Bautista to third, but I feel like this probably wouldn't sit to well with Jose who has made no bones about the fact that he considers himself the team's right fielder and would prefer it to stay that way. Also, it only took him two and a half games at the position to hurt himself this year after Lawrie went down with his ankle injury so I'd be hesitant to go that route, at least without a full off-season to prepare his body for the rigours of the position. We know he can play the position though, and he definitely wants to win. I think that if they made a case to him that they could significantly improve the team's chances of winning by moving him to third he'd probably do it, but I'm sure all concerned would rather avoid it.

The third option would be to go out and find a 1B/DH kind of bat, but I find this about as likely as going out and finding a right fielder, if not less. The only way it would really work is if Edwin were pushed into almost full time duty at third base and I'm sure we all remember how that went the last time around. He made some pretty good plays in his 10 games at the position so far this season, but also made a couple of errors. Overall he didn't look too bad, but I fear that if he were to be back there in a full time role we'd start to see more of those familiar E5 throwing errors. But hey, if Miguel Cabrera can make up for his terrible defense at the hot corner with his bat, then so can Edwin. That's not to say that Edwin is nearly as good a hitter as Cabrera, but he's not nearly as bad defensively either. Of course Edwin hasn't seen much action at third since last year's breakout, and there are plenty of armchair psychologists who will tell you that he used to bring his mistakes in the field to the plate with him. Maybe it's true (not that we will ever probably know), but he's in much better shape now and has reason to be far more secure in the fact that he's not going to E5 his way right out of a job now that his offense is so much improved.

I think the first scenario I've mentioned is by far the most likely. Even the lousy Lawrie we've seen so far would be an improvement over the Blue Jays' offensive production from the position so far, but the only way it really makes sense to gamble on the greater risk of injury is if they would also look to upgrade somewhere else around the diamond. Or, if one really wants to be a pessimist, you could assume that the organization has started to suspect that his bat is never going to play at third base and that second is a position at which he can succeed with his great defense and lower offensive expectations. But it's way to early to go there, isn't it?

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