As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to one of the leading candidates to join the Tribe’s bench: Jose Lopez.
Background: The Seattle Mariners signed Lopez as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2000, when he was just 16 years old. He made a name for himself in the minor leagues and placed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 2003 and 2004 before making his MLB debut in 2004 and coming to the big leagues to stay in 2006. The Indians signed him to a minor league deal in December.
Last year: 2011 was not Lopez’ year. He struggled to the tune of a .216/.245/.372 triple-slash (59 wRC+) with 8 home runs, 21 RBI, 23 runs scored and 2 steals in 82 games split roughly evenly between the Colorado Rockies, who traded for him before the season, and the Florida Marlins, who signed him after the Rockies released him midseason. He was flat-out awful with Colorado, hitting .208/.233/.288 with a miserable 31 wRC+. He showed some improvement in Miami, hitting .226/.259/.472, but his huge home/away splits (145 OPS+ at Sun Life Stadium, 84 OPS+ away from it) could mean trouble.
Thanks to his poor hitting and what was consistently rated as declining fielding, FanGraphs (-0.2 wins above replacement), Baseball-Reference (-0.8 WAR), and Baseball Prospectus (-0.8 WARP) all had him below replacement level.
Key factor: Can he hit at all? Lopez, now 28, has never been a very good hitter (even when he hit 25 homers in 2009 his value was hindered by his .303 on-base percentage), but his last two seasons have been particularly miserable—of the 259 batters to have gotten 600 plate appearances since 2010, Lopez’ .263 OBP and 64 wRC+ both rank dead last.
But there is some hope: Lopez showed some improvement in the second half, and he absolutely terrorized Triple-A pitching during his 32-game stint in the minors (.400/.430/.688), though his home/road split is worth noting and his success against second-tier competition could merely suggest that he is a Quad-A player. Another good sign is that, through Wednesday evening, Lopez was hitting .317 with a .900 OPS in spring training—don’t read too much into preseason stats, but a strong performance is a positive no matter how small the sample size.
Lopez isn’t going to keep up his spring training pace in the regular season, let alone his Triple-A performance. But there’s a big difference between playing like the moderately below-average hitter he was for most of his career, which would make him a useful utility man, and the hole in the lineup he’s been for the last two years, in which case he’d be a waste of a roster spot.
Far be it for me to question these projections’ independently reached near-consensus, but I have a hard time accepting these numbers as the most likely scenario for Lopez’ 2012 season. Playing time issues aside (even RotoChamp’s 261 projected plate appearances, the most conservative prediction of Lopez’ in-game opportunities, seems like a stretch). Projecting OPS+’s this high for a hitter who’s been below 72 two years in a row might make sense if Lopez had more upside. But Bill James and ZIPS both see him approaching his career high (103).
It’s reasonable to assume that Lopez will experience a minor rebound in 2012—he’s probably due for at least a little bit of positive regression—but I’m not sure how we could call a bounceback to his prime level of play the expected value.
Best-case scenario: Lopez really has turned over a new leaf. He picks up where he left off in 2008-9, clearing 20 homers and supplementing his subpar on-base ability with power and good contact. He plays solid defense and sees significant time as a late-inning defensive replacement for Jason Kipnis and as Manny Acta’s go-to starter when an infielder needs a day off. It’s the ZIPS projection, but with less playing time (the only way he gets to 562 plate appearances if a starting infielder gets knocked out for the whole season).
Worst-case scenario: It’s 2011 all over again. Lopez makes the team but gets off to a molasses-slow start—after a few weeks, even his slugging percentage is under .300. With a ton of other potential utility infielders waiting in the wings, the Indians quietly release him by mid-May.
Most likely scenario: Lopez will probably make the team out of spring training—he seems to have Manny Acta’s support, and Lonnie Chisenhall‘s demotion means there’s probably room for both him and Jason Donald—but unless someone gets hurt his place on the roster won’t be permanent. I’d be surprised to see his wRC+ hit 80, and with so many better infielders—Cord Phelps, Donald, Chisenhall, Andy LaRoche, Jack Hannahan (once Chisenhall gets called up)—looking for promotions and playing time, the Indians won’t need him for very long.