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2013 Indians Player Preview: Mike Aviles

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we head to the bench for the first time with the Indians’ 2013 utility infielder: Mike Aviles.

Background: The Kansas City Royals drafted Aviles out of Concordia College-Bronxville in the seventh round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft—the same round as Brendan Ryan and Kyle Kendrick. After bursting onto the scene by hitting .325 and finishing fourth in the 2008 AL Rookie of the Year voting, Aviles underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009 and hasn’t been quite the same since. The Royals dealt him to Boston at the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline, and he was traded twice this winter: to the Blue Jays in the John Farrell deal and then to the Tribe in the Esmil Rogers trade.

Last year: Let’s just say Aviles should be grateful for his glove. Aviles was awful at the plate in 2012, hitting .250/.282/.381 (26 percent worse than the average MLB hitter, per wRC+) with 10 home runs, 57 runs scored, 60 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. He walked just 23 times in 546 plate appearances, his power took a dip (.131 ISO, down from .154 in 2011), and his BABIP sat at just .269—it’s possible that that indicates bad luck, but given the rest of his performance it seems like that he just wasn’t making good contact. He was generally thought to be a good fielder and most of the sabermetric stats loved his defense (DRS had him at +14 runs at shortstop), though FRAA had him at merely average for a shortstop.

Thanks to Aviles’ positional value and strong defense, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference estimated his value at 1.8 and 2.0 wins above replacement, respectively, despite his awful performance at the plate; even Baseball Prospectus, whose defensive assessment was more conservative, had him at a respectable 1.1 WARP.

Key factor: Defense. Despite his reputation as a strong fielder, Aviles’ track record in the field is far from solid. FRAA saw him as merely an average defender in 2012; UZR and DRS were far more optimistic, but this followed three straight years of negative ratings. It’s possible that he’s simply more comfortable at shortstop than at second or third base, but that wouldn’t bode well for a utility infielder. What Aviles’ true defensive talent really is will be the difference between his being a true asset off the bench or just a run-of-the-mill replacement.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

These projections aren’t wildly different from each other except in their expectations for Aviles’ playing time. Note that all four projections see him as closer to a league-average hitter than the offensive liability he was in 2012.

Best-case scenario: A return to 2008 is too much to expect, but a bounceback to 2010 levels isn’t totally out of the question for the soon-to-be 32-year-old infielder. Aviles shows that his low BABIPs from 2011 and 2012 were flukes and makes a run at hitting .300 while playing solid defense all over the diamond. It’s not a stretch to call him the most impactful bench player in all of baseball.

Worst-case scenario: The expected regression to the mean fails to materialize and it becomes clear that Aviles simply is no longer a legitimate MLB hitter. His 2012 defensive performance turns out to be a fluke and he fails to play any position very well. Aviles’ only asset proves to be his versatility and he isn’t worth keeping on the roster.

What to expect: Aviles isn’t as bad as he looked in 2012, but he’ll be the weak link in the lineup whenever he plays. Used correctly, he’ll be a huge asset in 2013, but he won’t be much more than a role player for the Tribe.

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