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2013 Indians Player Preview: Lou Marson

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 continue our look at the bench with the Tribe’s backup catcher: Lou Marson.

Background: The Philadelphia Phillies picked Marson, now 26, out of high school with their fourth-round pick in the 2004 MLB amateur draft. He became known for his strong defense, and after an offensive breakout in his age-22 season (.849 OPS with Double-A Reading) he made his MLB debut in 2008 and earned the No. 66 spot on Baseball America‘s 2009 Top 100 Prospects list. He came to Cleveland along with Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, and Carlos Carrasco in the July 2009 trade that sent Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to Philadelphia.

Last year: Marson enjoyed perhaps the best season of his career in 2012. Though most agreed his usually stellar defense took a step back, he enjoyed his finest offensive season in three full years with Cleveland. His .226/.348/.287 triple-slash and zero home runs in 70 games hardly struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, but his 87 wRC+ suggested that he had a fine bat for a second-string catcher. His power was anemic, as usual (.062 ISO), but he largely made up for it with an eye-popping 15 percent walk rate.

FanGraphs estimated Marson’s 2012 performance as worth 0.5 wins above replacement in less than half a season’s worth of playing time, while Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus saw him as approximately replacement level.

Key factor: Walks. There’s probably little point in hoping Marson will develop any semblance of power, but that won’t stop him from continuing to find gainful employment if he keeps getting on base. His over-15 percent walk rate in 2012 represented more than a six-percent bump from 2011—a boost fueled by his swinging at by far the fewest bad pitches in baseball among hitters with at least as many plate appearances.

He’s always been known as a patient hitter and his minor-league numbers suggest that he can maintain a double-digit walk rate, but he’d never been this selective for this long in the majors before. Whether or not he can keep it up will be interesting to watch over the course of the season.

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

The Oliver projections seem to assume Marson is taking HGH.

Best-case scenario: Marson maintains his gaudy walk rates, rediscovers what he lost defensively, and finally grows into some respectable power. He emerges as an above-average catcher and sneaks into 100 games, giving Carlos Santana the chance to rest his knees at first base and thus helping Terry Francona keep Nick Swisher and his outfielders fresher. He becomes the most valuable second-string backstop in baseball.

Worst-case scenario: Marson’s plate discipline improvements from last year were a fluke, but his lapsed defense wasn’t. Combine that with his continued inability to hit for power and by midsummer it becomes clear that the only reason Marson is on the roster is that he can play catcher—a prerequisite that Yan Gomes also meets.

What to expect: It’s unreasonable to expect Marson to continue to walk more than one out of every seven times he steps to the plate, but by the same token it’s quite plausible that a player in his mid-20’s will add a modicum of power. Look for something like the ZiPS projection out of Marson for 2013.

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