The Mystery of the 5th Outfielder
With Spring Training entering the middle stages, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered. Who will be the 5th starter? Will Freddy Sanchez be good to go come April? Can Edgar Renteria rebound now that he’s healthy? Among these, one of the more hotly debated topics is that of the illustrious 5th outfielder.
The starting outfield is already firmly established with Mark DeRosa slated to start in left, Aaron Rowand in center, and Nate Schierholtz in right. With four guys competing for the final two outfield spots, chances to make the team out of camp are dwindling. The three candidates for these spots, Eugenio Velez, John Bowker, Andres Torres, and Fred Lewis, each bring something unique to the table in terms of skill set.
With Velez you get a guy who can run, play sub-par defense at multiple positions, and has little to no plate discipline to speak of. This being so, he of course was a regular down the stretch last season, oftentimes asked to assume the role of lead-off hitter. The biggest thing he has going for him is the 65 at-bats he hit well in upon his call-up in 2009, as well as that fact that Bruce Bochy likes to take small sample sizes and give them more meaning than they deserve. At the age of 27, Velez is still very raw in terms of his skillset. And this would be fine…if he were about five years younger. By the time you hit your late 20’s as a big leaguer, the hope is that you’ve figured some things out by then. Watching the guy play though, it’s hard to not to notice that he still looks fairly lost on defense and makes a lot of mistakes on the basepaths.
Which brings us to Fred Lewis. The perception of Lewis is that he takes wacky routes to balls in the outfield while lacking that certain “je ne sais quoi” that “real” ballplayers seem to possess. The reality here is that Lewis is actually an above-average defender in left, and a perfectly average one in center and right. His career UZR in left field (Zone rating that measures effectiveness on defense with 0 being about average) is 11.5, while his ratings in CF and RF are -1.7 and -3.1 respectively. In terms of his bat, Lewis is one of the better hitters we have in terms of plate discipline, with a slight drop-off last season putting him in Bruce Bochy’s doghouse. The caveat with Freddie is the fact that he’s out of options, so him not making the team out of camp probably means some other team will swoop in and take him off waivers.
The biggest candidate for demotion right now is John Bowker, due solely to the fact that he has a minor option remaining. In some ways I’m all for this in the sense that it means Bowker will be getting regular at-bats in Fresno. At the same time, he’s also a very good hitter with a bat that I think can play at the big league level. It’s hard to ignore the massive improvements he made under the tutelage of Hensley Meulens in AAA last season, reducing his K% by 7% from 2008, and almost tripling his BB%. Given 400+ AB’s in the big leagues, CHONE predicts that Bowker would hit .276/.349/.456 with 15 homers, stats that makes him the second-best hitter on the 2009 roster. It’s a tough call rooting for that production to rot at AAA for at least the first half of the season (something that Buster Posey can probably sympathize with as well).
The final candidate, Andres Torres brings with him stellar defensive play, smart baserunning, and an ability to absolutely crush left-handed pitching. Against lefties last year, the 30 year-old outfielder put up a line of .338/.397/.718, compared to his .210/.297/.370 line against righties. It’s great that he can mash with the best of them when it comes to hitting southpaws, but the platoon splits are little too drastic for my tastes. His defense on the other hand, is all good, with above-average numbers at every outfield position (7.8 UZR in 2009). He’s the ideal late-inning defensive replacement, but it all depends on how much you’re willing to sacrifice for such a pigeon-holed kind of role. Is it worth losing Fred Lewis to another team? Or is it worth losing John Bowker’s bat?
In the end it’s a tough decision for anyone to make. I’d send Velez to AAA without hesitation, but from there it gets difficult to make a judgment call. Lewis needs to stay on the 25-man roster just to keep him a Giant, so that one should be a no-brainer. From there it’s between Torres and Bowker for the final spot. Because of Bowker’s remaining option and Lewis’ struggles against left-handed pitching, Torres is a guy that fits in nicely. In the late innings of a ballgame it also helps to have a guy patrolling the outfield who can run down those drives to the warning track. Bowker spending a few more months in Fresno wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, especially due to the fact that if Torres or Lewis get hurt or flop, he’s a simple call-up away from filling in, no harm no foul. At least in a perfect world.