Starter: Scooter Gennett
Backup: Jeff Bianchi, Elian Herrera
Trade Limbo: Rickie Weeks
AAA depth: Hector Gomez
The Future: Somebody who washes out from shortstop at the right time.
The fascinating thing about Rickie Weeks isn’t his incredible decline, but that he was briefly so productive in the first place.
In 2010, Rickie Weeks was worth 5.8 wins above a replacement (a/k/a typical minor-league) player. In 2013, Weeks was no better than a minor-league player, and technically a bit worse.
Yet, there really isn’t much difference between the general approach of All-Star Rickie Weeks and What’s-Left-Of Rickie Weeks. Consider:
2010 Rickie and 2013 Rickie have much in common. Both walk at an average rate, strike out a bit too much, don’t hit enough line drives, and struggle to get the bat on the ball.
2010 Rickie had two advantages, though: he had excellent luck dropping balls in play, generating a .332 BABIP. He also had extraordinary results on fly balls, putting 17% of them over the fence, one of the best in the league. He has struggled to reproduce that rate since then, and even struggled to capitalize on it in 2010, given his relatively average Isolated Power (ISO).
Rickie’s peak culminated in an All-Star performance in 2011, but ever since his ankle injury that summer, Rickie has struggled to recapture his magic. Even the baseball projection systems have largely given up on him, seeing him as a substandard contributor going forward.
More important for our purposes, the Brewers seem to have given up on Rickie too. Ron Roenicke made no secret of his belief over the winter that Scooter Gennett was the front runner for the second-base job. That talk quieted a bit as Spring Training got underway, but an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this past weekend left little doubt that the Brewers view Rickie Weeks primarily as trade bait and are hoping that some desperate team takes him off their hands.
Why the need to switch? Much of it has to do with Scooter Gennett’s ridiculous production over 230 plate appearances in 2013. Gennett provided solid defense, a wRC+ of 131, and was worth just shy of two wins all by himself, in just one-third of a season. Here are the peripherals for Gennett’s sublime 2013, as compared to those of Rickie Weeks:
Gennett struck out far less, minimized ground balls, smoked line drives, and generally shattered the low expectations that traditionally have surrounded him.
Gennett is unlikely to similarly exceed expectations in 2014. In the past two years, Gennett was slightly below-average at AA Huntsville and AAA Nashville, two leagues with run environments that should have revealed any special batting talents. Gennett also has a diminutive frame, refuses to take a walk, and enjoyed a .380 average on balls in play last year, an achievement that dwarfs even the luck enjoyed by All-Star Rickie in 2010. Gennett also struggled to hit lefties, although the sample size was small. On balance, the projection systems think Gennett will be equal or better to Rickie Weeks in 2014, which is not saying much.
And that’s where the money comes in. Because even if Rickie is a better player than Gennett this year, he almost certainly won’t be $10 million better, which is their salary differential for 2014. The Brewers have made quite a show of saying that 2014 is their highest payroll ever, but it’s a good bet they plan to grab some of it back by trading Weeks whenever he reaches his highest value. That’s a shame, because Weeks seems to be the consummate pro. But, fans who believe in allegiance to declining talent need to cheer for the Phillies, not the Brewers.
If and when Weeks is traded, it is possible that Gennett will bring some of his 2013 magic back with him this season. Last year, Gennett was unusually good at hitting pitches inside the strike zone, and did well outside the strike zone as well. Gennett also limited ground balls, and most importantly, was a line drive machine. Line drives are by far the most productive hits in baseball, and it is not that surprising to see a solid contact hitter generating so many. Many of these skills that Gennett showed tend to stick around from year to year, so Gennett very well may produce again.
Best Case Scenario:
Weeks and Gennett platoon well into the season, with Weeks providing league-average performance against lefty pitching, and Gennett destroying right-handed pitching. Weeks is eventually traded for some salary relief and a young prospect with upside. Gennett finishes the season with above-average production, giving the Brewers a solid 4+ wins from the position on the season.
Worst Case Scenario:
Weeks is traded for a song, and Gennett returns to his under-achieving minor-league self. His replacement-level performance is one of the reasons the Brewers fall short of the postseason.
Most Likely Scenario:
Weeks is traded before April is out, and Gennett provides solid defense, baserunning, and, yes, batting production through 2013.
How will Gennett perform? I think it likely that Gennett, at the tender age of 23, started to bloom last year. While he is probably not as good as his 2013 results, a simple regression accounts for the fact that he likely will end up closer to major league average, while still recognizing that his 2013 production probably reflects some emerging skill, and a possible breakout.
Last year, Gennett had 230 plate appearances. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Tom Tango and friends explained that if you want to regress a player’s batting production toward their likely true skill, you can add the average batter’s production to the major league production they did give you, until you get to 440 total plate appearances.
Gennett’s regressed offensive production would amount to a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .342. That would make him not only one of the league’s better second-basemen, but also provide a solid three-win contribution, and help the Brewers keep the postseason in sight.
Gennett PECOTA projection: .245 True Average (1 win above replacement)
Gennett ZiPS projection: .306 wOBA (1.4 wins above replacement)
Weeks PECOTA projection: .269 True Average (.9 wins above replacement)
Weeks ZiPS projection: .326 wOBA (1.3 wins above replacement)
All data from Fangraphs, except for PECOTA projections, which are courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.
The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is a must-read for any informed baseball fan. It was recently re-released on Kindle, and is always available in paperback.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.
This week on Disciples of Uecker:
3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position
3/11: Curt previewed first base