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The High-Variance All-Stars

Breaking down the thin line between being the one who makes, or breaks, his team

It’s easy to fall in love with labels. We want to know which starting pitchers can be properly classified as aces. Which non-contributing players can be described as scrubs. Which elite players count as superstars.

Sometimes, these labels are easy. Roy Halladay is an ace, and a superstar. Neifi Perez may have played 1,400 games in the majors and made $21 million,1 but he was also the quintessential scrub.

But there exists a subset of player for whom labels are futile. Age, injuries, job status, or general doubts about their ability make these players near-50/50 bets to either deliver negligible value … or play like borderline MVP candidates. These are the High-Variance All-Stars — players whose 2012 forecasts are so spread out that they could swing fantasy leagues, even decide the World Series.

We broke down these players by categories, with Wins Above Replacement totals included on each player for the past three seasons:

The Phenoms Without a Job: Bryce Harper (n/a), Mike Trout (0.8).
Harper and Trout were unanimous picks by prospect mavens as two of the top three rookie-eligible players in the game. But both were far from sure things to crack their big league clubs out of spring training, Harper because of his age (19) and lack of experience (just 37 games played above Single-A), Trout because of his own youth as well as the Angels’ surplus of outfield and DH candidates. Both players have since run into further obstacles: A calf problem has kept Harper out of the Nats’ lineup,2 while Trout has battled a nasty flu that has seen him lose 10 pounds and stapled him to the bench.

Even if both players start the year in the minors, the potential is there for massive contributions once they do come up. The Angels might be juggling the likes of Bobby Abreu and Vernon Wells for playing time, but neither player is good enough to block Trout once the Angels deem their potential star outfielder ready for the show. Same goes for the Nats — Harper isn’t a natural center fielder, but he could be a huge upgrade over banjo hitter Roger Bernadina, especially in a pennant race. And that’s the thing with both these players: The Angels and Nats both have playoff aspirations this season (especially with the added wild-card slot). Trout and Harper may well be the final pieces that put both teams over the top. Or they could be afterthoughts if the Angels and Nats decide to keep their prized prospects on the farm.

The Entire Twins Roster: Joe Mauer (7.9, 5.5, 1.6), Justin Morneau (3.6, 5.1, -0.3), Francisco Liriano (1.1, 6.0, 1.0). Not quite the whole roster, though it may have seemed like it last year. For Mauer and Morneau, it’s achingly simple — stay healthy, and good things could happen. In both cases, that could be easier said than done. The weakness in Mauer’s legs might force the Twins to choose between keeping him at catcher and benefiting from his way-above-average performance only when his health allows, or moving him to another position to keep his bat in the lineup. That’s before we mention that Mauer’s 2009 outburst of 28 homers may well prove to be an outlier that he never sniffs again. Morneau’s maladies are even more severe, with lingering concussion symptoms raising questions about whether he can ever again play something approaching a full season, let alone return to his old MVP form. That Mauer’s value fell by more than six wins over a two-year stretch, and Morneau’s by more than five wins from one year to the next, tells you everything you need to know about the duo’s volatility. Liriano did have a sore shoulder derail his 2011 campaign, but he’s always been wildly unpredictable, going from a 2006 rookie season in which he struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings with a 2.16 ERA to missing all of 2007 and part of 2008, to a lackluster 2009, a monster 2010, then more injuries last year. When Liriano’s on and at 100 percent, his slider is nuclear, his potential explosive. But good luck figuring out which Liriano you’re going to get.

The Mystery Man: Yoenis Cespedes (n/a). You could count on one hand the number of spring training games more anticipated over the past few years than Cespedes’s debut on Saturday. The Cuban sensation parlayed a world of raw talent (and the greatest athlete promotional video of all time) into a $36 million deal with the A’s. Still, the baseball world stewed over what Oakland has on its hands until Cespedes finally got his first chance to prove himself last weekend. He didn’t disappoint, drawing a walk, lacing a single, and smashing a home run in his three plate appearances. The A’s have 642 outfielders in camp this spring, but none of them wields the kind of potential that Cespedes does. Many speculated that he’d start the year in the minors and get a couple months of seasoning before coming up, his lack of experience in North American pro ball trumping his old-for-a-prospect age of 26. If he keeps producing this spring, though, we could be talking about a full-time player who goes 20-20 (or better) and makes the A’s enormously fun to watch … even if their playoff hopes range from slim to none.

The Kobe: Alex Rodriguez (4.3, 3.8, 4.2). Just glancing at A-Rod’s WAR results over the past three years, you’d think he’s settled in as a good-but-not-great player going through the kind of skills erosion you’d expect from a former star progressing his 30s. In reality, Rodriguez has remained a very good hitter when he’s been in the lineup (albeit not as dominant as he was in his prime), but also unable to stay upright for a full season. Having missed 126 games over the past three seasons, he took two aggressive steps to try to improve his health: First, he went to Germany to seek the same treatment for his knee that Kobe Bryant pursued. He also worked with Dr. Mike Clark, the chief executive officer of the National Academy of Sports Medicine who’s helped extend the careers of Steve Nash, Grant Hill, and other NBA players. Even in the best-case scenario, it’s tough to see A-Rod reverting to the .400 wOBA form he showed earlier in his career. But a healthy Rodriguez playing 140 games could be a difference-maker for one of this year’s leading candidates to win the World Series.

The Adam Dunn: Adam Dunn (1.1, 3.5, -2.9). It’s entirely possible that what Dunn did last year is without precedent in baseball history. For seven years, Dunn was one of the game’s most consistent hitters, cranking exactly 40 homers four years in a row, never going above 46 or below 38 during that seven-year stretch, and posting wOBA marks between .379 and .403 in six of those seven seasons. Signed by the White Sox to a four-year deal after the 2010 season, Dunn was expected to continue his metronomic power, heading to a homer-friendly park and DH-ing every team, thus sparing his team the agony of watching him in the field.

Then he collapsed. It wasn’t just any collapse, either. Dunn set the record for lowest batting average in a season by any batter with as many plate appearances (496), hitting a ludicrously low .159. He slugged just .277 and posted an ugly .292 OBP. Dunn’s final output of -2.9 WAR tied for the third-worst season by any position player in the past 50 years.3 Dunn’s batting average on balls in play, a stat that often fluctuates due to little more than dumb luck, dived 89 points to .240 (league average was a shade under .300). That BABIP dive might’ve been due to more than random chance, though: Dunn’s power evaporated (11 homers, a career low that even undercut his rookie-season total of 19 … in 66 games); 13.2 percent of his balls in play were infield pop-ups, Dunn’s highest number in eight years; just 9.6 percent of his fly balls went for home runs, undercutting his next-lowest HR/FB result (17.6 percent) by a mile. Dunn also posted a career-high strikeout rate of 35.7 percent, the whiffiest mark in baseball last year. So he made less contact than ever before, and hit the ball with less authority than ever before.

Dunn’s never going to be a five-win player given the position he plays and his lumbering base running. But unless Dunn hid some crippling injury all year long, it’s hard to imagine such a dominant hitter completely losing it from one year to the next. Still just 32 years old, Dunn could rebound with a typical power season … or put up another year where he’s worse — much worse — than a player the White Sox can practically pick up off the street.

The Pitchers on the Mend: Johan Santana (2.6, 3.5, 0.0), Adam Wainwright (5.7, 6.1, 0.0), Clay Buchholz (1.3, 3.8, 1.1). Between them, Santana, Wainwright, and Buchholz made just 14 starts last year … and all of them were by Buchholz. Wainwright has the most upside of the trio, coming off two seasons in which he earned Cy Young consideration before missing all of last year with Tommy John surgery; TJ recovery times and recovery success rates have improved greatly over the years, and Wainwright is pitching pretty well this spring, suggesting he might be the surest bet of the three as well. Buchholz’s career strikeout-to-walk rate of 1.9-to-1 shows he still has work to do to approach elite level, even if he does return to full strength after last year’s back injury — a league-average or worse season is possible even with 200 innings, as is a five-WAR campaign. Santana is the biggest wild card of all, just one year removed from 199 innings and a 3.54 FIP, but he’s also coming off a shoulder injury that knocked him out back in September 2010, with his first start finally coming on Sunday. Wainwright and Buchholz play for potential World Series teams who’ll sorely need their production. Mark down Santana as a deep fantasy sleeper, but don’t expect him to hoist a World Series trophy at Citi Field this year, even if his arm makes it all the way back.

The Third-Year Wonders: Buster Posey (4.0, 1.7), Jason Heyward (5.1, 2.2). Posey and Heyward were electric in their rookie 2010 campaigns, cementing themselves as instant stars. Both suffered debilitating injuries last year that curtailed their seasons: Posey getting knocked out in a home-plate collision so violent it triggered weeks of heated debates over a potential rule change, and Heyward seeing his prolific power sapped by a shoulder injury that plagued him for much of the year. Time supposedly heals all wounds, and both players are back in their respective lineups this spring. Heyward plays a less demanding defensive position and doesn’t have a shattered leg to overcome the way Posey does, so he’s probably a better bet for a big year. In both cases, anything between a one- and six-win season could be on the table.

The Walk-Year Case: David Wright (3.6, 4.0, 1.9). Between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Wright was the third-most-valuable player in baseball, hitting an aggregate .313/.403/.540 with excellent defense and ranking behind only Albert Pujols and Chase Utley in WAR (Alex Rodriguez tied for third). In baseball terms, four or five years ago is an eternity, and you’d normally be reluctant to even look at numbers going back that far. But Wright and the Mets went through a big change after the 2008 season, moving from Shea Stadium (slight pitcher’s park) to can’t-hit-it-out-with-a-rocket-launcher Citi Field. Injuries compounded the problem last year, taking Wright from a sky-high .420 wOBA in 2007 all the way down to .342 in 2011. The Mets finally addressed the issue this offseason, lowering the outfield fences in spots and also moving them closer to home plate.

Still just 29 years old, Wright could benefit from a more power-friendly environment. He’s also entering what could be the final year of his contract, depending on whether the Mets pick up his $16 million club option in 2013 or that option gets voided should the Mets elect to trade Wright. There’s a common perception in sports that players turn it on just before free agency to land a bigger contract. A study in the book Baseball Between the Numbers found that players do see an uptick in performance in their walk years (even after adjusting for age), albeit a minor one. The biggest obstacle for Wright’s attempt to return to star status remains his health: He’s yet to play a game this spring, sidelined with a torn abdominal muscle, though he still expects to be ready by Opening Day. If Wright can shake off this latest injury, he has a chance to put up a big bounce-back season, whether in Queens or somewhere else.

Other High-Variance All-Stars: Pedro Alvarez (promising power burst in his rookie season of 2010, absolutely awful in 2011); Aroldis Chapman (word is he might finally bring that 100-mph fastball to the big league rotation); the Daniel Bard/Neftali Feliz/Aaron Crow/Chris Sale axis of converted relievers; Ike Davis (big 2011 numbers in an injury-plagued season, now battling Valley Fever); Lance Berkman (looked washed up in 2010, hit like an MVP last year).

Notable omissions: Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki (too old to have major upside at this stage), Grady Sizemore (too much injury risk to expect anything much).

Filed Under: Magazines, Star

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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