Who's going to bust out as a star this year, and who's simply going to bust? Before the start of the regular season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are picking 10 players (five from each league) who appear to be headed for breakout seasons and 10 players likely to be disappointments. Be sure to bookmark these articles so you can tell them how wrong they were in September.
Yesterday, Cliff Corcoran previewed his choice of five potential breakout players in the American League. Today, I turn to the concept's darker flip side: five AL picks that I believe will be busts, players whose overall performances—defense as well as offense—will be drags on their teams.
Such an exercise can quickly devolve into shooting fish in a barrel, but this is a quintet of veterans who do have some track records of success in the majors, are being counted on to occupy significant jobs and are not already obviously injured. I'm excluding from consideration any player who already slipped below replacement level last year; you can mentally append "oh, and Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez" to this list if you like.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers
Castellanos has spent the past two seasons occupying the hot corner in Detroit, combining modest power, subpar plate discipline and brutal defense. But he offers hope that he's still young enough (24 as of March 4) to turn the corner and deliver on the promise that led the Tigers to make him a supplemental first-round pick back in 2010. Last year, Castellanos hit .255/.303/.419 with 15 homers and a 98 OPS+, digging himself out of an early-season funk; he hit just .233/.280/.349 with four homers through June but .275/.323/.481 with 11 homers thereafter.
The problem with buying into the notion that he turned the corner in the second half is a homerless September in which he whiffed 33 times and drew just four free passes in 112 plate appearances, the latest manifestation of his problems controlling the strike zone. Overall, he whiffed 152 times (26%) and walked just 39 times (6.6%), rates on par with his 2014 rookie season. He was utterly manhandled by same-side pitching, batting just .230/.277/.379 against righties for an OPS 314 points lower than that against lefties after a more-or-less even platoon split in 2014. Beyond that, Castellanos is so lacking in speed that he cost himself six runs between running the bases (he was 0 for 3 on steals and supbar in other advancement) and grounding into double plays, further chipping away at his offensive contributions.
Then there’s the matter of his fielding. He was a ridiculous 30 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved as a rookie, enough to plunge him to -1.4 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version), and while he improved last year, it was only to -9 DRS; via Ultimate Zone Rating, the "uptick" was from -18 to -10. Though he doesn't make many errors, Castellanos’s lack of range was described by Baseball Prospectus 2016 as "someone pushing a statue on a dolly." Overlooking the fact that Tigers manager Brad Ausmus already plans to open the season with Miguel Cabrera at third base—a plan that may be revisited in the wake of Victor Martinez's hamstring tweak—Castellanos just isn't likely to improve at the position enough to boost his modest offense, and yet the Tigers don't have any other real alternatives.
C.J. Cron, DH, Angels
Any one of a number of Halos could have wound up here, but picking on Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols is unsporting given their injury situations, and it's difficult to believe the team will give a long leash to Daniel Nava after he sank below replacement level last year. Thus my focus is on the 26-year-old Cron, who could start the year at first base if Pujols's recovery from foot surgery bumps him to the disabled list and who at the very least will be the team's regular designated hitter.
A 2011 first-round pick out of the University of Utah, Cron has bashed 27 homers in 657 plate appearances over the past two seasons, both of which have also included significant time in Triple A. Unfortunately, that power is the alpha and omega of the 6’4” slugger’s contributions. He's hit a combined .260/.296/.444 over those two years—a subpar showing for a DH/first-base type, and one that hints at just how hacktastic he is. His 4.1% walk rate is in a virtual tie for the fifth lowest among the 148 AL players with at least 600 plate appearances over the past two seasons, and his 5.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 40.4 % rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone both rank eighth. As for his defense (which will be counted on more than ever given Pujols's declining condition), in 94 games at first base, he's already accumulated -10 DRS, tied with Jose Abreu—who played 1,263 more innings in that span. The Angels are working with Cron on his defense, but the whole package just won't be enough to justify regular playing time.
Yovani Gallardo, SP, Orioles
Though he pitched to a 3.42 ERA with 4.1 WAR for the AL West-winning Rangers last year, Gallardo's performance offered significant yellow or red flags, and those concerns have only grown now that the 30-year-old righty has moved on to Baltimore. While Gallardo made 33 starts—his seventh year in a row with at least 30—he averaged fewer innings per turn (5.6) than in any of those previous seasons. His 36% quality-start rate was far below his previous career mark of 64%, and he lasted six innings in just two out of his final 16 turns. What's more, his strikeout rate fell for the third straight season, this time to 5.9 per nine, and coupled with his rising walk rate (3.3 per nine, up from 2.8), he wound up with a career-worst 1.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
To his credit, Gallardo did post good numbers despite pitching half his innings at hitter-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington, and over the past three seasons, he's boosted his ground-ball rate into the 49–51% range to offset his falling strikeout rate. Still, the move to Camden Yards and the AL East will be no picnic, particularly if his rate of home runs per fly ball (8.8%) regresses towards his career mark of 11.0. Last year's xFIP, which incorporates a league-average home-run-to-fly-ball rate while using his strikeout and walk rates, comes in at 4.32, almost a run higher than his ERA.
As if Gallardo didn't already have concerns, the Orioles—who already have no shortage of question marks in their rotation and who are notoriously finicky when it comes to physical exams—were concerned enough about the condition of his shoulder that what was initially a three-year, $35 million deal was restructured into a two-year, $22 million deal with a $13 million option and $2 million buyout for 2018 and as much as $6.25 million deferred if the option is picked up. The late signing won't help matters, either.
Ian Kennedy, SP, Royals
Kennedy's five-year, $70 million deal could be one of the winter's biggest clunkers, as the 31-year-old righty is still getting by on memories of his big 2011 season. Since then, pitching in environments as disparate as Arizona and San Diego, he's posted a 4.19 ERA (85 ERA+), 4.06 FIP and 1.2 homers per nine, averaging 190 innings and 0.5 WAR per year and slipping below replacement level in two of four seasons. In 2015, he hit that 85 ERA+ mark right on the nose, posting a 4.28 ERA and 4.51 FIP in 168 1/3 innings—a total held down by an April hamstring strain—en route to -0.4 WAR.
While Kennedy's strikeout and walk rates were good (9.3 and 2.8 per nine, respectively), his 1.7 homers per nine was the majors' highest mark among ERA qualifiers, and his 17.2% rate of home runs per fly ball was far enough beyond his career mark of 10.7% to be written off as a fluke; his xFIP of 3.70 was serviceable. The Royals are banking that the move to Kauffman Stadium—where batters hit just 130 homers (36 fewer than Petco Park)—will help to normalize his homer rate, and that top defensive outfielders Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson will minimize the damage on the endless stream of fly balls that Kennedy generates (he hasn't posted a ground-ball rate above 40% since 2008). Perhaps the reunion with former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland will pay off, but from here, this seems like an all-too-pricey bet on a proven mediocrity that the Royals will be obligated to keep on a long leash.
Kurt Suzuki, C, Twins
When the Twins traded for Yankees backup John Ryan Murphy back in November, it looked as though the going-on-25-year-old backstop (who hit .277/.327/.406 in 172 PA last year) would get a chance at a starting job—something he had no shot at so long as Brian McCann remained healthy in New York. That buzz has since worn off, as manager Paul Molitor has clarified that Suzuki is still his starter.
While the 32-year-old veteran gets high marks for his leadership and handling of the pitching staff, the numbers on Suzuki are just brutal. After hitting a solid .288/.345/.383 for a career-best 105 OPS+ in 2014 (a performance that earned him All-Star honors for the only time in his nine-year career), Suzuki slipped to .240/.296/.314 for a 67 OPS+ last year. He owns a 79 OPS+ for the past four seasons even including that strong 2014 showing. His defense is no great shakes, either. His 15% caught-stealing rate was the lowest of any AL catcher with at least 600 innings and marked his third straight season below the league average. Via Baseball Prospectus, his -8.8 framing runs ranked 62nd out of 66 catchers with at least 1,000 chances—the seventh year out of eight he's been in the red, the last five of which have been by an average of 11 runs. By comparison, Murphy threw out 28% of would-be base thieves and was roughly average at framing (-0.7 runs).
Perhaps the Twins' choice of starter makes sense on an intangible level at the moment, but they’d likely be better off making the switch. The aspects of catching that can be measured place them in a hole if they stand by Suzuki.