Are We Sure Brett Lawrie’s A Top-10 Third Baseman?

Title: Are We Sure Brett Lawrie’s A Top-10 Third Baseman?
Date: February 25, 2014
Original Source: Rotographs
Synopsis: This article questioned the top-10 average draft position of third baseman Brett Lawrie on the grounds he hadn’t established that performance level.

Full disclosure: I am hoping against hope that my fellow fantasy writers here at RotoGraphs are correct. I need them to be, really, because I’m looking down the barrel of what could be another disappointing season for the Toronto Blue Jays, and a Brett Lawrie breakout could certainly make things more interesting and tolerable.

But I’m not so sure the consensus should be that Lawrie is a top-10 option at third base. The RotoGraphs consensus third base ranks had Lawrie eighth, with only Pod ranking him outside of the eight-nine range at 15th. He’s currently being selected 12th at the position in Yahoo drafts (where he also has second base eligibility).

As a reminder, Lawrie finished 2013 ranked 29th in value at the hot corner.

The Canadian Red Bull-guzzling ulti-bro had his rank held down some by injuries that limited him to 442 plate appearances over 107 games, but even his 600-plate appearance rates aren’t all that impressive: .254, 15 HR, 56 R, 62 RBI, 12 SB. That would have given him an edge on, say, Chase Headley, but he still would have been outside the top-15 looking in. And it’s not as if assuming a full season of health is reasonable, as Lawrie is yet to play more than 135 games in any season as a pro.

So what’s the cause for such rampant optimism that Lawrie is on the way up?

Well for one, he’s still very young. He’ll enter the season at just 24 years of age and with far more certainty in his job – no second base experiments this year, despite the flaming tire fire the Jays promise to have at the keystone – and aging curves would suggest he’ll improve some. Oliver projects a .266-16-73-68-13 line over exactly 600 plate appearances, modest gains across the board, and Steamer is even more optimistic, projecting a .274 average and 17 homers in just 130 outings. In fact, Lawrie ranks seventh in third base value using Steamer projections with an expected value of $12, a significant jump from his -$6 from 2013 and his roughly break-even 600-plate appearance rates.

In the consensus rankings for this season, Lawrie is ahead of names like Pablo Sandoval, Pedro Alvarez and Matt Carpenter. Sandoval is, of course, impossible to project now that he’s a reported 78-pounds, though he provides a nice comparison if Lawrie suddenly stopped stealing bases (the power is similar, though Lawrie’s unlikely to touch Panda’s average). Alvarez isn’t the all-around player Lawrie is and he’ll surely be a batting average drain, but 30-plus home runs and the run production that comes with them sets the floor pretty high for him. Carpenter isn’t likely to score 126 runs again and rank fourth among third basemen, making him more of a suped-up Chris Johnson. These are names that Lawrie can pass, in short, but it’s not a slam dunk that he will. Jedd Gyorko is another name in this tier that could conceivably out-perform or under-perform Lawrie.

As for Lawrie’s progression as a hitter, it’s something Brett Talley dove into back in early November. Talley wrote:

There have been some positive developments in Lawrie’s game. He’s making contact at an above average rate which, despite swinging a bit too much, has allowed him to have a K% of just under 16% for the last two years. It’d be nice if he was a bit more selective and bumped his BB% up from about 6.5%, but he certainly displays good plate discipline, which is often a problem for young hitters. But ultimately it will be improvements to his FB% and success rate on the base paths that will determine Lawrie’s fantasy value.

The discipline and contact profiles are what’s enticing about Lawrie, and grading out well at a young age could certainly portend near-term improvement. He makes good contact, he doesn’t strike out a lot, and he’s flashed the ability to draw more walks (he had an outlier July with an 11.7 percent walk rate, helping explain his 34-percent jump in walk rate in the second half of 2013). He also saw a late-season surge in line drive rate though, as Talley explains, that didn’t help with his unfavourable fly ball rate.

Because Lawrie hits the ball hard, has above-average speed and strikes out only a moderate amount, his .254 batting average from 2013 seems to be on the low end of a possible range of outcomes. Projection systems range from .266 to .274 for him for 2014, with a BABIP squarely around the .300 mark, all of which seems fair.

His runs and runs batted in totals could depend a great deal on where he ends up hitting in the Jays lineup. As currently constructed, I’d guess Lawrie would hit sixth or seventh. Jose Reyes is atop the order and Lawrie simply doesn’t have the OBP chops to bat second in front of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Instead, he’ll likely follow up the Adam LindColby RasmusMelky Cabrera group, possibly seeing a bump against left-handed pitching. Fantasy owners should hold out hope he can grab the fifth or sixth slot, however, both for RBI opportunities and because if he hits seventh, he’ll be stranded on base an awful lot. Dioner Navarroand Ryan Goins aren’t going to be cashing many runners in.

Whether hitting seventh would help or hinder his stolen base opportunities is unclear. With lesser hitters at the dish, the relative cost of a caught stealing is less, but pitchers can also more freely attack those hitters with the hard stuff, making a steal more difficult. Despite double-digit steal potential, Lawrie isn’t exactly a whizz on the bases, going 29-for-43 in attempts at the MLB level (67.4 percent) and 63-for-91 in the minors (69.2 percent). While he has good speed, he appears to be a below-average base-stealer, perhaps due to over-aggression. Manager John Gibbons was fairly average in terms of green-light frequency last season, but that was inflated some by Rajai Davis’ presence. This could be a more conservative outfit in 2014, even with Reyes atop the order; whether Lawrie would be given more opportunities at the bottom of the order is something to keep an eye on in the early-going.

So that leaves us with the power to examine. Lawrie had a roughly league-average fly ball rate, a slightly below-average HR/FB rate and a just below-average batted ball distance on his fly balls. He hits the ball hard, objectively, but it didn’t materialize into great home run opportunities in 2013 (it’s not for lack of reps at the gym, bro). It was seemingly a down year but there’s nothing in his profile that suggests you should expect 20 home runs this season.

So what would a .270-15HR-70R-65RBI-13SB season look like? That’s most likely outside of the top-10, though not by a great distance. With three out of four rankers, ESPN drafters and Steamer all suggesting Lawrie is firmly inside the top-10, there’s a fair amount of growth being projected for him in 2014. It seems a case of a lot of uninspiring names belonging to the same tier, and Lawrie having the most upside. That’s certainly an acceptable reason to pick him at the back end of the top-10, but don’t walk away from your draft certain you’ve got a breakout third baseman.

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