Jose Lopez Explained
One of the things that I’ve gotten quite a bit of email about over the past year is my stance on Jose Lopez. Despite consistently ranking in the top five in the Future Forty (updated version coming this weekend, which will likely be the last one that Lopez is eligible for), I’ve been a fairly outspoken opponent of the hype he has generated and somewhat negative in tone with a majority of my comments about him. By continuing to rank him as one of the best prospects the Mariners have but downplaying his abilities, it seems that a good amount of confusion has been created around my opinion of his talents. So, this post should hopefully serve as an answer to most of the questions that I get about Lopez.
Lopez’s minor league numbers through 2003
Lopez’s numbers in Tacoma
Lopez in Seattle
Lopez’s PECOTA profile at BP (subscribers only)
Article I wrote on Lopez for BP last summer (also subscriber only. So subscribe already!)
That should be enough background information. A brief summary, for those who hate following links and haven’t followed Lopez’s trek through the minors:
Debuted in Everett in 2001 as a 17-year-old and spent the year as the youngest player in the league. Showed minimal skills with the bat, earned solid reviews with the glove, and impressed by holding his own against advanced competition at a very young age.
Aggressively moved to San Bernadino in 2002, skipping low-A. Was youngest player in league again, but had a breakthrough season by whacking .324 and showing gap power. Gained non-muscle weight as the season went on and defense drew mixed reviews.
Went to Double-A San Antonio for 2003 and was a mixed bag. Power continued to develop, and at 19 was very young for Texas League, but his average dropped 70 points and his defense continued to be questionable at best. Didn’t show a good work ethic and talk began of moving him off of shortstop in the future.
Started 2004 in Triple-A Tacoma and had a rebound season with the bat. Gained even more power and shows above average pop for even a non-premium defensive position. Weight fluctuates, plays several positions, and convinces most scouts that he can’t play shortstop in the major leagues for the long term. Promoted to Seattle for no reason in particular, is predictably overmatched.
Lopez hasn’t followed anything of a normal development path. The scouting report on him has fluctuated between “defensive wiz who might hit” to “terrific bat who can’t field”. His top PECOTA comparison is Adrian Beltre, showing obvious potential. Jorge Cantu and Luis Rivas follow in the next two spots, showing obvious risk. Miguel Cabrera follows them. So, the four most comparable players by minor league profile to Lopez are a couple of all-stars who could be hall of famers sandwiched around a busted prospect who is trying to resurrect his career and one of the worst players in Major League Baseball. Lopez defines a high risk, high reward prospect.
Lopez has two big things going for him; bat speed and power. He has quick wrists that get the bathead through the zone with ease and can generate authority to all fields. He covers the plate well and can make contact with any pitch in any location, which is both a blessing and a curse. Because he’s had success with his swing-at-anything method, he’s a virtual lock to maintain his hack-a-matic ways through his major league career, requiring him to hit for a high average in order to maintain his status as a quality offensive player. As long as he hits .295 or .324, as he has in two of the past three seasons, and not .258 like he did in San Antonio, he’ll be a productive player. However, singles are the most luck-dependant offensive weapon, and Lopez is going to need to acquire a lot of them over his career. A willingness to draw a free pass every once in a while would help him, but isn’t likely either.
He’s never met a fastball he didn’t think he could hit out of the park and it’s fairly easy to get him to chase hard stuff up in the zone. Think Bret Boone when he sees dead-red. Lopez hits breaking balls much better than most young players, and you won’t see many ugly Bucky-like swing throughs on a slow curve. The book on him is to pitch him out of the strike zone, mostly up and away, and he’ll get himself out. If you don’t get it far enough away, though, he has legitimate power to right-center and can hurt you.
Offensively, Lopez is going to live and die with his batting average. The power is there now and he’s showing no signs of slowing down, so 25-30 HR’s and a .200 Isolated Slugging (SLG-BA) in his prime is realistic. If he hits .300, he’ll put up OPS’ north of .850 and be a force offensively in the mold of Beltre and Cabrera, though probably to a slightly lesser extent. If he hits .250, he’s Tony Batista, a replacement level player who makes so many outs that it cancels out his power. Anyone who says they “know” whether Lopez is going to become the .300 hitting star or the .250 hitting replacement level player is lying to you. The offensive potential for both is very real, and a solid case can be made for either side.
However, most people agree on Lopez’s offensive potential. It’s his defense that draws a divide. He clearly has the raw tools to handle shortstop, including a well above average arm, good enough hands, decent footwork, and a young lifetime of experience at the position. He’s fundamentally sound enough to make a good majority of the plays he gets to. But the big question is his range, and it is also the hardest to quantify. At 17, when he was about 30 pounds lighter than he is now, he moved well and covered a good amount of ground. However, he’s steadily put on weight and lost speed and his range is now simply average for the position. A popular sentiment that I’ve heard this year from people who have seen him play is that he’s a capable shortstop now, and they conclude that I’m clearly off base in my assessment of his skills.
But here’s the deal; 20-year-olds who are already average defensively at a premium position almost always need to move to another position by their mid-twenties. My point has never been that Lopez is a poor defensive player right now; it is that he doesn’t have the margin for error to allow for the inevitable decline in his skills that major league shortstops had at age 20. For this year, Lopez will cover enough ground to be adequate, though his inexperience will probably lead to enough errors to cancel out any defensive value he may add. He might be passable next year as well, depending on how hard he works in the offseason and his individual body development. But the long history of major league development is against Lopez being able to retain the necessary quickness to play shortstop past 2006. He’s going to get slower, and that loss of range is going to necessitate a move to another position. Comparisons to other poor major league defensive shortstops aren’t relevant in this case, where people claim the runs he’d create with his bat would cancel out the defensive shortcomings. Lopez is likely to lose enough range that he’d be one of the worst shortstops in baseball. Defensively, it is fair to expect him to grow into something like a Marcus Giles body-type, and there’s a reason the Braves would only consider using Giles at shortstop in cases of utter necessity.
Third base and second base are the two possibilities for Lopez, and while third is mentioned more often due to his arm strength, I believe he’ll settle in as a second baseman. The shift from middle infield to corner infield is far more difficult than most people understand, and Lopez’s reactions will suit him better up the middle than they will at the hot corner. He won’t be a great defensive player no matter where they put him, but his defensive value would be about the same at second or third. When that is the case, it is best to keep the player at the more scarce position, in this case that being second base.
Realistically, Lopez should settle in as Boone’s replacement in the 2006 season when he’s 22-years-old. If his bat continues to develop, he could have a very nice career as an offensive force at second and provide solid production at minimum wage work. However, the organization views him so highly that it is very possible he spends 2005 as the Mariners starting shortstop, taking his lumps at the major league level and burning a year of service time in the process. The odds of Lopez being a productive major league player next year are slim, and the franchise would be best served letting Lopez make a lot of the necessary improvements in Tacoma, where his arbitration clock can stand still. Keeping Lopez on the roster for 2005 will ensure that he’s a free agent after the 2010 season, granting him an open-market salary going into his age 27 season. When given a choice between a players’ age 21 or age 27 season, you should almost always take the age 27 season, with rare exceptions. Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, and even Adrian Beltre forced their way to the major leagues by dominating the upper levels of the minor leagues as a teenager. Lopez has not dominated in that same way, and his struggles since the promotion have hopefully opened the Mariners’ eyes that he is not a major league caliber player at the moment.
Send Jose Lopez back to Tacoma next spring. If the team is rebuilt into a contender and his services are deemend helpful in a pennant race, consider bringing him back up. But do not plan on him as a vital piece to the 2005 team, as you’ll simply be trading a potentially valuable season in 2011 for the right to watch him struggle first-hand.
Overall, my take on Lopez could be summed up like this; he’s a high risk/reward prospect with the potential to be an all-star or an out-machine, and only time will tell which extreme he will lean towards. The majority of his major league career will be spent at second or third base, but I would suggest second base to maximize value. He isn’t ready for the major leagues and should be assigned to Triple-A for the 2005 season. He has obvious strengths which make him attractive but enough obvious weaknesses to keep him out of the uberprospect status that the organization has projected upon him. He might be a franchise player, but the risk is simply too high to make that a reasonable expectation at this point in time. He’s not the next Alex Rodriguez. Whether he’s Adrian Beltre or Tony Batista is up to him and how hard he wants to work. He’s going to have to work harder than he has in the past in order to live up to the promise that people expect from him. That’s his choice, though, and we can only hope he dedicates himself to the game.