Lopez, His Hot Streak, and His Future
You’ve probably noticed that Jose Lopez has been on fire for about three months now. After starting the season with a miserable slump, he was hitting .215/.259/.306 on May 26th. 191 terrible plate appearances that took up nearly 1/3 of his season, and he had accumulated all of three home runs and as many double plays as walks (10). He had played at a below replacement level performance – again. We’d seen this from Lopez before, as he has a history of going into long funks where he’s just an awful player. He’s rebounded before, though, and the hope was that he would rebound again.
Has he ever. Since May 26th, he’s hitting .306/.325/.559, a performance as valuable as it is weird. He’s racked up 27 doubles and 16 home runs in the last three months, but he’s also drawn a whopping five unintentional walks, which is why the OBP is still on the low end despite the fact that he’s been stinging the baseball. For a right-handed pull power hitter to slug .560 over a prolonged stretch of time while playing half his games at Safeco Field is borderline amazing. For a second baseman, it’s incredible.
Whenever you see significant performance changes like this, there’s always going to be people who want to suggest that the most recent results are “real”, and what happened early in the season is something that has been adjusted away. You also see this with people who feel like Russ Branyan has been “figured out”. However, the truth is that both the hot streak and the slump are real, and both inform us about the players abilities. It is the performance in total that is most predictive of future results (when weighted with past history and what we know about how players age, of course), not broken down fractions of that season.
Jose Lopez is not a .570 OPS guy or an .880 OPS guy. He’s neither as bad as he was in April and May or as good as he’s been in June, July, and August. So, the question for the Mariners, then, is the totality of the player one they should want to build around?
After all, Lopez doesn’t turn 26 until after the season ends, and he’s under contract for just $2.3 million next season and a team option for 2011 at $4.5 million before he becomes a free agent. Given his production, he’s a net asset (value of production over cost) to the M’s in the range of $7 million next year and probably something similar the year after. If the M’s paid fair market wages for Lopez’s next two seasons, we think that they’d offer him something like $20 million for 2010 and 2011 – they’ll actually pay him about 1/3 of that.
Given the team’s holes elsewhere on the roster, a lot of people will feel that the team should just count their blessings, be thankful that they have a league average second baseman under contract for a fraction of his value, and use the savings to pursue upgrades elsewhere. There is some validity to this claim – a team can win with Jose Lopez at second base, especially when he’s not making much money, so replacing him shouldn’t be a priority.
However, Lopez in Seattle also represents something of an inefficiency for baseball as a whole. As we’ve talked about, his power is strictly to left field, where Safeco is toughest on hitters. It’s no coincidence that Lopez is hitting .231/.249/.387 at home and .310/.345/.536 on the road. The M’s ballpark is built to suppress hitters with his skill set, which is why the new administration keeps acquiring left-handed players who fit the park better. In addition to the park configurations, the M’s are also likely to field a pitch to contact staff next year, and defense is not Lopez’s strong suit.
Lopez is less valuable to the Mariners than he would be to a team like the White Sox, who play in a park that allows fly balls to carry and have a rotation with several strikeout arms for him to play behind. Just due to the configurations of the stadium and the types of pitchers they’ll have, there’s a real value difference in how Lopez would help the White Sox versus how well he would help the Mariners. In a perfectly efficient market, Lopez would end up on a team like Chicago, with the Mariners then replacing him with a talent whose skills are better suited to their specific needs.
MLB, of course, is not a perfectly efficient market. Adrian Beltre is a terrible fit for Safeco Field too, but the M’s rightly pursued him as a free agent and received more value than they paid to acquire him. Just because it’s not an ideal situation to have a right-handed pull power hitter on the team doesn’t mean that the team should ignore those types of players in total. After all, you can’t have a line-up with nine left-handed hitters. You have to have some guys who can swing the bat from both sides, so if the M’s ship off every player whose value is somewhat muted by Safeco Field, they’ll end up with a mis-configured line-up that is easily shut down by any generic southpaw.
So, where does that leave us? Lopez is a net asset to the M’s, but slightly more of one to other clubs. He doesn’t have the skillset that the organization prefers, but he’s also a productive, young, low-cost player on a team that is trying to add exactly that. He’s prone to wild fluctuations in performance, but he’s also talented enough to become more than what he is right now.
Some people look at Lopez and see Carlos Guillen – a useful player that is viewed as a disappointment due to his lofty prospect status, but one that the M’s gave up on too soon, only to see him break out in Detroit. No one wants to repeat that mistake, certainly, and I can’t imagine that the M’s will be giving Lopez away this winter. But if Kenny Williams (or another GM with a park made for Lopez’s 380 foot power) calls and wants to talk about adding Lopez over the winter, I think the M’s have to not only be willing to listen, but be aggressive in realizing that this off-season is probably going to be the high point of his trade value.
He’s two years from free agency, and is not the kind of player the M’s are going to want to commit long term, big dollars too. As his contract gets closer to expiration, his value willl decrease, and the M’s will likely never be able to get more in exchange for Lopez than they will be able to now. His production level isn’t so high as to be irreplaceable, so if the right deal is presented, the M’s should be willing to pull the trigger on a trade that uses Lopez to help patch another area of the roster.
Lopez is this winter’s J.J. Putz. He has value to the M’s, but likely more to other teams, and Jack should be willing to leverage that inefficiency to make the team better overall.