Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Could Have Been? - First Base and Third Base

So, I took a week off. Well, I kind of took a week off. Mainly, an electric storm screwed up our internet last Friday and because of the 4th of July weekend, it wasn't fixed until Tuesday. Other family needs kept my ability to sit down and write, or type, at a stand-still. But I'm back and will hopefully be able to stick with things now.

Two weeks ago, I began the first of a new series called "What Could Have Been?" It focuses on players that have different levels of hype attached to them and simply never came close to reaching that potential. Many never even came close. Last week, the first player to be added was Tyler Houston behind the plate. This week, two new players join the team at the corner infield positions.

What Could Have Been...at First Base?
Scott Thorman

While others were bigger prospects at first base, few had the pressure Thorman had as he was essentially handed first base as Adam LaRoche had been a few years before. Commonly and simply referred to as Thor, the intimidating Canadian never found his way with the Braves and became an afterthought in the years after, ultimately only getting 440 trips to the plate in the majors for his career. However, that underscores our expectations back in 2006-07 when Thor and his impressive raw power became a normal sight in the lineup.

Drafted out of Preston High School in Cambridge, Ontario with the 30th overall selection of the 2000 draft, Thorman was originally a third baseman whose teammates on that 2000 GCL squad included Kelly Johnson, Blaine Boyer, and Adam Wainwright. An injury wiped out his 2001 season, but he joined Macon for 2002 and grabbed the attention of a lot of people with a .294/.367/.489 slash. All that good press soon gave way to considerable questions after a .702 OPS with Myrtle Beach in 2003. He repeated the level and got better, earning a promotion to finish 2004, but again, he struggled in his first taste at a new level. Like the previous year, 2005 began with Thor repeating a level only to close the season putting up disappointing numbers at a higher level.

That led to 2006. By June, the Atlanta Braves were in the midst of a disappointing follow-up season to the magical 2005 Baby Braves. Ryan Langerhans struggled while platooning with Matt Diaz in left field. Meanwhile, the Braves had shifted Thorman to left in May to try to get him some experience in left field while he paced Richmond with a .298/.360/.508 slash. The Braves ultimately called him up on June 17th and played the first eight innings of a game against the Boston Red Sox, going 0 for 4. He would get his first hit a game later against future Brave Scott Downs, but badly struggled before July 5th. With the Braves hammering the Cardinals 13-5 behind Chuck James, Thorman hit for James in the bottom of the sixth and blasted his first major league home run off Josh Hancock. He would get his second on July 9th, when he started against the Reds and finished a triple short of the cycle with three hits. After the All-Star Break, Thorman would slash .276 with a .862 OPS over 13 games, including eight starts. The run pushed his OPS to .791, but from there, his numbers went south, ultimately reaching .751 when he was demoted for two weeks in August. He returned after the rosters expanded, but had little success, finishing the season with a .234/.263/.438 slash and five HR. He struck out 21 times in 133 PA to go with just five walks.

It may have surprised some people that Thorman was penciled in to replace LaRoche at first base entering 2007 after the latter was traded to the Pirates. However, Thorman had a similar climb up the minors as LaRoche, who needed repeated efforts to conquer both Myrtle Beach and Greenville. While LaRoche had produced a lot quicker, the Braves may have saw a lot of LaRoche in Thorman and believed he would produce given the opportunity. They brought in Craig Wilson to caddy him as Julio Franco had done for LaRoche and in 2007, first base was Thorman's position to lose and the Braves were rather encouraged by Thorman's great start. He slashed .288/.339/.538 in April, making good contact and slamming three homers. The power would remain, but the contact didn't and he would struggle through May and June, striking out 39 times to just four walks. The Braves had seen enough, calling up Jarrod Saltalamacchia, bringing back the 48 year-old Franco, and ultimately agreeing to one of the worst trades in modern history by bringing Mark Teixeira to Atlanta. All of these moves began after Thorman hit .195/.234/.346 from May 1st to July 13th, 2007, starting 51 of a possible 64 games.

Thorman would transition into a pinch hitter from there, even smacking two homeruns, including a tenth inning shot against the Brewers on September 22nd that tied up the game. Francisco Cordero was one out away from the save when Thorman hit one way the hell out off Francisco Cordero on the first pitch he saw. The Braves ultimately won the next inning when Teixeira drove in Willie Harris for the walk-off win. Thorman would close 2007 with a .216/.258/.394 slash and 11 HR. With the Braves eliminated, Thorman started the final game of the year at first against the Astros, going 0 for 3 with a walk and strikeout. His last hit was the home run against the Brewers.

Thorman was sent down to Richmond for 2008 and spent the entire season with the R-Braves. While he did hit 19 homers, the numbers were down across the board and after failing to find a taker, the Braves cut Thor after the 2008 season. He would play with the Brewers, Royals, Rangers, and Tigers organizations over the next three seasons. He would fail to make it back to the majors. After a year in Mexico and two years playing for his homeland's Intercounty League's Brantford Red Sox, Thoman's career came to a close with an official retirement following the 2013 season. He took a job with the Burlington Royals in the Appalachian League as a bench coach. He's only 32 years old.

While Thorman's prospect status was probably exaggerated because he played a position of need for the Braves, Thorman's failures ultimately led to the Braves making a series of moves to essentially replace him, including a deal that sent far too many star prospects to the Rangers and brought back the Braves so little. If he could have produced the .260/.320/.460 slash many suggested was his floor, the Braves likely stand pat.

Some other possibilities: Ron Wright was a bigger prospect than Thorman. Once a top-50 prospect from Baseball America, Wright's power never again matched his 1996-power of 36 homers. He had been traded to the Pirates at the end of that season. Injuries played a big part. Mike Hessman recently set an International League homerun record and his power was fully on display from 1997-2004, when he averaged 21 homers as he climbed from A-ball to Richmond. Still, there were holes in his swing you could drive a truck through.

What Could Have Been...at Third Base?
Andy Marte

I hate to write more about this guy after only writing an entire article about him less than two months ago, but here we are...talking about Andy Manuel Marte. His middle name is just a taste of the different information this little blurb will provide that the blog post two months ago failed to.

Signed as a 16 year-old out of the Dominican Republic, Marte would made his debut the following year with Danville. That was just a sign of what the Braves thought about in regard to Marte. Typically, a kid signed out of the international market like that might play in the Dominican Summer League. Or possibly, he'll get a shot at the Gulf Coast League. But not the young third baseman, who hit just .200 as a 17 year-old pup in 2001 with Danville. However, massively impressive was his plate discipline. He walked 20 times to finish the year with a .306 OBP.

Playing super young for the level was par of the course for Marte. Baseball-reference provides the "Age Difference" statistic for their minor league stats. Basically, it's the difference, both positive and negative, in comparison to the weighted average for either hitters or pitchers. With Danville, Marte was an average of -3.1 years younger than the rest of the hitters. It went to -3.6 with Macon in 2002, when Marte exploded with a .831 OPS and 21 HR. The successful season put Marte in the Baseball America Top 50 for the first time of four consecutive seasons.

After 2002, Marte posted a .840 OPS with the Pelicans in 2003 and while playing -4.2 years younger than the average Southern League hitter in 2004, Marte posted a .889 OPS with the Greenville Braves. Already knocking on the door of AAA, Marte would posted yet another great season, especially considering his age. As the #9 prospect in the game, Marte hit .275/.372/.506 with 20 HR in 109 games. He even got 24 games in the majors for the Braves.

At this point, the narrative was that Marte would be a strong third baseman defensively and and provide excellent production for a third baseman. If WAR was around in 2005, people probably would have projected Marte to be around a 2.5-4 WAR guy annually with the ability to post even better numbers. He was a star in the making.

Except he would never become one. After the season, the Braves acquired Edgar Renteria and cash from the Red Sox in exchange for Marte. Renteria was a plus-player at shortstop and had three years remaining on a contract. The cash was just a cherry on the top. Now, sure, Marte was a big prospect and Renteria had one pretty down year with the BoSox before they sent him packing like they needed to get rid of him as quick as possible, but even one prospect like Marte should not bring back a guy who was a 6.4 fWAR guy in 2003, _plus_ cash. Renteria would spend two seasons in Atlanta and despite an injury-riddled 2007, Renty posted a 7.7 WAR before being sent to the Tigers to finish the contract he originally inked with the Sox.

Unfortunately for Marte, he was blocked in Boston by Mike Lowell, who the Sox picked up two weeks before the trade with the Braves. With a bigger need in the outfield, Boston sent Marte packing less than two months after acquiring him, picking up, among others, Coco Crisp toward the end of January.

Marte's third organization of the offseason was pretty happy to have Marte. Their incumbent third baseman was Aaron Boone, far more famous for his name than his skills. And it wasn't like they had much else in the pipeline. Marte was expected to anchor third base for the Indians for the next ten years.

Yeah, about that...

To the Indians' credit, they were slow with Marte. He started the year in AAA and didn't make his debut with the big league club until around the trading deadline. However, despite repeating the same league he had performed well at in 2005, Marte's follow-up with Buffalo was disappointing for him. Normally, a 22 year-old posting a .773 OPS at AAA with 15 HR is a good thing. For Marte, it meant a 50 point drop in OBP and a 55 point fall in slugging despite only losing 14 points on his batting average. Still, he hit five homeruns in 50 games with the Indians and his .707 OPS over the final two months showed he wasn't entirely overwhelmed.

He would be in 2007. His OPS fell a tad and he couldn't hit major league pitching at all. Nor could he in 2008 when he OPS'd .583. Or in 2009 when he posted a .693 OPS. Or even in 2010 when he posted a .680 OPS.

With Marte arbitration-eligible and 27 years-old for the upcoming 2011 season, the Indians had seen enough. They non-tendered the prospect who many were sure was a guy you could build an organization around. Marte had played in 302 games, including one game in relief. His slash was a miserable .218/.277/.358 with 20 HR.

Marte would play for the Pirates organization in 2011, but he was just as bad, maybe worse, in a return to AAA and after one season in the minors for Pittsburgh, Marte became a free agent again. No satisfying offers came his way and he took 2012 off, preparing for 2013. And no satisfying offers came again. So, Marte did what former top prospects do when all else fails. Try your luck in the Atlantic League. Yes, the Atlantic League where current stars include former failed prospects like Sean Burroughs, Ben Kozlowski, and J.R. Towles. Like many before him, Marte thought he could attack someone's attention and after slashing .301/.367/.526 with 19 homers, Marte did just that as the Angels brought him to their organization to give their Salt Lake AAA squad a shot in the arm. His OPS over about a month of action was .973. However, the Angels didn't bring him up.

This season, Marte continues to feast on Pacific Coast League pitching, this time with the Reno Aces for the Arizona Diamondbacks. His .861 OPS and 13 moonshots are respectable numbers, but in the hitting environment of the PCL, they are hardly noteworthy. The D'Backs have begun the process of dismantling a badly built ballclub and there are those that think Martin Prado could be one of the Diamondbacks that could find a new home. Such a move could give Marte another shot.  He may even get himself off this list and have a Ryan Ludwick-like career where he shakes off the Quad-A label and becomes a productive ballplayer for a major league team.

Probably not. But it could happen.

Some other possibilities: Ed Giovanola wasn't a big prospect, but hit pretty well. To be honest, I'm tempted to put Edward Salcedo on this list, though Salcedo is still pretty young. However, career OPS under .700 and a career-high OBP of .315 isn't exactly in line with what prospect experts seemed to think Salcedo would produce when he was inked to a rich contract out of the Dominican.

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