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Youth Movement: Jose Lopez

Lacking anything better to do (and for those of you in New England, look out your window and you'll know what I'm talking about), I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the youngest players on the team and consider how much we can expect from them in 2006 and the years beyond. After all, this is a considerably younger Mariners team than it was when it bottomed out in 2004, and how much success it'll have going forward will depend on the kinds of contributions provided by up-and-comers in the lineup and on the mound. So it makes sense to take a closer look at each of them individually, if only to get a better idea of what we're in for. Today's player: Jose Lopez.

Background: Lopez was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela in 2000 as a 16 year old. He spent 2001 playing short-season ball against guys two years his senior and predictably struggled before breaking out a year later in San Bernardino. Immediately placed on the organizational fast-track, Lopez advanced to AA in 2003, but a down year at the plate, as well as some questions about his age, took away a chunk of his prospect sheen. Lopez seemed like something of a forgotten talent until he slugged .500 in AAA Tacoma the next season and forced his way into the Majors, where he showed some pop but had trouble proving that he belonged. 2005 was the same story, with Lopez looking like two different players between Cheney and Safeco. He did manage to show some life following a late-season promotion, and now looks like the favorite to break camp as the Mariners' starting second baseman in 2006. Just 22 years old, Lopez is in good position to have a long, lucrative career, as he's due to become a free agent during his prime, and he has too much ability to keep struggling much longer. The only question is where he'll top out - if everything breaks right, the sky's the limit, but with 400 mediocre ML at bats already under his belt, there is some doubt about how well his minor league numbers will translate into the big leagues.

Offense: Attempting to determine the upside of a 22 year old baseball player is difficult at the best of times, but it's worth trying, provided you examine his particular skillset rather than just assuming that all young players have the same kind of career arc. With Lopez, we can safely predict that he'll be a low-walk, low-strikeout hitter until he retires. Each of these actually work against the probability of him ever becoming a superstar - guys who don't walk have trouble for obvious reasons, but guys who don't strike out also tend to have lower ceilings, presumably because they're more likely to put a ball in play rather than wait for a pitch they can drive. Occasionally you'll have a freak like Vlad Guerrero who destroys everything, but he's an exception, not the rule. Aggressive contact hitters can go on crazyawesome hot streaks, but their career numbers will generally be lower than those of their more patient, strikeout-prone companions.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Lopez has the track record of someone who could still be very, very good, even if he isn't a star. The PCL is hardly a pitcher-friendly league, but Lopez hit for both average and power against more advanced competition, with 40.3% of his hits going for extra bases. That trend has continued into the Majors, with 32 doubles and seven homers against 56 singles. Projecting his numbers in Seattle so far over 600 at bats puts Lopez close to 50 two-baggers, and as he adds a little more bulk to his frame, more and more of those are going to fly over the fence. If he doesn't put up at least three or four 20+ homer seasons, I'll eat my hat. He's not going to win any Home Run Derbies, but he's still going to be one of the better power-hitting middle infielders in baseball for a few seasons in his prime.

In the short-term, Lopez needs to settle down and work on recognizing different pitches. Last season, 24% of his flyballs were infield pop-ups - the league leader among qualified batters came in two percentage points lower. On top of that, his .276 BABIP would've placed him securely in the bottom-fifth in baseball, tied with Russ Adams. He tied with Adrian Beltre in line drive percentage, and that's not good (for either of them). Right now, Jose Lopez is not very good at making solid contact against Major League pitchers. He's popping up changeups and curveballs, and when he tries to adjust by sitting back and waiting on more pitches, he doesn't get all the way around on fastballs. It's the same struggle for any hitter playing against talented competition anywhere, and the only way out of it is to hope that he's dedicated enough to his trade that he'll put in the effort to better distinguish between different spins. Lopez still has a lot of time, but how he does in 2006 will go a long way towards determining his future path. Miguel Tejada is still within reach, but having a career like the 2005 Robinson Cano is a lot closer. Which isn't bad by any means, but I get the feeling like anything short of unparalleled greatness on the part of Lopez will be met with disappointment.

Defense: I probably should've put this section first, since people couldn't care less about what kind of glove a guy brings to the table as long as he can hit a little. Anyway, the scouting reports on Lopez have read the same since the day he debuted in Everett - real strong arm with pretty good accuracy, decent hands, passable range that'll get worse as he fills out with age. The general consensus a few years ago was that he'd get too big for the middle infield and have to shift to the hot corner, but the Mariners gave him a shot at second base last summer, and it worked out pretty well. There's no evidence that he was anything less than average, and PMR graded him out as one of the better 2B's in the league, so that's encouraging. Lopez is still getting bigger, and each additional pound will take its toll on his lateral range, but I feel comfortable saying that he's never going to be a real problem in the field. Put another way, I'm fine with a guy falling short of Orlando Hudson with the glove, as long as he's not Alfonso Soriano. Working to Lopez's benefit is the fact that he'll have Yuniesky Betancourt covering groundballs up the middle for the next several seasons, reducing the overall impact of Lopez's limited range on the pitching staff. He'll catch the balls that come to him, and with an all-world defender directly to his right, that's all we really need from him.

Other Stuff: In this case, by "other stuff" I mostly mean "speed," since it's not like I'm in any position to analyze the various intangibles that Lopez may or may not bring to the table. Let's take a look at Lopez's Speed Scores year-by-year:

2002: 7.07
2003: 6.67
2004: 5.82
2005: 4.56

In four years, Lopez has gone from a legitimate SB threat to something of a station-to-station clunker on the basepaths. He hasn't hit a triple since 2003, and the 18 bases he stole in San Antonio are seven more than he's stolen over the last two seasons in Tacoma and Seattle combined. While this may be due to simple aging - everyone adds some bulk in their early 20s - there have been concerns about Lopez's conditioning before, and this certainly doesn't do anything to put those worries to rest. His attitude has also been called into question a few times, and it's not going to look any better next to Willie Ballgame's in Peoria, but I don't think that'll be much of a long-term problem, not when more people begin to realize how much talent he has. As a final throwaway note, it probably doesn't hurt that both Lopez and Felix Hernandez are Venezuelan. The happier and more comfortable these guys are with the team, the better.

("Brief") Summary: As a general rule, any 22 year old who's already amassed 400 at bats in the Majors is probably a pretty talented player. With that in mind, there's certainly reason to believe that Jose Lopez has a bright future ahead of him, one which he may begin to realize as soon as this season. That said, while Lopez is good at a lot of things, he's not really great at any; he doesn't have Rickie Weeks' power, Carlos Quentin's strike zone control, or Hanley Ramirez's physical tools. That's going to place a limit on his upside, where he'll need everything to break perfectly to become a star. It's more likely that Lopez ends up as a flawed-but-good middle infielder, a guy who has a real good peak season or three but a career in which he's best characterized as a power-hitting second baseman who didn't get on base as often as you'd like. There's no reason why he can't become comfortably above-average and remain that way for a long time, but I don't really see the superstar potential here like I do for other top prospects. Still, this is a good player, and one who will get several opportunities to prove that he's great. Forget Willie Ballgame. Let the Jose Lopez Era begin.