The third in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)
LL/USSM Community: 587 AB's, .285/.330/.435 (n=159)
Actual Line: 524 AB's, .252/.284/.355
Closest Projection: aptait, .241/.288/.361
Jose Lopez: not dope. If you want to say that the Mariner community was optimistic in picking a 23 year old to improve his OPS by 41 points, then fine, but I don't pin this one on us; rather, Lopez just fell flat on his face at an age where most young talents are taking a step or two forward. I don't think we can really be blamed for not seeing this coming.
There seems to be a pattern developing, here.
Winter: Mariner fans high on Lopez's ability, expect big things
Late spring/early summer: Lopez hits well, justifies expectations
Late summer: Lopez falls apart, becomes shell of early-season self
Autumn: Mariner fans gradually begin to cede to the opinion that Lopez is an overrated talent
Winter: Mariner fans high on Lopez's ability, expect big things
This has been the case in each of the last four years. However, because the first halves of both 2004 and 2005 were spent with Tacoma, people disregarded Lopez's struggles in Seattle as an adjustment period, and then after he did it again in 2006, some people thought he was just getting accustomed to playing a full schedule in the Major Leagues. Simply put, there were explanations.
When he did it again in 2007, though, there weren't. Well, there was one, as a few fans pointed to the death of Lopez's brother in June as a turning point (he had a .776 OPS before and a .547 OPS after), but for reasons I don't think I'm allowed to discuss, I'm not buying that. I think it's more likely that Lopez just collapsed again, and people are looking for any reason to explain it away so that they don't have to entertain the possibility that Lopez simply may not be as good as we thought he was.
I wish I could sit here and tell you that Lopez's 2007 season was the product of at least a little bad luck, but I can't. He really was that awful. Even if you normalize his BABIP (prOPS again), he was still the 13th-worst qualified hitter of 156 in the league. A season is not a success when the only people you substantially out-hit are Tony Pena Jr, Nick Punto, and the mummified remains of Craig Biggio. We would've been better off had Lopez just called it quits and taken an early vacation after his walk-off double against Boston on June 27th (God, sweeping Boston kicks so much ass).
It's not even that Lopez has been one of those guys who flashes a ton of skills early on but struggles to put them all together. No, if you just watched the last two years with zero knowledge of Lopez's minor league track record, you'd wonder what all the hoopla is about. He almost never has a good, long at bat. He almost never pounds a breaking ball. He almost never kills a pitch into left field, and rarer still does he smash it the other way. In two seasons, covering more than 1100 at bats, Lopez has hit exactly two balls over 400 feet (407 and 408). Even Yuni has more than that. This is the guy who's supposed to turn into our power-hitting second baseman of the future? His swing is all hands. The only even moderately consistent skills that Lopez has shown in Seattle are playing defense, making contact, and beating the crap out of a guy after he delivers a walk-off hit.
We can learn two lessons from Jose Lopez. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they might be depending on how you look at them. The first is that it's important not to overrate your prospects. Young talents fail to blossom all the time, and just because minor league performance is generally a good indicator of Major League success doesn't mean that it always works out that way. While prospects are a great resource to have, there is value in certainty.
The second is that prospects don't always flip out Braun style and make an impact the instant they arrive. It takes some of them a lot of time. Lopez has collected 1500+ at bats over 400+ games with Seattle, but he still doesn't turn 24 for three weeks, so it's far too early to call him a bust. While he could be the new Luis Rivas, he could also be the new Jimmy Rollins, and Rollins took more than 2000 at bats before he turned into a legitimate threat. If you're going to put yourself in a position where you're relying on some young guys to contribute every day, sometimes you have to have a lot of patience.
Patience is something of which people are running out. Lopez's lack of progress has frustrated countless fans and team officials alike, and his occasional boneheaded mistakes haven't exactly helped his case. I don't put much stock in the "Lopez's head is never in the game" opinion, but I'll be honest, it's not like he's offered much evidence to the contrary. All we and the Mariners have been asking for is a sign every now and then that Lopez is starting to figure things out, but so far, no dice.
So now we've reached the point at which the front office is actively searching for a replacement. They were sniffing around Mark Loretta last July, but that was just for the stretch run; this reeks of more permanence. I think the Mariners are just about fed up with Jose Lopez. There's not much out there, but they'll view guys like Loretta, Ray Durham, Luis Castillo, Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and, I dunno, Mark Grudzielanek as much more dependable veteran solutions, and I highly expect them to make a push for somebody to take Lopez's place.
And no, I don't think it's a good idea. Jose Lopez has been an extraordinary disappointment so far, but again, he doesn't turn 24 for three weeks. He is still very, very young, with way more upside than any of the veterans listed above. People think of Yuni Betancourt as some little kid who's only going to get better, and he's two years older than Lopez is. Newsflash: sometimes young talent can get on your nerves. There's a reason contending teams trade for stopgap veterans at the deadline instead of 22 year olds in AAA. If you're going with a young player, he's not a short-term fix - you're committing yourself to him for the long haul, and committing yourself to riding it out and getting as much as you can before calling it quits.
We know Lopez has the talent to hit well somewhere in his body. We saw those tools in Tacoma. It's not as if he was some hack like AJ Zapp who put up decent but meaningless statistics; Lopez had the skillset to back up his glowing reputation. That's still there. The Mariners just need to commit themselves to finding it and bringing it to the surface. Otherwise, if they let him go, they're sending the message that if you're a young player who wants to stick around, you sure as hell better make a quick impression. And that's not a good way to build a ballclub when your ability to identify talent from outside the organization already sucks as bad as it does. The only way the Mariners are ever going to keep up with smarter front offices is by developing their own young talent. Dealing Lopez and replacing him with some retreat veteran is a step back in that regard.
By no means am I giving Lopez a blank check for destruction. I just think he ought to get one or three more chances before we give up and look somewhere else, especially if the intended external solution is some 33 year old who offers at most a 5-10 run improvement. The "better to trade a guy a year too early than a year too late" mantra doesn't apply to players who have yet to reach their physical prime. If Lopez's next set of 1500 at bats is better than his first, then at the very least he'll be close to an average second baseman, and that has value. Isn't it worth finding out if he can take that step? How many guys really stop developing when they reach 23?
Keep Jose Lopez. He may have been the biggest liability in 2007, but he's not this team's biggest problem.