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Community Projection: Jose Lopez

The third in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.

LL/USSM Community: .277/.319/.416
Actual Line: .297/.322/.443

In a season of black comic tragedy, it was Lopez who shined as the greatest - and perhaps only - true highlight on the team. Always in possession of considerable talent, Lopez won fans without ever having put it all together on a Major League field. "Watch this kid," they'd say. "He's going to be a good player someday. You just have to give him time." And time he was given. Year after year Lopez would hit a new roadblock, and year after year skeptical arguments were met with age-based disregard. Lopez was still plenty young, see. He just needed more time.

But it was only when even some of his loyal supporters grew concerned that Lopez finally started to showcase that talent that for years he'd kept in the dark. It wasn't the way he started the season. It was the way he finished that drove the point home. After four consecutive letdown second halves, including one in 2007 that stands among the worst offensive second halves in franchise history, Lopez got going early on and sustained it through the summer. He hit .315 in June. Then .311 in July. Then .264 in August. Then .304 in September. August wasn't great, but it was a good deal better than the August before. More importantly, he started hitting for more power over the course of the season. Lopez only had two home runs through his first 56 games, but he'd go on to hit 15 over his final 103, and his 27 extra-base hits in the second half were eight more than he hit in the second halves of 2006 and 2007 combined. This was a different Jose Lopez. This was a good Jose Lopez. The sort of Jose Lopez about whom legends were told but never confirmed.

Lopez closed out the season on a three-week tear during which he hit .337 with a .943 OPS. That hot streak was enough to give him his first above-average wOBA of his career. While that may not sound like anything great, it represented a massive improvement, and for the sake of Lopez's living as a big leaguer, it couldn't have come at a better time. I wrote last March:

I'll say this: while I can't be sure about which path Lopez will take, his future in Seattle will depend on his taking some substantial strides forward. We know the front office and coaching staff are dissatisfied. The onus is on Lopez to come out of the gate playing well, impress McLaren from the two-slot, and avoid another summer collapse. Another year like the last two will probably be his last as a Mariner. Lopez needs to get going, because before long it will be too late.

Lopez took those steps forward in 2008, and in so doing, he re-established his value as an everyday regular. A talented 25 year old coming off a wOBA of .346 looks a hell of a lot better than a talented 24 year old coming off a .294, after all. The Mariners couldn't hit last year, but Lopez was still the third-best on the team, and no matter how bad an offense may be, that says a little something.

Of course, the biggest question with Lopez is just how much value he has going forward. If you call him an average defender (and, even granted his occasional lapses in concentration, I think that's about right), last year he was worth about 2-2.5 wins over replacement. That's a good player. That's a guy who can help a competitive team. However, the year before he was below replacement-level, and that year happened, too. We can't just throw it out. You'll see people all the time posit arguments that boil down to "if you ignore X, then Y," but that's not how statistics work. Unless we have good reason to throw away a certain clump of data, we have to look at the whole picture, and the whole picture for Lopez isn't that pretty. Marcel, for example, projects a park-adjusted wOBA of .322, which drops Lopez into the 1-1.5 WAR range. And if you call him a -5 defender instead of league average, then he comes off looking even worse. And let's face it: Lopez has to work pretty hard to be an average defender. He's not the most nimble guy on the team.

Here's the bottome line: if you think 2008 Jose Lopez was legit, he's a neat little player. If you think 2008 Jose Lopez overperformed, then he doesn't look so hot.

Me, I'd like to think that Lopez's improvement was real. He made more contact. He swung less often, and less often at bad pitches. His HR/FB increased. He hit a lot of doubles. There are indicators - good indicators - suggesting that Lopez started making better use of his talent last season, and that he's a reasonable bet going forward. If someone came up to me and said "Jose Lopez is going to OPS .770 next year," I wouldn't look at him like he was crazy.

But statistically speaking, 2008 is the outlier, and outliers for young players don't always mean a new level of performance is on the way. They can and often do signal imminent regression, and if Lopez regresses back to something like .280/.315/.415, then all of a sudden he's not really that valuable anymore, especially if his defense declines. In that scenario he's just a guy who doesn't hurt us but who also doesn't help us, just a guy who hangs out and takes up space until the team finds a better second baseman to help it compete.

I don't know which path Lopez is going to follow. I don't know. He's a volatile young player, and while there are perfectly sound and solid reasons to believe that he'll hold on to his gains, there are also perfectly sound and solid reasons to believe that he'll regress. It's up to Lopez to decide how good he wants to be. All I can really say is that, no matter how much I'd like to see Lopez develop into a star, it would behoove the new front office to place a few calls and see what people might offer for a "young middle infielder on the upswing." I know there are some early signs of this being a buyer's market, but the fact of the matter is that the Mariners aren't going to compete for a little while, and Lopez may never have more trade value than he does at this writing. He's young. He just had a big bounce-back season. He hit for a good average. His second half was encouraging. He's under contract. These are good selling points. There may be a GM or two out there eager to take Lopez in exchange for a player who can help out the next Mariner team to make the playoffs.

I can't speak to that. And while it's related, I guess that's a different subject anyway. What it really comes down to is that, no matter what happens from this point forward, in 2008 Jose Lopez re-inserted himself into the organizational discussion. Lost in the mix of what we can expect from him in the future as a regular is the fact that he even has a future as a regular, something which was far from a certainty a year ago. Lopez's hard work paid off, and as a result he had himself a career season. That's significant. And I think I speak for all of us when I say I hope he's able to hang on to his gains, regardless of where he's playing in 2009 or 2010. Because if nothing else, it'd be reassuring to know that this organization is indeed capable of developing decent position players. Even if they don't develop in Seattle.