The eleventh in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.
LL/USSM Community: .263/.320/.459
Actual Line: .202/.250/.342
Back when the whole Bedard trade went down, a lot of people who were in favor of the move tried to reassure the skeptics by pointing out that, while we may have lost Adam Jones, at least we still had an approximation in Wlad Balentien.
I don't think 2008 was exactly what those people had in mind.
While Jones was off in Baltimore establishing himself as a league average regular with solid defense, Wlad tore through AAA but had all kinds of struggles upon getting promoted, posting numbers that made him arguably the worst player in the Majors among guys who got semi-regular playing time. His first extended cup of coffee didn't go well at all, to the tune of a .611 OPS, and after going down to Tacoma for two more months of seasoning, he came back up and somehow did worse than before. It was a summer of extremes for Wlad, but none of the good ones came in Seattle, and at the end of the year I found myself reflecting upon the fact that, while with the Mariners, Wlad didn't do anything well.
There's not an advertising professional in the world who could sell Wlad's 2008 with the M's as anything other than a total failure. He didn't hit for average. He didn't get on base. He didn't hit for much power. He didn't play good defense. He didn't make contact. He didn't show any discipline. He didn't hit righties. He didn't hit lefties. He did have that big extra innings home run against the Angels, but outside of that longball, I guess you could say that it was a season-long learning experience. Even his prodigious strength only showed up on a handful of occasions, as his HR/FB% wound up around the same level as guys like Mark Teahen and Ramon Hernandez. Wlad showed that he can a few home runs, but after watching him hit 18 in 233 ABs with Tacoma, most of us expected more than seven in 243 with Seattle. I wonder if that wasn't the biggest disappointment of all.
Put simply, it was a season that everyone would like to forget. But at the same time, it was also a season that told us an awful lot about Wladimir Balentien, and how he profiles as a player. While the performance was terrible, the information we were able to glean from it is invaluable.
- Wlad's probably never going to be known for his defense. He's not exceptionally slow, and he has a bit of experience playing center field, but his instincts aren't quite there and he runs funny routes. His career upside is probably as an average defensive LF, and it's likely that he spends a lot of time in the red.
- Wlad's probably never going to be known for his ability to make contact. Of this we've been aware for a while, but even during his dual hot streaks in Tacoma, he was still missing the ball with a quarter of his swings. He's going to strike out, and he's going to have trouble when he falls behind in the count.
- Wlad's probably never going to be known for his discipline. He may end up somewhere around average, but he's a free swinger at heart, and that can be incredibly difficult to turn around. He'll draw a few walks if he's hitting. If he's not hitting, he'll swing himself into a mess.
- Wlad's probably never going to be known for his batting average. The average BA among big leaguers with contact rates at or below 75% last year was .253, and while there were a few exceptions in there, those are guys with remarkable talent, like Ryan Ludwick and Josh Hamilton. I'd be ecstatic if Wlad ever broke .270.
- Wlad's game will be his power. If only by process of elimination. But the power is real. He was able to post an above-average HR/FB% in his first season in the Majors, and he doesn't turn 25 until next July. This is a guy who hit 16 homers as an 18 year old in the AZL. Wlad's version of solid contact is entirely different than, say, Willie Ballgame's, and he should be able to settle in as a threat to hit 20-30 balls over the fence, if not a few more.
When you put it all together, you have a variation of the standard slugging corner outfielder skillset, with maybe a little better defense than usual. Which isn't too different from the consensus opinion of him a year ago, except that now people have a better understanding of the risk that always accompanies prospect-related optimism. When you see a guy as young as Wlad hitting well in the minors, it's tempting to look at him and think "future star." Wlad's 2008 season, then, serves to remind us of the folly inherent in evaluating prospects by their ceilings.
So how good or bad of a player are we dealing with, here? Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that Wlad's true talent is as a -5 run defensive left fielder. Assuming a .335 league average wOBA and 85% playing time, here's what Wlad would have to do at the plate to be worth ~each amount of wins:
0 WAR: .320 wOBA
1 WAR: .340
2 WAR: .360
3 WAR: .380
4 WAR: .400
5 WAR: .420
Keep in mind that 2 WAR is just about a league average player. In order to be league average, Wlad would have to hit like Rick Ankiel or Carlos Guillen. In order to be a solid asset, he'd have to hit like Ryan Braun. In order to be a star, he'd have to hit like David Wright.
How likely are those outcomes? 5%? 10%? 25%? Those are all damn good hitters. Wlad's talented and all, but is he that talented? What if he just ends up hitting like, say, Marcus Thames? Or maybe Wily Mo Pena? Then he's not really helping very much, if he's helping at all. And that's obviously not a guy worth building around.
Personally, I'm just not a big fan of Wlad's type of player. They can have exciting ceilings, but rarely do they get there, because the probability distribution is skewed against them. Most of the time they end up as something less than what people imagined, and while some of them might retain their name value because of high HR or RBI totals, few of them actually contribute very much to the greater cause. Slugging corner outfielders who don't do much else just aren't really as valuable as people think.
So with all that in mind, 2009's going to be a big year for Wlad. Potentially career-defining, if you will. If he wants to establish himself as an important part of the future, he needs to put his struggles behind him and come out of the gate flashing some kind of improvement. I won't ask that he start hitting from the get-go, but he needs to look like he has a clue in April, punish a few breaking balls in June, and get into a groove down the stretch. He needs to hit at some point, and he needs to hit over a sustained period of time, because a young player only gets so long to make excuses, and Michael Saunders is on the way. In short, if Wlad wants to go on to be a good player, he needs to get started next season.
As is the case with Jeff Clement, the time is now for Wladimir Balentien to show what he can do. Prospect sheens don't last forever. Realistically speaking, 2009 won't be the last chance for either player, but it would behoove both of them to treat it as such. Impress me.