Mike Scioscia is notorious for showing his hand without ever admitting his plan, so we can safely assume that the club's new third baseman will continue to get penciled into the lead-off spot once the season begins. Last season the Angels had an embarrassing .280 OBP from the lead-off position, making Trout's 90 RBI arguably more impressive than the 123 RBI by league-leader Josh Donaldson. Clearly, getting the lead-off man on base will be huge if the Angels want to make any noise this season, so for today's predictions, please guess the year-end WAR and OBP.
2016 Composite Projection
Billy Eppler elected to trade promising young reliever Trevor Gott to fill the club's third base vacancy rather than negotiate with incumbent third-sacker David Freese, so clearly he sees something in veteran infielder Yunel Escobar that the advanced stats are missing. Despite a batting line that would have made him the Angels' second-most productive hitter last year, Escobar finished with a rather pedestrian 2 WAR, giving back a lot of his value with shabby glove work.
Given his age and poor defensive metrics, it is no wonder none of the projections published this year are very optimistic about our new third baseman. Of course, projections are derived strictly from data, leaving us to make our own mental adjustments for context, which in the case of Escobar there are plenty. Yunel had a reputation as a slick-fielding short stop throughout his career and the stats backed this up as recently as 2013, when he posted an excellent 1.4 dWAR with the Rays. Inexplicably, his defense fell apart in 2014, the first time he posted below-average defensive metrics. Digging a bit through Rotoworld.com, Yunel missed some time in May with an injured quad, then hit the DL in June with a right shoulder injury. Those injuries coupled with the normal regression you would see in a 31 year-old middle infielder could very well help explain the dramatic drop-off in his defensive work. He hit .219/.310/.288 in the month of June that year, so it was clear the injuries had taken their toll.
Last season, following a trade to Washington, his defensive numbers continued to be abysmal, this time playing at the hot corner. While it would seem perfectly natural for a good defensive shortstop to make a seamless shift to third, Escobar struggled with the transition, showing poor range according to all the available defensive data. He appeared to be sure-handed enough, committing only 7 errors, though that could also be a product of how infrequently he actually got to the ball.
This article, published on April 3 of last year, may have foreshadowed exactly why the transition was a tough one for Yunel. He was acquired by the Nationals to be their starting second baseman, a position he had almost no experience playing. He worked hard enough at the keystone all spring that he actually injured his oblique, but still got enough time in that he felt he was ready for the season. At the end of spring, starting third baseman Anthony Rendon was injured, forcing Escobar into yet another position change, giving him essentially no time to learn the hot corner.
Poor defensive numbers the last two seasons aren't the only reason projection systems are spitting out poor numbers for Escobar. His 2015 batting line was unquestionably great, though it was powered by an unsustainable .347 BAbip. It was easily his best season since 2011, the last time he was an above-average hitter. That said, he was only slightly below average the two previous seasons, with an OPS+ of 96 in 2013 and 92 in 2014. His ratio of strike outs, walks, extra-base hits and ground balls were all in line with the rest of his career, with only his line-drive rate spiking. There is temptation to say he was the beneficiary of hitting ahead of league MVP Bryce Harper all season, though looking through his game logs, he was often moved up-and-down the line-up, spending nearly equal time in the 1-4 spots of the line-up, with zero impact on his production regardless of where he was slotted.
So what can be expected from Yunel going into his age-33 season, considering his steady performance but up-and-down results the last few years? Mike Scioscia and Alfredo Griffin are confident he will be a plus defender at third now that he has a full spring to work on fundamentals at the position. Transitioning to Anaheim, expect his batting average to fall back to earth, which for Escobar could mean anywhere from .250-.280, as he has always shown an ability to balance contact and patience. His average projected WAR of 0.6 is largely dragged down by PECOTA, which pegs him for a -1.2 WARP, easily the biggest outlier of all the projections for Angels' hitters. Strangely, Baseball Prospectus has never had Escobar as below replacement level, aside from a -0.2 all the way back in 2010, making the aggressive projection a curious one. The rest of the projections peg him around 1.5 WAR, which would essentially put him just shy of what David Freese provided last season.
If Escobar maintains his positive trends in getting on base and can shift his defense at third from terrible to just below-average, this could be seen as one of the best under-the-radar moves of the offseason, where the Angels were largely criticized for not doing enough. We also have to accept the possibility that Escobar is another year older, has permanently lost his ability to be a contributor on defense and his BAbip anomaly from last season was just that, an anomaly. What do you think, Halos Heaven? Put your best guess for his year-end WAR and OBP in the comment line.