The Great Big 2012 Blue Jays Forecast Series, Part 4: Brett Lawrie

By Thom Tsang

With spring training officially just under a month away, I thought now would be a good time to start a series of projections on what the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays might look like. Each day (don’t hold me to this), I will profile a 2012 Blue Jays starter, closing with a set of numbers based on my (usually positive) expectations. We move to the 5-spot on the diamond today, taking a closer look at the newest kid on the block, 3rd baseman Brett Lawrie.

I’ve been looking forward to the challenge of doing a piece like this on Brett Lawrie for some time because, in some ways, there’s nothing I can say about the 22-year old’s future performance that I’d feel “right” about. After all, I’d been totally wrong with my assessment of the Blue Jays’ 3rd baseman of-the-future thus far. “Rushed,” I said, when the possibility of Lawrie joining the big club much earlier than expected first came up. “He’s not close to being ready, not with barely over 300PA above AA.” Remember how we were still trying to get over how Snider was similarly rushed to the majors? Well, with just 69 games at the AAA level, Lawrie didn’t take very long in 2011 to force his way onto the major leagues, making his much-ballyhooed (and broken-hand delayed) debut in August, subsequently forcing doubters like myself eat my words with an out of the world .293/.373/.580 line, with 9 home runs over 171 PA.

Yet, headed into the 2012 season, I find myself more of a skeptic than a believer again. Lawrie can’t possibly sustain his level of production this season…can he? There’s a believer in me who is excited about the possibility of Lawrie shutting up the skeptics for good with a season that would put him among the very best at the hot corner, but that feels a little uncomfortable to say, doesn’t it? The kid is just 22-years old. He’s still learning to play defense at 3rd, instead of relying on his raw athleticism to make plays. He just got here. How in the world could he possibly put up a .950+ OPS over a full season?

Well, the answer is pretty simple – he won’t. It’s unlikely for any player to put up those kinds of numbers in any given season, and while Lawrie can clearly be very good, I don’t think he’s there…yet. The biggest fear, I think, is that Lawrie will bust or flame out. The game has taught us to think that it’s designed to facilitate busts. Think Eric Hinske, or more recently, Gordon Beckham (not quite there, but close). Even Travis Snider, who is just a year older than Lawrie, is that close to the dreaded “bust” label, if only because it feels like he’s been around forever. Players that dominate the game at a very young age simply doesn’t happen very often, even if a number of them do come roaring through the door.

But you know what? Brett Lawrie is the kind of guy that plays with the belief and confidence like he could be one of those players – and he has the natural ability to back up his game. He goes to the plate looking like he belongs, and makes the tough plays work in spite of his inexperience on defense. It’s an all-out kind of game that Brett Lawrie plays, and as a fan, it’s hard not to be drawn in to the energy that he brings to the club, especially when we’d been watching a mix of Mark Teahen, Edwin Encarnacion and Jayson Nix try to fill a black hole of a void all season long.

Did I just talk myself into being a full-on Lawrie believer? Maybe just a little bit. The .287 ISO is going to take the biggest hit in 2012, I think, as will the 17% HR/FB ratio. I’m certainly not ready to predict 31 home runs for Lawrie over 600 PA (his pace in 2011); being an everyday player for 150+ games at this level is a big, tough adjustment to make. Pitchers will be making adjustments to Lawrie’s game this season as well, and one of the biggest questions is how he will answer those. That being said, Lawrie showed an incredibly mature batting eye in his 2-month stint in Toronto, posting a surprisingly good 9.4% walk rate while his strikeout rate nudged just a tick with the adjustment from AAA (16.1%) to the major leagues (18.1%). He also showed good speed, stealing 7 bases in 8 attempts. Furthermore, his BABIP seemed relatively luck-neutral when compared to his minor league career, settling at a comfortable .318. That might wind up coming down a bit in 2012, but it’s just more likely that Lawrie is one of those hitters who is capable of posting a slightly above-average BABIP; it’s like a baseball way of saying “you have to be lucky to be good, but you have to be good to be lucky”.

So how good will Lawrie be in 2012? Well, how about something like this:

610 PA, .280/.340/.490, 20 HR, 22 SB

I’ve been fiddling with the numbers, and the more I look at them, the more I want to bring things down a notch or two…but, let’s just run with it. A .830 OPS season would put Lawrie within the upper end of 6-10 range of 3rd basemen in the big leagues in just his first full season; add a rare 20-20 factor, and he might be knocking at top 5 sooner rather than later. It’s lofty expectations to put on any player, let alone a 22-year old; but if there’s anyone on the Blue Jays whose game is about achieving incredibly lofty goals and expectations, Lawrie is probably it.

As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated. Have I gone too far with this? Does anyone out there think Lawrie will have an even bigger season?


Previous 2012 Blue Jays forecasts:

Part 1: J.P. Arencibia – 510 PA, .255/.315/.450, 26 HR
Part 2: Adam Lind – 600 PA, .260/.320/.445, 26 HR
Part 3: Kelly Johnson – 580 PA, .270/.350/.430, 16 HR, 11 SB

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