2011 Marlins Season Preview: Left Field

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(Editor’s note: I apologize for not writing about Murphy and Gotay yesterday. I just completed my test for the past five weeks of classes and found the time to be social for a change instead of being couped up in the library. Rest assured, however, that you will be hearing about those two players a little bit later today, along with another interesting goodie that is NL East related.)

The Marlins entered the 2010 season sporting Chris Coghlan in left field. The team hoped that he would be able to distinguish himself and continue the sort of dominance at the plate that he showed in his 2009 Rookie of the Year season. Alas, it was not to be, as Coghlan struggled mightily to start the season and later injured himself in a pretty ridiculous fashion. Nevertheless, the Marlins ultimately had little need for Coghlan in left field, as their logjam at first base forced the team to move Logan Morrison into the outfield when he was promoted to the majors.

Depth Chart

Starter: Logan Morrison
Backup: Scott Cousins

Minor league depth: Bryan Petersen

The Marlins will enter the season expecting much from Morrison’s bat while hoping that his glove doesn’t contribute to what appears to be a sinking ship of an outfield defensively. Morrison’s debut was mighty impressive, but can he continue the trend he set last season?

Logan Morrison

Morrison came in last season following the Coghlan injury and impressed fans, particularly those of the sabermetrics-savvy variety, all over. In just 287 PA, Morrison hit .283/.390/.447, good for a .369 wOBA and just over 10 runs above average. It was quite the debut, but it was fitting for a player who had built up a reputation as a strong hitting prospect in the minors.

The first thing immediately jumps out from Morrison’s hitting profile is his extreme patience. Morrison only swung on 36.6 percent of pitches he saw and managed to draw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance. That sort of patience allowed him to draw a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances last season in the majors. Usually, such a patient approach would yield a lot of strikeouts as well as walks, as seeing a lot of pitches usually leads to more strikes as well as balls. However, because of Morrison’s strong contact rate (he made contact on 81.5 percent of pitches swung at), he was able to maintain a modest 17.8 percent strikeout rate. This sort of plate approach is something the Marlins have rarely seen in their lifetime. Only two Marlins have ever averaged more than a 10 percent walk rate and less than a 17 percent strikeout rate during any season, and those two Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera. Morrison’s work last season in terms of BB/K matched Cabrera’s best season in 2006.

Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has tracked Morrison’s minor league career. In his last three minor league seasons, encompassing 1224 PA, Morrison walked 169 times and struck out only 166 times. He has always displayed a penchant for patience and enough contact capability to not put him in the Adam Dunn mold of high strikeout / high walk players.

The two biggest questions Morrison faces going into 2011 are his developing power and his defense. One should not be a major concern for Marlins fans this season; lost in the talk about Morrison’s low home run count in 2010 was the fact that he hit 20 doubles and seven triples (!) as well. If we adjust his ISO to count triples evenly with doubles (as triples aren’t usually hit any harder than doubles), he ends up with an ISO of .135. This still sounds unimpressive but it no longer overstates Morrison’s lack of power. Remember, he is only 23 years old in 2011 and still has some time to mature into his power, and some of that power is bound to come just from having a few more doubles drive a little further and turn into homers. Expecting more than 12 or 14 may be too much for 2011, but Morrison’s ability at the plate can more than make up for that slight deficiency.

The defensive concerns are a different problem. The Marlins needed to fit a bat as good as Morrison’s into the lineup, but it would have been difficult to do without playing him out of position. The team shifted him to left field, and the early statistics did not look good. UZR had Morrison costing the Marlins seven runs below average, while DRS has him costing four runs last year. My own projections using UZR and the Fans Scouting Report place him as a -7 runs / season player in left field, which would certainly eat up his production. Beyond that, consider the practical applications of the current Marlins outfield plan. The team has chosen to play Coghlan, who is now at best an average left fielder, in center field to anchor the outfield defense. If Coghlan falters defensively as I expect he will, Morrison will not receive as much help in left field as he would have in seasons past with Cody Ross manning the position or with Cameron Maybin and his speed working in the area.

Projection: 625 PA, 2.0 WAR

The projections like Morrison’s bat to continue at a pretty strong pace, though not as effective as last season’s performance. The Fans were the most aggressive (unsurprisingly), projecting a .282/.382/.451 line that is pretty close to his previous season’s work with added power along the way. PECOTA came out the least impressed, regressing him back to a .273/.371/.409 slash line that was good for a .345 wOBA. Essentially, the question will come down as to whether his power will show up (the Fans are expecting a .169 ISO) or not (PECOTA sees a .136 ISO). The answer may lie somewhere in between, and a .350 wOBA would not surprise me at all.

Bench

Scott Cousins will likely enter the season as the fourth outfielder with a potential shot at starting in center field if the Marlins don’t see Chris Coghlan working out. Cousins hasn’t had a good season at the plate in a while, but he has always had the tools to succeed. Many point to his hot second half in Triple-A New Orleans as perhaps a sign that he is finally “getting it,” but I hesitate to label any split of that nature as anything significantly more meaningful than simple variation. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein had to say about Cousins:

The Good: Cousins does not have a tool that rates below average. He has sound hitting mechanics with gap-to-average power and enough speed to rack up double-digit stolen bases. He’s a good outfielder, and his arm, like everything else about his game, is solid.
The Bad: While Cousins is a five-tool player in many ways, none of those tools are plus. If he can’t stay in center field, he don’t (sic) have enough secondary skills to rate well as a corner outfielder, with only average power and below-average plate discipline.

He sounds exactly like the type of guy who might one day be an average player but right now does not show the ability to do so. Still, the Marlins need an outfielder who can play decent defense and another lefty bat off the bench, so things could be worse for them. Cousins should have enough skill at each position to at least be a strong fourth outfielder.

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