Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brandon Laird: Forgotten Infielder

(Courtesy of The AP)

A little over a year ago things were looking sunny for Brandon Laird.  He was fresh off an MVP season in the Double-A Eastern League thanks to a .291/.355/.523 line (.383 wOBA), 47 XBH, 23 HR, 90 RBI in 454 PA, and got a late-season bump to Triple-A (.270 wOBA in 127 PA).  He had elevated himself to the top half of most Yankee top prospects lists, and heading into 2011 Spring Training he had an outside shot at nudging his way into the discussion for the utility infielder role with a good performance.  Since then, however, things have taken a downturn for Laird and he finds himself heading into Spring Training this year dangerously close to falling off the prospect radar and the Yankees' radar as a legit 25-man roster candidate.  How did this happen so quickly and should it even be happening?

The simple explanation for Laird's prospect status decline is his poor 2011 showing.  Laird went into his first full Triple-A season with high expectations after his 2010 breakout for Trenton, but failed to live up to those expectations, posting a disappointing .260/.288/.422 line in 489 PA, good for just a .310 wOBA.  That, combined with the emergence of Eduardo Nunez at the Major League level and the presence (limited as it was) of Eric Chavez on the roster, resulted in Laird only getting a 25-plate appearance cameo in September once rosters expanded.  25 plate appearances is hardly enough time for anyone to make a big impression on the Yankee decision makers, and in Laird's case it's hardly enough time to diffuse any negative impressions that could have been made by his Triple-A performance.  In any case, Laird comes into 2012 in an almost identical position to the one he found himself in last season and with a lot less luster.

On paper, Laird is an ideal candidate to fill a utility bench spot for the Yankees in 2012.  He's young, cheap, can play three defensive positions (third base, first base, left field in a pinch), and has enough raw power and plate discipline to hold his own at the dish and contribute in what would be limited at-bats.  His problem in getting a chance to show his worth is two-fold right now; Laird is a low-ceiling prospect who doesn't do anything amazingly well to begin with, and he's coming off a down year at the highest Minor League level.  His greatest asset, power, hasn't really been tested at the Major League level, and his 3.5% BB rate in 2011 doesn't exactly jive with his reputation as a hitter with good plate discipline or the Yankees' organizational philosophies when it comes to hitting.  And since the Yankees are likely working off his 25 September plate appearances and his less-than-sparkling numbers from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, it's understandable to a degree why Laird would be passed over again for other options.

The Yankees' actions this offseason indicated that they were not only pursuing those other options when it came to filling that last utility bench spot, but also that they don't seem to have any confidence in Laird's ability to do the job at all.  How else do you explain the Yanks pursuing guys like Bill Hall and Eric Chavez in free agency?  Hall is coming off a horrific 2011 campaign with the Giants and Astros (.211/.261/.314, .252 wOBA, -1.6 WAR in 199 PA) and isn't likely to have a major bounce back at age 32.  And even though the latest reports still make it sound like he's not a lock to be signed, the Yankees have been linked to Chavez for a one-year reunion since almost the minute the offseason started despite the fact that he's a walking DL stint with little to no power left and turned 34 in December.  The most recent 2012 CAIRO projections for these guys doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture:
  • Hall- 302 PA, .221/.281/.369 slash, .285 wOBA, 0.4 WAR
  • Chavez- 149 PA, .240/.296/.356 slash, .288 wOBA, 0.2 WAR
Told ya.  That's bottom-of-the-barrel production no matter who you are and it doesn't add up to winning baseball, even from the last guy on the bench.  This is what makes Laird's situation so strange.  It would be one thing if the Yankees were bringing in guys who they could definitively say were an upgrade over Laird, but that just isn't the case with Hall and Chavez.  For the sake of comparison, here's Laird's CAIRO projection for 2012:
  • Laird- 392 PA, .247/.292/.407 slash, .304 wOBA, 0.8 WAR
That line is also nothing to write home about, but it's still better than Hall or Chavez, and it comes with the added bonus of Laird being more likely to exceed the projections because of his youth and lack of Major League experience.  Hall and Chavez are known commodities at this point in their respective careers, and they are commodities on the downward trend.  Laird should be the exact opposite because of his youth and lack of MLB track record.  His ceiling as a general Major League player might not be very high, but as a backup utility player his ceiling should be much higher than what the Yankees could expect from Hall or Chavez.  Despite that, the Yankees haven't given any indication that he's in the mix for that spot.

Maybe this point is overblown and we just haven't heard a lot of about Laird heading into Spring Training because he's already on the 40-man roster, but it certainly seems like Laird has become a victim of his own low ceiling and his poor 2011 showing.  In Laird, the Yankees have a player who can play multiple defensive positions and swing the bat with some power.  His age, the cheap cost to the team that comes with it, and extra options should make him an even more attractive bench option than guys like Bill Hall and Eric Chavez, low-risk as they are, and yet Laird comes into camp seemingly already penciled into the 3B spot for Triple-A again.  There isn't much Laird can do there that's going to help his career more than getting playing time and at-bats at the Major League level will, and at 24 his window of opportunity is already starting to close.  If the Yankees have plans for Laird, be it as a future piece of the bench or a trade chip, it would behoove them to give Laird a longer look this spring.

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