I can safely say that I’m not the only one who had no idea who Luis Cruz was at the outset of the 2012 season. By the end of it, the once unknown 28-year-old journeyman had become a cult hero in Los Angeles. Heading into 2013, it appears he’ll not only hold down a roster spot, but be the Dodgers starting third baseman.
Now whether that’s something a team with a $200 million payroll should be doing, however, is another matter entirely. Others seem to be having difficulty wrapping their head around it as well, probably because heading into 2012, Cruz’s major-league career consisted of 169 plate appearances spread over three seasons and 56 games. He was atrocious at the dish in that limited sample size, and had been a career minor-leaguer, save for those small cups of coffee.
Following injuries to Dee Gordon (thumb) and Juan Uribe (playing baseball like he plays life), Cruz was called up in early-July and spent time at third, short, and second. Most of that time — 51 games and 48 starts — was at the hot corner, where he shined with the glove, posting a 6.6 UZR and a +8 on the DRS scale. He was very good with the leather overall, saving ~5.5 runs in total in 2012. His play at third was especially impressive considering he had never before manned the position in the bigs.
That last sentence is an important one with Cruz, because fans are quick to make judgments when they first see a player perform in The Show, and Cruz has become a savor in the eyes of many fans. If injuries don’t derail plans and we assume that he continues to flash the leather at third in 2013, Cruz can be an adequate starter for the Dodgers based on his defensive showing in 2012 alone. However, if Cruz’s defense proves to be a mirage, then his offense probably won’t cut it because it’s a strong candidate to regress. Yes, that’s still better than Uribe, who we’ll get to momentarily, but simply being better than Emo Juan isn’t enough to be a productive major-leaguer.
The main problems are that Cruz doesn’t walk (3% in 2012), has limited power (.134 ISO), and is just an average baserunner. Combine those factors with an inflated BABIP (.320), and he’s looking at a less impressive 2013 triple-slash. Oh, and he swings at just about everything, including a ridiculous 41.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone, compared with a league average of just under 31%. That’s not a great indicator unless you’re Vladimir Guerrero talent-wise, and Cruz is obviously not (who is?).
Even for a guy who posted a ~2.3 WAR in 2012, given the rational concerns with him repeating that performance, a starting gig in 2013 is still a godsend. If the only options are starting Cruz or Uribe, then sure, Cruz is the easy choice, but his career minor-league line in 12 seasons and 1200+ plate appearances of .261/.296/.394/.690 speaks volumes to me, and it’s a far greater indicator of what to expect going forward than 296 plate appearances this past season.
Cruz deservedly has a spot on the team, but it probably should be as a bench player, not a starter. And given where he came from prior to the Dodgers, that’s not a diss, but rather a compliment that he’s earned his keep.
Juan Uribe managed to make it through an entire season — in which he hit an unseemly .191/.258/.284/.542 with a .245 wOBA — without being cut. He spent some time on the DL, but more of it riding the pine, going weeks down the stretch without seeing the field.
Spending any significant amount of time on him is a nauseating notion, so let’s just quickly wrap this up and note that Uribe is heading into the final year of the atrocious deal Ned Colletti handed out to him prior to the 2011 campaign. Yes, he still swings at everything, is averse to drawing a walk, and will probably still find work somewhere because he can handle himself in the field, saving ~3.7 runs in 2012.
Adam Kennedy also found himself at third last season, starting 25 games and appearing in 39. He’s pretty much the opposite of Uribe, as he’s bad with the leather (about a run in debt to the Dodgers overall) but mediocre with the lumber (.262/.345/.357/.702 with a .310 wOBA overall). And by mediocre, I mean bad, but better than anyone actually expected him to be.
One last player of note to find himself at third last season was Jerry Hairston Jr., who started 23 games and appeared in 32 at third.
He swung the bat well when playing there, to the tune of a .315/.344/.435/.779 line in just under 100 plate appearances. Perhaps most impressively though, he got off to a ridiculously hot start there defensively, which helped him rate well with the glove (2.6 UZR and a DRS of +2) even though he did struggle later in 2012.