If you want to look towards one of the biggest differences between the quality of play in the American and National Leagues, look no further than the depth of lineups within each league. Partially because of the designated hitter, and partially because of a variety of other reasons, American League teams have noticeably deeper, and generally better, lineups of everyday players.
We've seen all kinds of talk about who has the best leadoff hitter, or the best middle of the order. But nobody seems to be all that interested in who has the best hitter at the bottom of the batting order. So I thought that it would be interesting to look at each team's No. 9 hitter as we come into this season, and rank them based on offensive potential. So don't be surprised to see Adam Everett's and Cesar Izturis' names at the bottom of the list.
A few quick things to touch on before I present the list, which is far from earth-shattering and merely a little exercise because I have the free time. First off, Baltimore and Tampa Bay don't play until tonight, so I'm projecting their No. 9 hitters as shortstop Cesar Izturis and catcher Kelly Shoppach, respectively. If anyone finds out that's not the case, then just shout out to me. Additionally, Michael Brantley's stay in Cleveland may not last that long unless he hits it big. When first baseman Russell Branyan returns to health, he'll likely get sent back to Triple-A in favor of Matt LaPorta. Lastly, lineups change all the time, and not only would the order of this list possibly look different a few weeks from now, but the names could change a lot by then, too.
Alas, I present my very unofficial (and open to discussion) list of how the Opening Day No. 9 hitters stack up in the American League.
1. LF Travis Snider, TOR
2. SS Alexei Ramirez, CHW
3. C Kelly Shoppach, TB
4. SS Marco Scutaro, BOS
5. LF Brett Gardner, NYY
6. LF Michael Brantley, CLE
7. SS Elvis Andrus, TEX
8. 3B Brandon Wood, LAA
9. 2B Chris Getz, KC
10. SS Cliff Pennington, OAK
11. 3B Nick Punto, MIN
12. SS Jack Wilson, SEA
13. SS Cesar Izturis, BAL
14. SS Adam Everett, DET
A few notes, from my mind of all places:
- The only hitter that I would comfortably project as above-average is Toronto outfielder Travis Snider. The former elite prospect is currently slotted behind catcher John Buck, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and shortstop Alex Gonzalez in the batting order, but his stay in the No. 9 spot shouldn't last long. He doesn't belong there now, and he should make for an impressive 3-4 combination with Adam Lind in the near future. Frankly, I have no idea why Cito Gaston batted him ninth. Any Jays fans have an idea? Seems pretty silly.
- Ramirez, Shoppach, Scutaro, and Gardner all seem to be decent bets for league average performance, or slightly better. If The Cuban Missile can combine his power from 2008 with his improved patience from 2009, he could emerge as one of the best shortstops in the AL. Shoppach's contact issues are well-documented, but this is a hitter with a career wRC+ of 108 in over 1,000 plate appearances and he posted a 130 mark in his lone season with over 400 plate appearances. Scutaro probably won't repeat his 13% walk rate, but he's a great contact hitter and most projection systems see him as roughly league average. ZiPS is unusually bullish on Scutaro, projecting a .358 wOBA from him this year, which is better than his mark from last season. And I think that everyone here has heard of Gardner. If he figures out how to get on-base consistently, and he probably will, then he'll emerge as one of the more interesting speed-oriented players in the game.
- The biggest upside seems to lie in Snider, Ramirez and Wood. If any of these guys came up with a solidly above average offensive season, I don't think that it would blow any minds. Oakland shortstop Cliff Pennington, on the other hand?
- Don't be confused: Punto, Wilson, Izturis and Everett wouldn't come close to an everyday lineup without sparkling defensive efforts. Lucky for these guys, they're all regarded as defensive whizzes.
So, the number nine spot in the order seems to be designated for four general types of players: Young hitters in need of low-pressure experience (Snider, Wood, Brantley), solid hitters that play premium positions toiling in deep lineups (Ramirez, Scutaro, Shoppach, Gardner), developing middle infielders (Andrus, Getz, Pennington), and slick-fielding infielders that couldn't hit anywhere else but the bottom of the order (Punto, Wilson, Izturis, Everett).
I'm sure that if we revisit this list in a few months, hell even a few weeks, it would look rather different. Some guys will move up in the order, some guys will move down to Triple-A. But if you notice, there's actually some pretty decent talent tailing the bottom of the AL's batting orders.