Every year, there's a team or two that has such a dearth of quality hitters that they're forced to fill the clean-up spot in their batting order with a player that clearly doesn't belong. Although studies have shown that the No. 4 spot in the lineup should go to the team's third-best hitter, with the leadoff spot and the No. 2 spot taking the top-2 hitters, many managers often put their best power hitter in the clean-up spot in order to pick up RBI's.
Often, that's how you see wonky RBI marks for guys with overall numbers that don't support their RBI count. Bengie Molina averaging 85 RBIs per season in three years with an anemic Giants offense after averaging 58 RBIs per season in the preceding 7 seasons? That's what happens when you move the No. 8 hitter to the No. 4 spot in the lineup. His OPS+ was 90 in San Francisco, and 87 in the 7 seasons with Anaheim and Toronto. Same guy, new spot in the batting order.
And frankly, Molina has to be one of the worst hitters to spend extended time at the clean-up spot in recent memory. His .278/.302/.440 line was 10% below the league average, and in spite of this he was considered to be an integral part of their offense. Obviously, that doesn't reflect well on San Francisco's offense, and unsurprisingly, they were awfully bad during Molina's time there.
But who's going to take Molina's mantle as the game's least impressive clean-up hitter? I know it's early, but batting orders are beginning to take shape and I thought we would take a look at this today.
Carlos Lee, Houston Astros
Yep. One of the worst players in baseball next season, nearly a win below replacement level, Lee is currently penned into the team's left field and clean-up spot. His BABIP dropped, but he also put up the worst isolated power and second-worst walk rate of his career. Factor in a -16 UZR, and Lee's one of the worst everyday players in baseball if he doesn't bounce back in a serious way next season. ZiPS projects a .275/.319/.459 line with 23 HR in 141 games for next season. That's a whole lot better than last season, but would still make him a distinctly below-average player given his defensive skills. I'm guessing that the Astros are hoping to see Chris Johnson or Brett Wallace emerge as a suitable replacement.
Ryan Ludwick or Brad Hawpe, San Diego Padres
It's not clear who's going to replace Adrian Gonzalez as the team's clean-up hitter, but it's likely to be one of these recent additions. Ludwick came to San Diego over the summer and Hawpe just a couple weeks ago, but they're expected to be key cogs in an offense that's likely to miss their elite-hitting former No. 1 overall pick. The problem, though, is that neither player projects to be particularly good with the bat. ZiPS has Ludwick projected for a .258/.329/.445 line and Hawpe for a .227/.331/.401 line. Ludwick's line is obviously better, but one doesn't exactly get excited about getting slightly above-average production from the third-most important spot in the batting order. Keep an eye out for the return of Kyle Blanks early in the season.
Travis Hafner, Cleveland
Like the other guys, he projects roughly as an average-to-slightly-above-average hitter. And just like the other guys too, his projected numbers feel underwhelming for a clean-up hitter and he offers minimal defensive value (absolutely none, in Hafner's case). ZiPS projects a .251/.352/.415 line for Hafner next season, which comes out to 9% above the league average. Once again, like the other guys, Cleveland is probably hoping that Carlos Santana can push Hafner down in the lineup once he's back and healthy.
Kila Ka'aihue, Kansas City
A polarizing player, most evaluations seem to have come to a middle ground between his elite production in the minor leagues and underwhelming scouting reports. A slow, below-average defender even at first base, one of the biggest knocks on Ka'aihue has been his lack of bat speed (i.e. a "slider-speed bat"). But there's one thing that evaluators can never knock the big Hawaiian for, and that's his ability to get on base. Over the past three years, primarily in Triple-A, he's put up a .434 OBP. It's the kind of number that's so impressive that it's gotten the attention of many in the saber community. It's entirely fair to say that some got too infatuated with the numbers, somewhat disregarding scouting reports that continued to show concern about his ability to hit MLB pitching despite destroying the upper minors. And it certainly doesn't help that he turns 27 in late March, so he's pretty much peaking right now. The numbers say he's a potential star, and the scouting reports say he's a Quad-A player. The projections seem to be a compromise, as ZiPS projects a slightly above-average .244/.355/.412 line. I think he could reasonably put up a higher batting average than what ZiPS projects, but he could also bust if MLB pitchers figure him out.
The Wild Cards
Basically, these are the high-upside/high-risk young guys. They could end up playing great like a Heyward or a Posey, or they could end up falling flat on their face like say, Chris Davis or Chris Carter. The guys I'm specifically talking about: Florida's Mike Stanton and Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez. I think it's fair to say that Stanton and Alvarez are more highly-regarded than Davis and Carter are/were, but we're still talking about power-hitting sluggers with contact issues. Stanton and Alvarez are regarded as two of the best young hitters in baseball, though, and ZiPS seems to agree with this assertion. The system projects Alvarez to bat .262/.337/.479 with 28 HR in 158 games, while Stanton projects to hit .246/.327/.493 with 36 HR in 160 games. These guys could both end up being elite hitters next season if they figure things out. But given their youth, inexperience and tendency to swing-and-miss, I thought it was worth acknowledging the possibility that they both struggle.