You know, quite a bit has been made out of this innocuous little morsel of manager-to-media banter since it was first published by Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News during last month's winter meetings in Las Vegas:
Nelson Cruz would be the cleanup hitter if the Rangers didn't make any moves to add offense. [Manager Ron] Washington said he wants a right-handed bat behind Josh Hamilton and he wants to leave Hamilton third in the order.
With one of the three best dates of the calendar year baseball-wise now looming less than six weeks away (referring to the glorious date of February 14th, of course, which is when Texas Rangers pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Surprise, Arizona for the official onset of spring training), it's only natural that fan and media speculation with regard to the actual on-the-field action would increasingly begin to creep into the baseball conversations that have largely been dominated by hot stove talk to this point in the off-season, and that truth became even more glaringly evident on Tuesday when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jim Reeves joined the speculation, strongly intimating that it's "sink or swim" time for Cruz in a Rangers uniform.
Long-time readers of BBTiA can vouch for the fact that I've been a hopelessly devout Cruz supporter for the near-entirety of his time in the organization; indeed, any and all rationality goes flying out the window whenever his name crops up around me, because then I begin to reflect on his marvelous tools and his jaw-dropping minor league statistical body of work, and it's not long after that I become transfixed with the glassy-eyed expression of a young boy futilely attempting to process the overwhelming array of sights and sounds from his first major league game -- or something closely resembling that, anyway.
The fact of the matter is that we can endlessly debate the merits of Cruz being the Rangers' Opening Day cleanup hitter and yet always come away empty-handed at the end of the day, and because this cozy little corner of the baseball blogosphere has never been about coming away empty-handed, I've taken the liberty of plugging in Sean Smith's excellent 2009 CHONE player projections (available here) into David Pinto's convenient lineup analysis mechanism (available here), using the below self-concocted 2009 projected batting order:
Some important footnotes and thoughts:
● I could have conceivably employed the Bill James or Marcels projections available at FanGraphs and plugged those into Pinto's lineup analysis tool, but the former appear far too optimistic, particularly where young players are concerned (.302/.352/.599 from Davis? .308/.390/.548 from Max Ramirez? Sure, anything is possible in this game, but those aren't remotely realistic projections), and because the latter doesn't integrate minor league numbers into its engine, it's not particularly adept at handling young players.
Conversely, the CHONE projections measure up quite well from a statistical standpoint with the industry leader in player forecasting, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, and seem quite well-rooted in practicability and logic, and that's really what I wanted to strive for here.
● There's obviously an inherent flaw present in this methodology -- not all of these players are going to log 162 games in the field (heck, if even one of them manages to do so it will be considered a noteworthy accomplishment), and if Marlon Byrd (who projects to hit a healthy .281/.352/.434) survives the season without being dealt, he'll easily log 400 plate appearances between all three outfield positions, consequently undermining Murphy's role to a certain degree.
Blalock won't exclusively hog the designated hitter's spot all to himself -- you can bet on Washington utilizing that spot to give his more vulnerable pieces of offensive artillery occasional breathers from the battlefield. And if Metcalf actually fulfills his singularly horrific projection through, say, his first 100 plate appearances of the season, he'll be shipped back to Triple-A Oklahoma City faster than you can say "German Duran."
● Try not to read too much into the few key assumptions I've made here, particularly where the catcher's spot in the projected batting order is concerned; that could quite honestly go in any of several different directions. I also question whether Washington would condone batting three lefties (Blalock, Murphy and Davis) back-to-back-to-back -- and, of course, batting Davis seventh probably doesn't make a tremendous deal of sense, but I can envision it happening with the intention of wanting to "protect" the second-year slugger by burying him deeper in the lineup, so there you go.
Plugging the above batting order into Pinto's lineup analysis tool produces the sum of 5.116 runs per game on average, or roughly 830 runs over the course of a full 162-game season, while the computer-generated "best" lineups produce the sums of 5.208 runs per game on average, or roughly 845 runs -- a disparity of approximately 15 runs (give or take a run or two), or about one and a half wins.
The purported importance of the noble art of lineup construction seems to be overemphasized on a relatively frequent basis, but there is clearly value to be derived from doing it with a fair degree of competence (i.e. not giving Corey Patterson and his illustrious .238 on-base percentage 155 plate appearances in the lead-off spot, such as Reds manager Dusty Baker did in 2008), and it goes without saying that you want your better hitters hitting closer to the top of the batting order in order to maximize their opportunities to inflict offensive damage.
As for the top suggested lineups themselves, notice any recurring themes?
[Click the image for the expanded version.]
Yes, the top eight suggested lineups all feature Hamilton batting second, Davis batting sixth, Metcalf batting eighth ... and Cruz batting fourth, which is, of course, predicated on one of the more remarkably gifted and talented outfielders in franchise history fulfilling his enormous potential and living up to his respective projection. Moreover, is he capable of handling the additional pressure to hit for power and produce runs that the cleanup spot entails?
We're going to find out soon enough.