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Sunday, March 20, 2005

2005 Ranger preview -- Third Base 

It says a lot about Hank Blalock that his 2004 season -- where he put up a .269/.355/.500 line with quality defense at age 23 -- was considered to be something of a disappointment. A season where he put up a .283 EQA, had the 9th-highest VORP among major league third basemen, and was actually getting to face lefties for the first time was seen as a letdown. And I have to admit, I'm one of those who was disappointed.

Blalock has only himself to blame for these expectations, of course. A third round choice in 1999, Blalock was solid, if unspectacular, his first two seasons before exploding in 2001, tearing up the Florida State League and the Texas League, and earning himself recognition as one of the top 5 prospects in baseball by just about every entity that does prospect rankings. I remember watching him in 2001, in a series against Round Rock, and coming away very impressed with Blalock...despite being one of the youngest players on either team, he carried himself like a veteran, and hit the ball hard every time he came to the plate. Since then, he's been one of my favorite players, a guy I pull for more than just about anyone else.

After backsliding a bit in 2002, he rebounded impressively in 2003, earning an All-Star berth despite being one of the youngest regulars in the majors, and announcing his presence on the national stage with authority by homering off of Eric Gagne to give the American League the victory in that game. He ended the season with a .300/.350/.522 line, and was heralded as a budding star, the next great third baseman.

And it looked like he was taking that next step in 2004, starting the season hot, and going into the All-Star break with a 941 OPS, before falling apart in the second half, posting just a 743 OPS after the break, including a miserable July that saw him post a .190/.296/.330 line.

Despite the second-half slump, I'm not worried about Blalock for 2006. He's mechanically sound at the plate, has hit at every level, and I expect him to keep getting better. Even against lefties, believed to be his Achilles heel, he managed a respectable .282/.344/.436 line last season. And while he's been knocked for being unable to hit on the road, his home/road splits last season show that his extra-base hits, walks, and strikeout rates were similar at home and on the road last season...while he had a large split in OPS between his home and road performance, it was almost all attributable to his having 20 more singles at home. While Rangers hitters are almost always going to hit better at home than on the road, due to TBIA being such a tremendous hitter's park, the power and K/BB ratios suggest that the home/road differential for Blalock last season isn't something to be overly concerned about.

I'm expecting 2006 to be a consolidation year for Blalock, a year where he solidifies his position as an elite third baseman. While there were comparisons to George Brett when Blalock was coming up, the two guys who I see as being most comparable to Blalock are two active third basemen -- Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen. Blalock isn't quite at the level of Chavez defensively, and neither Chavez nor Blalock are close to Rolen with the glove (Rolen may be the best defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson), but particularly offensively, they are very similar players...guys who should hit for average, draw a lot of walks, and hit for good power, while not being 40 homer guys. And Chavez and Rolen, like Blalock, burst on the scene very early, played very well, and then were perceived as mild disappointments because they didn't show a huge improvement in their early 20s.

I'm expecting Blalock, over the next three or four years, to perform like Chavez and Rolen at a similar age did, putting up EQAs in the .290s, with flashes that suggest that he could be doing a lot more. The George Brett comparisons early in Blalock's career may have put unreasonable expectations in everyone's mind, but the bottom line is, even if he never gets any better than he is now, he's still a very good player. And with the Rangers having locked him up with a five year deal before the 2004 season, we can expect to see him manning the hot corner for the Rangers for some time to come.

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