In 2008, Andre Ethier had a breakout season for the Dodgers, hitting .305/.375/.510 for a team that made it to the National League Championship Series. His .382 wOBA that year was good for 10th among all MLB outfielders, impressive for a player who had spent much of his first two seasons in the big leagues battling lesser players like Luis Gonzalez & Juan Pierre for playing time. The following year, the Dodgers made it back to the NLCS, and Ethier was a huge part of that success; while his wOBA was slightly down to .370 (which still made him a top-20 outfielder), he increased his home runs from 20 to 31 and left behind a string of lasting memories, since it seemed that every time you looked up in 2009, Ethier was hitting a walkoff and being mobbed by teammates at home plate. At 27 years old, Ethier had a career line of .291/.363/.490 in four seasons and had established himself not only as an up-and-coming star but as one of the few feathers in general manager Ned Colletti’s cowboy hat, considering he’d been stolen from Billy Beane & the Athletics when it became clear Milton Bradley had to go after 2005.
While the future may have looked bright for both Ethier and the Dodgers at that point, it hasn’t really worked out that way for either party. The Dodgers, saddled by the whirlwind controversies brought on by the excesses of owner Frank McCourt, went just one game over .500 over the last two seasons, not sniffing the playoffs either time. Ethier, while still relatively productive despite battling injuries, has seen his power all but disappear. A slugging percentage that was .508 in 2009 has fallen to .493 in 2010 and down to .421 in 2011, when he hit just 11 homers and had a .343 wOBA that barely placed him within the top 30 among outfielders.
Ethier’s reputation has been further damaged by what can kindly be described as a salty attitude, including complaining about his contract status & suggesting that he might be non-tendered just before Opening Day 2010 and getting into a very public spat with the team about whether he was being forced to play through a knee injury late last season. Beyond that, his total inability to hit left-handed pitching and his less-than-impressive defensive performance (despite a laughable Gold Glove in 2011) led FanGraphs’ own Mike Axisa, writing at River Ave Blues this winter, to label him as essentially a platoon designated hitter, a description I couldn’t really find much to argue with.
All of which is to say that the outlook on Ethier heading into 2012 isn’t exactly what it was following 2009, and that’s reflected in fantasy drafts so far this season. His ADP at MockDraftCentral is 135th overall and just 35th among outfielders, behind Nick Markakis and just barely ahead of Peter Bourjos. At both MDC and in CBS’ auction values list, he’s seen as being only slightly more valuable than Melky Cabrera, who A) had a career year (.349 wOBA) last year which was only slightly better than Ethier’s sub-par 2011 and B) seems about as likely to repeat that performance as McCourt is to go into business with Bud Selig on a nice little bed-and-breakfast.
Here’s the thing, though: absolutely everything is falling into place perfectly for Ethier to have a huge comeback season, and that potential along with his lessened public profile makes him a very valuable commodity.
Let’s take a closer look at Ethier’s last two seasons to see exactly what happened, because the wheels didn’t just suddenly come off indiscriminately and unreasonably. Through the first 33 games of 2010, Ethier was destroying the ball with a .392/.457/.744 line and 11 homers. Though such a performance is completely unsustainable over a full season, even some regression would have easily allowed him to match or better his two previous excellent seasons. On May 15, Ethier fractured the pinky of his right hand taking batting practice before a game in San Diego and landed on the disabled list. He rushed back as soon as he was eligible to return on May 31 and proceeded to collect just one single in his first fourteen plate appearances; he would hit just .260/.335/.413 with 12 homers over the ensuing 106 games and would later admit that he had returned to action before his finger was ready.
2011 was more of the same. Ethier again got off to a blazing start, hitting .379/.442/.532 through May 6, the final day of his 30-game hitting streak, though with only three homers. From May 7 until his season ended on September 6 after the squabble with management, he hit only .262/.344/.383, as the right knee which had progressively grown more painful over the length of the season grew to be too much to handle and required arthroscopic surgery.
So what have we learned? When healthy, as he was in 2008, 2009, and the early parts of 2010 & 2011, Ethier is going to hit. Finally past the finger and knee injuries this year and with a full winter of conditioning behind him, he’s been tearing apart the Cactus League, hitting .421/.465/.947 with 13 extra-base hits in 15 games through Wednesday. While those spring stats come with the requisite grain of salt due to the varying level of competition in camp, that kind of production does seem to show a player who is fully healthy for the first time in quite a while.
In addition, Ethier is a free agent at the end of the season for the first time, and he has done more than his share of squawking about needing a new contract, whether that’s with the Dodgers or someone else. He’s exactly the type of emotional player who does well with something to prove, and it’s fair to say that a rebound to 2008-09 levels in his walk year as opposed to a repeat of his performance last year could be the difference in tens of millions of dollars on the market this winter.
Mark it down: if Ethier remains healthy and motivated, he’s going to be a top-15 offensive outfielder again. For a guy routinely going in the mid-30s at his position in drafts so far, that’s an immense opportunity for value.