The Next Jordan Schafer

Perhaps our very worst prediction of 2015—there’s intense competition for the honor– was that Jordan Schafer would lead the American League in stolen bases. As it developed, he tied for last in the AL, with zero. You can grasp our reasoning, though. Schafer, a year ago, was 28, was among the all-time top 100 in stolen base percentage, had stolen more than 100 bases over the previous four seasons of decidedly part-time play, and was the Twins’ center fielder of choice. He somehow contrived, over the course of April and May, to play himself not only out of the Twins’ starting lineup but out of professional baseball entirely. A .217/.250/.261 slash line, plus three caught-stealings and no stolen bases when your principal asset is speed, will do that to you.

So of course we’re eager to tell you who the 2016 version of Jordan Schafer is. By this, we mean the player most likely either to steal far more bases than anyone envisions or to put the quietus on his career. As we wrote last year, our mistake with Schafer was not taking seriously his spring training record, which was short on speed and long on slow. Thus, our recommendation this year comes with a sub-recommendation: Watch this guy during spring training (or let us watch for you; we promise to report back). If there’s evidence that he can’t run, and you haven’t already got him, don’t take him; if you’ve got him, jettison him, as his team will presumably get around to doing.

The guy in question is Emilio Bonifacio, and his 2015 season makes Jordan Schafer’s 2015 look like Jose Altuve’s: .167/.198/.192, 1 Stolen Base, 4 Caught Stealing, released by the going-nowhere White Sox in August. He turns 31 this season, and he’s got a one-year major league contract with the Braves. How complete is the Fantasy Baseball market’s disdain for him? There have been 82 National Fantasy Baseball Championship slow (i.e. 15-team, 50-round) drafts so far this year. Only 16 of them have made room for Bonifacio among the 750 players taken. His average draft position is 673; the earliest he was drafted was the 36th round. That was us.

We do indeed like him, for a variety of reasons. He plays all over the field, and the Braves are so patched-together and question-markish that it’s hard to imagine he won’t get playing time somewhere if he deserves it. Moreover, this is his third go-round with manager Fredi Gonzalez, who likes him a lot and is presumably responsible for hiring him. What Gonzalez especially likes doing is having Bonifacio attempt steals. In the season and a half they were together on the Marlins, Bonifacio made 42 attempts (and succeeded 33 times). More recently and hence more significantly, in 41 games with the Braves and Gonzalez in 2014, Bonifacio tried to steal 14 times (and was successful 12 of them). This was, we learn from Baseball Reference, with only 50 stolen base opportunities (i.e. when the base in front of him was open). A 28% SBA/SBO is up there in Dee Gordon (30%) territory, suggesting that, if Bonifacio can get on base, Gonzalez will ask him to run. Almost none of this, by the way, was as a pinch-runner; if Bonifacio can still play, Gonzalez will play him.

Can he, though? Spring Training should tell, but his performance in the Dominican Winter League is somewhat encouraging: .267/.382/.347, with 6 SBs in 8 attempts. The hitting numbers, in context, aren’t bad, and the SB numbers are entirely in keeping with his DWL stats during his salad days (38 SB, 14 CS). So maybe he can still hit and run, maybe he can’t; by the time you’ll have any reason to put him in your starting lineup, you’ll know the answer. He’s not a top-30 pick, perhaps, but why isn’t he a top-40?

We’ve got one other stealth-stolen-bases guy to tell you about. That is Trayce Thompson, a member of the Dodgers’ large left-field ensemble. We got him in the 40th round of our slow draft, and so, apparently, did some other people, since that’s where his ADP puts him. Thompson in telegraphese: 25 this season; right-handed hitter who hurts lefties and doesn’t embarrass himself against righties; former big-time White Sox prospect; serious power, serious speed, poor plate discipline, good glove; seven somewhat disappointing years in the minors; summoned to Chicago last August and didn’t stop hitting (.295/.363/.533); traded to the Dodgers in December in what amounts to a challenge trade of prospects.

No one, perhaps including the Dodgers, has any idea what they’re going to do about their outfield/bench situation, which Alex Chamberlain thoughtfully reviewed for you in Fangraphs last month. There can’t possibly be room on the team for Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Scott Van Slyke, and Thompson. So is Thompson organizational depth? The short side of a platoon? Next year’s model? This year’s model?

The one thing we can tell you is that he can and (wherever he plays) will steal more bases than he did with Chicago last season. He had 57 stolen base opportunities, and tried to steal just once. (He made it.) That’s down there with the catchers. In the minors in 2012-2014, though, he stole 20 or more bases a season, at a clip that put him at the same level as some very fast teammates. And if he plays in LA, he’ll be doing so for new manager Dave Roberts, who, we’ve speculated, may be partial to the stolen base.

Our best guess is that Thompson is one of the guys with a seat when the Musical Chairs game ends. You don’t have to squint too hard, for example, to see him supplanting Van Slyke as the right-handed go-to guy. If he is, he gets the same 250 plate appearances Van Slyke usually gets, with a low batting average, but with 10 home runs and 10 steals, maybe more of both. According to Baseball Prospectus, his top two comparables are Curtis Granderson and Joe Benson (look him up; it’s not a happy tale). Certainly worth a reserve-round pick, on the chance that he’s Granderson and the Dodgers let him show it.

We hoped you liked reading The Next Jordan Schafer by The Birchwood Brothers!

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The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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Great article. Thank you for savings us from the purgatory that is Pods Projections.