Tao of Stieb: Time to temper expectations of Lawrie

Brett Lawrie (Paul Sancya/AP)
June 6, 2014, 12:00 PM

In some ways, I feel bad for Brett Lawrie. I can’t think of another player in my time as a Blue Jays fan that has had such lofty expectations hurled upon him.

There are many compounding factors that led to this: Obviously, there’s his citizenship and putative role as the "hometown" hero from 4,333 kilometres away. There’s the fact the Jays wanted him and missed getting him in his draft year, eventually sending their opening day starter to Milwaukee in a trade for him. Let’s not forget how he arrived as a cocksure young buck that insisted he was ready to make the jump to the big leagues immediately, making good on that promise in his first season with the organization in a truly spectacular way.

This being the age of self-accredited talent evaluation, you could imagine the comparisons to other players that were made early on. Was Lawrie destined to perform like Scott Rolen? Brooks Robinson? Mike Schmidt? Was his unbridled intensity and tremendous hand-eye coordination akin to Pete Rose?

It’s a wonder that someone didn’t just tag him with a Babe Ruth comparison, just to make sure that we moved beyond the absurd and into the ridiculous.

Initially, the comparison I threw at Lawrie was Jeff Bagwell. Though they played on opposite sides of the diamond, I saw similarities in their whippy, violent swings and their combination of muscular physiques with speed and agility. I could have seen Lawrie posting .900 OPSs and making multiple All-Star Game appearances.

I guess we all got carried away, and there’s no way he could ever have lived up to the ambitions of others.

As hopes and aspirations for Lawrie contracted over the last two years, another comparison popped into my head, and it was enough of a downer that I dared not even give it voice. It was a third baseman with a good — sometimes great — glove, who hit for a bit of power but never really would have been considered an elite third baseman.

From somewhere in the back of my mind came this question: "Is Brett Lawrie essentially like Joe Crede?" I immediately stuck my fingers in my ears and attempted to drown the thought out before it stuck in my head.

But stick it did. Sometime after Lawrie wrapped up his third season with a career OPS of .755, I checked Crede’s career mark: .748. Lawrie had the better OBP (.328 to .304), though if you take out Lawrie’s sensational debut, you get an on-base of .320 and the gap closed a bit, uncomfortably so.

But as the notion hung around my head longer, it started to dawn on me that maybe if Lawrie’s career played out as Crede’s did, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Blue Jays. After all, the White Sox won a World Series in 2005 with Crede, and he won a Silver Slugger the next season. He even managed to sneak into an All-Star Game in 2008.

Imagine that you could look ahead at Brett Lawrie’s next four seasons, when he was between the ages of 25 and 28. While the details are sketchy, imagine you see Brett Lawrie posting a .762 OPS with excellent defence and average 23 homers a season. He wins a Silver Slugger in a 30-homer season, and the Blue Jays win a World Series in that span. Is that something that would interest you? Because that’s what Crede did on the South Side of Chicago over that similar span.

The team success is thrown into that equation as something of a canard, but the question remains: Would it be such a bad thing if this comparison were close to what he would become?

Certainly, you could hope for more. A couple of other names that stand out as similar players on Lawrie’s Baseball Reference page are Fernando Tatis (career .344 OBP/.442 SLG with many injury plagued seasons) and Aramis Ramirez (.344/.499 over 17 seasons … has it really been that long?).

Blue Jays fans would be lucky to see Lawrie’s career evolve into something resembling that of Ramirez and, if that were the case, one could imagine him becoming a centrepiece of an offence after Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion take their leave. But maybe that’s the ceiling at this point.

Indeed, Lawrie’s been very good since May 1. In that 28-game span, he’s belted four homers to go with a .331 on-base and .468 slugging. So the good version of Lawrie offers excellent defence and an OPS around .800.

They’re not numbers that ensure his eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown by any stretch of the imagination, but they would make a valuable secondary contributor on a good team. And you know Kelly Gruber became a legend in these parts while doing a whole lot less than that.

I know there are some who begrudge Lawrie the attention and star treatment he receives. They feel he hasn’t earned his way onto the cover of video games or as a centrepiece in the team’s promotions with what he has produced on the field. In some ways, he might still be spending the reputational capital that was offered on credit in view of what people hoped he could be.

But maybe it’s time we stopped waiting for Lawrie to become something greater and start to recognize the value in the player he already is.

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