After two consecutive years of double-digit homeruns, Michael Morse of the Washington Nationals became a household name–at least in houses that participate in fantasy baseball. In just 266 plate appearances last season, Morse owned a .289/.352/.519 line with 15 homeruns, 41 RBI, and 36 runs. When the Nationals lost Adam Dunn to free-agency and Adam LaRoche to injury, Morse grabbed hold of the first base gig, and has swung to the tune of a .314/.365/.545 line with 17 homeruns, 59 RBI, and 47 runs. Teams are always looking for that player who (like Morse), if given the right chance, could provide a surprising level of production. We’ve seen Jayson Werth, Jose Bautista, and recently Michael Morse in the past few seasons–but it’s possible Brent Lillibridge could join their ranks soon.
Lillibridge was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. The oft-infielder raised some eyebrows when he posted a .305/.4189/.480 line with 13 homeruns, 71 RBI, 106 runs, and 53 stolen bases in 2006 for various levels of Single-A. Due to his superb campaign, Baseball America tabbed Lillibridge as the #93 prospect in baseball. The Atlanta Braves took notice too. In 2007, the Pirates sent Lillibridge along with Mike Gonzalez to the Braves in exchange for Adam LaRoche and Jamie Romak.
Now at Double/Triple-A, Lillibridge couldn’t quite duplicate his Single-A heroics, but still owned a very encouraging .282/.341/.417 line with 13 homeruns, 58 RBI, 78 runs, and 42 stolen bases. However, whatever inkling of promise Lillibridge possessed from 2006 to 2007 was immediately revoked after his abysmal 2008 season. Lillibridge posted a horrendous .220/.294/.344 line with just 4 homeruns, 39 RBI, 46 runs, and 23 stolen bases in Triple-A. Despite the poor showing, the Braves still promoted the utility man to the Major Leagues, where he offered a forgettable .200/.238/.388 line.
The following season, Lillibridge was packaged with Tyler Flowers, Jon Gilmore, and Santos Rodriguez to the Chicago White Sox for Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan. Lillibridge travled between Triple-A and the bigs in both 2009 and 2010, not experiencing success in either environment. In 2009 and 2010 combined, Lillibridge owned barely employable .192/.261/.280 line in 213 big league plate appearances. The “can’t miss” power/speed combination he displayed early-on in the Minor Leagues had seemingly evaporated.
Then 2011 happened. Out of nowhere, Lillibridge has so far enjoyed his finest season at age 27. The now-outfielder has posted a .254/.338/.462 line with 7 homeruns, 15 RBI, 24 runs, and 10 stolen bases in 152 plate appearances. It might be a small sample size, but the former-top prospects’s .462 SLG ranks within the top 20 for slugging among American League outfielders, besting the likes of Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Nick Swisher, Luke Scott, B.J. Upton, Nick Markakis, Vernon Wells, Denard Span, Brett Gardner, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Shin-Soo Choo, Delmon Young, Carl Crawford, and many other big names. Lillibridge’s .317 BABIP isn’t at an unsustainable level, and his 15.6% HR/FB illustrates the amount of pop he’s been displaying. In addition, Lillibridge’s offensive contribution isn’t the only aspect of his heightened value. The bench player has owned a great 5.7 UZR/150 in the outfield, with the corners being his strongest suit (30.9 UZR/150 in left-field and 4.4 UZR/150 in right-field).
There are a few red flags for Lillibridge, however. The outfielder owns a very high 27.6 K% (42 strikeouts in just 152 plate appearances), and doesn’t walk nearly as much as some would like (7.2 BB%). Also, Lillibridge goes fishing at a rate of 36.9%, while only making contact with 57.3% of the non-strikes he swings at. But then again, no one is claiming Lillibridge is the next Albert Pujols, just the next Michael Morse. In 2010, Morse posted similar peripherals, like a 19.5% HR/FB, .330 BABIP, 21.8 K%, 7.5 BB%, and 36.5 O-Swing% (swings out of the strike zone) with a 63.7 O-Contact% (contact rate of non-strikes). The one piece of common ground the two hitters do not share, to Lillibridge’s advantage, is that Morse is a terrible fielder (career -13.7 UZR/150 in the outfield).
With Juan Pierre due to be a free agent after the season, the White Sox could conceivably hand Brent Lillibridge the starting left-field job. 152 plate appearances is a small sample size to hope for greatness, but based on Lillibridge’s early Minor League track record, and his encouraging 2011 stats, the former cast-off might have some surprisingly productive seasons ahead of him.