Christian: Corey Patterson's injury on July 6th brought a promising season to a premature end. Patterson was hitting 298/329/511, had 13 homers, and had stolen 16 bases in 21 attempts. He'd taken a few more walks (15 in 347 AB, as compared to 19 in 628 PA the year before), and the general consensus was that he was finally capitalizing on the talent that had made him the Cubs' #1 minor league prospect two years running.
I don't want to overstate how well Patterson was playing -- it wasn't like he was going to lead the league in anything -- but he was playing well. After his struggles the previous two years, it was heartening to see him get his OBP over .300, for example.
Then he tore his ACL and was lost for the season. The Cubs ended up casting around a bit before acquiring Kenny Lofton, who had a very good 56-game stint with the Cubs (327/381/471) which helped propel them into the playoffs.
General Managers are usually judged on what they do, but in this case I think Jim Hendry deserves credit for what he didn't do. Even with Patterson's health unclear (it seems pretty clear at this point that he's OK, but we didn't know that over the winter), Hendry wisely chose not to bring Lofton back. Although he played well for the Cubs, his trends have been pretty clearly downward over the past 5 years. Perhaps Hendry realized he had caught lightning in a bottle, and decided to thank Kenny, wish him well, and let him move on to be someone else's problem.
Going into this year, then, the center field job is all Patterson's. Of all the questions surrounding the Cubs offense and defense, the most revolve around Corey and his knee. Will it affect his swing, will it make him more tentative on the bases? Will he have lost a step in center? Given who's flanking him in the outfield, that last question might be the most important, but spring results make it seem as if he is 100% healed. We all wait anxiously to see if he'll build on his newfound plate discipline (relatively speaking, of course) or whether he'll revert to his hacktastic ways.
Alex: I was thrilled to see Corey's improvement last year, and it came as a surprise. Not that I didn't think he had the potential to be an offensive force (au contraire!), I just didn't expect to see that part of his game come so quickly.
On the surface, it appears that Patterson dramatically improved in two offensive areas last year: power and hitting for average. I think his high average was a bit of a fluke. Patterson was extremely hit-lucky last year (36% of the balls he hit fell for base hits, much higher than average, especially for a low-contact guy like Corey), and any lost speed from his knee injury will lessen the number of infield hits he can leg out. I'm going to guess Patterson hits closer to .270 than .300 this season.
But I think the power boost is here to stay. I know, I know, it's only spring training, but you have to like that Patterson has slugged 13 of his 16 spring hits for extra-bases, leading to a slugging percentage over .600. Corey's going to miss hitting in Arizona, though, since his home park doesn't do him any favors: Wrigley greatly reduces home run production from left-handers, and also impedes doubles and triples -- both of which are a significant part of Patterson's power game.
A final note. I happen to think Patterson's a sweet fielder. I know most Cubs fans and Cubs announcers would agree, but his showing in traditional defensive stats like Range Factor isn't so hot. However, Gary Huckabay of Baseball Prospectus had a great bit on Patterson last January (comparing his defense to Marlon Byrd's) in which he showed how the Cubs' k-machine staff hurts Corey in these kinds of metrics:
Range Factor is pretty much just the number of balls turned into outs per nine innings. For outfielders, it's largely just (Assists/Innings) * 9. If there's some reason that Byrd is getting more opportunities for fly balls than Patterson, that could [show the two being more equal]. Is he?
Probably. The Cubs struck out a league-leading 1,454 batters in 2003, compared to 1,060 for the Phillies. The technical term for that difference is "mammoth." That's 394 more balls in play for the infielders and outfielders in Philadelphia than in Chicago.
Patterson simply doesn't have the opportunity to field as many balls as other center fielders in the league, a trend that will likely continue this year, especially with groundball specialist Maddux replacing Estes.
update: Reader "Tom" in the comments made a great point regarding my line above about Patterson and his contact rate affecting balls in play. These two things are actually distinct. What I should have said was that Patterson's average seemed high to me last year for two different reasons: 1) he had a high "hit percentage", and 2) he is a low-contact hitter, and they *usually* have a bit lower batting averages. See, this is why I need an editor! Thanks, Tom.