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August 3, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Vortices of Suck, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

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My semiannual Replacement-Level Killers series puts the spotlight on the worst holes in contenders' lineups, as well as the possible remedies they might take to avoid letting such subpar production destroy their chances to reach October. I make no claims for this companion series being so noble in purpose. Because bad baseball so often makes for good copy, it's more fun to hunt the fish at the bottom of the major-league barrel to find the positions where players' contributions could be considered the worst in the majors, regardless of a team's status as a contender. What follows is an "all-star" team of players who have produced tornado-level disasters amid their lineups, often at salaries that represented far more than just a soft breeze running through their team's bank account. These are the Vortices of Suck.

Catcher: Humberto Quintero (.237 TAv, 0.4 WARP), J.R. Towles (.228 TAv, 0.4 WARP), and Carlos Corporan (.169 TAv, −0.5) WARP, Astros
Having already anointed the Jeff Mathis-led Angels as the real Killers, and acknowledged that Joe Mauer's return will eventually outweigh the early-season damage done by Drew Butera and Rene Rivera, I hereby award the position to this all-too-familiar DisAstro crew, two-thirds of which shared in the 2009 end-of-season title. For years, we laughed about the team's commitment to the aging Brad Ausmus, but what's followed in his wake has been even more discouraging, particularly because it means that somebody actually had time to think something up. Once the organization's catcher of the future, Towles is now 27 and in the midst of what can sadly be called a career year (.180/.264/.297 with three homers); predictably, that performance earned him a return trip to Triple-A in early July. Quintero (.263/.288/.346) is the mediocre mainstay whom they just can't quit; his production starts to look good once you see what surrounds him. Corporan (.182/.232/.250) is the newcomer, but he's no solution either.

Remedy (?): Short of actually trading for a competent catcher or signing one as a free agent, folding the nowhere-going franchise is probably the quickest route to solving this problem. Towles' successor as the Backstop of Tomorrow, Jason Castro, is a 2008 first-round pick who hit .205/.286/.287 in 63 games last year but blew out his knee in spring training, costing him the entire season. Peeking at the team's minor-league affiliates, we see that migrant ex-prospect Max Ramirez hit just .226/.253/.333 in 24 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City between bus rides from the Cubs' Iowa affiliate and the Giants' Fresno one, no doubt chased off by former Met Robinson Cancel, a 35-year-old vet hitting .297/.369/.402 at OkC. Twenty-two-year-old Ben Heath, last year's fifth-round pick and the only backstop whom Baseball America deemed worthy of this desiccated organization's top 30, has hit .246/.303/.409 and thrown out just 17 percent of would-be base thieves at two A-ball stops. The org's most interesting catcher has to be 2010 16th-rounder Chris Wallace, a University of Houston product who has hit .282/.350/.529 with 20 homers split between A and Double-A. He's a below-average receiver with a 20 percent caught-stealing rate this year, but at least there's no danger he'll grow up to a shameful career propagating fake news like his namesake.

First Base: James Loney (.236 TAv, −0.5 WARP), Dodgers
It was bad enough that Loney was a 2010 end-of-season Killer who had just come off his third straight season of eroding production. No doubt influenced by the fact that he remains a favorite son of assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted him in the first round in 2002, general manger Ned Colletti made things worse by re-signing Loney to a $4.875 million contract even as he non-tendered Russell Martin, a player at the less abundant end of the defensive spectrum, over a lesser amount. Loney has obliged by hitting like a broken backstop, .253/.298/.322 with four homers; no regular first baseman has a lower slugging percentage, and only Aubrey Huff (.294) has a lower OBP. One of rookie manager Don Mattingly's few innovations has been to bench him against lefties, but none of the other players he's tried under such circumstances—Casey Blake, Jerry Sands, or Juan Rivera—has rewarded his trouble.

Remedy (?): Until Sunday's deadline debacle, it appeared as though Sands was the first baseman of the future, with Travyon Robinson joining Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in the outfield, either in left or center. After Robinson was traded to the Mariners on Sunday for no good reason whatsoever, Colletti indicated his feeling that Sands is the stronger candidate to take over left, despite Sands’ .200/.294/.328 line in 144 plate appearances with the big club this season. Russ Mitchell is the only other plausible organizational option on hand, but he's 26 and hitting an altitude-fueled .260/.359/.468 at Triple-A Albuquerque. Assuming the team does finally part ways with Loney this winter, bet on Colletti to survey the free-agent markets at left field and first base, and do something worthy of a triple facepalm.

Second Base: Aaron Hill (.226 TAv, −0.8 WARP), Blue Jays
In 2009, Hill shook off the effects of a concussion that had cost him most of the previous season to bop 36 homers while hitting .286/.330/.498, a season worth 5.2 WARP. Though he hit 26 homers last year, his line sank to .204/.271/.394, dragged down by a shockingly low .196 BABIP borne of a tendency to chase outside pitches. While Hill’s BABIP has rebounded somewhat (.253), his power has dissipated; he's hitting .232/.282/.324 with five homers, and his defense has eroded as well; both may owe something to the leg problems he battled this spring. Without a strong rebound over the final two months, the Jays declining his $8 million option would appear to be a no-brainer.

Remedy (?): Top hitting prospect Brett Lawrie played second base in the Brewers' chain, but he was shifted to third base upon being traded to Toronto this winter, and that's where his future lies; his arrival in the majors is likely to happen this weekend. Neither utilitymen Mike McCoy nor John McDonald represent anything more than stopgap solutions, and the team's starters at Triple-A and Double-A, the well-named Manny Mayorson and the phenomenally-named Callix Crabbe, are 28-year-old organizational types. The Jays might envision a future where current shortstop Yunel Escobar (under contract through 2013) shifts over to second to accommodate slick-fielding Adeiny Hechavarria, but the latter's .228/.265/.333 at Double-A suggests his bat is nowhere near ready. Bet on Alex Anthopoulos to be in the market for a stopgap solution come winter.

Shortstop: Brandon Crawford (.206 TAv, −0.2 WARP), Miguel Tejada (.226 TAv, 0.5 WARP), Mike Fontenot (.233 TAv, 0.0 WARP), Giants
The idea looked awfully Sabeanesque—or maybe just awful—on paper even as it took shape: replace aging World Series hero Edgar Renteria with a player even older and less spry, namely the 37-year-old Tejada. After a cold start, Tejada was forced to shift to third base when Pablo Sandoval went down with a hand injury. Mike Fontenot took over but quickly revealed his shortcomings at short, so the Giants called up Brandon Crawford, a 24-year-old 2008 fourth-round pick who was putting up eye-popping numbers at High-A San Jose (.322/.412/.593) after struggling at Double-A last year. Crawford has hit just .190/.275/.261, which isn't bad when you consider that the last time Sabean plucked a stopgap shortstop out of the hitter-friendly Cal League it was Brian Bocock, who redefined the word "awful" by hitting .143/.258/.156 during his 2008 stint.

Remedy (?): Sabean actually struck at the deadline, acquiring Orlando Cabrera from the Indians. Unfortunately, he failed to hold out for a time machine to be named later, because the 36-year-old was hitting just .244/.277/.321 as part of Cleveland's dishonorably-mentioned Killers at second base. His defense at shortstop has been drifting into the red for years, but perhaps the veteran herbs and spices that he used to helped five other teams reach the playoffs will help here.

Third Base: Chone Figgins (.202 TAv, −0.8 WARP), Mariners
Almost nothing has gone right for Figgins since signing a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners in December 2009, but then really, what were the odds that the ancient Indian burial ground where they sealed the deal was actually cursed? Figgins needed a strong second half just to get his final 2010 line to .259/.340/.306, keeping him from Vortex status, but he's made up for lost time this season by hitting .188/.241/.243 with one homer and just 11 steals, down from his 2004-2009 average of 44. If that's not bad enough—and if it's not, what kind of glutton for punishment are you?—Adam Kennedy, Luis Rodriguez, and Kyle Seager have combined to hit .148/.228/.191 when Figgins hasn't played, which is the kind of thing that's imprisoned managers far sharper than Eric Wedge.

Remedy (?): As fate would have it, the 33-year-old Figgins hurt his right hip flexor on Monday and went on the disabled list, with Seager recalled from Triple-A Tacoma, where he was hitting a searing .406/.464/.614 in 112 plate appearances after a solid showing at Double-A Jackson. A 2009 third-round pick out of the University of North Carolina, Seager is a natural second baseman whose future with the Mariners would appear to lie at the hot corner or a utility role, given the major-league arrival of former UNC teammate Dustin Ackley. Seager is much more likely to hit for average if not power; right now, the Mariners would certainly settle for that.

I'll be back with the outfielders and designated hitter in Friday's installment.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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