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January 30, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Replacement-Level Killers, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

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Complacency in the face of adversity is the potential undoing of every manager and general manager. For reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's recent performance—contract size, longer-term track record, clubhouse chemistry—skippers and GMs all too often fail to make the moves that could help their teams, allowing subpar production to fester until it kills a club's post-season hopes. In 2007, I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy for our pennant race book, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. The concept has become a semiannual tradition for me to revisit, first in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, and again as the opening of spring training approaches, with an eye toward what teams can do, or have done, to solve such potentially fatal problems.

So again we take a trip around the diamond—broken into two parts, with the second one coming soon—to identify the most glaring issues among contenders, which I'm loosely defining as non-playoff teams who finished no more than 10 games out of the running. That limits this particular turkey shoot to members of the Red Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Braves, Giants, Dodgers, and Nationals, but fear not, as all 30 teams are eligible for the forthcoming all-star team of ignominy, the Vortices of Suck, the absolute bottom of the barrel.

To mix things up a bit, I'm going to start with the outfield/designated hitter portion this time, with the infielders and catcher later in the next batch. Note that while I'm using WARP here, the criterion isn't as strict as having a WARP below zero; salary and opportunity cost may also factor into the decision, as does the fact that a player’s overall line may be propped up by better performance in a smaller sample size at a different position.

Left Field: Vernon Wells (.247 TAv, 1.1 WARP), Angels
Left field was a complete and utter Festival of Suck around the majors in 2011, with abysmal production at a position where mashers are supposed to abound. Major-league left fielders collectively hit a combined .255/.320/.408, for a .263 True Average—lower than the .261/.326/.410/.267 mark produced by center fielders. This was quite an anomaly; the last time there was less than a 10-point True Average gap in left fielders' favor was 2005, and the last time center fielders outproduced left fielders appears to be 1966 (a slight glitch in the data discovered in the wee hours prevented me from confirming this prior to press time).

The competition was particularly heavy at this position; the Dodgers (Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons, Jerry Sands, and Juan Rivera) and Blue Jays (Travis Snider, Corey Patterson, and Eric Thames) were in contention. However, this particular "prize" can only go to one man. By now you know the story of how Angels general manager Tony Reagins swapped catcher Mike Napoli to the Blue Jays for Wells, thus assuming a whopping $86 million in remaining salary, sending away a difference-maker in the AL West, and ultimately costing him his job (spoiler alert: This story comes up again in the other segment of the Killers). Wells promptly fell flat on his face, hitting .218/.248/.412 while walking just 20 times in 529 trips to the plate. He did homer 25 times, and played above-average defense (+8.2 FRAA), and it must be noted that his hitting did take place in a particularly pitcher-friendly environment, so his True Average was much higher than you'd expect (it's exceedingly rare you see an OBP and a TAv converge). It was still a ghastly performance for the $23 million price tag, but also a clear case of a team deciding to play the contract.

Remedy (?): The Angels have a real conundrum on their hands. Twenty-year-old center fielder Mike Trout, who ranked second on Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects list last season, didn't put up great numbers in 135 plate appearances last year (.220/.281/.390), but even that came to a .261 True Average and 0.4 WARP. Between him, Wells, and incumbent center fielder Peter Bourjos (2.9 WARP, .282 TAv), the Angels have three outfielders for two spots, a situation further complicated by the presence of incumbent DH Bobby Abreu, and displaced first basemen Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales, neither of whom figures to pass Albert Pujols on the depth chart. It's quite likely Wells starts the year with the left-field job because, duh, he's owed $63 million, but Trout's emergence could press the team to reckon with the concept of sunk costs.

Dishonorable Mention: Eric Thames (1.5 WARP, .271 TAv), Corey Patterson (.236, −0.2), Travis Snider (-0.2, .221), Blue Jays. Snider didn't hit in April (.184/.276/.264), was exiled to the minors, and battled injuries, while Thames emerged late in the year and couldn’t match what he hit while spotting in right field and at DH. In all, Jays left fielders hit .244/.295/.382, compared to the Angels’ .226/.272/.411.

Center Field: Rajai Davis (.227, −0.2), Colby Rasmus (.188, −0.8), Corey Patterson (.236, −0.2), Blue Jays
Wells' departure from Toronto left Davis the starting center fielder, but he was a combination of awful and hurt; he served 18 days on the disabled list in April for an ankle sprain, and another 45 from mid-August to season's end for a hamstring strain. Patterson filled in during the first injury and contributed his typical brand of futility. The Jays shocked the baseball world when Alex Anthopoulos acquired Rasmus in a three-way deal with the Cardinals on July 27. The 24-year-old, who had hit a respectable .246/.332/.420 with St. Louis but was on the outs with Tony La Russa, never did find his stroke in Toronto, and missed three weeks due to a wrist sprain. After returning, he went just 4-for-45 with a pair of walks over the season's final two weeks. In all, Jays center fielders hit .213/.255/.341.

Remedy (?): Rasmus is a much better player than he showed in Toronto. He’s the owner of a career .251/.322/.432 line (a .266 TAv), albeit with questionable defense, at least according to FRAA (−18.2 career, with a whopping −18.8 in 2010) if not other systems, in which he's essentially average. While there are reasons to be concerned about the involvement of his helicopter father, it's too early to write off the player, particularly given that he hasn't even had a spring with his new team.

Dishonorable Mention: Andres Torres (.242, 1.3), Aaron Rowand (.234, 0.6), Giants. San Fran's center fielders hit just .228/.299/.347; Torres turned back into a pumpkin after a surprisingly strong 2010, and Rowand coming nowhere close to living up to his $13.6 million salary.

Right Field: J.D. Drew (.239, 0.6), Red Sox
Shoulder impingement limited the 35-year-old Drew to just 65 starts in right field and a .222/.315/.302 overall line with four homers in 286 PA. Meanwhile, the rest of the Sox fill-ins in right—mainly Josh Reddick, Darnell McDonald, and Mike Cameron—combined to hit .234/.282/.377. In all, Sox right fielders wound up hitting .233/.299/.353, a wee bit better than the Mariners, who play in a much tougher offensive environment. Had any of those Sox been just a little better, the team might not have missed the playoffs by a single game

Remedy (?): As I wrote last week, Drew departed as a free agent and is considering retirement, while Reddick was traded to Oakland in a deal that brought back closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney, the latter of whom will serve as backup after last week’s signing of Cody Ross. The 31-year-old righty has a significant platoon split—.272/.342/.521 against lefties over the past three years, compared to .258/.316/.404 against righties—but as a fairly extreme fly-ball hitter, he stands to benefit greatly from taking aim at the Green Monster. Eventually, Ryan Kalish, who hit .252/.305/.405 as a 22-year-old rookie in 2010, could figure into the mix, but he lost most of 2011 to injuries, including a shoulder surgery that will prevent him from being ready for spring training.

Dishonorable Mention: Jason Heyward (.254, 0.5), Braves. Heyward battled shoulder problems and fell into quite the sophomore slump, hitting just .227/.319/.389 overall in 128 games, and only slightly better in his 115 games afield. Eric Hinske, Joe Mather, Jose Constanza and others were no help, hitting .252/.294/.346 in 217 plate appearances.

Designated Hitter: Bobby Abreu (.275, 1.4), Angels
The Angels got just a .237/.337/.365 performance from their DHs, including Abreu, who hit .247/.345/.345 in 462 plate appearances in the role, and a more robust .271/.376/.430 in 125 PA elsewhere. While he hit for virtually identical batting averages and on-base percentages as in 2010, his slugging percentage dipped from .435 to .365, his homers from 20 to 8. Meanwhile, Torii Hunter hit a sizzling .246/.395/.554 in 81 plate appearances while taking half-days, but the rest of the team—Maicer Izturis, Russell Branyan, Wells and others—hit .198/.268/.324 in 123 plate appearances as DH. Collectively, the Halos DHs homered just 14 times, tied for the league low, but their 87 walks tied for the league high.

Remedy (?): As noted above, the Angels have something of a logjam here. The 38-year-old Abreu is under contract for $9 million, so he can't be unloaded easily (though he might make sense for a former team with a DH vacancy). Trumbo bopped 29 homers as a rookie but hit a lopsided .254/.291/.477, while Morales hit .302/.353/.548 with 45 homers in 833 plate appearances in 2009-2010 before a fractured tibia cost him two-thirds of the latter season and all of last year while requiring two surgeries. The Angels figure to do some wheeling and dealing before the dust settles here, but suffice to say they have options that should ensure they get more production here.

Dishonorable Mention: None. Of the vulnerable teams, the Blue Jays' DHs exceeded the major-league average in both on-base and slugging percentages, while the only other remotely decent team to get a worse performance at DH, the Rays, made the playoffs despite their designated hitters' collective .260/.320/.424 line.

I'll be back with the remainder of the team in the near future.

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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