February 1, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Replacement-Level Killers, Part II
Picking up where I left off on Monday, the Replacement-Level Killers is our semi-annual all-star team of ignominy, highlighting the positions at which poor production helped sink contending teams, with an eye toward the steps they've made to correct those problems as spring training approaches. For the purposes of this exercise, I've loosely defined contenders as non-playoff teams who finished no more than 10 games out of the running in 2011, which limits this particular turkey shoot to members of the Red Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Braves, Giants, Dodgers, and Nationals, not all of whom are represented this time around. If a particularly sizable hole in your favorite team’s production isn’t represented here, fear not, as all 30 teams are eligible for the forthcoming Vortices of Suck squad, the absolute bottom of the barrel.
Last time around, I knocked off the outfield and designated hitter spots, so today I turn back to the infield. 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.
Catcher: Jeff Mathis (.191 TAv, −0.8 WARP), Hank Conger (.242, 0.3), Bobby Wilson (.197, −0.1), Angels
Conger, a modestly-touted rookie, started 48 times, but just seven of those times came after the All-Star break. After hitting a passable .230/.311/.370 through June, he fell into a 2-for-19 funk in July, disappeared to Triple-A for five weeks, and was left to rust upon returning; damningly, Mathis hit .140/.198/.215 in the second half while the rookie was stuck on the side of a milk carton.
Wilson, a 28-year-old career .224/.284/.402 hitter coming into the year, was perversely rostered as a third catcher only because he was out of options and the team didn't want to risk losing such a treasure on waivers. He started 35 times, 29 of them in the second half, and brought home a Mathismatically correct .189/.252/.288 line. Add it up and that's a .192/.252/.302 line for the trio.
Remedy (?): New general manager Jerry DiPoto took decisive action to prevent this from happening again in the lower 48 states, trading Mathis to Toronto for lefty pitching suspect Brad Mills, and acquiring Chris Iannetta, a stathead favorite for his power and patience, from the Rockies for righty pitching suspect Tyler Chatwood. The going-on-29-year-old Iannetta hit .238/.370/.414 in 426 plate appearances last year while throwing out a career-best 30 percent of would-be base thieves, but he was below average in framing pitches, more Napolitan than Mathisesque. His home/road splits are also of some concern: .262/.377/.492 in 863 PA at Coors Field dating back to 2006, compared to .208/.338/.369 in 870 PA elsewhere; the move to pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium could take an even bigger bite out of his offense. He'll be the starter, catching 100-plus games according to manager Mike Scioscia, with Conger likely the backup.
Dishonorable Mention: Buster Posey (.267, 0.9), Chris Stewart (.225, 0.7), Eli Whiteside (.209, −0.2), Giants. You can't fault Posey for getting hurt, but you can certainly fault Brian Sabean for settling for four months of craptacular backups instead of dealing for an upgrade in his absence. It's one thing to absorb the drop from an average player to a replacement-level one, another to grin and bear it when losing a star; Posey was off to a slow start, but over a full season could have been expected to better his 2010 mark of 3.5 WARP.
First Base: Aubrey Huff (.257, 0.2), Brandon Belt (.260, 0.4), Giants
Remedy (?): It's business as usual, with Belt as the likely left fielder while Huff returns to first base. The latter has reportedly rededicated himself to conditioning, resuming the Pilates exercises that he dropped after the 2010 season, so the stage is set for a slew of Best Shape of His Life posts when he reports to camp. Brett Pill, who hit .300/.321/.560 in a 50 PA cup of coffee as a 26-year-old rookie in September, could press him for time if Huff struggles and Belt is able to hold his own in the outfield.
Dishonorable Mention: James Loney (.274, 2.0), Dodgers. A member of both the 2010 Killers and the 2011 midseason Vortices of Suck, Loney hit a craptastic .256/.301/.325 with four homers in 390 PA through the end of July, but surged over the final two months (.357/.416/.608 with eight homers in 192 PA) using a more compact stance at the urging of new hitting coach Dave Hansen. We’ll see if that takes.
Second Base: Aaron Hill (.217, −1.5), Kelly Johnson (.290, 0.7) Blue Jays
Remedy (?): Alex Anthopoulos appeared bound to decline Hill's $8 million option for 2012, and in swapping for Johnson, it was thought that the Jays were bringing aboard a player who would at least net them a supplementary pick; on the strength of his 4.0 WARP 2010 showing, Johnson still figured to be at least a Type-B free agent, with an outside chance at winding up a Type-A. His late-season surge clinched the latter status, but instead of declining arbitration, Johnson accepted, and the team welcomed back a soon-to-be 30-year-old player who has been within a whisker of replacement level twice in the past three years; he'll make $6.375 million.
Dishonorable Mention: Aaron Miles (.248, −0.1), Jamey Carroll (.269, 2.4), Juan Uribe (.205, -0.9), Dodgers. Ned Colletti went into the season planning for Uribe—at three years and $21 million, their marquee free-agent signing from the previous winter—to start at second base, but when third baseman Casey Blake got hurt… well, I'll get to that momentarily.
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford (.212, −0.1), Miguel Tejada (.223, 0.8), Mike Fontenot (.248, 0.6), Orlando Cabrera (.208, 0.0), Giants
Remedy (?): Tejada was released in September after publicly complaining about being told to bunt, and Cabrera just announced his retirement. Unable to coax Johnnie LeMaster out of retirement for his age-58 season, or to retrieve Brian Bocock from the Phillies organization, Sabean turned to 32-year-old Ryan Theriot, who won a World Series ring with the Cardinals but hit just .271/.321/.342 for a .239 TAv and 0.3 WARP, and was five runs in the red at shortstop. Useful against lefties (.299/.355/.385 from 2009-2011), Theriot is as weak as a kitten against righties (.268/.321/.327). He also has a penchant for being Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop (TOOTBLAN), and was just 4-for-10 in steals, for a career-worst −1.6 EqBRR. A straight platoon with the lefty Fontenot (.250/.312/.380) doesn’t exactly look like a winning combination.
Dishonorable Mention: Alex Gonzalez (.226, 1.6) Braves. Gonzalez hit just .241/.270/.372 in 593 PA, but he did provide positive value with his defense (+11.0 FRAA)—a number that jibes with his 15 Defensive Runs Saved and 11 Total Zone Runs, but not his −0.3 Ultimate Zone Rating.
Third Base: Juan Uribe (.205, -0.9), Aaron Miles (.248, -0.1), Casey Blake (.254, 0.3), Dodgers
Remedy (?): With the signing of a declining Mark Ellis to play second base and the departure of Blake via free agency, Uribe will begin the year at the hot corner. Jerry Hairston Jr., who took over third base down the stretch for the Brewers and who hit .270/.344/.383 overall for Washington and Milwaukee (a .259 TAv), will serve as an insurance policy of sorts.
Dishonorable Mention: None. While horrid third-base performances abounded—the overall major-league performance dipped to a .257 True Average, the first time it's been below .260 since 2003—they were oddly concentrated among playoff teams (Brewers, Tigers and Phillies) or teams further out of contention.
I discussed some of the Killers with Brian Kenny on “Clubhouse Confidential” on Tuesday (I also debated Larry Bowa, which was even more fun). You still have time to set your DVR of choice to catch it, or follow me online at @jay_jaffe for links to video. I’ll also paste a link in the comments section.