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February 10, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Vortices of Suck, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

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My semiannual Replacement-Level Killers series spotlights the worst holes in contenders' lineups, as well as the possible remedies they might take to avoid letting such subpar production destroy their post-season chances the next time around. 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. 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. Once again, I present the Vortices of Suck.

Unlike the Killers, which are limited to contenders who came up short, players from all 30 teams are eligible for the Vortices. Note that within a given position, a player might have made a significantly positive contribution over a small fraction of playing time, one that’s offset by the sub-replacement level horror of his teammates, and that may have been propped up by better performance in a smaller sample size at a different position.

Catcher: Joe Mauer (.266 TAv, 1.5 WARP), Drew Butera (.164, −1.4), Rene Rivera (.171, −0.6), Twins
The Twins donned the rose-colored glasses when it came to Mauer's off-season surgery to alleviate a knee problem‚ which didn't happen until mid-December, and they paid dearly for failing to scare up a competent backup. The combination of a slow recovery, bilateral leg weakness exacerbated by a viral infection, and shoulder issues limited Mauer to just nine games before June 17 and only 47 starts behind the plate. A bout of pneumonia in September didn't help matters, either, and he wound up with a .287/.360/.368 line and three homers in 296 PA. Just 201 of those PAs came as at catcher; he hit .239/.328/.324.

Meanwhile, Butera showed that membership in the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers shouldn't be based on heredity no matter how ignorant of the tools one’s offspring might be. He started 75 games, "hit" for a lower True Average than any batter with at least 250 plate appearances since at least 1950, and rated as the least valuable catcher in the majors even with more-or-less average defense.

Rivera did Rene Rivera things, which is to say that he was scarcely any better than the .159 TAv and −0.7 WARP he delivered to the Mariners in his last major league go-round, back in 2006. In all, Twins catchers combined for a .185/.250/.259 line, which doesn't include Mauer's work in 33 games at other positions.

Remedy (?): Though he stopped short of invoking the dreaded Best Shape of His Life phrase, Mauer says his knee and the rest of his body are feeling great, and both he and the Twins have acknowledged that the $184 million man (who still has seven years to go on his contract) must spend time at first base and DH to lessen the strain on his body and keep his bat in the lineup. The Twins made a nice low-cost signing of Ryan Doumit, a decent hitter (.288 TAv in 236 PA last year, .264 career) but a lousy receiver, and Butera clings like a barnacle to a 40-man roster spot, which hardly makes for a bulletproof plan.

Dishonorable Mention: Humberto Quintero (.207, −0.4), J.R. Towles (.225, −0.1), Carlos Corporan (.177, −0.9), Astros. Nothing new here; the Astros were the midseason "winners" at this particular position, and finished with a combined .211/.257/.293 line. They haven't had a catcher provide league-average offense across 200 or more plate appearances since 2000, when both Mitch Meluskey (.285) and Tony Eusebio (.260) did so, but free agent Chris Snyder (.251 career) at least gives them a fighting chance.

First Base: Daric Barton (.237, 0.0), Conor Jackson (.255, −0.3), Brandon Allen (.234, −0.1), A's
Apparently, first basemen who can't hit their way out of a wet paper bag are the new market inefficiency, and Billy Beane is all over that when he's not starring in that movie about that book he wrote. A's first basemen combined to hit .219/.294/.316 in 2011. Barton failed to homer in 280 plate appearances, the biggest zilch of any corner player in the majors; he was farmed out in mid-June and diagnosed with a torn labrum a month later, and ultimately underwent surgery in September.

Jackson took over but hardly sparkled before being traded to the Red Sox, and Allen stumbled after being liberated from the Arizona organization, the latest missed opportunity in a career that now features a .210/.297/.383 line through 367 PA spread over three seasons.

Remedy (?): Barton won't be ready to throw at full strength before mid-March, which opens the door for Allen and fellow Quad-A types Kila Ka'aihue and Chris Carter (former top prospect-turned-owner of a .167/.226/.254 line in 124 PA over the past two seasons) to seize the moment as the Opening Day first baseman. All of these guys have hit in the minors, so it's not asking too much to hope that one of them besides Barton—who hit .273/.393/.405 in 2010, for a .299 TAv—can solve major-league pitching.

Dishonorable Mention: Jesus Guzman (.316, 2.2), Brad Hawpe (.234, −0.7) Anthony Rizzo (.221, −1.0), Jorge Cantu (.185, −1.1), Padres. San Diego left the gate with Hawpe and Cantu platooning, and after that failed, they turned to top prospect Rizzo, who was hitting .365/.444/.715 with 16 homers when he was called up in early June. He did a complete face plant in six weeks on the job, and wound up returning to Tucson while Guzman, a 27-year-old rookie, caught fire (.312/.369 /.478 in 278 PA). Still, the team finished with a .230/.301/.359 line at the position.

Second Base: Alexi Casilla (.255, 2.1), Luke Hughes (.230, −0.5), Matt Tolbert (.192, −1.6) Twins
The Twins' organization played Keystone Kops in the middle infield last spring, unable to decide who among Casilla and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka (a shortstop his entire career) should play which position. They chose… poorly. Nishioka began the year at second base, but six games into the year, he straddled the bag too long on a potential double play, suffered a broken fibula, and missed 10 weeks.

Casilla, who lost the shortstop job with a slow April, rebounded to give the team three decent months at second upon Nishioka's return. However, a hamstring injury limited Casilla to just one game after July 27, and forced the Twins to shuffle Tolbert, Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, and Brian Dinkelman the rest of the way. All told, the team's sadsack second-sackers hit .228/.278/.332.

Remedy (?): After a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League, Casilla is penciled in as the team's starting second baseman; the Twins hope he can put together a healthy and productive season for the first time since 2008. The signing of Jamey Carroll to play shortstop likely relegates Nishioka to a bench role, though a poor showing from Casilla could yield a Nishioka-Carroll combo.

Dishonorable Mention: Gordon Beckham (.242, 0.9), White Sox. The eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft hasn't been able to match the success of his 2009 rookie campaign, and last year showed further maturity issues amid what was essentially a season-long slump in which he hit .230/.296/.337. Only good defense (+6.8 FRAA) kept him significantly above replacement level.

Third Base: Chone Figgins (.199, −0.8), Adam Kennedy (.232, 0.2), Kyle Seager (.266, 0.7), Mariners
Figgins, the only infielder to retain his Crown of Suck from the midseason edition, has been an utter disaster since signing a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners two winters ago, tallying −1.4 WARP over the first half of the contract. He hit just .188/.241/.243 before his season mercifully ended on August 1 due to a hip flexor injury, though to be fair, he was riding a four-game hitting streak, one shy of his season high.

The rookie Seager, a 2009 third-round pick, made a credible showing (.258/.312 /.379) over the final two months of the season, while Kennedy was particularly craptastic (.168/.225/.232 in 103 PA) during his time subbing at third. All told, Mariners third basemen hit just .195/.252/.275—one of two collective sub-Mendoza performance from a team at a given position besides catcher.

Remedy (?): The obvious solution would be for the Mariners to play Seager and hope that Figgins can use his versatility to his advantage as a bench player well enough to attract suitors. But noooo. It sounds as though the M's would like to give Figgins another shot, which could send the 24-year-old Seager back to Triple-A—a level at which he's played just 24 games—because he has options remaining. Alex Liddi, a 23-year-old who signed out of San Remo, Italy as a teenager, is also in the picture. He bopped three homers in just 44 PA last September after hitting .259/.332/.488 with 30 homers—and a whopping 170—strikeouts at Triple-A.

Dishonorable Mention: Casey McGehee (.223, −0.9), Brewers. It didn't stop the Brew Crew from making the playoffs, but they did so in spite of McGehee, who sank to .223/.280/.346 with 11 homers after hitting a combined .291/.346/.477 in 2009-2010. Craig Counsell was the only other player to get more than 16 PA as the Brewers’ hot cornerman during the regular season; he got 38, less than the 45 Jerry Hairston Jr. tallied while starting all 11 of the team's post-season games.

Shortstop: Reid Brignac (.172, −0.6), Elliot Johnson (.224, −0.3), Sean Rodriguez (.252, 1.2) Rays
It's extremely difficult to make the postseason with the majors' worst production at a given position, but that's what the Rays did with a trio of shortstops who hit .193/.256/.282. Were it not for the miraculous outcome on the final day of the season, Brignac and company would have been stone cold Replacement-Level Killers instead. Brignac hit just .193/.227/.221 with five extra-base hits in 264 PA. Among batters with at least 250 PAs, he was worse than every single one save for the aforementioned Butera; even Jeff Mathis was better, by a good 19 points of True Average.

After spending four years in Durham waiting for a chance, Johnson hit just .194/.257/.338, but at least he'll always have Adam Sobsey's Prufrockin' tribute. Rodriguez, more utilityman than futilityman, hit a comparatively respectable .223/.323/.357 while starting 49 games at shortstop, 40 at second base, 16 at third base, and three at first base.

Remedy (?): It appears as though the Rays will head into camp with Rodriguez and Brignac battling for the starting job, with 2008 first overall pick Tim Beckham (.271/.328/.408 as a 21-year-old split between Double-A and Triple-A) and Hak-Ju Lee (.292/.365/.416 as a 20-year-old split between High-A and Double-A) also potentially staking claims for playing time down the road.

Dishonorable Mention: Paul Janish (.205, −0.1), Edgar Renteria (.242, 0.5), Reds. It seemed clear that Janish's fluky 2010 performance at the plate (.260/.338/.385 in 228 PA) was too good to last, but nobody expected him to outsuck his 2009 showing. Yet he did, by hitting .214/.259/.262. Renteria went from being a World Series MVP who looked like he was on his last legs to… some other guy without hardware who looked like he was on his last legs. The player who might have solved this problem, 25-year-old Zack Cozart, lasted just 11 games before suffering a season-ending elbow hyperextension that required surgery in August.

I’ll be back with the outfielders and DH on the team for Monday.

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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