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February 13, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Vortices of Suck, Part II

by Jay Jaffe

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Picking up where I left off on Friday, we continue hunting the fish at the bottom of the major-league barrel in search of the positions where teams got the worst production—worse than the Replacement-Level Killers, but without the burden of toiling for a contending team. As with their catching and infield brethren, the following players helped produce tornado-level disasters amid their lineups, often at salaries that represented far more than just soft breezes running through their teams’ bank accounts. These are the Vortices of Suck.

Left Field: Delmon Young (.235 TAV, −0.5 WARP), Rene Tosoni (.232, −0.6), Twins
Once upon a time, Young was the top prospect in the land, and in 2010, he began to fulfill his vast potential, hitting a respectable .298/.333/.493. Alas, Young fell off a cliff in 2011. He didn't hit his first homer until May 22, and hit just two as the Minnesota’s left fielder while sporting a .269/.309/.348 line in that role; he was also 2.8 runs below average in the field. The Twins, who surrendered Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for him back in November 2007, traded Young to the Tigers for a pair of minor-league relievers in mid-August. They gave the bulk of the remaining plate appearances to Tosoni, a rookie who missed most of 2010 due to a torn labrum and spent the 2011 season shuttling between Triple-A and the majors—two levels he had never experienced before—no less than four times. He hit an impossibly awful .176/.250/.275 in that role. Four other players—Ben Revere, Jason Repko, Joe Benson, and Jason Kubel—combined to make 44 starts in left for the Twins, but the team still came in with a .244/.294/.328 line at the position, a ringer for the .238/.292/.320 they got from their shortstops. What defensive spectrum?

Remedy (?): With Denard Span hopefully past the concussion that cost him half the season, the Twins are banking that Revere can better the meager .267/.310/.309 line he managed as a 23-year-old rookie. Sadly, whatever he does is likely to represent subpar production for a left-spectrum position, increasing the burden on the Twins’ other hitters—and this is a team whose catchers and second basemen attained Vortex of Suck status this year. The 24-year-old Benson would be a better choice in left field. Though he hit just .239/.270/.352 in a late-season cup of coffee, the four-star prospect has shown considerable power and plate discipline in the minors; last year, he hit .285/.388/.495 with 16 homers in 472 PA at Double-A New Britain.

Dishonorable Mention: Nolan Reimold (.282, 1.7), Luke Scott (.256, 0.2), Felix Pie (.205, −0.5), Orioles. Baltimore left fielders combined to hit just .215/.285/.333 last year, with Pie (.192/.250/.238 in 141 PA) cratering in a platoon role and both Reimold (.245/.313/.421 in 262 PA) and Scott (.213/.294/.400 in 170 PA) worse than they were at other positions; the latter went down with a labrum injury in July and ended up needing surgery, which didn’t help matters any.

Center Field: Franklin Gutierrez (.200, −0.2), Michael Saunders (.163, −0.9), Mariners
Back in 2009, Gutierrez hit a solid .283/.339/.425 while playing outstanding defense. Stomach woes wrecked his 2010 season and cost him the first seven weeks of 2011, though at least the diagnosis—irritable bowel syndrome—removed some of the mystery around his misery. Even on the mend, he hit just .226/.263/.276 in 341 PA as the team's center fielder, which seemed like the second coming of Willie Mays relative to the work of former top prospect Saunders (.164/.213/.221 in 155 PA), to say nothing of the .176/.294/.343 line that Ryan Langerhans, Trayvon Robinson, the late Greg Halman, and Casper Wells conjured in the remaining 128 PA. Langerhans hit three homers in 45 PA as the team's center fielder; nobody else hit more than one.

Remedy (?): With his IBS under control, Gutierrez has added 15 pounds of muscle through his off-season workouts, a marked change from the previous winter. “He couldn’t eat or lift weights last year,” said Mariners trainer Rick Griffin. Thus the M’s are hopeful the 29-year-old can recover some of his lost promise. Wells, a 27-year-old who was acquired in the Doug Fister trade, is another possible candidate for time in center; he has recovered from a balance disorder that shut him down in September with vertigo-like symptoms, and owns a career .263/.330/.471 line in 340 major-league plate appearances over the past two seasons—pop the Mariners could surely use.

Dishonorable mention: Alex Rios (.216, −0.7), White Sox. After a strong 2010 (.270 TAv, 3.1 WARP), the $69.835 Million Dollar Man ranked among the majors' biggest disappointments in 2011, hitting .228/.266/.350 during his time as the Sox center fielder. At least he's only owed $38 million over the next three years.

Right Field: Ichiro Suzuki (.242, −0.7), Mariners
Whereas to some extent, the Mariners can be forgiven for their Vortex-worthy center-field situation given Gutierrez's illness, they've got nowhere to hide here. The 37-year-old Ichiro had by far the worst season of his 11-year stateside career, bottoming out to career lows in all three slash categories at .272/.310/.335, and falling short of the 200-hit plateau for the first time (he finished with 184). His slaptastic performance couldn't have been helped by the fact that he played 161 games, 151 as the starting right fielder; at his age, the occasional day off isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. Whether due to age or fatigue, declining bat speed likely had much to do with his .295 BABIP, 62 points below his previous career mark, not to mention his uncharacteristic struggles turning pitches outside the strike zone into hits.

Remedy (?): Ichiro is in the final year of his contract, and manager Eric Wedge has suggested not only that he might be moved out of the leadoff spot, but that he also won't automatically be in the lineup every day. As admirable as Ichiro’s work ethic may be, he needs rest so as to be deployed more judiciously.

Dishonorable Mention: Shin-Soo Choo (.272, 1.6), Kosuke Fukudome (.235, 0.1), Indians. It was a bad year for right fielders of Asian origin, okay? After two years of star-caliber play, Choo started slowly, then was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in early May. His slump continued, and more than a month later, he said the DUI incident was affecting his play, as he was concerned about fans’ perception of him. His misery continued; he was hit on the thumb by Jonathan Sanchez on June 24, lost six weeks due to surgery, and was limited to just 13 more games due to a recurrent oblique injury. Fukudome hit just .228/.278/.342 in his place.

Designated Hitter: Jack Cust (.254, 0.0), Wily Mo Pena (.253, 0.0), Mariners
As a team, the Mariners' designated hitters batted just .225/.316/.332—AL lows in each category by 12, 2, and 33 points, respectively. No fewer than 14 Mariners spent time in the DH slot, with the well-traveled Cust the closest thing they had to a regular; in 63 games and 266 plate appearances in that role, he hit .213/.346/.330 with a piddling three home runs. He drew his walking papers in early August—walking was about all he was good for, anyway—and Pena got the longest opportunity of anyone else, all of 73 PA, to show what he could do. He and the other Mariner DHs were hard-pressed to match Cust, hitting a collective .233/.295/.333 (I wasn't kidding about the walks), but at least the revolving door found a way to keep Adam Kennedy (58 PA, .226/.263/.358) and Justin Smoak (48 PA, .196/.229/.217) in the lineup, right?

Remedy (?): On January 13, the Mariners traded pitchers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to the Yankees for top prospect Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. Though he's risen through the minors as a catcher, most scouts—and the Yankees, apparently—feel as though the 22-year-old isn't a good enough defender to stick behind the plate. Fortunately, nobody questions his bat, which has drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera and Frank Thomas, and pushed him to seventh on Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101 Prospects list. Montero hit .328/.406/.590 in a 69 PA September callup after batting .288/.348/.467 during an uneven season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. While the Mariners will probably let him dabble behind the plate, they're almost certain to install him as their regular DH and simply let him mash. Given that the remedy for their three other Vortices consists of hoping that last year’s Sucker will do better, this represents their best chance at improving their lineup.

Dishonorable Mention: Adam Dunn (.218, −2.7), White Sox. Before I proceed with this explanation, please clear the room of all youngsters, because the numbers I'm about to show you are disturbing (never let it be said that I didn’t think of the children).

Signed to a four-year, $56 million contract last winter, Dunn had the season from hell, struggling with his swing during spring training, rushing back from an appendectomy he underwent one week into the season, and failing to adapt to the DH role after years of playing the field, albeit badly. He wound up hitting a miserable .159/.292/.277 with just 11 homers, down from the 40 a year he had averaged for the past seven seasons. While he was the majors' least valuable player, the Sox actually got a respectable .247/.357/.410 line from their DHs, because Paul Konerko mashed at a .348/.454/.541 clip in 163 PA in the role. Furthermore, Dunn actually produced better numbers as a DH (.176/.306/.315 in 346 PA) than as a first baseman (.122/.268/.174 in 138 PA). I wasn't kidding about protecting the young 'uns from that line.

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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