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July 30, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Midsummer Replacement-Level Killers, Part II

by Jay Jaffe

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Finishing what we started last week, we’ll complete our trip around the diamond to identify the most glaring issues at each position among contenders, the ones where teams standing pat at the July 31 trading deadline run the risk of torpedoing their chances at the playoffs via their complacency. Given the expansion of the postseason to include a second wild card, I'm defining that to mean every team within one game of .500 through the close of play Saturday, July 28—mainly due to the stubbornness of a certain carmine-hosed ballclub—which means that I have had to adjust my selections since I began working on this a week ago. Similar to last week, that adds up to 19 teams within 6 1/2 games of a playoff spot.

Note that while I'm using WARP here, the criterion isn't as strict as having a sub-zero WARP; 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. Except where noted, all stats are through Saturday.

Left Field: Alex Presley (.238 TAv, 0.3 WARP), Drew Sutton (.262, −0.1), Yamaico Navarro (.183, −0.3), Pirates
Pittsburgh's left fielders have combined to produce a .195/.239/.319 line, by far the worst in the majors in all three categories—by 17 points in AVG, 33 points in OBP, and 12 points in SLG. Presley, who hit a respectable .298/.339/.465 in 231 PA as a rookie last year, got the nod on Opening Day but hit .220/.246/.305 with a 30/4 K/BB ratio in 125 PA through mid-May before he was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis. Opening Day right fielder Jose Tabata (.234 TAv, −0.7 WARP) shifted over from the other corner to cover for much of that stretch until Presley returned in early June, and while Not Elvis has hit .250/.301/.463 with a 23/10 K/BB ratio in 146 K/BB since returning, the wild card leaders (!) could stand to improve with an eye toward the playoffs.

Remedy (?): On Thursday, the Pirates promoted Starling Marte, their second-best hitting prospect coming into the year. The 23-year-old center fielder, who ranked 56th on Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects list, was hitting .286/.347/.500 at Indy, albeit with a 91/28 K/BB ratio in 431 PA. While he has above-average speed and defense, Andrew McCutchen blocks Marte in center, and his bat isn't nearly as special in a corner spot. Indeed, his overly aggressive approach at the plate is cause enough for concern that Goldstein called him the top prospect among a group whose value as trade chips may exceed their actual value. He got off to a hot start with the Bucs by homering in his first plate appearance, but he's 3-for-17 without a walk since then. It's not an unreasonable shot for the Pirates to take before trading prospects for a more proven bat, but it’s possible Marte is being showcased for a trade; apparently, the Indians have discussed him as a possible return for Shin-Soo Choo (.295/.382/.489). How exactly the outfield alignment would shake out if such a deal were made is an open question, but Choo and primary right fielder Garrett Jones have experience in both corners.

Dishonorable Mention: Johnny Damon (.239, 0.0), Shelley Duncan (.261, 0.0), Indians. When Grady Sizemore went down in need of a microdiscectomy during the spring, the Indians figured they would require only a temporary solution, and chose to slide Michael Brantley over from center field while patching together a left field solution from parts on hand, with Duncan taking the lead. Alas, he hasn't been anything special with the stick (.219/.317/.421 overall), and Damon has looked like a man on his last legs (.226/.287/.337) since signing in mid-April. All told, Indians left fielders have hit .212/.290/.331. Sizemore has yet to progress beyond running drills in his latest setback.

Center Field: Drew Stubbs (.246, −0.3), Reds
Two years ago, Stubbs helped the Reds to a division title by overcoming his contact issues (188 strikeouts, with a K rate of 28.8 percent) with a combination of power (22 homers) and defensive wizardry (+6 FRAA), via which he was worth 4.1 WARP. Last year, he fell to 15 homers with 205 strikeouts, and his defense went into the red (at least according to FRAA); he was worth just 0.6 WARP. The downward slide has continued in 2012. Driven by a .292 BABIP, 43 points below his previous career mark, Stubbs is hitting just .230/.299/.384 with 11 homers and striking out 27.1 percent of the time, and again, his defense is even further in the red.

Chris Heisey hasn't been of much help when sliding over from left field to fill in, either (.265/.299/.349 in 88 PA). All told, center field is one of three spots from which the Reds have gotten a sub-.300 OBP (.298), joining shortstop (.289, which much of that coming from Zack Cosart in the leadoff spot, because Dusty gonna Dusty) and third base (.293). Even with Joey Votto taking his league-leading .465 OBP to the disabled list, that hasn't stopped the Reds from reeling off 17 wins in 19 games to take over the NL Central lead and tie the Nationals for the majors' best record at 61-40.

Remedy (?): The Reds are said to be in the market for a center fielder, and given the .200/.246/.302 they've gotten from their leadoff hitter—yes, really—they could use one who can set the table. Even in a down year, pending free agent Shane Victorino would be a significant upgrade, and the Reds have also expressed an interest in the more cut-rate Juan Pierre, who has actually outhit Victorino, .305/.345/.372 to .256/.320/.389 (.273 to .267 in the True Average department). Even so, it's tough to imagine the latter in center field on a regular basis. The Cubs' David DeJesus (.270/.358/.386) would also fit the bill, but perhaps the best solution would be the Twins' Denard Span (.287/.354/.393), though as he's cost-controlled through 2014, he's not likely to come cheap.

Dishonorable Mention: B.J. Upton (.254, 0.0), Rays. At 27 years old, and in his walk year, Upton is hitting just .247/.309/.380; while the batting average would actually be his highest since 2007, the OBP would be his lowest full-season mark (as would his 8.6 percent walk rate) and the SLG is just seven points higher than his 2009 full-season low. Meanwhile, all of the major defensive metrics have him in the red, with his −6 FRAA the least charitable assessment, canceling out the minimal value his offense has provided.

Right Field: Brennan Boesch (.240, −1.0), Tigers
Boesch hit .283/.341/.458 for the Tigers last year before going down with a thumb injury that required season-ending surgery in September. Though he was said to be fully recovered before the season started, he hit just .232/.269/.349 through the end of June, and while he has heated up to bat .314/.342/.586 in July, his True Average still ranks 23rd out of 25 qualifying right fielders, ahead of only Ichiro Suzuki and Jeff Francoeur. Furthermore, the consensus from the major metrics is that his defense is far below average, with his −5 FRAA the only estimate that isn't in double digits.

Remedy (?): With 27-year-old rookie Quintin Berry doing a nice job in left field (.286/.366/.387), the Tigers can look to the return of Andy Dirks, who started a rehab assignment in Triple-A last week after straining an Achilles at the end of May. He won't sustain the .328/.379/.515 he hit 146 PA before the injury, but if and when Boesch cools off, he could provide an alternative. Both are left-handed, though, so that only goes so far. With the team having traded top pitching Jacob Turner and two other prospects last week to fill their rotation and second base needs (with Omar Infante taking over for Replacement Level Killers Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn, and Danny Worth), the Tigers won't be seeking a top-shelf solution. The Mets' Scott Hairston might fit the bill; he's hitting a lopsided .258/.299/.511, but as a righty, he'd be a useful complement to the players on hand. The two teams have actually discussed him, though nothing appears imminent.

Dishonorable Mention: Lucas Duda (.262, −1.2), Mets. Had I delivered this second segment of the Killers team early last week, Duda would have been the choice here, but the combination of a 6-for-43 July slump (which lowered his line to .241/.335/.391) and brutal defense (of the major metrics, −6 FRAA is the most charitable estimate by far) led the Mets to send him back to Triple-A last week. With their 1-8 skid extending to 2-14, they're no longer close enough to .500 to call contenders, but the mention is deserved.

Designated Hitter: Luke Scott (.256, −0.1), Hideki Matsui (.151, −1.2), Rays
Coming off surgery to repair a torn right labrum, Scott took his guns to Tampa Bay, but between the shoulder and back spasms that sent him to the disabled list, his swing has been as bad as his facial hair. At one point earlier this month, he endured an 0-for-41 slump, and he was batting just .225/.279/.438 when an oblique strain mercifully sent him to the disabled list last week. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Matsui didn't find work until late April, and while he homered in his Tampa Bay debut on May 29 and again two days later, he hit just .147/.214/.221 before drawing a pink slip last week. All told, Rays DHs have hit just .213/.275/.378.

Remedy (?): With the recent acquisition of Ryan Roberts to cover the hot corner until Evan Longoria returns, Jeff Keppinger can shift to the DH spot; he's hitting a searing .322/.391/.444, but he lacks power and has been a much better hitter against lefties (.334/.380/.486) than righties (.263/.319/.353) over the course of his career. If the Rays intend to continue challenging for the wild card instead of calling off the dogs by trading James Shields—and possibly others such as Upton and Carlos Pena—they might want to check in on Kendrys Morales, whom the Angels have reportedly considered dealing. He's hitting just .272/.317/.404, but in the impoverished offensive environment of Anaheim, that shakes out to a  respectable .283 True Average.

Dishonorable Mention: Delmon Young (.256, −0.4), Tigers. Conspicuous in his absence from my inventory of potential solutions to the Tigers' right field woes, Young has hit a thin .270/.298/.404, but at least he has been kept out of the outfield for all but 26 games. The team still has some hope that Victor Martinez, who, back in January, underwent microfracture surgery as well as repairs of the medial and lateral menisci of his left knee, may still return in mid- to late September.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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