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January 15, 2013

Skewed Left

Filling the Free Agent Voids

by Zachary Levine

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As this offseason’s free agent class has been shaken and largely settled, some of the jilted teams have been left in fine shape. Some immediately went out and patched the hole where a departed free agent once was—the Braves, for instance, grabbed B.J. Upton immediately to fill most of the Michael Bourn void—while others had replacements ready to go, making the free agents expendable.

Not everybody was so lucky or so prepared, however, as one can see by observing the voids forming where free agents used to be.

Here’s a look at the five positions where teams are still scrambling to replace talent or will need an in-house option to exceed expectations lest they face a looming black hole at the position.

5. White Sox catcher without A.J. Pierzynski
The South Siders avoided one potential shortfall when they were able to replace the departed Kevin Youkilis with Jeff Keppinger at third base. They’ve chosen to let things be at catcher, and they’re likely to see a big offensive drop from 2012, when they had the highest team TAv at catcher in the American League (.276).

With Pierzynski Texas-bound, it’s now on Tyler Flowers, a backup the last two years and a .205/.307/.388 career hitter in 317 major-league plate appearances, to step into Pierzynski’s vacated gear. Flowers’ minor-league numbers and that limited sample indicate some power and patience are present. His isn’t a case of bad luck so far in the majors, though, and at 26 (he’ll turn 27 later this month), he’s not exactly young. In order to catch on in his age-27 season, he’ll have to cut down on his strikeouts, which have come in an astounding 34 percent of his plate appearances.

4. Indians DH without Travis Hafner
4a. Yankees DH without Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez

The Indians have an easy fix for their DH shortage—re-sign Hafner, whose option the team declined at the outset of the offseason. Hafner, while injury-prone and coming off just 66 games last year, is an upgrade over what they have now—namely either nothing or utility man Mike Aviles on his non-field days, depending on how you look at it.

For the Yankees, this isn’t so easy. The loss of Swisher and the two backup types won’t go over too badly in the outfield, with Brett Gardner replacing Swisher, but it does create a DH vacancy. The Yankees, as old as they are, will often use the spot to rest position players—Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter should need plenty of time there when they return. But until then, it’s just another backup added to an already depleted lineup.

3. Braves third base without Chipper Jones
The last time the Braves went into a season without Jones in the lineup was 1994. It was Terry Pendleton’s last season at third base, when the former “MVP” hit .252/.280/.398 (73 OPS+) before embarking on a four-team-in-four-year career denouement. The first Chipperless season of this century does not inspire much higher hopes.

Juan Francisco has put together decent numbers on the strength of a selective usage pattern that is endangered by the needs of the Braves roster. A left-handed hitter, he has an .806 career OPS against righties but a .446 OPS against lefties that doesn’t even carry a BABIP excuse. If he can sustain his career rate of making 83 percent of his plate appearances against righties, then there’s some hope, but he doesn’t have the look of an everyday player.

Should the Braves acquire Justin Upton or should Michael Bourn run out of needier suitors and go back to the Braves, it could push B.J. Upton to left, Martin Prado to third, and Francisco to a better role. But for now, the Braves are missing Chipper more than they could have expected.

2. Rays outfield/DH without B.J. Upton
The problem here, as the Rays predictably let Upton walk, is that there’s only so much Wil Myers can solve even if he does open the season with the big league team—hardly the Rays’ M.O. anyway. A Myers call-up would put an end to an outfield forced to start Sam Fuld alongside Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, but it does nothing to solve the designated hitter conundrum. With Carlos Pena having taken the new DH role in Houston, that has become a void as well.

Ben Zobrist could move to the outfield, putting Joyce at DH, but then what becomes of second base? No matter what, Upton has thrown off the whole mathematics of this lineup construction for Joe Maddon, who has scrambled before and will have to again.

Even in the unlikely case that Myers is ticketed for the majors right away, the Rays would be wise to look for more help in the outfield in the bargain bin or in the cost-controlled portion of the trade market.

1. Yankees catcher without Russell Martin
The funny part about Martin making this list is that the Yankees still never saw the best of his ability manifested in results. His two years with New York were by far his two worst in terms of batting average on balls in play, depressing his offensive output until a terrific powerful September that helped the Yankees hold off the Orioles last season.

Martin’s BABIP by year
2006 (LAD) .305
2007 (LAD) .317
2008 (LAD) .309
2009 (LAD) .284
2010 (LAD) .287
2011 (NYY) .257
2012 (NYY) .222

Assuming Martin’s BABIP sees even a small bit of natural bounceback, the combination of his broad offensive skill set with his defensive ability will give the Pirates a very valuable backstop. Meanwhile, his old team is left to muddle through some much lesser options after not obtaining Pierzynski in this new era of Yankees frugality.

Francisco Cervelli fell out of the Yankees’ favor after a competent run as backup in 2010 and 2011, and now they’ve come crawling back to the soon-to-be-27-year-old non-power threat as a real option. Chris Stewart, who was picked for the no. 2 job last year over Cervelli, has a backup profile and not a very imposing one, though he’s a skilled framer.

If there is hope, it lies in Austin Romine, but a guy who has played a total of 30 games above Double-A is nothing but hope. Twenty-year-old prospect Gary Sanchez, who played in low-A and high-A in 2012, can’t get to the Bronx soon enough.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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