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August 21, 2007

Prospectus Hit and Run

The 2007 Replacement Level Killers

by Jay Jaffe

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In a pennant race, every edge matters. The late-season heroics of one individual may turn a close race into a tale of success writ large, but it's the failures writ small, the weak links on a team, that commonly create that close race in the first place. All too often, for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's statistics, managers and GMs fail to make the moves that could help their teams, allowing subpar production to fester until it kills a club's postseason hopes. Nowhere is the value of the replacement level laid more bare than when the difference between playing into October and going home is simply a willingness to try something else.

Sometimes a manager sticks with a veteran who's passed his sell-by date because the guy has helped the skipper win in the past, and the club is convinced it lacks better alternatives. Sometimes a regular simply isn't performing up to his established level due to injury, but misguidedly tries "toughing it out." And sometimes a rookie hasn't yet adjusted to the big leagues, yet the club doesn't want to risk destroy the youngster's confidence with a benching. In the just-released It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, I examined numerous instances of teams' pennant hopes dragged down by such "Replacement Level Killers."

For the book, I compiled an all-star team of ignominy that went back further than a half-century, but even in a single season, it's not too difficult to assemble such a squad, and at the suggestion of one reader from my most recent chat, I've done just that. The difference is that with some six weeks of baseball still to go, teams may still take steps to avert disaster even if they've placed a player on this 2007 edition of the Replacement Level Killers; indeed, some already have.

We'll skip over pitchers here because picking on the ones that have gone wrong is a sport unto itself. For the hitters, all WARP and VORP figures are with the indicated team only, WARP figures refer to WARP1 unless otherwise indicated, and all stats are through Sunday.

C: Jason Kendall, OAK (-12.3 VORP, -0.3 WARP)

Prior to being traded to the Cubs on July 16, Kendall was the American League's least productive hitter. Even his final .226/.261/.281 line in Oakland overstates his case, as Kendall couldn't even get his OPS north of 450 until a mid-June binge where he punched out six extra-base hits in five days, including his first home run since Stonehenge was built. Decimated by an avalanche of injuries, the A's let their catching situation decay until they were mired in the eight-game losing streak which dragged them under .500; they have yet to return to the sunny side. Trading Kendall to Chicago for $2 off their next Pizzeria Uno order, they promoted Kurt Suzuki to the starting backstop role, and while he's given the A's a competent performance (4.2 VORP, 1.2 WARP) over the last month, their postseason odds have fallen under half a percent.

1B: Doug Mientkiewicz, NYY (-2.2 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Miguel Cairo, NYY (-1.8, 0.3 WARP), Josh Phelps, NYY (0.1 VORP, 0.0 WARP), Andy Phillips, NYY (1.5 VORP, 0.2 WARP), and Wilson Betemit, NYY (1.2 VORP, 0.2 WARP)

For all of the craft that Brian Cashman and company put into their $200 million juggernaut, the Yanks turned a blind eye to first base, sacrificing any shot at offensive production in favor of some notion of defensive competence via which they could justify limiting the increasingly immobile (and for a two-month period, injured) Jason Giambi to the DH role. They left the gate with a plan to platoon Minky with Rule 5 pick Phelps, but the former broke his wrist, and the latter couldn't buy the time of day from Joe Torre, getting discarded only to bob back to the surface in Pittsburgh.

Torre then installed futilityman Cairo--one of "his guys"--at the first base slot for a few weeks until the fateful day when the supposed defensive whiz made three errors, including a pair on a play where the Angels scored the winning run. That loss turned out to be a win, as it forced Torre to turn to organizational soldier Phillips, who hit a thin but nonetheless useful .320/.355/.420 in July as the Yanks began turning their season around. He's cooled off considerably since (.327 SLG in August), but continues to share time with deadline acquisition Betemit, who's provided some pop off the bench along with the ability to play all four infield positions. The Yanks may muddle through, but the standing reservation they've held for the postseason since 1995 has been jeopardized by poor planning here.

2B: Josh Barfield, CLE (-10.7 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Mike Rouse, CLE (-10.4 VORP, -0.3 WARP)

The keystone is the position of killers, as Barfield and Rouse get plenty of competition from San Diego's Marcus Giles (-10.9 VORP, 2.2 WARP) and St. Louis' Adam Kennedy (-12.3 VORP, -0.1 WARP), both of whom have made the teams that discarded them this past winter look smart. Barfield enjoyed a nice rookie season last year (7.0 WARP3), but when the Pads decided third base was a more pressing need, they shipped Jesse's kid to Cleveland for Kevin Kouzmanoff (to whom we'll return). Barfield's been a bust, hitting just .243/.271/.325 and particularly flailing since the All-Star break (.185/.224/.272). Backup Rouse provided no relief before getting cut loose, hitting .119/.200/.134 in 67 at-bats. Rather than sitting on their hands, the Tribe recently recalled 21-year-old shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a glove-first infielder who hit a surprising .310/.383/.454 in Double-A, then fared well in a brief trial at Buffalo. Shifting across the bag, Cabrera's hit .304/.346/.522 through his first seven games; though he won't maintain that pace, credit the team for daring to make a move before it was too late.

3B: Kevin Kouzmanoff, SDN (1.2 VORP, 0.0 WARP), Morgan Ensberg, SDN (1.4 VORP, 0.4 WARP)

First, let's give a dishonorable mention to Minnesota for persisting in the delusion that Nick Punto (-19.9 VORP, -0.1 WARP) can carry the third base job; that's just one of about 17 ways Terry Ryan has hamstrung his club, so we'll focus on a team more closely in contention. The flip side of the Barfield trade, Kouzmanoff was a career .332/.395/.556 hitter in the minors, and was expected to provide the Pads with some pop from the hot corner even if his defense would likely give manager Bud Black a few gray hairs. But then Kouzmanoff got off to a wretched start, hitting just .113 in the first month and .228/.290/.384 in the first half.

The combination of his failures with bat and glove (a whopping -17 FRAA) led the Padres to add Ensberg, a former All-Star who was available just prior to the trading deadline because... well, nobody's quite sure. Ensberg socked a pair of homers in his second game as a Pad--at Petco Park, no less--and while he's hit just .225/.279/.525 with his new team, the return of his power is worth something to a team that's slugged just .369 at home.

SS: Stephen Drew, ARI (-2.1 VORP, 1.6 WARP)

After a fine late-season performance for the Diamondbacks last year (.316/.357/.517 in 209 at-bats), J.D.'s younger brother came into 2007 more highly regarded than most of Arizona's other notable youngsters, a crop that includes Chris B. Young, Justin Upton, Carlos Quentin, and Conor Jackson. For no clear reason, Drew's simply been unable to get on track this year; in only one month has he put up an OPS above 700. That was amid a rather lopsided .247/.284/.449 line in July, and he's followed it up with a .180/.317/.280 August; so much for progress. At this point, it's fair to wonder what the hype was all about, particularly in light of Drew's rather unimpressive minor league track record; he hit .284/.340/.462 in the offense-heavy PCL prior to last year's call-up (good for only a .253 EqA), and his 2005 numbers are split between a torrid tenure at High-A Lancaster and a dismal stint at Double-A Tennessee. The Snakes have stuck by him, and while the castle of their winning record is built on the sands of a negative run differential, they appear loathe to tinker with what's not really working.

They could recall Alberto Callaspo (hitting .359 in Triple-A, where he's apparently exiled for the duration after domestic abuse allegations), or at least protect Drew from lefties (.213/.295/.315 against, compared to .238/.302/.381 versus righties) by platooning him with Augie Ojeda, but the D'backs look committed to waiting for the 2006 edition to magically reappear.

LF: Craig Monroe, DET (-14.9 VORP, -1.0 WARP)

The free-swinging Monroe bopped 28 homers and slugged .482 last year while helping the Tigers to a pennant, but his lack of plate discipline came back to bite him this year, as he hit .222/.264/.373 with a 94/20 K/BB ratio in 372 plate appearances. Last Friday, the Tigers took a radical step to right this wrong, designating Monroe for assignment and recalling 20-year-old Cameron Maybin after just six games in Double-A. Ranked seventh on our Top 100 Prospect List last winter, Maybin hit .304/.393/.486 in High-A this season before being promoted to Erie, where he bashed four homers and a double in 20 at-bats. In addition to adjusting to major league pitching without the benefit of extensive experience in the high minors, Maybin's a natural center fielder who faces the additional challenge of learning left field on the fly. In just his second big-league game (which I attended), he collected a pair of hits off Roger Clemens, including an impressive 417-foot homer to dead center of Yankee Stadium, but his defense looked shaky as he battled the sun, the lights, and balls coming at him from a new trajectory. His promotion is a calculated gamble for the Tigers, but with just two weeks to go in the minor league season, they're not depriving Maybin of much developmental time, they're losing little in ditching Monroe, and they've got Marcus Thames as a fallback option if the rookie is in over his head.

CF: Andruw Jones, ATL (3.1 VORP, 3.0 WARP)

It's tempting to pick on the A's and gimpy Mark Kotsay (-10.0 VORP, -0.3 WARP) here, and in fact I did in the first draft of this piece; watching Kotsay age in dog years since signing his two-year, $15 million extension in mid-2005 has justifiably eroded some confidence in Billy Beane's acumen. But the A's are too far gone and with too many injuries to merit double jeopardy here, so we'll turn our attention to the Braves, whom Jones has given a decade and change of stellar center field play, averaging 7.8 WARP3 per year from 1997-2006. That's a nice lineup cornerstone for a perpetual contender. Playing for a potential nine-figure contract as a free agent, the 30-year-old has struggled mightily in his walk year. Through June he'd hit just .199/.299/.377, and while a solid July (.263/.370/.566) offered hope that he'd returned to being a reliable producer, he's back down to .203/.238/.339 in August, and seeking treatment for elbow troubles that apparently stem from a May 27 play in the field.

The Braves desire to re-sign Jones, and are in a delicate position here; even hurt, he maintains some value defensively (hence the WARP total), not to mention the promise that he can revert to well-established form. Furthermore, his decline makes him potentially more affordable as a free agent. The team might try resting Jones to give hot-handed Willie Harris more time in center, particularly given the fact that Harris' left field platoon partner, Matt Diaz, is raking against everybody.

RF: Carlos Quentin, ARI (-10.5 VORP, 0.5 WARP)

Another well-regarded baby Snake who fared well in a late-season call-up last year, Quentin suffered a small tear in his left (non-throwing) labrum during spring training. He rehabbed rather than undergo surgery, but his season has been a nightmare; he started the year on the DL, was sent to Triple-A for most of July, and just after being recalled hit the DL again with a hamstring strain. Through it all, he's been a shadow of his former self at the plate, hitting .208/.297/.343 while rarely offering any hope that his struggles were over; his longest hitting streak is five games.

To their credit, the Diamondbacks have already moved on, recalling 2005 #1 overall pick Justin Upton from Double-A, where he hit .309/.399/.556 after a short stay in High-A. Upton turns 20 on August 25, and is already drawing comparisons to Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez for his scary-great talent. His .245/.298/.472 line so far suggests he's a bit raw, but with enough power to make an impact down the stretch.

DH: Shea Hillenbrand, ANA (-8.4 VORP, -0.7 WARP)

To paraphrase Seinfeld, finding a DH who's above replacement level is about as difficult as putting on pants. My question to Bill Stoneman is, "Who puts on your pants?" Back in December, the Halos signed Hillenbrand to DH and spot at the infield corners, all for the ridiculous price of $6.5 million for a guy who was worth 2.7 WARP3 last year. He didn't hit a lick through the season's first two months, and after Mike Scioscia benched him, Hillenbrand requested a trade. When the market for 31-year-old DH types with .254/.275/.325 lines, big contracts, and histories of rabble-rousing revealed itself to be something less than robust, the Angels cut bait.

Subsequently, Scioscia turned the DH slot into free parking; aside from Vlad Guerrero (90 at-bats) and Garret Anderson (60 at-bats), no Angel has gotten more than 37 at-bats at DH, and nobody, the aforementioned duo included, has produced much in that slot; the team's cumulative line stands at .249/.292/.375, the second-lowest OPS for DHs in the league. With a lineup already awash in a sea of light-hitting infielders like Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar, the Angels simply aren't built for that kind of job share. One potential solution would have been letting Brandon Wood get his licks instead of rusting on the bench during two stints that totaled three weeks and 21 plate appearances. It may not have worked, but with the Angels' AL West lead dwindling down to a mere two games, they'll regret not trying something.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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