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June 19, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

2008 Replacement Level Killers, Early Edition

by Jay Jaffe

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The concept of replacement level is fundamental to how we measure performance here at Baseball Prospectus. While the reality of the distribution of freely available talent is often a bit more complex, the idea remains a useful one.

Nowhere is the value of replacement level laid more bare than when the difference between playing baseball or going fishing in October is simply a willingness to try something else to shore up a lineup's weakest links. In a pennant race, every edge matters, yet 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. Last year, in our book It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races. Thus was born the Replacement Level Killers.

Around the time of the book's publication, I applied the concept to some of 2007's most egregious offenders, but by that point, it was the third week of August, well past the trading deadline. This time around, I figured it would make more sense to take an earlier look at the potential Killers who threaten to have an impact on the races. It's not too late for teams to address these positions, but it's also worth remembering that sometimes, that means simply waiting for a player to return to his established level of performance.

Context is important when it comes to choosing the Killers. They come from teams who at least register a pulse on the contend-o-meter, and they're not necessarily just the players with the worst VORPs or WARPs at their respective positions (all WARP figures refer to WARP1, and all stats are through Tuesday). Playing time, both to date and going forward, is an important consideration, as is a team's willingness to consider its alternatives.

C: J.R. Towles (-7.6 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Brad Ausmus (-5.8 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Astros
Admittedly, it's a bit of flattery to consider the Astros contenders. Not only were they forecast for a 72-90 record, but they're now 12 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central and 8.5 back in the wild-card hunt following a 4-15 swoon. Nonetheless, this situation bears mentioning, as a stronger performance to this point might mean a team still above .500.

After seven interminable and largely unproductive years as the Astros' starting catcher, the 39-year-old Ausmus was supposed to mentor and back up the 24-year-old rookie Towles, who ranked 54th on this spring's Top 100 Prospects list after a scalding .375/.432/.575 cup of coffee last year. The kid can supposedly hit--PECOTA predicted a .270/.335/.441 season--but Towles injured a hamstring in spring training, then sustained a bone bruise on his hand in mid-April, and his performance bottomed out in a 6-for-68 slide before the Astros sent him back to Triple-A. While that move is somewhat justifiable, it leaves far too much playing time for Ausmus. Yes, he's 11-for-33 this month, but the danger is that manager Cecil Cooper becomes as convinced that Ausmus is the answer as Phil Garner was.

Dishonorable Mention: Ramon Hernandez (-2.6 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Orioles. Again, it's a stretch to call the Orioles contenders, but their fight to stay above .500 would be much easier if Hernandez hadn't joined the ranks of the undead.

1B: Daric Barton (-2.7 VORP, 1.0 WARP), Athletics
There's no shortage of first basemen who are weighing their clubs down by failing to provide adequate production from this key offensive spot. Carlos Delgado is the poster boy for the Mets' woes; he's aging, expensive, unproductive, increasingly unpopular, and without a capable backup to replace him. Before breaking his finger on a hit-by-pitch earlier this month, Carlos Pena (4.9 VORP, 1.8 WARP) looks as though he may have turned back into a pumpkin after last year's 46-homer storybook season, though with a .269 EqA and above-average fielding, he's not a total vortex of suck. Paul Konerko (-1.3 VORP, 0.7 WARP) has been no great shakes either, but he was starting to show signs of life before straining an oblique muscle and hitting the DL earlier this week.

However, the title here goes to 22-year-old rookie Barton, a high-OBP, low-power type who hasn't come close to fulfilling PECOTA's relatively modest expectations (.274/.360/.426). With the A's still in sight of the Angels in the AL West race and carrying a run differential that suggests they're capable of catching them (+59, compared to +2 for the Halos), this is a delicate situation that bears watching.

Dishonorable Mention: Delgado (2.4 VORP, 1.4 WARP), Mets. Fairly or not, his play was a major factor in costing Willie Randolph his job.

2B: Adam Kennedy (-2.3 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Aaron Miles (-0.4 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Cardinals
Second base is a festering sore for more than one contender. The Indians recently sent down Asdrubal Cabrera (-9.4 VORP, 0.2 WARP), one of the players whose late-2007 callup helped spark their AL Central title run. The Yankees have watched Robinson Cano (-7.5 VORP, 0.9 WARP) struggle to live up to the weight of the four-year, $30 million extension he signed in Februrary. Though the Yankee offense has been producing a robust 5.8 runs per game in the four weeks since Alex Rodriguez's return, the always-streaky Cano apparently didn't get the invitation to the party; his .269/.306/.356 showing in that span is nothing to write home about. Cano's extraordinary ability to cover the plate is backfiring, as he's reaching out to slap pitches he has no business swinging at in an attempt to force his way out of the slump.

However, the prize here has to go to Kennedy. For several years he was a solid contributor to some pretty good Angels teams, but in moving over to the NL last year, his performance completely collapsed (.219/.282/.290, 0.5 WARP). The Cardinals should have taken the hint and sprung for an upgrade, but with Kennedy signed for two more years they stuck to their guns and are platooning him with Miles, a futilityman whose performance has been only slightly better. Throw in shortstop Cesar Izturis (1.8 VORP, 0.6 WARP) and his backup Brendan Ryan (0.7 VORP, 0.3 WARP), and you've got an unproductive middle infield that's doing the surprising Cardinals no favors. Of course, neither are the injuries to Albert Pujols and their pitching staff.

Dishonorable Mention: Cano, who's conjuring up warm, fuzzy memories of Tony Womack for any Yankee fans.

SS: Chin-Lung Hu (-9.7 VORP, -1.0 WARP) and Angel Berroa (-1.4 VORP, -0.1 WARP), Dodgers
The 24-year-old Hu was supposed to be the Dodgers' shortstop of the future. Considered possibly the best defensive player in the minors, he'd shown considerable progress with the bat as well, hitting a combined .325/.364/.507 last year split between pitcher-friendly Jacksonville (Double-A) and hitter-friendly Las Vegas (Triple-A). With Rafael Furcal in the final year of his contract, his time as the Dodgers' shortstop had nearly arrived.

Then the injury bug bit. Jeff Kent hurt his hamstring during spring training, and while he was healthy enough to be in the Opening Day lineup, the Dodgers kept Hu around for defensive replacement purposes. He played in 22 of the team's first 32 games but got only 36 plate appearances, and his bat was still rusty when he took over for Furcal, who tore up the NL (.366/.448/.597) before being sidelined by a bulging disk in his back. Hu went just 10-for-76 as the team's shortstop while the Dodger offense ran aground, scoring just 3.4 runs per game before they pulled the plug and sent Hu back to the minors. Meanwhile, Ned Colletti doused the problem in gasoline by trading for 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Berroa, who in the four years since winning that award hit .255/.292/.364 while fielding at a clip 55 runs below average. The Dodgers have been held to one run or less in four of his first eight starts, and are averaging 3.2 runs per game with him in the lineup. They're now 14-24 since Furcal went down, and given the report that he'll be out until after the All-Star break, you can pretty much kiss LA's playoff hopes goodbye unless they figure out a better option. And no, asking Nomar Garciaparra to go back to his old position ain't it.

Dishonorable Mention: Jason Bartlett (-1.5 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Rays. Since we can't give it to Colletti, who's several trades and free agent signings below replacement level as a GM, this goes to Bartlett. As I've noted before, last year, the Devil Rays posted the lowest Defensive Efficiency rating since 1959 at .662 (.655 if you include batters who reached on an error) en route to a major league-worst 944 runs allowed. Over the winter, they made a smart play to shore up their infield defense by swapping shortstops with the Twins on the undercard of the Delmon Young-Matt Garza trade, getting rid of Brendan Harris, who was 13 runs below average in the field, in favor of Bartlett, who was 11 runs above average. On a macro level the move has paid off considerably; the Rays' .711 Defensive Efficiency (reached on error version) is the third-best in the AL. However, Bartlett, who's generally been an adequate hitter, has done almost nothing with the stick; his double on Tuesday marked his first extra base hit since May 12, and he still hasn't drawn a walk since May 29. The Rays have some organizational depth, but with Ben Zobrist only recently returned from a broken thumb and Reid Brignac making an uneven showing in Triple-A (.261/.306/.436), Bartlett will likely get a shot to work way out of his season-long slump.

3B: Mike Lamb (-11.6 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Twins
A team whose pitching staff is 11th in the league in strikeout rate needs all the help it can get from its infielders, but the Twins are 13th in the league in Defensive Efficiency. The aforementioned Brendan Harris (-5.8 VORP, 0.4 WARP) started the year at second base but shifted to shortstop when Adam Everett went down, and probably deserves his share of the blame for that fact. But Harris is just two runs below average in the field according to Clay Davenport's numbers, while Lamb is seven runs below average, and he's been even less productive with the bat at a position where the offensive bar is higher.

Dishonorable Mention: Bill Hall (-5.3 VORP, -0.2 WARP), Brewers. Hall's been somewhat cursed by his versatility in recent years, but given the chance to return to the infield as a full-timer, he's suddenly struggled to hit right-handed pitching: .157/.223/.307 this year, compared to .262/.310/.464 prior. That performance prompted the Brewers to recall Three True Outcomes hero Russell Branyan from the minors to take the long half of a platoon at third, and Branyan has responded by bashing nine homers and slugging .831 in 19 games, helping the Brewers reinvigorate their playoff hopes by going 12-7. Hall, via his agent, has requested a trade.

LF: Garret Anderson (-1.4 VORP, 0.3 VORP), Angels
The free agent signing of Torii Hunter crowded the already-overstocked Angels outfield to the point of absurdity, squeezing out 2007 rookie surprise Reggie Willits in favor of one last go-round for Anderson, who's in the final year of his contract. A fan favorite who holds numerous franchise hitting records and is strongly identified with the Angels' 2002 championship, the soon-to-be 36-year-old enjoyed a bit of a dead cat bounce last year, but otherwise hasn't hit well enough to carry his position since 2003. A manager's loyalty to "his guys," the players he's won with in the past, in the face of evidence that they can no longer do the job is a very dangerous thing, particularly when better options are at hand. With Anderson mired in a 7-for-51 slump, it's time for Mike Scioscia to explore his numerous alternatives.

Dishonorable Mention: Eric Byrnes (-4.2 VORP, 0.3 WARP), Diamondbacks. After a career year in which he led the division-winning Diamondbacks in WARP, Byrnes had been slowed by injuries to both hamstrings prior to going on the disabled list in late May. With the Snakes playing sub-.500 ball for the last seven weeks while scoring just 4.0 runs per game, they have to hope that Byrnes can supply some spark when he returns to the lineup soon.

CF: Andruw Jones (-8.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Dodgers
In his free agent walk year, Jones played through a hyperextended elbow and wound up with a spot on the 2007 Killers. Nonetheless, the Dodgers figured the 31-year-old would rebound, and signed him to a two-year, $36 million deal, one that appeared to force Juan Pierre into richly-deserved (and richly compensated) fourth-outfielderdom. Then Jones showed up to camp looking rather plump, and he performed so miserably that when a torn meniscus forced him to undergo surgery, Pierre's return to the lineup--shifting to left field, with Matt Kemp in center--came as a relief. Not that Pierre has been producing (2.5 VORP, 1.1 WARP), but at least Dodger fans have been spared the daily drama of reading Joe Torre's lineup.

Dishonorable Mention: Melky Cabrera (2.5 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Yankees. Cabrera's ascension into a full-time role last year helped shore up an aging, porous Yankee outfield while pushing Johnny Damon over to left and Hideki Matsui into limbo. The 23-year-old Melkman looked as though his long-awaited power surge had finally arrived when he got off to a .299/.370/.494 start in April, but since then he's lost his way at the plate, hitting just .229/.278/.312. His defense (-4 FRAA) has been a step down as well, Tuesday night's stellar catch notwithstanding.

RF: Jeff Francoeur (-1.0 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Braves
Francoeur's lack of plate discipline has always generated more skepticism among statheads than scoutier types, but after improving his walk rate and battling deeper into counts in 2007, Joe Sheehan was among those who predicted a breakout year for Frenchy in 2008. It hasn't happened. Though he's seeing the same number of pitches per plate appearance, Francoeur has just one unintentional walk for every 24.1 PA, down from one per 18.8 last year. The Braves have their share of offensive weapons, but their outfield as a whole is hitting a combined .265/.326/.394 with 18 homers, ranking 14th in the league in SLG and OPS. It's going to take more than that for them to return to October, particularly with the injuries to their pitching staff.

Dishonorable Mention: Franklin Gutierrez (-2.3 VORP, 0.8 WARP), Indians. Like Asdrubal Cabrera, Gutierrez has been unable to recapture the mojo that he supplied the Indians with last year after securing a lineup spot at midseason. Hardly the most disciplined hitter to begin with, he's capable of compensating with plenty of pop, but his ISO has dropped dramatically, from .206 to .118 this year. With the Tribe's other outfield corner similarly unproductive, manager Eric Wedge has begun platooning Guiterrez with Shin-Soo Choo instead of Ben Francisco, as the latter has hit his way into a full-time role at the expense of David Dellucci (0.9 VORP, 0.0 WARP).

DH: Travis Hafner (0.2 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Indians
From 2004 to 2006, only David Ortiz out-VORP'd Pronk among designated hitters, but last year Hafner's production mysteriously fell off the table: his SLG dropped 208 points from his 2006 high. Nonetheless, he was still productive enough to post a .295 EqA, but he hasn't even come close to matching that level this year. Perhaps his woes can be explained by the shoulder strain that pushed him to the DL at the end of May, or perhaps the expiration date on those old-player skills really has been reached. Filling his spot in the lineup with the aforementioned Dellucci is helping nothing.

Dishonorable mention: Gary Sheffield (0.9 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Tigers. Termites appear to have gotten the best of Sheffield's shoulder. Since last August 1, the once-mighty Shef has hit .197/.329/.295 while being sidelined by injuries multiple times. However, his bat was starting to show signs of life--nine hits in a five-game span--before he went on the DL with an oblique strain in late May. It's not exactly a coincidence that the Tigers have gone 13-8 in his absence.

---

We'll check back later this season to see which teams nipped their potential Killers in the bud, and which ones allowed them to continue their unproductive rampages.

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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