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February 6, 2009

Got Problems?

The Ones Contenders Think Are Fixed That Aren't

by Jay Jaffe

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Perhaps the never-ending stream of grim financial news is causing teams to shy away from spending money if they think they can avoid it. Perhaps bad contracts are already hamstringing some payrolls. Or perhaps certain general managers have donned rose-tinted glasses to view half-baked solutions to problems that may well quash their bids for contention. Guided by the recently released PECOTA projections, here are six scenarios which aren't as fixed as some people would like you to believe as we count down to the day when pitchers and catchers report.

LA Angels of Anaheim: First Base (Kendry Morales)
We've already hammered the Halos over this, but it bears repeating: you can't plug Morales into the gaping hole left by Mark Teixeira's departure and expect what was already a below-average offense (4.7 runs per game, "good" for 10th in the AL) to pick up the slack. Going on 26, the Cuban defector has put up superficially gaudy numbers in Triple-A over the past three years (.335/.374/.483), but once you let the rarefied Salt Lake City air out of that performance, it's the equivalent to hitting .263/.301/.419 in the majors-a surprisingly good match for Morales' actual major league numbers over that span (.249/.302/.408 in 407 plate appearances). Given the Angels' pitcher-friendly park, PECOTA actually sees things getting worse for Morales in 2009, forecasting a .253/.295/.389 line, which is 0.2 WARP below replacement level.

Diamondbacks: Left Field (Eric Byrnes)
In the summer of 2007, Byrnes raced out to a stellar .286/.353/.460 showing with 21 homers and 50 steals, and the Diamondbacks responded by declaring their undying affection for their 31-year-old left fielder, handing him a three-year, $30 million extension. Alas, year one didn't go so well, as injuries to both hamstrings-double trouble for a speed-oriented player-limited Byrnes to 52 games and an injury-influenced .209/.272/.369 performance with four steals. Arizona passed on re-signing deadline acquisition Adam Dunn because it would have turned Byrnes into a fourth outfielder with an eight-figure contract, but by doing so the Snakes have settled for the return of a player whose .266/.327/.442 forecast is a drag on the offense when it's coming from a corner outfielder in a hitter's park, particularly amid or even atop an OBP-challenged lineup. Plan B, which would involve shifting first baseman Conor Jackson to left and using Chad Tracy (.274/.341/.467) at first, only spreads the subpar production across two key offensive spots.

Twins: Third Base (Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris)
While the 2008 Twins did take their quest for the postseason all the way to a Game 163 play-in (which they lost to the White Sox), there's little question they could have sealed a bid had they addressed either one of two problems earlier: ditching Livan Hernandez in favor of Francisco Liriano in the rotation, or punting on third baseman Mike Lamb (who hit .233/.276/.322) in favor of any option this side of Harmon Killebrew. Buscher and Harris were part of the solution once the team benched Lamb, combining to hit .300/.356/.436 during their time manning the hot corner. General manager Bill Smith plans for more of the same, with Buscher getting most of the at-bats in a platoon, but the .347 batting average on balls in play that fueled their performance isn't likely to be repeated. PECOTA projects a .254/.306/.392 showing for the duo, though that could improve if both players' at-bats against same-handed pitching are kept to a minimum.

Yankees: Catcher (Jorge Posada/Jose Molina)
Long a vital cog in the Yankee offense, Posada was limited to just 51 games last year, and just 30 behind the plate, due to a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum which required season-ending surgery. He may not be 100 percent to start spring training, and may never be 100 percent again; PECOTA recognizes the sudden dip in playing time in his age-36 season as the type of bad news usually written in 72-point bold headlines, forecasting him for .249/.336/.406 in 257 PA (1.5 WARP). That spells far too much playing time for repeat backup Molina, whose defensive strengths (44 percent of opposing stolen-base attempts caught, and 11 Fielding Runs Above Average) couldn't offset his wretched offense, the lowest OBP and fourth-lowest SLG of any catcher with at least 200 PA. Molina's 2009 forecast calls for a .229/.271/.325 line in 171 PA (0.6 WARP), and any expansion of his role beyond that would constitute a major drag on the Yankees' offense. As a result, the Yankees need Posada to resume everyday work behind the plate while approaching his career numbers (.277/.380/.477). A 60/40 split in playing time leads to a total .243/.304/.380 performance between them, not something the Yanks can afford.

Indians: Left Field/First Base/DH (Ben Francisco + David Dellucci/Ryan Garko/Travis Hafner)
For a likely contender, the Indians don't look very threatening at the positions where the offensive expectations are the highest. As noted last week, the left-field platoon of Francisco (forecast for 260/.328/.424) and Dellucci (.254/.316/.425) is of a piece with the Tribe's seven-year trend of mediocrity from its corner outfielders, while Garko at first base is similarly lacking in punch (.261/.333/.420). There's slightly more room for optimism here than in some other quarters, however. While shoulder problems eroded Hafner's performance from .308/.419/.611 in 2004-2006 to just .248/.364/.417 in 2007-2008 (including a sub-Mendoza showing last year), off-season surgery to clean out scar tissue offers hope that he can outdo his .248/.352/.422 forecast, even if living up to his $57 million contract through 2012 is a pipe dream. Additionally, top prospect Matt LaPorta, a 2007 first-round pick obtained from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade last summer, will start the year in Triple-A, and could provide more punch by slotting in at left field or at first base by mid-season.

The Rest: With Ryan Church, Nick Evans, Dan Murphy, and Fernando Tatis forecast to hit a combined .256/.318/.415, the Mets' corner outfield situation could make this list, though we've offered them multiple solutions already. ... With the Yankees' catching situation making the list, it bears mentioning that a similar 60/40 split for the Red Sox between Jason Varitek and Josh Bard comes in at .246/.319/.386-20 points of OPS higher-in an offense that's better equipped to withstand that lack of production from a lineup slot. ... Having failed to replace departed free agents CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brewers' rotation might seem ripe for this list, but PECOTA sees four of its five principals coming in with ERAs under 4.52, though Seth McClung's projection probably heads in the wrong direction if he's considered a starter instead of a reliever. ... The White Sox, on the other hand, forecast to have just one starter below 4.58; their situation was discussed here.

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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