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April 15, 2009

Replacement-Level Killers

A Flash Back to Yesteryear

by Ben Lindbergh

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Each Opening Day marks the arrival of the proverbial "next year" invoked by the prior season's foiled fans, a long-awaited grace period infused with hope and promise. The season of clean slates, fresh starts, and slight fluctuations in our Playoff Odds Report might seem a strange time to summon the specter of last year's failures, but baseball's statistical record specializes in hawking hard truths—teams that allot playing time while mired in the throes of irrational exuberance frequently find their October aspirations cleaved by Santayana's old saw.

In the midst of each of the last two seasons, Jay Jaffe compiled an "all-star team of ignominy," which he dubbed the Replacement-Level Killers. Jay originally developed the concept for a chapter in It Ain't Over, and then applied it on a smaller scale to both the 2007 and 2008 campaigns. He also intended to update last year's mid-season list after the dust had settled, but never found the time. That's where this article comes in.

For the purposes of this list, we'll exclude teams that made the playoffs, as well as teams that fell well short of them, even though both of those groups harbored replacement-level players. The teams in the former tier succeeded in spite of them (we can't collar a Killer unless the victim dies), while the teams belonging to the latter category often employed too many of them to make singling out any one culprit feasible—trying to select a lone Killer from last year's Nationals would be like trying to identify which member of a firing squad let the fatal bullet fly.

Since this list was made long after the season's final standings were determined, and with the above qualifications in place, I've effectively narrowed the scope of our search to the relatively exclusive group of teams that finished out of the playoffs but within striking distance of meaningful October competition. The postmortem format means that it's too late for these teams to rectify their '08 errors, but it also allows us to formulate a more or less definitive list of Killers with the benefit of hindsight; after all, an autopsy generally pinpoints an individual's cause of death with greater accuracy than a mid-life medical exam. You won't find any mere attempted Killers on this list—these are the perps.

Playing time has an impact on the selections, since the opportunity cost of fielding a Killer increases along with the plate appearances and defensive chances which could have been allotted to a more capable player. Although both groups are eligible for inclusion, we should draw a distinction between replacement players and replacement-level players; the latter group includes an abundance of unavailable talent, since highly-touted prospects struggling in their first exposure to major league competition (but spared a demotion, whether out of fear of irrevocably damaging their psyches, or the belief that they have nothing left to prove at lower levels) would fall under that heading. Of course, the preferred method of dealing with a Replacement-Level Killer is not simply to substitute one for another; the key is to secure an alternate who's capable of playing above that replacement-level threshold, which is easier said than done.

My list differs from Jay's in one important respect apart from its timing: Baseball Prospectus' definition of replacement level, for statistical purposes, has changed since Jay's list was published. "New" WARP more closely reflects the realities of freely available talent, in that it acknowledges the fact that replacement-level defense is roughly equivalent to league-average defense, and it also incorporates a more refined calculation of fielding runs (for a more detailed explanation of the changes, see Clay Davenport's essay in BP2K9). An entire team composed of replacement-level players would be expected to finish with approximately 48 wins, or several more than the 2003 Tigers managed. The VORP and WARP figures in this article, which represent totals accrued only for the listed teams (and which, in WARP's case, refer to WARP1), are drawn directly from the Killers' PECOTA cards, so be aware that you may see slightly different numbers elsewhere on the site (most notably in the sortables) as we complete the statistical transition.

C: J.R. Towles (-11.9 VORP, -0.7 WARP), Brad Ausmus (-7.4 VORP, 0.1 WARP), and Humberto Quintero (-7.0 VORP, 0.3 WARP), Astros

The Astros were extremely fortunate to finish 3½ games behind the Wild Card-winning Brewers last season, but team luck plays no role in determining the identity of the Replacement-Level Killers; had the 'Stros managed to replace their woeful backstop brigade with a capable unit (headlined, perhaps, by someone actually capable of posting Towles' projected .270/.335/.441 line), they might well have seen October action, run differential be damned. Ausmus hasn't provided acceptable offense since the last millennium, but Towles started the season as an unlikely candidate to be pinch-hit for by Darin Erstad, a fate which befell him nonetheless. The fallen prospect will start this season in Round Rock, where he regained his slugging stroke after a demotion last June, but if Ivan Rodriguez's second-half swoon carries over to 2009, Towles may soon find himself with a shot at major league redemption. Even in the improbable event of a second failure to launch, he's likely to be spared from a repeat appearance on this list by the Astros' team-wide struggles.

Dishonorable Mention: Jose Molina (-11.4 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Yankees. The baseball gods finally called the Yankees' bluff, pulling aside Jorge Posada's torn labrum to reveal a characteristically weak Plan B. Molina provided superb defense, but no degree of control over the running game could have overcome the worst OBP posted in extended Bronx action since Alvaro Espinoza's off-again, off-again relationship with free passes back in 1990. Brian Cashman deserves credit for a deadline attempt to plug the hole with the aforementioned Rodriguez, but the future Hall-of-Fame backstop failed to outhit Molina once handed a Yankees uniform.

1B: Chad Tracy (.4 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks shifted Conor Jackson to left field to pave the way for Tracy's long-awaited return from knee surgery, but the move merely substituted one trouble spot for another. Jackson filled the void left by a season-ending injury to co-Killer Eric Byrnes, but Tracy failed to match even Jackson's modest power output, while exhibiting only a fraction of the latter player's range, patience, and contact skills. Adam Dunn's arrival brought an end to GM Josh Byrnes' game of replacement-level Whac-A-Mole, but it came too late to salvage the Snakes' playoff hopes.

Dishonorable Mention: Ryan Garko (10.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Indians. Garko was a slightly above-average performer at his position in 2007, but every facet of his game went south last season. Of course, multiple mid-season trades rendered his team's torrid final two months little more than a valiant gesture, but Garko's .241/.317/351 first half helped to pack CC's bags.

2B: Luis Castillo (4.1 VORP, 0.0 WARP), Damion Easley (3.4 VORP, -0.4 WARP), and Argenis Reyes (-6.9 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Mets

For a team eliminated from contention on the final day of the season, the employment of one or more replacement-level players imparts added poignancy to the inevitable wintry what-might-have-beens; the near-certain knowledge that a change of personnel at a single position would have staved off disaster leaves an emotional wound that an off-season spending spree can only begin to dress. GM Omar Minaya earned any sleepless nights he might later have suffered when he awarded Castillo a four-year contract prior to last season; a long-term pact inked with a free agent usually signifies a team's willingness to pay a premium for diminished returns down the road in exchange for maintained production during the deal's front end, but Castillo's past performance neither justified that tradeoff, nor figured to be sustainable for any portion of the contract.

Both the old and the new blood that Minaya tried to transfuse during the oft-injured Castillo's absences congealed in extended use—Easley and Reyes earned off-season pink slips for their troubles, but Castillo proved more difficult to dislodge. Dismissing the reformed speedster as a sunk cost and investing in a less depreciated asset this offseason might have been wise; instead, the Mets chose to stand by their man, even though his creaky knees are hard to understand.

Dishonorable Mention: Aaron Hill (1.4 VORP, -1.1 WARP), Blue Jays. In BP2K8, we wrote that Hill's peak would be "very impressive, starting now." We may have jumped the gun just slightly, but in our defense, not one of Hill's top comparables had spent the majority of his age-26 season recovering from a collision with David Eckstein. The concussion Hill sustained from running into Eckstein's elbow ended his season on May 29, denying him the opportunity to rebound from an early slump. As the trailer in the Killers' clubhouse, he faced a stiff challenge from mid-season dishonoree Robinson Cano, but the Yankee's modest second-half surge conferred a tinge of respectability upon their keystoner's almost-lost season.

SS: John McDonald (-10.6 VORP, -0.9 WARP), Blue Jays

In BP2008, we argued that McDonald was "the rare player whose defense is so good that he can keep a job despite being one of the worst hitters in baseball." Last season, McDonald strengthened his claim to the latter distinction, recording an atrocious .193 EqA in 207 PA, but saw his hold upon the former title evaporate along with his range in the field. McDonald's FRAA plummeted from +11 in 2007 to -3 in 2008, a decline mirrored in the totals generated by every other PBP-based fielding metric. Prior to the season, we predicted that the Jays would be shooting themselves in the shortstop whenever David Eckstein started instead of McDonald; however, thanks to the latter's mysteriously dissipated defense, it was the comparatively productive Eckstein who wrongly rode the pine. Marco Scutaro received the bulk of the playing time at short after Eckstein's departure for the desert, flashing a passable imitation of Eck's bat and the old McDonald's glove.

Dishonorable Mention: Cesar Izturis (2.6 VORP, 1.6 WARP) and Brendan Ryan (-3.7 VORP, -0.5 WARP), Cardinals. The second-base half of the Cards' keystone combo took mid-season dishonors, but the Replacement-Level Killing fields in St. Louis also encompassed the shortstop side of the bag. Given the weakness of their middle infield, the Cardinals might have been better served by making Albert Pujols responsible for every ball hit to Troy Glaus' left, provided that the MVP could also occupy three positions in the batting order. Instead, GM John Mozeliak turned to Nationals cast-off Felipe Lopez, who exploded for an unlikely .385/.426/.538 line over the final two months of the season to help shore up production at second. A results-based analysis would deem this an inspired addition, but even a more reasoned approach to evaluation could find grounds for commendation; all too often, this type of marginal move for a higher-upside player goes unmade, as teams resign themselves to their unprofitable associations with the devils they know.

3B: Mike Lamb (-10.1 VORP, -0.9 WARP) and Brian Buscher (5.0 VORP, -0.2 WARP), Twins

During a visit to the Yankees' spring training camp in 2004, I overheard Mike Lamb welcoming a throng of fans hoping for a glimpse of "the team's new third baseman," tongue-in-cheekily pretending to overlook the fact that Alex Rodriguez had been fitted for pinstripes a month before. Lamb's sense of humor doubtless remained above replacement level in 2008, but the same could not be said for his bat, which made only sporadic appearances against righties, and went into Howard Hughes-like seclusion against southpaws. After Lamb went to the slaughter, Buscher supplied a stretch of fluky, batting-average driven production, but gave back much of the difference on defense. Of course, the combined efforts of Lamb and Buscher easily trumped the -26.3 VORP and -1.7 WARP Nick Punto accrued at the position in 2007; if new acquisition Joe Crede regains his 2006 form, his contributions on both sides of the ball might warrant a life-sized statue in front of the Target Center.

Dishonorable Mention: Geoff Blum (-1.0 VORP, 0.8 WARP), Astros, and Andy Marte (-12.2 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Indians. Marte's last hurrah can be excused as an ill-fated fact-finding mission, but the Astros should have known better than to rely on the 35-year-old veteran whose season EqA ended up as a dead ringer for his .242 career mark. That Blum spent almost half of his plate appearances in the five-hole serves as a sad commentary on the state of Houston's aged lineup.

LF: Eric Byrnes (-9.5 VORP, -0.6 WARP), Diamondbacks

Byrnes' torn left hamstring forced him to remain on the shelf after garnering 2008's mid-year dishonorable mention, ensuring that no more entries would be added to the cluttered debit side of his season's ledger. However, he'd done enough by that point to ensure his continued presence at the bottom of his field; mid-season Killer Garret Anderson turned back the clock with a .335/.360/.496 second half, and no new contenders emerged to challenge Byrnes' claim to the title. Meanwhile, 2007 Diamondback (and Replacement-Level Killer) Carlos Quentin blossomed into an MVP candidate as the everyday left fielder for the White Sox. In this instance, the one that got away was every bit as impressive as advertised.

Dishonorable Mention: Shannon Stewart (-4.7 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Blue Jays. Luis Gonzalez's 6.3 VORP and 0.7 WARP in extended action hamstrung the Marlins, but Stewart, nearly seven years Gonzalez's junior, may have played himself out of baseball with his injury-shortened effort last season. He didn't do the Jays any favors, either.

CF: Michael Bourn (-11.8 VORP, -0.9 WARP), Astros

Bourn was something of an on-base threat in the minors, but lacks the extra-base ability that makes such performance sustainable in a league full of pitchers with power stuff and world-class control. Neither GM Ed Wade—who not only presided over Bourn's selection in the Phillies' 2003 draft, but deemed his '07 acquisition worth the sacrifice of one of the Astros' few marketable commodities, Brad Lidge—nor skipper Cecil Cooper, who made Bourn a fixture at the top of his lineup, appeared shaken by his prodigious aptitude for out-making. Perhaps the two were simply determined to preserve the presence of a token 25-year-old in the team's trigenarian lineup. Darin Erstad, Jose Cruz, Jr., and Reggie Abercrombie rounded out Houston's utterly punchless center-pasture posse, so it wasn't as if the 'Stros overlooked a group of qualified in-house candidates. Bourn steals successfully and plays capable defense (allowing Hunter Pence to man right field, a position for which he's better suited), but continued offensive struggles might be enough to light the Bogusevic signal in the skies over Minute Maid.

Dishonorable Mention: Melky Cabrera (-5.7 VORP, 1.4 WARP), Yankees. Cabrera showed promise in April, but boarded a slow train to Scranton soon afterwards, arriving at his destination in August. His replacement, Brett Gardner, performed at replacement level himself, leveraging a Bournian skill set into a Bournian triple-slash line. A September surge handed Gardner this year's keys to the grounds, where PECOTA projects that he'll continue to fuel Bernie Williams' dreams of a comeback.

RF: Michael Cuddyer (0.0 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Twins

A healthy Cuddyer's nothing to write home about, but Cuddyer at less than full strength returned the Twins' playoff hopes to sender. The outfielder missed most of April and struggled in May, but seemed to recover his 2006 form in June—just in time to miss July and August with his second finger-related injury of the year (and his third in two seasons). Luckily for the Twins, Denard Span more than matched the output that a healthy Cuddyer likely would have provided, though the once and future right fielder's long-term contract earned him 20 powerless PA in September.

Dishonorable Mention: Brad Wilkerson (-2.2 VORP, -0.2 WARP), Blue Jays. Wilkerson played below replacement level for multiple teams last season, but the lowly Mariners caught on quickly, wasting only 68 plate appearances on their Opening Day right fielder. The Jays enrolled him in their platoon protection program, but even a near-total quarantine from lefties failed to reverse a steep offensive and defensive decline that began after 2004—not-so-coincidentally, Wilkerson's last full season played with two healthy shoulders. The Jays may not have placed a representative in the starting lineup of Replacement-Level Killers, but the dishonorable mentions of Hill, Stewart, and Wilkerson begin to explain how they failed to sniff a playoff spot despite leading the league in run prevention. (Of course, being in the same division as the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees also played a role.) Outstanding defense saved Franklin Gutierrez (-3.2 VORP, 0.9 WARP) from taking co-dishonors.

DH: Travis Hafner (-6.6 VORP, -.8 WARP), Indians

In BP2K8, we drew attention to the early demises of some of Pronk's top comparables; right on cue, a 32-year-old Hafner tumbled over the edge of the cliff on which he had teetered in 2007. A chronically sore shoulder kept him out of action for half of the season, but since three months of rest and rehab failed to pay dividends in September, and Dr. Andrews uncovered no structural damage during an October surgery, it's fair to wonder whether Hafner's demise can simply be attributed to natural causes. Given that Nate Silver found only a half-run difference between league-average DHs and freely available replacements at the position between 1985 and 2005, the Indians' failure to corral a capable fill-in for Hafner seems especially flagrant. David Dellucci (0.3 VORP, 0.0 WARP) certainly wasn't the solution; he would have made quite a Killer himself at either DH or left field, had he not split his time between them.

Dishonorable Mention: Craig Monroe (-3.1 VORP, -0.6 WARP), Twins. In last year's annual, we called Monroe "no better than a replacement-level option at this stage." That was putting it delicately. Monroe showed decent power, but a fourth straight season of declining line-drive production, coupled with a touch of bad luck, resulted in an offensive performance that wouldn't play at any position, let alone the one without a defensive component. Of course, Monroe's teams are better off when he's not playing defense, but they're best off when he's not playing at all.

As Jay wrote, picking on replacement-level pitchers constitutes a "sport unto itself," but I'll mention a few of the most egregious offenders before wrapping up this exercise:

Pitcher: Livan Hernandez (-4.1 VORP) and Boof Bonser (-13.0 VORP), Twins

Five years of declining velocity and sinking strikeout rates presaged Livan's '08 ERA explosion, but the collapse actually came in 2007, when Hernandez posted a 5.77 FIP in 204 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks. Undeterred, the Twins handed Hernandez a rotation spot, and he responded by allowing nearly 13 hits per nine, aided and abetted by a microscopic 3.5 K/9. He ended 2008 with a .345 BABIP and an uncharacteristically low LOB%, which might seem to offer hope of a return to some functional form, but beyond a certain point, a diminished arsenal becomes a more likely culprit than Lady Fortune. PECOTA calls for more of the same in 2009, his successful first start with the Mets notwithstanding.

Bonser made only 12 starts before joining the relief corps, where his strikeout rate skyrocketed and his walk rate plummeted (but his problematic tendency towards taters grew even worse). After undergoing season-ending surgery earlier this spring, he'll have to wait until 2010 to continue his quest to post a full-season ERA within a run of his FIP.

By the end of last season, beyond Bonser's dispatch to relief work Hernandez had also been banished (to the NL), and an entire rotation composed of inexpensive young starters under team control had taken shape in Minnesota. However, the damage had already been done. The team's odds of making the playoffs ultimately evaporated only at the end of Game 163; a change in the outcome of a single contest along the way would have sent the Twins to October. That change might have been effected with the aid of a minor alteration in personnel. In July, Francisco Liriano posted the major league equivalent of a 2.44 FIP in 35 2/3 innings for Triple-A Rochester, while Hernandez allowed 21 runs in 29 1/3 innings with the big club, losing three games in the process. Had the two switched places, the White Sox and Twins might have done likewise in the final standings.

Dishonorable Mention: Darrell Rasner (-0.6 VORP), Sidney Ponson (-0.9 VORP), Ian Kennedy (-11.2 VORP), Carl Pavano (-0.6 VORP), and Phil Hughes (-3.6 VORP), Yankees. Although the efforts of Andrew Miller (-11.0 VORP) and Brandon Backe (-8.3 VORP) should not go unmentioned, the Yankees' collection of failed fourth and fifth starters takes the cake. Look no further for an illustration of the multifaceted nature of replacement-level performance; this group comprises one habitually available arm (Rasner), two formerly (if fleetingly) valuable performers since gone to seed (Ponson and Pavano), and, in Hughes and Kennedy, two young guns who retain real promise.

Next time I'll continue to rain on the early-season parade by projecting the Replacement-Level Killers of 2009—further April showers might yet yield flowers in May and beyond, for teams proactive enough to treat their fatal ailments before they suffer from the symptoms.

Thanks to Bil Burke for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an intern with Baseball Prospectus and a student at Georgetown University. You can contact Ben by clicking here.

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

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