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April 28, 2009

Replacement-Level Killers 2009

Murther, Bloody Murther!

by Ben Lindbergh

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Recently, I examined last season's Replacement-Level Killers, affixing the title that Jay Jaffe coined to a group of bungling batsmen, floundering fielders, and helpless hurlers whose poor play torpedoed their teams' chances of reaching the playoffs in 2008. Last year's lowlights deserved a look, but with three weeks of baseball under our belts in 2009, we've already begun to turn our attentions to what certain players haven't done for us lately (sometimes a touch too eagerly). As promised, I've come up with a list of candidates for the 2009 Replacement-Level Killers squad, predicated not on what we've seen so far in limited action, but on what we're likely to see in the months ahead.

Over the course of a lengthy season, avoiding replacement-level production often hinges more heavily on timely, effective responses to poor performance and injury than on selecting the best candidates from an available pool of Opening Day starters. In many instances, an appearance on the list represents not so much a criticism of the player in question, as an indictment of the managers (both general and otherwise) who put him in a position to fail despite his known limitations (although in certain cases, such as those of J.R. Towles or John McDonald last season, the extent of the collapse likely could not have been foreseen). However, in general, teams act rationally by awarding the bulk of the opportunities to the most capable players on hand, which not only makes their occasional failures to do so more frustrating, but renders forecasting the identity of the Killers difficult.

Fortunately, we have a talented tandem of prognosticators on staff in Clay Davenport and Nate Silver. For this exercise, I'll be using our Player Forecast Manager, a combination of their efforts (and the enterprise of our technical staff), to identify some of the most problematic players at each position. The PFM, which utilizes both Nate's PECOTA projections and Clay's revised estimates of playing time, already accounts for the fact that players who are projected to provide replacement-level performance aren't likely to be granted long enough leashes to inflict serious damage. As a result, few of its projections call for regulars to post near- or below-zero WARPs in extended action, but each year, without fail, certain players manage to win the game of replacement-level Red Rover, eluding capture long enough to qualify as Killers.

There's another factor at work here—because PECOTA's projections are heavily regressed to the mean and can't account for future luck, they tend not to forecast "extreme" performances. Just as the 16-win total which topped our PECOTA leaderboard in BP2K8 isn't likely to set the pace for pitchers, a -0.2 WARP (the lowest total on the following list) won't capture the worst offenses committed by a position player, as a glance at last year's list confirms. While certain players projected to play at or near replacement level will exceed their 50th-percentile projections, proving to be valuable contributors, others will underperform, dragging their teams down with them. Which players fall under which headings won't be decided for some time (though higher Beta scores may mark the greater risks), so drawing conclusions from limited samples smacks of treating a snapshot like a time-lapse film.

That said, we don't have to wait for the end of the season to chronicle teams' attempts to address their weaknesses; if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of would-be Replacement-Level Killers being brought to justice, even in the early going. Last month, Joe Sheehan wrote that "the Padres' shortstop slot could well end up as the worst position in baseball this year." It shouldn't come as a shock to learn that the inadvisability of relying on Luis Rodriguez and (now-injured) Rule 5 draftee Everth Cabrera hasn't been lost on the team's front office. In addition to re-acquiring the departed Chris Burke, GM Kevin Towers recently confessed to coveting other organizations' shortstops; if his search should prove fruitful, Rodriguez will find himself relegated to the utility role which he's filled for the last four seasons. Joe also noted the Astros' folly in treating Geoff Blum (who last time garnered a dishonorable mention for his murderous work in 2008) as an everyday third baseman. Despite Blum's hot start, GM Ed Wade invited Jeff Keppinger to come on down—a solution which might prove more costly than the problem, depending on Keppinger's recovery from the knee injury that sunk his second half last year, and the performance of the Jaime Cevallos-enhanced "prospect" (in Houston's case, a relative term) whom the Astros surrendered, Drew Sutton.

Of course, weaknesses at shortstop and third base, respectively, are only two of the many obstacles preventing the Padres and Astros from securing playoff berths; teams that flawed are unlikely to employ a single Killer, simply because they employ a surplus of qualified claimants. At this time of the season, when the love runs high for flukily fast starters, we're forced to make educated guesses about the identities of the clubs that might finish close enough to contention to mint genuine Killers. For the purposes of this list, I'm excluding teams whose chances of making the playoffs sit below 10 percent, according to the PECOTA-adjusted version of our Playoff Odds Report. Currently, that stipulation leaves aspiring Killers from nine clubs on the outside looking in. However, I will be including a few more honorable mentions this time around, in the hope that casting a slightly wider net might ensnare at least a few of the year-end guilty parties.

C: Jason Kendall (0.9 VORP, 1.6 WARP), Brewers

Our memories of his salad days may be wilting, but eight years ago, Kendall was still treading a Hall of Fame career path. In BP2K1, we called him one of the "best players in baseball," deemed his six-year, $60 million contract "a bargain," and confidently proclaimed that he was "just entering his power peak," the analytical equivalent of an 0-for-3 day with three strikeouts. Like many predictions that look bad in retrospect, this terrible trifecta seemed perfectly reasonable at the time; through his age-26 season, the durable backstop had posted a .313/.402/.456 line in nearly 2,700 PA. Little did we know that his peak (power-wise or otherwise) was already behind him; whether as a result of injury, overuse, or belatedly viewing the replay of his own horrific ankle dislocation from 1999, Kendall's performance tanked. None of his single-season home-run totals has climbed more than half of the way to double digits since 2003, his penultimate year as an offensive asset. Kendall rebounded from his 2007 nadir last season, but any slippage at the plate (or behind it) might send him plunging below replacement level once more. Exhibition-season wishcasting of a return to glory has given way to a .180/.306/.200 line in April action.

Dishonorable Mention: A.J. Pierzynski (3.1 VORP, 1.6 WARP), White Sox. Kendall's and Pierzynski's projections called for identical WARPs in an identical number of plate appearances, so the Brewers' superior playoff odds functioned as the tie-breaker. Pierzynski has maintained his durability into his early 30s, but the returns that he's generated in his ample playing time have declined steadily since his 2003 peak. His .274/.294/.399 second half in 2008 could have been a sign of things to come; if so, his below-average glove won't stand in the way of his being labeled a Killer.

1B: Kendry Morales (-6.4 VORP, -0.2 WARP), Angels

We shouldn't draw too many conclusions from Morales' woeful performances in his relatively brief 2006 and 2009 auditions with the big club; his sporadic chances in 2007 produced happier results. Still, it says something about Morales' abilities that he's spent most of the last four seasons languishing in the minors, despite being deemed worthy of a six-year major league commitment prior to 2005. Morales has hit fairly well in exile (from the major league roster, as well as from Cuba), but he's been old for his leagues, and much of his offensive value has been tied up in batting average. If Morales hits like PECOTA thinks he will—and so far, his 2009 line resembles his unimpressive career rates—the departure of Mark Teixeira may end up costing the Angels upwards of five wins in this season alone.

Dishonorable Mention: Mike Jacobs (6.5 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Royals, and Ryan Garko (6.0 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Indians. So far, Jacobs has only given moderate cause for complaint, but as Ray Davies sang, "Things are gonna change." When the morning after dawns, Royals fans might find themselves burdened with more pressing concerns than the use and abuse (which have come to signify much the same thing) of Kyle Farnsworth. Even Jacobs' biggest fans (non-Dayton Moore division) aren't convinced that he belongs on a major league field. Garko took home last year's dishonors, but his rebound in the second half of 2008, coupled with a solid start to this season, offers some evidence that he'll be able to outperform his projection. He'll have to, if he hopes to survive the stiff challenges sure to be mounted by a congeries of Cleveland first-base candidates.

2B: Alexi Casilla (2.8 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Twins

A friend of mine likes to reference a stat of his own invention called BAWW (Batting Average While Watching—add "WW" to your rate stat of choice to create your own, equally uninformative variant) to describe the performance of players in limited viewing samples. Casilla batted over .400 while I watched last season, with an OBPWW approaching .500. Were I unable to consult the record of his performance in games I wasn't watching, I might make the mistake of concluding that Casilla had played like the second coming of Rod Carew (if not Nap Lajoie) last season. Of course, that's why we bother to keep statistics—our eyes can lie, even when they see the whole picture. Casilla may have been hampered by a damaged thumb during his second-half slump, but he might also have been plummeting to earth after flying too high in the early going.

Dishonorable Mention: Luis Castillo (6.5 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Mets, and Chris Getz (-1.4 VORP, 0.4 WARP), White Sox. After the Twins traded Castillo for Casilla in 2007, we called the latter "an inferior version" of the former. Castillo, one of last year's keystone Killers, hasn't gotten any younger or healthier since then, but PECOTA hasn't offered any reason to revise our previous statement. Time will tell whether the glowing reports of his winter workout regimen augur a healthier campaign, but his April can already be deemed a rousing success. Alexei Ramirez's shift to shortstop landed Getz a starting gig, though PECOTA wasn't impressed by his age-24 uptick at homer-happy Charlotte. Thus far, he's given the middle finger to his 90th-percentile projection.

SS: Yuniesky Betancourt (9.8 VORP, 1.2 WARP), Mariners

Betancourt remains in contention for the AL DiSar Award, many of whose recipients have doubtless gone on to add citations for Replacement-Level Killing to their permanent records. Betancourt's refusal to take a walk is nothing new, but he used to be far more ambulatory on the other side of the ball; his fielding, which once made his habitual hacking tolerable, appears to be in its fourth consecutive season of decline. Perhaps it's no coincidence that his weight seems to be trending in the opposite direction. As Rob Neyer wrote, "The Mariners simply don't have a shortstop who won't cost them runs, and wins," but the M's may soon owe it to themselves to find out whether former PCL slugger Ronny Cedeno would cost them fewer of each.

Dishonorable Mention: John McDonald (-10.6 VORP, 0.0 WARP), Blue Jays, Nick Punto (-3.6 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Twins, and Adam Everett (-5.7 VORP, 1.2 WARP), Tigers. The Blue Jays' hot start (barely) qualifies last year's Killer, John McDonald, for a repeat appearance, but after being bitten in 2008, the Jays have become twice shy; McDonald has accumulated only seven plate appearances in nine games to this point. Punto's less miscast as a starting shortstop than he was as an everyday third baseman, but at either position, his role should be that of a supporting actor, not a leading man. Everett's defense took a step back last season as he contended with a sore shoulder; if that decline continues (thus far, it appears to have accelerated), the formerly fluid shortstop might join McDonald in the gloveman graveyard.

3B: Emilio Bonifacio (0.5 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Marlins

Bonifacio became one of the "most added players" in a fantasy league near you after kicking off his campaign with five consecutive multi-hit games, but you're more likely to find him languishing on the cast-off pile as April draws to a close. If only the Marlins could find a suitable replacement as quickly—unfortunately, Bonifacio's other "owners" weren't dropping him in favor of Wes Helms. Bonifacio lacks the power to keep major league pitchers honest, but unlike most players in the same plight, who risk being saddled with the Quadruple-A label, he didn't exhibit much patience even at levels where he might've gotten away with it. In fact, calling Bonifacio a Quadruple-A player could be construed as a compliment. The Nats escapee had never played third base before winning a starting job there this spring; learning his new position on the job won't help his chances of surpassing replacement level.

Dishonorable Mention: Joe Crede (-1.5 VORP, 0.7 WARP), Twins. In recent years, manning the hot corner in Minnesota has been roughly as wise a career move as wearing a red shirt on a strange planet's surface; only the Twins' distant third-place finish in 2007 prevents the franchise from laying claim to the last two third-base Killers. Crede appeared to have regained his old stroke before re-aggravating his back last July, but found few suitors for his services after hobbling into free agency. The Twins finally took the bait in February, desperate to avoid Punto-ing any hope of a contribution from the position. Crede's new employers can't be enchanted with his .207/.303/.414 April line, but at least he's spent more time on the field than at the chiropractor's.

LF: Delmon Young (8.4 VORP, 1.1 WARP), Twins

Young's atrocious defense ultimately took the fall for his failure to surpass replacement level last season, but his bat wasn't above suspicion. Of course, like 2007 and 2008 before it, 2009 could usher in Young's great leap forward, but our sophisticated Magic 8-Ball pronounced, "Outlook not so good." He's still swinging at an inordinate number of pitches outside the zone, and making contact with very few of them. In addition, Young has continued to redirect most of the balls he does hit earthward, which limits his potential to blossom in the power department. The talent that made him a number-one pick might still make him a star, but he's running the risk of becoming a perennial disappointment whose youth will serve as an excuse only up until the day that it doesn't.

Dishonorable Mention: Eric Byrnes (7.0 VORP, 1.8 WARP), Diamondbacks. Byrnes' nickname, "Crash Test Dummy," originally referred to his enthusiastic disregard for his own safety. Now it doubles as a reminder that the defending Killer is considerably the worse for wear.

CF: Jordan Schafer (4.0 VORP, 0.6 WARP), Braves

Schafer christened the 2009 season with a long homer off of Brett Myers on Opening Night, and added another tater two games later. Those early blasts may have given rise to unrealistic expectations—he hasn't hit one since—but unlike many first-week wonders, Schafer has the pedigree to sustain his success, eventually. The 22-year-old can aspire to follow in Dale Murphy's footsteps, but the Murph's path to stardom wound through a full season at Triple-A (Schafer bypassed that level entirely), followed by an EqA of .237 in his first full season in Atlanta, played at the age of—you guessed it—22. Schafer managed to fast-forward through The Dale Murphy Story's position-change montage, but how much more of the exposition he can skip on his way to the climax has yet to be determined.

Dishonorable Mention: Brian Anderson (9.8 VORP, 1.6 WARP), White Sox, and Willy Taveras (-0.8 VORP, 1.7 WARP), Reds. DeWayne Wise's separated shoulder and Jerry Owens' temporary demotion (he's since been recalled) stick Anderson with the unenviable task of accepting Chicago's dishonors, but he likely won't pull off this Killing without a contribution from his aforementioned accomplices. That Corey Patterson managed to approach 400 plate appearances in Cincinnati last season suggests that Taveras should be good for a couple for a couple hundred more in 2009, health allowing—after all, we know Dusty will be. As usual, his BABIP will dictate his value—fear 2008, hope for 2007, and expect 2006. Also lurking in the center-field Killer race are the Yankees' Brett Gardner and last year's "winner," Michael Bourn of the Astros, whose contributions in the field and on the basepaths may keep them in the black.

RF: Jeff Francoeur (11.2 VORP, 1.8 WARP)

As Steven Goldman observed, the "new" Francoeur's walk rate doesn't mark him as a vastly different animal from the one who took a brief refresher course on the joys of Jackson, Mississippi, home of the Braves' Double-A affiliate, last July. The Braves' fourth-place finish saved the homegrown hacker from an appearance on last year's list, but the team's off-season rearmaments may have given him a better shot at cracking this year's edition, even though he's unlikely to plumb the depths to which he (and his BABIP) descended in 2008. Standard small-sample disclaimers apply, but Francoeur's actually swinging at fewer pitches than he has at any point in his major league career, with most of the difference coming from a newfound tendency to lay off of balls outside the strike zone (and to strike them with greater frequency when he does commit). Despite the improvements, he still comes in well above the league rates in both categories, hardly a surprise given his former status as the personification of impatience.

Francoeur has been hitting more balls in the air in 2009, which should translate to an increased incidence of extra-base hits. If he can maintain his career-high contact rate and career-low strikeout rate, he has a shot at a league-average OBP. Unfortunately, "league average" constitutes a problematically low ceiling for a corner outfielder, but unless Francoeur learns to stops swinging and love the walk (an increasingly remote prospect), he'll continue to bump against it, with fluctuations in batting average determining how much headroom he has to spare.

Dishonorable Mention: Jose Guillen (4.9 VORP, 1.0 WARP), Royals. Guillen managed a 0.9 WARP in 636 plate appearances last season, and his bum hip and petrified glove may prevent him from matching that total in his age-33 season. The Royals might get something closer to the production they paid for without actually keeping Guillen on the roster; an early termination of his tenure would allow him to embark upon his second career as the author of a series of books on do-it-yourself podiatry.

DH: Jason Kubel (11.6 VORP, 1.2 WARP), Twins.

Kubel's post-surgical career resembles the Stones' after Some Girls: occasional flashes of the old talent, buried beneath overall results that leave something to be desired. The erstwhile outfielder's torrid finish to 2007 was his Tattoo You, seeming to portend a return to form, but quickly undone by an underwhelming follow-up. The best that can be said about his last two seasons is that much like the Glimmer Twins, he continued to tour.

Dishonorable Mention: Mike Sweeney (1.2 VORP, -0.2 WARP) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (7.8 VORP, 1.2 WARP), Mariners. Sweeney and Griffey inherit the Jose Vidro Memorial Unproductive DH Slot, hoping to duplicate its departed namesake's ability to provide good at-bats even when the numbers say otherwise. Sweeney's usual back issues have already flared up, casting doubt upon his ability to hold down even the short half of a first-base platoon; any Griffey forays into the field would detract from the team's outstanding defensive outfield alignment.

Starting pitcher: Rick Porcello (-15.2 VORP), Tigers

Porcello's projection is the worst bestowed upon any pitcher slated for significant time this season, which explains his presence here. However, the brevity of the big righty's professional career limits PECOTA's capacity to draw comparisons, a handicap reflected in his 1.30 Beta score. In addition, PECOTA doesn't "know" that Porcello was all but forbidden to use his entire repertoire last season, an imposition which may explain his superficially disappointing strikeout rate. As a 20-year-old who'd never seen action above A-ball before making his major league debut, Porcello is almost certainly in for some struggles, but if he can maintain a lofty ground-ball rate and let the Tigers' revamped infield do the heavy lifting, he should outperform his projection by a wide margin.

Dishonorable Mention: Shane Loux (-9.7 VORP) and Dustin Moseley (-3.9 VORP), Angels, and Glen Perkins (-1.9 VORP) and Nick Blackburn (-0.3 VORP), Twins. I'm tempted to pretend that the Orioles are contenders long enough to recognize them here for their sheer audacity in introducing Adam Eaton to the AL East, but their playoff odds are stuck in the low single digits, and the arbitrary rules are the arbitrary rules. It's impossible to fault the Angels for their reliance on Loux and Moseley, given the reasons for the shortage of capable arms in their rotation, and their willingness to pursue other options, but the more they hand the ball to this replacement-level pair, the longer their playoff odds grow—in fact, the Mariners recently became the most likely winners of the West, even before tattooing Loux for seven runs last week. The Twins have done well to assemble an entire rotation composed of pitchers under the age of 27, but the quintet's members are hardly identical; beyond the top three, the talent level declines considerably. Perkins and Blackburn are stingy with free passes, but both struck out fewer than five men per nine innings last season, outperforming their FIPs along the way.

---

Either Jay or I will be sure to check back after the fat lady sings (assuming one of us doesn't decide to cut in mid-note) to investigate whodunnit in 2009.

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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