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January 25, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Vortices of Suck

by Jay Jaffe

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A couple weeks back, I chose what I like to refer to as my all-star team of ignominy, the Replacement-Level Killers, the players whose production, not to mention their managers' and general managers' inability to find better alternatives, dragged down their teams' post-season hopes. The important qualifier was that they came from teams that remained in contention until late in the year.

Since bad baseball so often makes for good copy, I've locked and loaded my proverbial shotgun to go hunting for the fish at the very bottom of the major-league barrel this time around. Here are the positions where a player's contributions (including defense) could be considered the worst in the majors, regardless of a team's status as a contender. These players produced tornado-level disasters amid their lineups, often at salaries that represented far more than just a cool breeze running through a team's bank account. They are the Vortices of Suck.

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez (.233 EqA, 0.7 WARP), Humberto Quintero (.234 EqA, 1.3 WARP), Chris Coste (.179 EqA, -0.8 WARP), and J.R. Towles (.211 EqA, -0.4 WARP), Astros

One can make quite a good case that Replacement-Level Killer Dioner Navarro and friends actually deserve this spot, but I'd prefer to shine a light elsewhere. In a close race to the bottom, it's the Disastros' bunch fending off challenges from the Blue Jays' Rod Barajas/Raul Chavez tandem, with the multi-year nature of Houston's problem carrying the day. Astros backstops hit a lowly .201/.281/.289 in 2008, as the rookie Towles failed to claim the job from incumbent Brad Ausmus, which is not a hard thing to do when you hit .137/.250/.253.

Though the team was slated to head into 2009 with a Quintero/Towles tandem, general manager Ed Wade simply couldn't help himself once he saw the still-available Pudge hitting .500/.583/.950 during the World Baseball Classic, thus privileging 24 plate appearances against varying levels of competition in an exhibition series over two years of obvious decline while facing major-league pitching. Backed by Quintero, Pudge lingered like a respiratory infection into mid-August, hitting .251/.280/.382 before the sub-.500 'Stros sent him waltzing across Texas in a waiver-period deal. Between Coste and Towles, things actually got worse, as the team went 17-27 after the trade and finished with an overall .237/.275/.365 line from their catchers.

Remedy (?): Right now, Quintero and Towles are the only catchers on the 40-man roster. The latter hit a translated .253/.350/.420 at Triple-A Round Rock, but somehow fell behind one Lou Santangelo (.190/.239/.300) on the depth chart, which doesn't exactly suggest a whole lot of confidence in the once-touted prospect.

First Base: Aubrey Huff (.248 EqA, -1.0 WARP), Ty Wigginton (.246 EqA, -1.7 WARP), and Michael Aubrey (.277 EqA, 0.3 WARP), Orioles

Given what we know about the defensive spectrum and the distribution of talent in baseball, it shouldn't be too hard to find a player who can hit at a league-average clip and play first base in a manner that doesn't suggest a future nomination for the Darwin Awards. Yet here we are. Huff had shaken off three years of mediocrity to enjoy something of a career year in 2008 (32 homers, .306 EqA), in part because he didn't see all that much time in the field. With the departure of the undead Kevin Millar, the Orioles told Huff to reacquaint himself with the leather. Huff wasn't egregiously awful afield (-2 FRAA), but his bat went limp (.253/.321/.405) before dying a miserable death upon being traded to Detroit, where he applied the coup de grāce to the Tigers' season as a Replacement-Level Killer DH (.189/.265/.302). Wigginton, who hauled his leaden glove to five different positions, took over upon Huff's departure, but hit just .244/.297/.311 and had sub-par defense (-3 FRAA) in the role. Aubrey, once a well-regarded prospect in the Indians' chain before back woes derailed his career, made a solid showing over the season's final seven weeks.

Remedy (?): As if to prove they've always got a worse idea up their sleeves than the one that got them into this predicament, the Orioles signed third baseman Garrett Atkins to a one-year, $4.5 million deal after he cratered in Colorado (.226/.308/.342, for a .230 EqA) with an eye towards shifting him to first base where, of course, the offensive bar is higher. Wigginton is still around as well. God forbid they should actually give Aubrey a shot.

Second Base: Nick Punto (.242 EqA, 0.2 WARP), Alexi Casilla (.208 EqA, -1.3 WARP), Matt Tolbert (.228 EqA, 0.1 WARP), Twins

The Twins got a combined .209/.302/.267 performance and sub-par defense (-3 FRAA) from their second basemen, and the only reason they didn't make the Killers is that, like Rasputin's bullet wounds, it wasn't enough to kill them. Casilla started the year with the job, but he lost it in about a month amid a failure to hit and a flurry of mental mistakes. He and Tolbert took turns kicking it back and forth until the end of July. Both were well below the Mendoza Line (.169/.264/.208 for Casilla, .178/.272/.225 for Tolbert) when the deadline acquisition of Orlando Cabrera allowed Punto, whose .208/.316/.258 to date looked like the second coming of Rod Carew in that context, to shift over from shortstop. Punto hit a relatively robust .261/.372/.326 over the season's final two months, just enough to help the Twins into the playoffs.

Remedy (?): Cabrera departed via free agency, but with the arrival of J.J. Hardy, shortstop is covered, and the team appears willing to sift through the above options at the keystone, with Punto the presumed favorite to win the job. Repeating the words of Steven Goldmanagain, "With the Twins, asking for a professional-level infield is apparently like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. It's just unthinkably demanding and presumptuous."

Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt (.220 EqA, -1.4 WARP), Willie Bloomquist (.241 EqA, 0.6 WARP), and Mike Aviles (.154 EqA, -0.6 WARP), Royals

Royals general manager Dayton Moore has produced his share of head-scratchers and howlers, turning the team into a laughingstock even in the eyes of its most ardent supporters. But no move generated or deserved quite as much ridicule as the team's mid-July acquisition of Betancourt, who at the time was already vying for this list in Seattle via a .220 EqA, -8 FRAA, and -0.9 WARP in just 62 games. To be fair, the Royals did actually enter the year with a better plan at short. Aviles had hit .325/.354/.480 in two-thirds of a season as a rookie in 2008, good enough to place fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Alas, he struggled at the start of the year due to forearm soreness, and was found to need Tommy John surgery, which he underwent around the All-Star break, just before Betancourt hit town. In the interim, the team had tried Bloomquist, Luis Hernandez (11-for-51), and Tony Peņa Jr. (5-for-50 before giving up the hitting business in favor of pitching). At the very least, Betancourt's daily availability allowed manager Trey Hillman to devote time to not solving a variety of other problems (see below).

Remedy (?): The Royals will actually pay Betancourt to return to work in 2010. In fact, they're obligated to pay him $8 million over the next three years (including his 2012 buyout). The rehabbing Aviles is hoping to be ready for spring training, but how he'll fit back into the lineup once he proves his health is unclear. As unglovely as he is, incumbent second baseman Alberto Callaspo did hit a tidy .300/.356/.457 last year. One thing is for certain: Whatever typically cockeyed solution the Royals come up with, it won't cost them the pennant.

Third Base: Melvin Mora (.240 EqA, -0.2 WARP), Ty Wigginton (.246 EqA, -1.7 WARP), Orioles

Holy double jeopardy, Batman! The 37-year-old Mora's performance collapsed during his final year in Baltimore, owing at least in part to off-season shoulder surgery which limited his workouts, and then an early-season hamstring injury which sent him to the DL for half of April. His woes manifested themselves both at the plate (a career-low .098 Isolated Power, as he dropped from 23 homers to eight) and in the field (-5 FRAA, though both UZR and Plus/Minus put him in the black). Wigginton filled in during Mora's DL stint and made further appearances as the year went on, making 35 starts at third as compared to 38 at first, but he played the position like a man being attacked by fire ants (-11 FRAA).

Remedy (?): This past weekend, the Orioles agreed to bring back Miguel Tejada, who spent 2004-07 with them before being traded to Houston, to a one-year, $6-million deal with incentives, with the intention of shifting him from shortstop to third base. Tejada compiled 199 hits but just 19 walks last year en route to a respectable, if park-aided, .313/.340/.455 line (a .284 EqA, his best in three years). Estimates of his recent fielding performance vary widely between our FRAA (+19 over the past two years), Plus/Minus (-11 in that span) and UZR (-5), with the latter two showing double-digit dropoffs from 2008 to 2009, so how Tejada will fare at the hot corner is an open question. The good news is that he's just a placeholder for Josh Bell, who ranks as the Orioles' No. 2 prospect after being acquired in last summer's George Sherrill deal. Bell will start the year in Triple-A.

Left Field: Wladimir Balentien (.222 EqA, 0.2 WARP), Endy Chavez (.254 EqA, 0.7 WARP), Michael Saunders (.194 EqA, -0.2 WARP), Ryan Langerhans (.249 EqA, 0.5 WARP), Bill Hall (.202 EqA, -1.0 WARP), Mariners

The .219/.276/.333 showing the Mariners got from their left fielders last year was by far the worst in the majors at any outfield position in terms of REqA (Raw Equivalent Average, an OPS-looking figure which is the first step towards building EqA). The team was actually prepared to punt some amount of offense by awarding the starting role to the defensively superior Chavez, who was off to a fairly typical Chavez showing (.273/.328/.342) when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear in early June. Neither the youthful Balentien and Saunders nor the aged Langerhans and Hall could hit worth a warm bucket of Mariner Moose spit when given the opportunity, not that those opportunities lasted long. Each member of that quartet received between 21 and 39 starts apiece.

Remedy (?): The Mariners traded the contractual dead weight of pitcher Carlos Silva for the perpetually problematic Milton Bradley, who hit just .257/.378/.397 amid a typically tumultuous year with the Cubs. Bradley figures to DH a fair share of the time, perhaps more often than he'll play the field, once the team admits to itself that Junior Griffey's intangibles far outweigh his tangibles at this stage. That could re-open the door for Saunders, the team's No. 2 prospect, who struggled mightily in his major-league debut. Among this lot, this easily rates as the highest-upside attempt to solve such a problem.

Center Field: Chris Young (.250 EqA, 0.0 WARP), Gerardo Parra (.252 EqA, 0.2 WARP), Diamondbacks

The White Sox' quartet of Killers (Brian Anderson, Scott Podsednik, Dewayne Wise and Alex Rios) were collectively worse with the stick (.231/.285/.321) than these sorry Snakes (.219/.293/.379), but Young (-9 FRAA) and Parra (-4 FRAA) were much worse afield. The 25-year-old Young, a former ChiSox prospect himself, owns an enticing mix of speed and power, but he has yet to clear a league-average .260 EqA in three-plus seasons due to his contact woes. Last year, the bottom completely dropped out. He schlepped a .194/.297/.359 line back to Triple-A in early August, and Parra, who spent most of his rookie season in left field, filled in. Young did hit a robust .263/.351/.508 upon returning, though the die had already been cast on the Diamondbacks' disappointing season.

Remedy (?): The Diamondbacks have long since committed to Young as one of the franchise's cornerstones, signing him to a five-year, $28-million extension which runs through the 2013 season, with a club option for 2014. For the moment, he's still young enough (26) and cheap enough ($3.25 million for 2010) to dream on, though PECOTA is emphatically pessimistic that he's advancing Arizona's cause (.235/.317/.437/.252 EqA).

Right Field: Brian Giles (.210 EqA, -2.4 WARP), Will Venable (.285 EqA, 1.9 WARP), Kyle Blanks (.315 EqA, 1.4 WARP), Padres

As a 37-year-old, Giles rebounded from two years of decline to post useful 2008 numbers (.306/.398/.456). The Padres exercised an option for $9 million for his 2009 services, shortly after which allegations that he had assaulted his pregnant girlfriend surfaced. Whether that had anything to do with his off-season conditioning is unknown, but as soon as camp opened, Giles began having a variety of leg troubles. He was absolutely wretched through the first two and a half months of the season (.191/.277/.271, with -12 FRAA) before being shelved for the year by a knee contusion. Venable got the bulk of the remaining playing time in right, though for some reason, he didn't hit nearly as well in that role (.232/.318/.396) as he did elsewhere (.314/.337/.547). Blanks, the 22-year-old, 285-pound man-beast, showed prodigious power (.273/.325/.597 with seven homers in 83 plate appearances) during his brief stints there, but he struggled mightily on defense (-4 FRAA and a 78 Rate2, albeit in just 22 games) before his season ended in late August due to plantar fasciitis. All told, the Padres' right fielders hit just .212/.288/.366 and were 14 runs below average, bad enough to force me to reassess after initially awarding this spot to the Royals, whose capsules I'll paste in the comments.

Remedy (?): The Padres' entire outfield is in a state of flux at the moment. Giles is gone, and the recent trade of Kevin Kouzmanoff to Oakland has opened up a return to third base for regular left fielder Chase Headley. They're returning Scott Hairston to the fold and adding the well-regarded Aaron Cunningham as well. Both right-handers could figure into platoon situations with lefties Venable and Tony Gwynn Jr. Meanwhile, Blanks' power will play, likely in left unless the Padres reverse course and trade Adrian Gonzalez.

Designated Hitter: Mike Jacobs (.240 EqA, -1.2 WARP), Royals

Sadly, it is necessary to keep piling on here, because the .209/.281/.374 performance the Royals got from Jacobs and friends was the absolute worst. In fact, Jacobs finished with the lowest Runs Above Position total (-26) in the majors. Acquiring him from the Marlins last winter after he'd put up a .254 EqA and was 16 runs to the bad in the field looked like a lousy deal at the time. It looks even worse now given that Jacobs turned in an even less valuable season despite eliminating most of his fielding responsibilities. The kicker is that the five other players who combined to take up about 35 percent of the plate appearances hit a combined .182/.257/.355 in the role, compared to Jacobs' .224/.294/.384. If there's a silver lining-and in this case, thankfully there is, because anyone reading this might start climbing out an office window without some hope of upside-it's that the defensively challenged Billy Butler proved he could play a competent enough first base (-6 FRAA) while hitting an impressive .301/.362/.492.

Remedy (?): Jacobs is a free agent, so he's mercifully out of the picture. The trade of Mark Teahen to the White Sox for Chris Getz and Josh Fields logically puts the latter, who's blocked at the hot corner by Alex, and the aforementioned Callaspo both into the DH mix. Furthermore, the signings of Rick Ankiel and Podsednik may push incumbent right fielder Jose Guillen (.240 EqA, -1.3 WARP) into the DH fray as well.

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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