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January 25, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Vortices of Suck

by Jay Jaffe

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It's one thing for a contending team to suffer such subpar production at a position that it helps doom their playoff hopes, hence the Replacement-level Killers. But because bad baseball so often makes for good copy, it's often more fun to hunt the fish at the bottom of the major-league barrel for the positions where players' contributions could be considered the worst in the majors, regardless of a team's status as a contender. What follows is an "all-star" team of players who produced tornado-level disasters amid their lineups, often at salaries that represented far more than just a cool breeze running through their team's bank account. These are the Vortices of Suck.

Note that the True Average and WARP figures cited are for the entirety of a player's contribution, though his split at a given position may have been considerably less flattering.

Catcher: Rob Johnson (.222 True Average, 0.9 WARP), Adam Moore (.183 TAV, -1.4 WARP), Josh Bard (.236 TAv, 0.3 WARP), Mariners
Mariner backstops hit a combined .201/.263/.303 for the majors' lowest OPS at the position, barely edging out the .220/.269/.312 produced by the Astros' backstops, a relatively familiar cast of characters who took home the "trophy" last year. Johnson and Moore spent most of the year making Mariner fans long for the heyday of Kenji Johjima, who returned to Japan following an injury-marred 2009 season. Johnson, who wrested the job away from Johjima in 2009, showed ineptitude on both sides of the ball, leading the AL in passed balls (nine) and hit .191/.293/.281, drawing the occasional walk, but otherwise doing almost nothing offensively except offending. Moore, a three-star prospect who was nonetheless a 26-year-old rookie, hit an even weaker .195/.230/.283 with an appalling 63/8 K/BB ratio in 218 plate appearances, and threw out just eight of 43 attempted base thieves (19 percent). Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo (.187 TAv, -0.3 WARP) both found their way into the picture as well, while first Moore and then Johnson returned to Triple-A for much-needed refresher courses.
Remedy (?): The Mariners traded Johnson to the Padres for a player to be named later or cash considerations, which is a nice way of keeping bad news from reaching his next of kin, specifically, the fact that getting rid him was far more important to GM Jack Zduriencik than whatever he could possibly fetch in trade: Look, I don't know what the hell I want for lunch today, but even if I forget to call you back, an empty roster spot is worth more than this guy. Earlier this month, the Mariners signed free agent Miguel Olivo to a two-year, $7 million deal. It's Olivo's second tour of duty in the Emerald City; he compiled a Vortex-worthy -1.9 WARP while hitting .176/.218/.333 for Seattle in parts of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. While he's unlikely to replicate last year's career-best 4.0 WARP season, he has been worth an average of 2.3 WARP over the past five years, certainly enough to justify his pay in the face of a paucity of organizational alternatives.

First Base: Ty Wigginton (.256 TAv, 1.4 WARP), Garrett Atkins (.202 TAv, -1.1 WARP), Orioles
Atkins hit just .226/.308/.342 in Colorado in 2009, so in their infinite wisdom, the Orioles rewarded him with a one-year, $4.5 million deal that a BP panel openly mocked in the presence of team president Andy MacPhail at a Camden Yards ballpark event back in April. That may have made MacPhail cringe, but the .196/.252/.252 Atkins hit as a first baseman before drawing his release in early July was even more cringe-worthy. While briefly sharing time with Rhyne Hughes and Luke Scott, Atkins had long since lost the job by that point, as Wigginton shifted over from filling in at second base to carry the bulk of the first-base load. Defensively he was fine (3 FRAA) but Wigginton didn't hit nearly as well after the move as he had before, and the Orioles' first basemen combined for a .226/.289/.336 line with just 11 homers.
Remedy (?): Wigginton left for Colorado as a free agent where, as one reader pointed out, he could compete with Jose Lopez and Replacement-level Killer Eric Young Jr. for time at the keystone. Meanwhile, the O's continued their annual tradition of chasing over-the-hill veterans by signing 35-year-old free agent Derrek Lee, who hit .260/.347/.428 for Chicago and Atlanta last year while battling injuries, to a one-year, $7.25 million deal (plus incentives). Lee posted a 2.6 WARP, his lowest mark since 2006, but he was more effective after being traded out of the Windy City (.287/.384/.465) in mid-August, so perhaps there's hope here.

Second Base: Luis Castillo (.249 TAv, 0.8 WARP), Alex Cora (.214 TAv, -1.6 WARP), Ruben Tejada (.233 TAv, -0.1 WARP), Mets
As if Castillo wasn't already execrable enough due to the Mets brass' ongoing delusion that his four-year, $25 million deal made him an ideal candidate to play—and at 32 runs below average in the field from 2007-2009, brother, he was bad—he spent a month and a half on the disabled list due to a bruised heel. Manager Jerry Manuel was forced to play the even worse Cora and Tejada, a solution so misconceived it earned mid-season RLK honors. The Mets "solved" that problem the easy way, by going 31-43 after the All-Star break to eliminate any chance of contention. In all, Mets second basemen hit a combined .226/.307/.285, with their only home run coming off the bat of Luis Hernandez, who played just 10 games at the position.
Remedy (?): Cora was released midseason, but Castillo and Tejada are back in the fold even with the regime change that brought in Sandy Alderson to be the team's general manager. If converted second baseman Danny Murphy, who didn't play in a single major-league game in 2010 due to a sprained medial collateral ligament, shows enough in spring training, the team could opt to eat Castillo's remaining $6 million and release him. But really, how likely is it that a player learning a new position and coming off a severe knee injury does that?

Shortstop: Cesar Izturis (.201 TAv, -1.5 WARP), Orioles
For all of the hype about his glove, Izturis has rarely been strong enough afield to provide more than replacement-level production overall; for his career, he has been worth just 2.9 WARP thanks to a .222 TAv and defense just two runs above average per 100 games. After being a combined 23 runs above average in 2008 and 2009, Izturis slipped to seven runs below in 2010 (though UZR and Plus/Minus view him as a few runs in the black). Meanwhile he hit just .230/.277/.268 and produced his lowest TAv since 2002 (.199) while starting 142 games at shortstop for Baltimore.
Remedy (?): A free agent at the end of the season, Izturis re-signed with Baltimore, but he took a pay cut from $2.6 million to $1.5 million in terms of base salary. He's unlikely to reach most of the playing time-based incentives thanks to the Orioles' acquisition of J.J. Hardy, who hit an unspectacular .268/.320/.394 and played average defense (0 FRAA) during his year with the Twins, good for 1.8 WARP. It's not a particularly sexy solution, but it's a substantial upgrade nonetheless.

Third Base: Jose Lopez (.223 TAv, 0.8 WARP), Mariners
Arguably, this spot could have gone to the Angels, whose third basemen hit for an OPS 10 points lower, but who were two runs better defensively. With Brandon Wood and company having already "earned" a spot on the Killers team, the way is thus cleared for Lopez to take his place among the true Suckers. The common thread between the two teams' hot corner situations is Chone Figgins, whose post-2009 departure from Anaheim opened the door for Wood and whose arrival in Seattle prompted a head scratch-worthy position swap with Lopez. The latter held his own defensively (13 FRAA) at the hot corner, particularly compared to his recent work at second base (-13 in 2009), but he plummeted from an already lopsided .272/.303/.463 line in 2009 to .239/.270/.339 in 2010, a 42-point dip in terms of True Average (from .265 to .223).
Remedy (?): As noted above, Lopez is now with the Rockies thanks to a December 2 trade which sent Rox 2005 first round pick Chaz Roe (not to be confused with shad roe or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) to Seattle. Figgins, who overcame a slow start but nonetheless finished with substandard numbers (.259 TAv, 1.0 WARP, -12 FRAA), will move back to third, where he's historically been stronger (107 Rate2) than at second (91), but his bat will need to rebound for the move to pay off.

Left Field: Gerardo Parra (.245 TAv, 0.9 WARP), Conor Jackson (.250 TAv, 0.1 WARP), Rusty Ryal (.237 TAv, 0.4 WARP), Diamondbacks
As with the situation at third base, the worst production in the majors in left field came from a contender, so the Padres' duo  (Scott Hairston and Kyle Blanks) wound up on the Replacement-level Killers. The Diamondbacks' left fielders hit a combined .242/.303/.350, 10 points of OPS higher than the Padres—negligible given the vast difference between the two teams' ballparks—but in their defense, they were 18 runs better afield, combining for 20 FRAA. The Snakes began the year hoping Jackson could shake off the effects of Valley Fever, the respiratory ailment that wrecked his 2009, but he never got untracked after missing the latter part of April with a hamstring strain, and was traded to Oakland in mid-June. Parra and Ryal shared most of the remaining playing time, both falling off from much stronger 2009 rookie showings; they were a combined 12 runs above average in the field, but neither hit like a corner outfielder, and the latter had an unacceptable 67/8 K/BB ratio to boot. Cole Gillespie, Ryan Roberts, and Brandon Allen all did brief stints in left as well, to no great effect.
Remedy (?): Ryal is gone, but Parra continues to fester, joined by free agent Xavier Nady, who hit just .256/.306/.353 and was 0.7 wins below replacement with the Cubs in 2010. Given such a grim situation, it makes sense for the Snakes to take a longer look at Allen, who owns a .221/.320/.389 major-league line in 172 PA going into his age-25 season. Though the .277/.395/.541 line he has put up while spending parts of the last two years in the Pacific Coast League is puffed up by hitter-friendly environments, he showed enough power and patience to put up a .292 TAv at Reno last year, and could find a spot in the lineup either in left or at first base. That still leaves a hole to be named later, so stay tuned.

Center Field: Michael Brantley (.238 TAv, 0.2 WARP), Trevor Crowe (.241 TAv, 0.2 WARP), Grady Sizemore (.213 TAv, -0.7 WARP), Indians
After struggling due to elbow and groin injuries in 2009, Sizemore was a near total loss in 2010. He played in just 33 games and didn't hit a single homer prior to being sidelined for the season in mid-May; he subsequently underwent microfracture surgery in early June. Crowe and Brantley split the remaining time in center, but neither could match the three-time All-Star's 2009 performance, let alone replicate his prior level of excellence. In all, Tribe center fielders hit just .239/.292/.316 with four homers.
Remedy (?): The Indians said Sizemore would need six to nine months to recover from surgery, which should have him ready for spring training barring any setbacks. Larger questions loom as to whether he'll be able to return to the caliber of play that made him a superstar, and whether the rebuilding Indians not only want to pick up his $8.5 million option for 2012, but are also content to pay the entirety of his $7.5 million 2011 salary. What's abundantly clear is that they'll need to find a better replacement if they decide to move him.

Right Field: Jeff Francoeur (.253 TAV, -0.9 WARP), Mets
Unloved except by short-sighted beat writers desperate for a good quote, Francoeur started hot (.457/.535/.857 in the season's first 10 games) but hit a pathetic .216/.267/.322 with a 73/22 K/BB ratio from that point through the end of August before being dealt to the Rangers in a waiver-period deal; during that time he was 10 runs below average in right field as well. Combined with the return of Carlos Beltran, the trade allowed the Mets to shift the talented Angel Pagan (.289 TAv, 6.4 WARP) to right to wash away some of the bad taste. Nonetheless, Mets right fielders hit just .238/.298/.358, for the second-lowest OPS, trailing only the Killer-winning A's right field assortment.
Remedy (?): Pagan is currently slated to start the year in right field, with Beltran in center, though the two could swap positions in spring training if Beltran's range is limited by his arthritic right knee or if he's unable to withstand the strain of patrolling the middle pasture while wearing his bulky brace. So long as both players see a reasonable complement of games at one position or another, it should all be a considerable upgrade on Frenchy—who, fittingly enough, is now a Royal.

Designated Hitter: Russell Branyan (.286 TAv, 1.1 WARP), Milton Bradley (.245 TAv, 0.1 WARP), Ken Griffey Jr. (.165 TAV, -1.0 WARP), Mike Sweeney (.291 TAv, 0.5 WARP), Mariners
The M's went into the year planning to use Griffey and Sweeney as their DH tandem, but Junior didn't hit and retired in early June on the heels of the Slumbergate controversy. Bradley, who was busy not hitting as the team's left fielder, absolutely tanked upon moving into the DH role (.162/.221/.257 in 114 PA) before being shelved for the year in late July due to knee surgery, not a great return on a player drawing a $9 million salary. Branyan, who was reacquired from the Indians in late June, shifted from first base to DH and hit a positively Ruthian .211/.317/.484 with 14 homers in 221 PA in that role, but in all, Mariner DHs still hit a piss-poor .194/.269/.340 and led the league in bad vibes.
Remedy (?): The Mariners stood by Bradley when he took a two-week leave of absence back in May to deal with personal problems, but their patience—not to mention their so-called zero-tolerance policy on violence toward women—is now being tested to a greater degree by his recent arrest on a felony charge of making criminal threats against a woman. At the very least, the addition of Jack Cust, who put up a .303 TAv for the A's and was non-tendered for his trouble, should shore up the position nicely.  

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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