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March 29, 2011

Overthinking It

Non-Starter Starters

by Ben Lindbergh

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The season’s first pitch won’t be thrown until later this week, but the seeds of some teams’ demise have already sprouted in the warm sun of the exhibition season. Some baseball clubs depreciate as quickly as new cars, revealing themselves as lemons as soon as they’re driven off the Cactus and Grapefruit League lots, when nicks and dings begin to accumulate and shoddy construction becomes apparent. Nothing cuts into a team’s seasonal Blue Book value like assigning a prominent role to a player who isn’t up to the task.

This may be the time of year for accentuating the positive, but early as it is, we’re just four months away from Jay Jaffe’s annual list of mid-season “Replacement-level Killers,” players whose presence threatens to derail their teams' push to the playoffs. As Jay has often observed, starting the season with a subpar solution at one or more positions isn’t a death sentence; there’s a long season in store for all 30 teams, which leaves plenty of time to rectify Opening Day errors.

However, October’s distance can be deceptive. Like free radicals bouncing around a cell, replacement players in starting roles can be fatal, even though the damage they cause (in the form of opportunity cost, if nothing else) accrues only gradually. Even with an obvious antioxidant on hand, GMs can occasionally suffer from a tendency to—if you’ll allow me to coin a term that I don’t expect to catch on—procrosternate, letting their teams’ flaws fester until the trade deadline or beyond.

With this danger in mind, I combed through the depth charts in search of a player or two at each position who might fit the risk profile, focusing on contending teams wherever possible. (Otherwise, this list might consist mostly of the Astros’ starting lineup.) The following players aren’t replacement-level killers yet; while we may have a projection system, we’re not precogs, so we can’t incriminate them on the basis of future crimes. Consider this an early-warning exercise, a routine roster blood test that turned up a few abnormalities there’s still time to correct.

C: Jeff Mathis, Angels (.211 TAv, -0.2 WARP)

It wouldn’t be Angels baseball without another year of sub-replacement production from Mathis: the offensively challenged catcher hasn’t cleared zero WARP in any major-league season to date, and that’s not likely to change in his seventh campaign. What has changed is both the assortment of safety nets available to Mike Scioscia—who may not think he needs one, given his affinity for defense-first catchers—and the role Mathis is expected to play.

With his former partner-in-time Mike Napoli now backing up Yorvit Torrealba in Texas, Mathis’ alternates are Hank Conger and Bobby Wilson, either of whom would be a better backstop solution, but neither of whom seems likely to loosen Mathis' grasp on the position in the immediate future. That leaves Mathis with a more prominent role than he’s earned in the past, and his skill as a receiver may not be up to the task of offsetting the damage his bat can do in a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Mathis turns 28 later this week, so natural causes aren’t likely to bring his sub-replacement reign to an end anytime soon, especially since his skipper is signed through 2018 and abides strictly by the Nichols Law.

1B: Freddie Freeman, Braves (.258 TAv, -1.6 WARP)

First base is a position where teams can go wrong quickly, since a failure to make the proper adjustments can saddle a club with a batting line that might appear acceptable at first glance but falls well short of the position’s lofty offensive standards upon closer investigation. PECOTA is particularly tough on Freeman, who took to Triple-A as a 20-year-old, especially in the second half. If he can replicate his Gwinnett line at a higher level this season, the Braves could feature their first Rookie of the Year since Rafael Furcal in 2000, but that’s asking a lot, even of someone with Freeman’s five-star prospect pedigree.

Most of PECOTA’s pessimism stems from expectations for Freeman's defense that appear overly harsh; the system projects him to be a league-average hitter, which would make him an overachiever for someone so far from his prime, but still something less than an asset given that he’ll be stationed at a premier offensive position without a great glove. The Braves will have to hope that Freeman can follow in Jason Heyward’s footsteps and hit the ground running; unless Freeman can equal or surpass his 90th-percentile projection, they’ll be forced to take their licks along with their promising rookie or—gulp—hand the job to Eric Hinske. He’s certainly capable of doing so, but he’d hardly be the first future star to struggle in his initial extended exposure to the league. So the Braves are taking a risk here, albeit one with a greater potential to pay off than the Astros’ experiments with Brett Wallace. Elsewhere, PECOTA also sees defending Replacement-level Killer James Loney as a strong threat to repeat, pegging him for 0.4 WARP if he hits his depth-chart-projected 650 plate appearances.

2B: Wilson Valdez, Phillies (.232 TAv, -0.2 WARP)

This weak point isn’t the Phillies’ fault, but it might prove their undoing just the same. With Chase Utley sidelined indefinitely and unable to offer much encouragement to fans eagerly awaiting his return, the Phillies have been reduced to picking through lesser teams’ trash in search of an acceptable solution at the keystone. The organization has at least attempted to be proactive in dealing with Utley’s absences in the past, trading for Tadahito Iguchi after losing the starter to a fractured finger in 2007, but more recently the team has exhibited a willingness to ride out the lean times with in-house replacements, plugging in Valdez through much of last July and August when Utley required surgery on his right thumb. Valdez played roughly at replacement level in 2010, suiting his status as a replacement, and the Phillies can expect more of the same as long as he or Luis Castillo—whom PECOTA likes even less—is serving as Utley’s understudy this season.

SS: Yuniesky Betancourt, Brewers (.232 TAv, -0.2 WARP)

This section almost writes itself, since Betancourt has played poorly enough over the years to make himself the object of innumerable jokes and Joe Posnanski columns. Betancourt earned his ignominy by bottoming out on both sides of the ball, but he rebounded last year, showing more power at the plate (albeit with his usual lack of patience) and a positive performance in the field in the wake of a combined -41 FRAA over the previous three seasons. PECOTA doesn’t foresee a repeat of either the added pop or the almost miraculously improved glovework (in an adequate single-season sample). Of Betancourt's career 2.7 WARP, 2.5 came in 2010, which conveys some sense of his typical contribution. When Zack Greinke fantasized about his escape from Kansas City, he probably never envisioned having to bring Yuni with him.

3B: Kevin Kouzmanoff, Athletics (.248 TAv, .4 WARP)

It doesn’t seem especially sporting to pick on Kouzmanoff, since except for a brief taste of a neutral offensive environment with the Indians in 2006, the right-handed hitter has played his home games in PETCO Park and the Coliseum, neither of which has treated his offensive statistics kindly. As a result, he’s hit more than 100 OPS points higher away from home over the course of his career. Still, given Kouzmanoff's paltry walk rates, his offense wouldn’t be much to write home about even in a more favorable setting, and FRAA thinks very little of his glove, which makes the sum of the parts hard to swallow. As we wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2011, “He’ll be the first-string third baseman again in 2011, but only because the A’s lack a more desirable option.”

LF: Tony Gwynn Jr., Dodgers (.233 TAv, -0.6 WARP)

The Dodgers’ stillborn left-field timeshare really deserves a group mention here, but while Los Angeles may have chosen to stick a fork in the position, at least its other two tines—Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames—project to earn positive value. Gwynn can’t hit, so he has to be truly extraordinary in the field to merit a roster spot, which FRAA doesn’t think he succeeded in doing last season. With Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier holding down center and right, respectively, Gwynn doesn’t figure to play much at the outfield’s more demanding positions, but he’ll likely be the starting left fielder for as long as Jay Gibbons can’t see. Since even a sighted Jay Gibbons doesn’t present much of an obstacle, Gwynn stands to see significant time. Unless he rediscovers the competent stroke he exhibited in 2009 or turns in another defensive performance FRAA can be proud of, that’s not good news for the Dodgers, who might soon find themselves missing the “Mannywood” sign.

CF: Carlos Gomez, Brewers (.226 TAV, 0.0 WARP)

Considering how few Brewers can catch the ball, it’s tempting to give Milwaukee a pass for awarding Gomez another shot at starting in center field, but it’s time to face the facts: having at one time been the centerpiece of a trade for Johan Santana doesn’t guarantee success, and the patience that Gomez was supposed to develop with additional major-league seasoning simply isn’t in the cards. He hasn’t made any offensive strides in the past few seasons, and while his defense is an asset—despite FRAA’s negative review last season—his slap-happy ways at the plate make him better suited for fourth-outfielder duty. Barring a complete overhaul of his approach at the plate, he’s not likely to become more than that. While the same might have been said of Lorenzo Cain, it’s unfortunate that Cain’s departure couldn’t have given someone better a shot.

Gomez was one of several options here: PECOTA also foresees continued flailing from the Rangers’ starting center fielder, Julio Borbon, culminating in a .240 TAv and 0.3 WARP. Austin Jackson narrowly out-WARPed Curtis Granderson—for whom he was traded prior to 2010—last season, but PECOTA thinks Granderson will make up the deficit and then some as Jackson regresses to a .246 TAv and a 0.0 WARP. There’s ample evidence to suggest that Jackson is primed for a fall in light of his MLB-leading BABIP last season, though he’s certainly capable of exceeding the league average by a wide margin in that respect, as well as confounding PECOTA’s low defensive expectations.

RF: Tyler Colvin, Cubs (.248 TAv, -0.1 WARP)

Few BP staffers have escaped their chats over the last several months without answering (or ignoring) at least one Colvin question. Granted, a peek at his PECOTA card reveals that most of these questions were asked by “Matt from Chicago” (which could be Colvin’s nom de plume), but a combination of increased power and stagnant patience does make Colvin a puzzling player who gives Cubs fans plenty to dream on even while prolonging their low-OBP nightmares. PECOTA doesn’t think his power gains are real, and while Kosuke Fukudome might be the less exciting player, he’s also quite likely the more productive one. Colvin isn’t about to make like second-half-of-2010 Brennan Boesch in his sophomore season, but elevating him above a fourth-outfielder role could still get the Cubs charged with indecent exposure.

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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