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July 15, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Replacement-Level Killers, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

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When it comes to playoff races, every edge matters. Yet all too often, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could help their teams for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's statistics, allowing subpar production to fester until it kills a club's post-season hopes. In 2007, I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy for our pennant race book, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. It's a concept that's been revisited on a more or less annual basis here at Baseball Prospectus, with an eye toward what teams can do to solve such potentially fatal problems, either internally or externally. With the trading deadline less than three weeks away, the window for contenders to take their best shots at parlaying their resources into solutions is closing, so it's worth checking in.

What follows is a trip around the diamond—broken into two parts, with the second one coming Monday—to run down some of the most glaring issues among contenders, which I'm loosely defining as teams no more than five games out of a playoff spot; thus, this turkey shoot makes the 44-48 White Sox and 45-47 Reds fair game, but not the 41-48 Twins, or 46-45 Mets, because life is cruel. Note that while I'm using WARP here, the criterion isn't as strict as having a WARP below zero.

Catcher: Jeff Mathis (.214 TAv, 0.1 WARP), Hank Conger (.258 TAv, 0.7 WARP), and Bobby Wilson (.212, -0.1 WARP), Angels
Mike Scioscia may one day wind up in the Hall of Fame as a manager, but he continues to make a hash of his catching situation. For years he held back the offensively superior Mike Napoli to play Mathis, who has cleared a .200 batting average just once in the past four seasons, producing on-base and slugging percentages that look as though they curled up and died under a rock. With Napoli traded to Toronto for Vernon Wells this past winter in one of the young century's great head-scratcher trades, prospect Hank Conger has taken over his roster spot and done a passable job while getting nearly equal playing time; he's hitting .221/.305/.369 but throwing out just 16 percent of would-be base thieves, where Mathis is hitting .195/.241/.286 and throwing out 23 percent. See the difference?  Compounding the problem is that Wilson is clinging to a roster spot like a long-forgotten barnacle; he's out of options, but has accumulated just 35 plate appearances this year while getting just six starts behind the plate. Heaven forbid the Halos should lose the lifetime .219/.285/.372 hitter on waivers, as they just may wind up with somebody exactly like him if they have to go to the wire themselves.

Remedy (?): The blindingly obvious solution is to give more than 45 percent of the playing time to Conger, and use either Mathis or Wilson as the defense-minded backup a couple of times per week, casting the other one adrift and freeing up a roster spot for better use.

First Base: Lyle Overbay (.238 TAv, -0.5 WARP), Pirates
The 34-year-old Overbay looks a whole lot like the type of placeholder a franchise that's on an 18-season losing streak has been willing to settle for at first base, recalling such luminaries as Kevin Young, Daryle Ward, and Randall Simon. Above .500 at the All-Star break for the first time since 1992 and a game out of first place—yes, really—the Pirates deserve an upgrade, if only to help break their losing streak.

Remedy (?): A few in-house alternatives might present themselves if the Pirates can ever get healthy; they could try Steven Pearce (who's rehabbing a calf strain), Ryan Doumit (recovering from a broken ankle), or Garret Jones (currently platooning in right field) there. The latter route might make the most sense once Jose Tabata returns from his quad strain, as Clint Hurdle could use lefty-swinging rookie Alex Presley in a platoon with Matt Diaz in right, while Jones plays first. Even then, we're only talking about a player with a career line of .256/.326/.452 taking over a key offensive position, so dipping into the trade market for a veteran may make more sense, with Carlos Peña (.225/.339/.461 with 19 homers, good for a .280 TAv) the best option on the market, better than gambles on the health of Derrek Lee or Casey Blake.

Second Base: Dan Uggla (.227 TAv, -0.5 WARP), Braves
One of the enduring mysteries of the 2011 season is just what the hell happened to Uggla, who hit .287/.369/.508 for the Marlins last year while reaching the 30-homer plateau for the fourth straight time; his .306 TAv led all NL second basemen. This year he's flailing away at a .185/.257/.365 clip, with significant drops in his walk rate, isolated power, and pitches per plate appearance, accompanied by a rising ground-ball rate and swing percentages both in and out of the strike zone. Perhaps the best way to understand his sudden struggle is that all evidence points to his being kidnapped and replaced by aliens with a lesser understanding of our national pastime, as the strike zone is much different on Rigel 7.  

Remedy (?): The Braves signed Uggla to a five-year, $62 million deal, so it's not as though they can just cut him adrift, but sooner or later they have to do what's best for this year's club. Martin Prado, who shifted to left field to accommodate Uggla, is slated to cover third base in Chipper Jones' absence once he returns from a rehab assignment. When Larry Wayne returns, moving Prado to second to preserve a Nate McLouth-Jordan Schafer-Jason Heyward outfield is suboptimal to say the least, given that unit's thin production. Defensively-challenged Brooks Conrad (.246/.353/.456) can outhit at least some of his mistakes afield, so he’s an option at the keystone. For help from outside, the Dodgers' Jamey Carroll (.297/.368/.366) can get on base and play solid defense; he can be used at a variety of other positions as well if Uggla ever rediscovers his swing. For that matter, the man whom the Braves traded to the Marlins in the Uggla deal, Omar Infante, is a pending free agent who hit much better in Atlanta (.309/.353/.411 in three seasons) than elsewhere, including a lowly .251/.293/.309 in Florida this season. Chances are he wouldn't take all that much to reacquire.

Shortstop: Paul Janish (.213 TAv, 0.2 WARP) and Edgar Renteria (.222 TAv, 0.0 WARP), Reds
As I wrote back in late May, neither of the Reds' shortstops are hitting worth a warm bucket of yak spit. Sadly, the .260/.338/.385 Janish hit in a half-season of work last year was completely out of character; his .227/.259/.271 line this year is much more typical, and World Series hero Renteria is totally cooked.

Remedy (?): What I wrote was in the context of suggesting the Reds trade for Jose Reyes; they're a team with a strong enough system to make it happen, and if they do, it would make for a major upgrade; the white-hot Reyes has been worth 4.0 WARP to date, and could easily be three wins better than what's on hand the rest of the way. Short of that, the Reds do have another in-house option in Zack Cozart, a 2007 second-round pick—a legitimate prospect—who offers power, speed, and outstanding defensive fundamentals, if not plate discipline. The 25-year-old was hitting .310/.357/.467 at Triple-A Louisville before getting called up just before the break; he went 5-for-16 in his first four games, but it remains to be seen whether Dusty Baker will use him ahead of those coated in veteran herbs and spices.

Third Base: Brandon Inge (.188 TAv, -0.5 WARP), Tigers
A mainstay at the Motown hot corner since 2004, Inge was hitting just .211/.279/.286 when he went on the DL in early June due to mononucleosis, but if anything, he's been worse since returning, going just 4-for-46 with a pair of walks. Backup Don Kelly is forever out of his element, a 31-year-old career .239/.285/.350 hitter who has done only incrementally better this season, while young Danny Worth (.265/.306/.360) is fairly uninspiring as well.

Remedy (?): The easiest way for the Tigers to solve this problem would be to build a time machine that could go back to late May to prevent them from trading Scott Sizemore to Oakland; he's hitting .287/.350/.468 since being acquired and shifted from second to third base. While we trust Jim Leyland has been working on such a device in his basement, until he irons out the kinks, the Tigers will have to go outside the organization to solve this one, particularly since the rehabbing Carlos Guillen isn't really an option; their second-base situation is also in rough shape. Among those who might be available, the Dodgers' Casey Blake could probably improve his numbers (.243/.346/.386) if he could stay healthy, but a better target might be the Royals' Wilson Betemit, who's hitting .285/.345/.415 but now finds himself backing up Mike Moustakas. Even KC teammate Mike Aviles, a career .285/.317/.417 hitter who struggled early and was sent to Triple-A upon Moustakas' arrival, could be a help.

I'll be back Monday with the outfield and DH selections to complete this starting nine.  

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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