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February 1, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Replacement-Level Killers, Part II

by Jay Jaffe

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Picking up where I left off on Monday, the Replacement-Level Killers is our semi-annual all-star team of ignominy, highlighting the positions at which poor production helped sink contending teams, with an eye toward the steps they've made to correct those problems as spring training approaches. For the purposes of this exercise, I've loosely defined contenders as non-playoff teams who finished no more than 10 games out of the running in 2011, which limits this particular turkey shoot to members of the Red Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Braves, Giants, Dodgers, and Nationals, not all of whom are represented this time around. If a particularly sizable hole in your favorite team’s production isn’t represented here, fear not, as all 30 teams are eligible for the forthcoming Vortices of Suck squad, the absolute bottom of the barrel.

Last time around, I knocked off the outfield and designated hitter spots, so today I turn back to the infield. Note that while I'm using WARP here, the criterion isn't as strict as having a WARP below zero; salary and opportunity cost may also factor into the decision, as does the fact that a player’s overall line may be propped up by better performance in a smaller sample size at a different position.

Catcher: Jeff Mathis (.191 TAv, −0.8 WARP), Hank Conger (.242, 0.3), Bobby Wilson (.197, −0.1), Angels
If lousy-hitting catchers were the new market inefficiency, then former Angels general manager Tony Reagins wouldn't be out of a job. Last winter, Reagins broke the longstanding stalemate between Mathis and Mike Napoli in grandly catastrophic fashion; he traded Napoli to Toronto and assumed the remaining $86 million on Vernon Wells' deal in exchange. Not only did that go south quickly—Wells is the left fielder on this year's Killers—but the Jays flipped Napoli to Texas, where he mashed 30 homers in 432 plate appearances for a .366 TAv and 5.8 WARP, accounting for more than half the difference in the final AL West standings between the Rangers and Angels. Meanwhile, the Angels blundered about with three catchers; Mathis started 79 games and hit for the majors' third-worst True Average (250 PA minimum) via an inexcusable .174/.225/.259 line, and missed a clean sweep of career lows in the three slash categories by a mere seven points of OBP.

Conger, a modestly-touted rookie, started 48 times, but just seven of those times came after the All-Star break. After hitting a passable .230/.311/.370 through June, he fell into a 2-for-19 funk in July, disappeared to Triple-A for five weeks, and was left to rust upon returning; damningly, Mathis hit .140/.198/.215 in the second half while the rookie was stuck on the side of a milk carton.

Wilson, a 28-year-old career .224/.284/.402 hitter coming into the year, was perversely rostered as a third catcher only because he was out of options and the team didn't want to risk losing such a treasure on waivers. He started 35 times, 29 of them in the second half, and brought home a Mathismatically correct .189/.252/.288 line. Add it up and that's a .192/.252/.302 line for the trio.

Remedy (?): New general manager Jerry DiPoto took decisive action to prevent this from happening again in the lower 48 states, trading Mathis to Toronto for lefty pitching suspect Brad Mills, and acquiring Chris Iannetta, a stathead favorite for his power and patience, from the Rockies for righty pitching suspect Tyler Chatwood. The going-on-29-year-old Iannetta hit .238/.370/.414 in 426 plate appearances last year while throwing out a career-best 30 percent of would-be base thieves, but he was below average in framing pitches, more Napolitan than Mathisesque. His home/road splits are also of some concern: .262/.377/.492 in 863 PA at Coors Field dating back to 2006, compared to .208/.338/.369 in 870 PA elsewhere; the move to pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium could take an even bigger bite out of his offense. He'll be the starter, catching 100-plus games according to manager Mike Scioscia, with Conger likely the backup.

Dishonorable Mention: Buster Posey (.267, 0.9), Chris Stewart (.225, 0.7), Eli Whiteside (.209, −0.2), Giants. You can't fault Posey for getting hurt, but you can certainly fault Brian Sabean for settling for four months of craptacular backups instead of dealing for an upgrade in his absence. It's one thing to absorb the drop from an average player to a replacement-level one, another to grin and bear it when losing a star; Posey was off to a slow start, but over a full season could have been expected to better his 2010 mark of 3.5 WARP.

First Base: Aubrey Huff (.257, 0.2), Brandon Belt (.260, 0.4), Giants
Huff was one of the heroes of the Giants' 2010 championship season; he hit .290/.385/.506 with 26 homers in a career year. In the inebriated aftermath of the team's unlikely win, Sabean rewarded the 33-year-old with a two-year, $22 million deal despite his history of inconsistency, and despite 2009 draft pick Belt having shot up prospect lists while climbing from High-A to Triple-A. The rookie turned enough heads in springtime to wind up as the Giants' Opening Day first baseman, but the combination of his slow start (.192/.300/.269 through April 19) and an out-of-shape Huff's misadventures in right field led the team to send Belt back to Triple-A. Recalled five weeks later, he played in just two games before suffering a hairline fracture of his wrist on a hit-by-pitch; he didn't return until July 19, and soon he was sent to left field while Huff played first. Neither ever heated up fully, and collectively they hit just .258/.318/.414 as first basemen: .249/.309/.381 in 495 PA for Huff, .227/.333/.467 in 87 PA for Belt, which was at least better than the .238/.300/.406 he put up in 110 PA in left field.

Remedy (?): It's business as usual, with Belt as the likely left fielder while Huff returns to first base. The latter has reportedly rededicated himself to conditioning, resuming the Pilates exercises that he dropped after the 2010 season, so the stage is set for a slew of Best Shape of His Life posts when he reports to camp. Brett Pill, who hit .300/.321/.560 in a 50 PA cup of coffee as a 26-year-old rookie in September, could press him for time if Huff struggles and Belt is able to hold his own in the outfield.

Dishonorable Mention: James Loney (.274, 2.0), Dodgers. A member of both the 2010 Killers and the 2011 midseason Vortices of Suck, Loney hit a craptastic .256/.301/.325 with four homers in 390 PA through the end of July, but surged over the final two months (.357/.416/.608 with eight homers in 192 PA) using a more compact stance at the urging of new hitting coach Dave Hansen. We’ll see if that takes.

Second Base: Aaron Hill (.217, −1.5), Kelly Johnson (.290, 0.7) Blue Jays
Since mashing 36 homers and hitting .286/.330/.498 in 2009, Hill has declined at an alarming speed. He managed 26 homers in 2010, but slumped to .205/.271/.394 thanks to an impossibly low .196 BABIP borne of his tendency to chase outside pitches. While his BABIP rebounded somewhat to .242 last year, he homered just six times through his first 429 plate appearances, and his defense fell off as well, at least according to FRAA (from 2.2 to −5.0). In late August, the Jays sent him to Arizona in a challenge trade that netted Johnson, who had hit 18 homers in an otherwise disappointing season (.209/.287/.412, for a .243 TAv, and −0.9 WARP, thanks to −11.7 FRAA) for the Snakes. Both players finished strongly in their new homes, with Johnson batting .270/.364/.417 for the Jays.

Remedy (?): Alex Anthopoulos appeared bound to decline Hill's $8 million option for 2012, and in swapping for Johnson, it was thought that the Jays were bringing aboard a player who would at least net them a supplementary pick; on the strength of his 4.0 WARP 2010 showing, Johnson still figured to be at least a Type-B free agent, with an outside chance at winding up a Type-A. His late-season surge clinched the latter status, but instead of declining arbitration, Johnson accepted, and the team welcomed back a soon-to-be 30-year-old player who has been within a whisker of replacement level twice in the past three years; he'll make $6.375 million.

Dishonorable Mention: Aaron Miles (.248, −0.1), Jamey Carroll (.269, 2.4), Juan Uribe (.205, -0.9), Dodgers. Ned Colletti went into the season planning for Uribe—at three years and $21 million, their marquee free-agent signing from the previous winter—to start at second base, but when third baseman Casey Blake got hurt… well, I'll get to that momentarily.

Shortstop: Brandon Crawford (.212, −0.1), Miguel Tejada (.223, 0.8), Mike Fontenot (.248, 0.6), Orlando Cabrera (.208, 0.0), Giants
With a deep and abiding commitment to the nation's elderly, Sabean accounted for the free-agent departures of Uribe and 2010 World Series MVP Edgar Renteria by signing the 37-year-old Miguel Tejada, who started slowly and then was shifted to third base when Pablo Sandoval got hurt. Fontenot filled in at shortstop, but when that didn't work, the Giants called up Crawford, a 24-year-old 2008 fourth-round pick who had struggled in Double-A in 2010, and was sent back to the team's High-A affiliate in San Jose. Not surprisingly, he didn't hit, either (.204 /.288/.296). At the end of July, Sabean traded for Cabrera, a 36-year-old journeyman whose most notable stretches have come as a deadline acquisition for the 2004 Red Sox (with whom he won a World Series ring) and the 2009 Twins. Alas, Cabrera hit just .222/.241/.270 for the Giants, even worse than the team's overall .210/.265/.299 mark at the position.

Remedy (?): Tejada was released in September after publicly complaining about being told to bunt, and Cabrera just announced his retirement. Unable to coax Johnnie LeMaster out of retirement for his age-58 season, or to retrieve Brian Bocock from the Phillies organization, Sabean turned to 32-year-old Ryan Theriot, who won a World Series ring with the Cardinals but hit just .271/.321/.342 for a .239 TAv and 0.3 WARP, and was five runs in the red at shortstop. Useful against lefties (.299/.355/.385 from 2009-2011), Theriot is as weak as a kitten against righties (.268/.321/.327). He also has a penchant for being Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop (TOOTBLAN), and was just 4-for-10 in steals, for a career-worst −1.6 EqBRR. A straight platoon with the lefty Fontenot (.250/.312/.380) doesn’t exactly look like a winning combination.

Dishonorable Mention: Alex Gonzalez (.226, 1.6) Braves. Gonzalez hit just .241/.270/.372 in 593 PA, but he did provide positive value with his defense (+11.0 FRAA)—a number that jibes with his 15 Defensive Runs Saved and 11 Total Zone Runs, but not his −0.3 Ultimate Zone Rating.

Third Base: Juan Uribe (.205, -0.9), Aaron Miles (.248, -0.1), Casey Blake (.254, 0.3), Dodgers
Blake shoulda stood in bed rather than report to camp last year. He began his age-37 season on the disabled list for lower back inflammation, and served three more stints during the year, including one that required in-season surgery for an infected bursa sac in his elbow, and another that required post-season surgery to alleviate a pinched nerve in his neck. In and around that, he hit just .252/.342/.371. Uribe, who was signed to play second, was the team's Opening Day third baseman, and wound up starting a team-high 53 times there, but his dismal .204/.264/.293 season was mercifully ended by a sports hernia in late July. Fortunately, the Emo Juan Uribe blog played out the string; unfortunately, so did Miles, despite being far below the bar offensively. He did muscle up to hit two homers in 216 PA while playing the position to go with his .249/.321/.321 line. Whee.

Remedy (?): With the signing of a declining Mark Ellis to play second base and the departure of Blake via free agency, Uribe will begin the year at the hot corner. Jerry Hairston Jr., who took over third base down the stretch for the Brewers and who hit .270/.344/.383 overall for Washington and Milwaukee (a .259 TAv), will serve as an insurance policy of sorts.

Dishonorable Mention: None. While horrid third-base performances abounded—the overall major-league performance dipped to a .257 True Average, the first time it's been below .260 since 2003—they were oddly concentrated among playoff teams (Brewers, Tigers and Phillies) or teams further out of contention.

I discussed some of the Killers with Brian Kenny on “Clubhouse Confidential” on Tuesday (I also debated Larry Bowa, which was even more fun). You still have time to set your DVR of choice to catch it, or follow me online at @jay_jaffe for links to video. I’ll also paste a link in the comments section.

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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