July 23, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Midsummer Replacement-Level Killers, Part I
With just over a week to go before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, we bring you this semi-annual reminder that complacency in the face of adversity is the potential undoing of every manager and general manager. For reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's recent performance—contract size, longer-term track record, clubhouse chemistry—teams all too often fail to make the moves that could help them win, 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. The concept has become a semiannual tradition—near the trading deadline and the opening of spring training—with an eye toward what teams can do to solve potentially fatal problems.
So again we take a trip around the diamond—broken into two parts, with the second one coming soon—to identify the most glaring issues among contenders. Given the expansion of the postseason to include a second wild card, I'm defining that to mean every team at or above .500 through the close of play Saturday, July 21. That adds up to 19 teams within five games of a playoff spot.
Note that while I'm using WARP here, the criterion isn't as strict as having a sub-zero WARP; 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. Except where noted, all stats are through Saturday.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki (.189 TAv, −0.9 WARP), Derek Norris (.169, −0.5), A's
Suzuki has been the A's starting catcher since the second half of the 2007 season, and he's never been anything less than solid until now, averaging 11 homers and a .258/.318/.388 line, along with a 56/33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Until Sunday, he had yet to homer, was hitting just .210/.245/.259, and had a 49/9 K/BB ratio. That looks like the line of a player toughing it out through a major injury—a leg chewed off by one of the many alligators that frequent the generous foul territory of the Oakland Coliseum, perhaps. (I hear they've really let that place go to seed.) Even so, the one reported injury Suzuki suffered—hit on the left hand by a pitch and taken for x-rays back in early May—came when his stat line was already underwater, .237/.242/.302 with a 15/1 K/BB ratio.
Remedy: Acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade with the Nationals this past winter, Norris is a well-regarded 22-year-old prospect who's clearly Suzuki's heir apparent. He profiles as a high-OBP type with some power who should be at least passable behind the plate. Recalled in late June, he has gotten the bulk of the playing time since then, but he’s off to a 10-for-59 start, albeit with two homers and a 19/6 K/BB ratio. Despite his horrid .169/.246/.274 line, the A's are 12-4 in his starts, and it appears they'll give him more time to settle into the job. Even so, it might behoove them to find another catcher with a bit of life in his bat, such as ex-Athletic Ramon Hernandez, whose .205/.244/.348 line for the Rockies looks like the second coming of Gene Tenace in this context.