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July 23, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Midsummer Replacement-Level Killers, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

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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
With a 14-2 July record pushing them to seven games above .500 and into a tie for the second AL wild card spot, the A's are surprising contenders. Alas, they've gotten next to nothing from their catchers, at least with the stick; going into Sunday, the were hitting a combined .189/.242/.243, dead last among catchers in all three categories. While they do deserve some credit for helping the A's pitchers to the league's lowest run-prevention rate, and have caught 39 percent of would-be base thieves, they're in the red even when defense is taken into consideration.

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.

Dishonorable Mention: Jose Molina (.225, −0.2), Jose Lobaton (.235, 0.0), Chris Jimenez (.155, −0.7), Rays. While Molina has once again done a strong job of framing pitches, the Rays catchers have combined to hit .198/.274/.279 while throwing out just 25 percent of would-be base thieves.

First Base: James Loney (.218, −1.3), Juan Rivera (.243, −0.2), Dodgers
The Dodgers can't say they weren't warned. Loney is the definition of recidivism in this context, having earned spots on the 2010 Killers and the 2011 midseason Vortices of Suck as well as a dishonorable mention here back in February. General manager Ned Colletti was flush enough with optimism over Loney's late-2011 salvage job (a .357/.416/.608 tear over the final two months) to re-sign him to a $6.375 million contract instead of non-tendering him. And yet here's Loney, hitting a pathetic .248/.306/.332 with two homers for a team that ranked 13th in the league in scoring (3.85 runs per game) and 12th in True Average (.253) through Saturday. Manager Don Mattingly is now sitting him against lefties in favor of Rivera (.259/.295/.358), who at least lives up to his "RBI Machine" reputation by ranking in the NL's top 10 in OBI%.

Remedy: The Dodgers have tried to pull off a trade for a first baseman; they were reportedly close to acquiring Carlos Lee from the Astros—not that he would have helped—and they are said to have checked in on Edwin Encarnacion before he received a contract extension from the Blue Jays. Given the paucity of options both internal (Scott Van Slyke, Jerry Sands, Josh Fields) and external (Ty Wigginton? Mark Reynolds?), they would do well to shift the focus of their trade talks with the Cubs from Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza to Bryan LaHair, who earned All-Star honors in his first year as a regular but has been bumped off first base by the arrival of Anthony Rizzo. Even having cooled off after a torrid start, he's hitting .279/.359/.494 with 14 homers, for a .298 True Aveage.

Dishonorable Mention: Casey Kotchman (.232, −0.4), Indians. Kotchman appeared to have resurrected his career last year when he hit .306/.378/.422 for the Rays. Signed to a one-year deal by the Indians for reasons that had as much to do with his glove as his bat, he has delivered just a .231/.294/.360 line, and while he's been defensively solid (+6 FRAA), his overall contribution has been below replacement level for a team that could desperately use production from the corners.

Second Base: Ryan Raburn (.176, −1.8), Ramon Santiago (.232, −0.6), Danny Worth (.221, −0.7), Tigers
Thanks to a 14-4 record thus far in July, the Tigers have finally recaptured first place in the AL Central for the first time since late April. They might be running away with the division had they solved their second base problem over the winter, but instead, general manager Dave Dombrowski chose to mix and match with the options at hand, namely good hit/no field Raburn, good field/no hit Santiago, minor leaguer Danny Worth, and displaced third baseman Brandon Inge. Not only have those players combined for a .203/.289/.278 line while playing second, they've been the Keystone Cops of a defensively-challenged unit that ranks second-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency at .678, 17 points below league average. Inge has been jettisoned (don't worry, we'll get back to him momentarily), while Raburn has been farmed out, recalled, and repurposed as a utilityman, leaving Santiago (.220/.302/.298) to do the bulk of the damage lately.

Remedy: With several holes to shore up—at the back of the rotation, in right field, and at DH as well as second base—the Tigers are expected to be one of the more aggressive teams at the deadline; missing the playoffs with the game's fifth-highest payroll would be a brutal return on investment. The team has checked in on several second-base options, including the Cubs' Darwin Barney, the Rockies' Marco Scutaro, the Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew and Ryan Roberts, and the Marlins' Omar Infante, who played for the Tigers from 2002-2007. Any of them could make for an adequate upgrade on Santiago and friends.

Dishonorable Mention: Robert Andino (.228, −0.3), Brian Roberts (.221, −0.7), Orioles. Andino wasn't even able to muster his usual replacement-level adequacy before giving way to Roberts, who returned in mid-June after missing over a year due to concussion-related symptoms. Because the latter is still laboring under a gypsy curse, he lasted less than three weeks before a hip labrum injury sent him back to the disabled list; Andino joined him there last week after subluxing his left shoulder while diving for a ball.

Third Base: Brandon Inge (.225, −0.3), Eric Sogard (.182, −0.5), Josh Donaldson (.148, −0.8), A's
The worst third-base production in the majors belongs to the White Sox (.190/.263/.268), but that horrific line has improved markedly since the Kevin Youkilis trade, so the dishonor here goes to the A's, who have yet to solve the problem created by the pre-season loss of Scott Sizemore to a torn ACL. Converted catcher Donaldson started the year sharing the job with Sogard, but neither hit. General manager Billy Beane plucked Inge from the waiver wire when he was released by Detroit, which appeared to be a genius move when he homered four times and racked up four four-RBI games in his first 10 games in the green and gold—two of them against his old team. Alas, Inge suffered a groin strain soon afterward, and he's been unable to stay above the Mendoza line for very long, hitting .200/.259/.369 overall.

Remedy: Given the surprise of their contending bid in a year where the A's were focused upon building for the future, Beane would be ill-advised to dip too deeply into his farm system for a mere rental. However, the possibility of obtaining the Padres' Chase Headley is one that's worth pursuing. Headley is 28 years old, cost-controlled through 2014, and the owner of a career .299/.366/.449 line away from Petco Park, a player who can be far more than a stopgap for the offense-challenged A's. He certainly won't come cheap, though, particularly given that the Padres now appear to be of the mind to lock up their potential trade targets such as Carlos Quentin and Huston Street.

Dishonorable Mention: Juan Uribe (.200, −0.3), Dodgers. A 2011 Killer, Uribe has helped the Dodger cause by again missing time due to injuries, including inflammation in his left wrist, which cost him four weeks. Fill-ins including Jerry Hairston Jr. and Adam Kennedy have combined to hit .267/.332/.396, which is better not only than Uribe but than the performance of their number-five hitters. Alas, the $21 million man came back and was shoehorned into the lineup, but soon embarked upon a 1-for-38 slump that he finally snapped out of on Saturday, with a 2-for-3 day that included his second homer of the season.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes (.193, −1.2), Pirates
In search of their first winning season since 1992, the Pirates have compiled the league's third-best record, and they hold a wild card spot at this writing. They would be in even better shape if it weren't for Barmes, who has "hit" .207/.234/.293. Even with above-average defense (+2 FRAA), he's giving off the odor of rotting venison, and that's never good. 

Remedy: Fire, and lots of it. Or, failing that, just about anything besides sticking with the status quo. Backup Josh Harrison is a utilityman who has hit .228/.285/.378, which is some kind of improvement upon Barmes; his True Average is .255. The team would be much better off finding a shortstop elsewhere, with Drew one obvious option.  The Mariners' Brendan Ryan is hitting just .187/.282/.282, but with stellar glove work, he's been worth 0.9 WARP—he'd be an upgrade. Hell, the man Barmes replaced, Ronny Cedeno, is hitting .266/.349/.394 for the fast-dropping Mets; he could probably be had for a song, even "Row Row Row Your Boat." Somewhere 61-year-old Tim Foli, the shortstop on the 1979 "We Are Family" world champions, is even oiling up his mitt.

Dishonorable Mention: Cliff Pennington (.219, 0.3), A's. Oakland shortstops have combined to hit .186/.247/.276, which is even worse than the Pirate shortstops' yeaaarrrgh-worthy .211/.246/.292. Pennington has been bad (.197/.259/.282), but he's now on the disabled list with tendinitis in his elbow, which may have something to do with his struggles. Meanwhile, backups Brandon Hicks, Sogard, and Adam Rosales have combined to go 6-for-50 with three walks and three extra-base hits. Send help.

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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