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July 26, 2012

Overthinking It

Upgrading From Nothing

by Ben Lindbergh

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As the trading deadline approaches, teams are open to any and all moves that might make them better. Some clubs have sought upgrades at positions where they’ve already received decent production, but the higher the bar that the trade target has to clear, the fewer the potential fixes, and the greater the price. The path of least resistance for a contender hoping to improve is often to patch a particularly weak position with an average player who can give them more than they’ve been getting, without costing too much in any other area.

The weakest performance by a collection of players at any position on a contending team this season has been at second base in Detroit, where seven players—notably Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn, and Danny Worth—have played at replacement level or below, combining for a total of -2.2 WARP. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers traded for a second baseman on Tuesday, filling what had been a gaping hole with Omar Infante, who should be at least average for them the rest of the way. We can see the same pattern on display in other acquisitions: the Dodgers traded for Hanley Ramirez because their shortstops—notably the injured Dee Gordon—had combined for -0.6 WARP.

Although some positional holes have already been plugged, several more remain. The teams that manage to find fixes for their most obvious flaws might be the ones that emerge from the pack of contenders with a playoff berth, so with five days left until the deadline, few GMs will be far from their phones. The following are the most glaring positional weaknesses that contenders are still trying to fill, as well as a potential fit (or fits) for each team.

Dodgers, 1B (-1.5 WARP)
The Dodgers filled one hole in their infield when they added Ramirez, but an even worse one remains at first base, where James Loney and Juan Rivera haven’t hit all year. It sounds like an exaggeration to say that anyone would be better than Loney, but it isn’t: of the 29 first basemen who’ve had at least 200 plate appearances this season, only the recently demoted Justin Smoak has a lower TAv than Loney’s .218. According to Jayson Stark, Justin Morneau is the bat the Twins are most likely to move, and he might make an excellent fit for the Dodgers. While he hasn’t recovered the offensive form he showed before his concussion problems, he has stayed in the lineup. Even if he doesn’t improve at the plate, he’d represent a sizeable upgrade for LA.

Giants, 2B (-1.3 WARP)
Orioles, 2B (-1.1 WARP)
White Sox, 2B (-0.8 WARP)
Athletics, 2B (-0.8 WARP)

The Tigers aren’t the only contending team that has had problems at second base. The Giants (Ryan Theriot, Emmanuel Burriss), Orioles (the injured Robert Andino and Brian Roberts), White Sox (Gordon Beckham), and A’s (Jemile Weeks) have all had their own issues at the keystone. Infante is off the market, but a few semi-attractive middle-infield options remain, including the Rockies’ Marco Scutaro, the Cubs’ Darwin Barney, and the Diamondbacks’ shortstop Stephen Drew, who has struggled since his return but is unlikely to remain in Arizona beyond this season. The Blue Jays’ Kelly Johnson is another intriguing option who might be on the move. The A’s will likely stick with Weeks and hope he recovers his rookie form. Across the bay, the Giants were too strapped for cash to bring in a bat over the winter, but with the Dodgers retooling, a little offensive help would go a long way for San Francisco. At this point, the O’s would benefit from the addition of almost any warm body.  

Athletics, 3B (-1.3 WARP)
The A’s have been unable to find a fit at third since Scott Sizemore’s season-ending injury— their late-April pickup of Brandon Inge predictably bombed—but the next few days might lead to a more lasting solution. Oakland was reportedly in on Hanley Ramirez, but with Hanley now spoken for, the A’s will have to look elsewhere. Another name they’ve been linked to is Chase Headley, who would make a lot of sense for Billy Beane’s team. Headley’s offensive prowess has always been disguised by Petco Park; the 28-year-old has mustered an impressive .279/.378/.488 line away from San Diego this season, which would be a major improvement over the .185/.230/.332 showing by Inge, Josh Donaldson, and the rest of the A’s miserable hot-corner crew.

Rays, C (-1.2 WARP)
The Rays have been sitting on the fence between buying and selling for some time, but recent indications are that with Evan Longoria on the comeback trail, they may decide to stay in the race. If they do, catcher is one area at which they could improve without breaking the bank. Even in a typically terrible offensive season, Jose Molina has done enough with his glove to hold onto a job, but his backups’ bats have been no better. The Rays could take the struggling Kurt Suzuki off the A’s hands and hope he rebounds, allowing Derek Norris to take over in Oakland. If they want to get really adventurous, they could deal from their strength—young, homegrown starting pitching—and send Jeremy Hellickson to Cleveland for Carlos Santana in an exchange of promising players who haven’t yet turned into stars.

Pirates, SS (-1.1 WARP)
Clint Barmes has been the James Loney of shortstops in 2012: no one currently playing the position has hit worse. He has helped on defense, but on the whole, his contributions have hurt the team. Backup Josh Harrison has hit well enough to be an upgrade, and the Pirates might not have much left to spend after assuming the remainder of Wandy Rodriguez’s contract, but if they want to go outside the organization in search of a solution, Brendan Ryan might make sense. Ryan’s bat hasn’t been much better than Barmes’, but his glove is good enough to make him an asset anyway. Pirates fans have already lived through the end of Jack Wilson’s tenure with the team, so they’re used to the sight of a defensive whiz with a weak bat at short.

Nationals, LF (-1.0 WARP)
Tigers, RF (-1.0 WARP)
Reds, CF (-0.7 WARP)
Pirates, RF (-0.5 WARP)

Roger Bernadina has been a pleasant surprise in center, and Mike Morse’s bat has been better of late, so the Nats probably won’t make a move for a starting position player. And, according to Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers are done dealing. However, the Reds and Pirates might still make a move for an outfielder. The Reds reportedly turned down a Shane Victorino-for-Logan Ondrusek offer, which—if true—seems like a strange decision. If the Twins can be persuaded to sell, maybe Denard Span would be more to Cincinnati’s liking. Justin Upton, Josh Willingham, and even B.J. Upton might be beyond the Pirates’ means, but if Boston decides to sell, impending free agent Cody Ross could solve Pittsburgh’s corner conundrum.

‚ÄčA version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Hanley Ramirez,  James Loney,  Dee Gordon,  Juan Rivera

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