When it comes to playoff races, every edge matters. Yet all too often, managers and GMs fail to make the moves that could help their teams for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's statistics, allowing sub-par production to fester until it kills a club's post-season hopes. Back 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 been revisited on a more or less annual basis here at Baseball Prospectus, both by myself and my colleagues, with an eye toward what teams can do to solve such potentially fatal problems. With the trading deadline less than two weeks away, the window for contenders to take their best shots at parlaying their resources into solutions are closing.
What follows is a quick trip around the diamond to run down some of the most glaring situations among teams with records above .500. I'm using WARP2, which adjusts for league difficulty but doesn't incorporate the scaling factor used for sub-162-game seasons. Not every position has exemplars whose WARPs are right at zero, but most of these are close enough that a bad week could get them there. All stats are through Sunday unless indicated.
Catcher: Gerald Laird (.180 TAv, -0.5 WARP) and Alex Avila (.235 TAv, 0.8 WARP), Tigers
The Tigers' backstop tandem has been the absolute bottom of the barrel, offensively speaking, combining to hit .203/.278/.295 even with a lefty-righty tandem that has split time more or less 50-50. While they've been above-average defensively (+7 FRAA combined), it's not as though they've been particularly impressive in handling the team's rotation, which ranks 12th in the league in SNLVAR, with every starter besides Justin Verlander carrying a sub-.500 Support Neutral Winning Percentage and an ERA worse than the park-adjusted league average.
Remedy (?): With no good options available internally, the Tigers are going to have to go on the market to upgrade. The Diamondbacks floated the possibility of a trade of Chris Snyder to the Red Sox when both Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek went down, though he's got a hefty chunk of money still on his contract (about $8.5 million including a 2012 buyout), and the Tigers are already carrying a payroll of roughly $134 million. A reunion with Pudge Rodriguez, who's got about $4 million remaining through next year with the Nationals, would be a less pricey hit. An even lower-impact but still sensible option would be to sign Mike Redmond, who was recently released by the Indians. Though he's 39, he hit a solid .310/.371/.389 versus lefties from 2007-09, and could pair with Avila in a slightly upgraded platoon.
First Base: Chris Davis (.192 TAv, -0.7 WARP), Rangers
A repeat offender from last season, Davis began the year as the Rangers' first baseman but hit just .188/.264/.292 before being farmed out in late April. After a couple months of mashing at Triple-A (.288 TAv), his window of opportunity has reopened thanks to the departure of Justin Smoak in the Cliff Lee deal. Thus far, Davis is 4-for-29 since returning, with three of those hits coming in one game. He's got plenty of pop (.218 career ISO), but serious contact issues, whiffing in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances in the majors, and his defense at first base (94 Rate2) is nothing to write home about, either.
Remedy (?): At the very least, the Rangers need a fallback option in case Davis continues his swishtastic ways of contact, and they're probably limited to lower-impact moves given their ownership situation and recent moves anyway. The Orioles' Ty Wigginton is available, and while Andy MacPhail isn't any more likely to land a shortstop prospect than his late grandfather is to return the Kaiser's ashtray, the O’s have enough other needs and the Rangers enough organizational depth to find a fit even after the Lee and Bengie Molina deals. Wigginton can spot at second base, third base, and left field if he's not starting at first base, keeping Texas' starters from wilting in the Arlington heat. Other palatable options include the Diamondbacks' Adam LaRoche, a notoriously slow starter who picks up the pace in the second half, and the Blue Jays' Lyle Overbay, who's hit a solid .290/.357/.472 since May 15 after a wretched start; both have less than $4 million remaining on their deals, and it's possible their teams could be persuaded to swallow salary in exchange for better prospects. Free agent Carlos Delgado, who's working his way back from hip surgery, is another option.
Second Base: Luis Castillo (.258 TAv, 0.2 WARP) and Alex Cora (.215 TAv, -1.3 WARP), Mets
Out since June 4 with heel problems, Castillo returned Monay night, but he's 34 years old, fragile, and a liability in the field, with just one season worth substantially more than one win out of the last four, and -38 FRAA in that span. Cora has been an atrocious backup, nine runs below average at the keystone in addition to the damage he's done with the stick. Young Ruben Tejada (.211, -0.2 WARP) hasn't been of much help either, though at least he played acceptable shortstop in Jose Reyes' absence.
Remedy (?): The Marlins' Dan Uggla may be available, but between his hefty price tag, an intradivision rivalry, and the Rockies' interest in him, it's unlikely he'll be heading to Queens. A better fit would be the Diamondbacks' Kelly Johnson. After losing his job with the Braves last year, he's rebounded to hit a robust .282/.376/.503 for the Snakes, who are in selling mode after firing manager A.J. Hinch and GM Josh Byrnes on July 2. Johnson is making just $2.35 million this year, so he'll command a higher price in prospects, but he'd be a legitimate boon to the lineup. His glove (-8 FRAA) might need a caddy, however.
Third Base: Nick Punto (.244 TAv, 1.5 WARP) and friends, Twins
The left side of the Twins' infield has been typically messy, with their third basemen combining to hit .230/.297/.298 and their shortstops only slightly better at .251/.301/.335, a line lifted by a brief hot streak from Punto. Manager Ron Gardenhire has used four players for at least a dozen starts at the hot corner (Punto, Brendan Harris, Danny Valencia and—here's one from out of right field—Michael Cuddyer), a situation complicated by Harris' complete failure to hit (.157/.233/.213) before being sent to Triple-A and by a variety of injuries elsewhere. Each of the other starting infielders—Justin Morneau, Orlando Hudson, and J.J. Hardy—has done a stint on the disabled list thus far, with Morneau's recent concussion pulling Cuddyer back across the diamond. Punto has long been shown to lack the bat to play the position, and while he's gotten just four starts at third since June 3, he's always in manager Ron Gardenhire's back pocket as a potential "solution," which makes him a hazard.
Remedy (?): Here's a situation that may be best solved internally. Valencia, while hardly a blue-chip prospect—he came into the year ninth on Kevin Goldstein's Twins list—has hit .333/.389/.379 in 68 plate appearances since his recall in early June but has played in just eight of the team's past 21 games, starting mainly against lefties. Furthermore, he's apparently in danger of being farmed out when Matt Tolbert, the owner of a Punto-like .246/307/.336 career line himself, comes off the disabled list. Better to give the rookie a shot at manning the position full time. Free Danny Valencia!
Shortstop: Orlando Cabrera (.230 TAv, 0.0 WARP), Reds
The well-traveled 35-year-old, who shored up the Twins' infield at the deadline last summer, is showing his age. He's having his worst season ever with the bat (.252/.293/.339 in a hitter-friendly environment) , and his normally reliable glove work has been subpar (-8 FRAA) as well. As if all of that weren't bad enough, Dusty Baker has been batting him in the first or second spot in the lineup, the latest manifestation of an ongoing problem.
Remedy (?): As Kevin Goldstein pointed out on Monday, Triple-A shortstop Zack Cozart (.252 TAv) offers plus defense and surprising power to compensate for his own shortcomings in the on-base department. If the Reds want to look beyond their own organization, the Nationals' Cristian Guzman is hitting .296/.343/.368; he's got about $3.5 million remaining on his deal. The Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew (.266 TAv, 1.3 WARP) won't be a free agent until after 2012; he makes much less than Guzman and might be worth trading an actual prospect for a multi-season upgrade. As a bonus, the Reds could take advantage of Cabrera's reputation as a mid-season savoir and flip him to a team convinced he's still got those essential veteran herbs and spices.
Left Field: Juan Pierre (.242 TAv, 0.8 WARP), White Sox
This one goes out to all of the pundits who celebrated Unlucky Pierre being freed from the tyranny of fourth-outfielderdom in Los Angeles. Even with his 33 steals, Pierre has the second-lowest True Average of any left fielder with at least 200 plate appearances. His mark is 32 points lower than the average left fielder, equivalent to a shortfall of 13 runs (-13 RAP). With the White Sox embroiled in a three-team race in a division that's gone to a Game 163 playoff in each of the past two years, they can ill afford to employ a player who costs them more than a full win in the standings.
Remedy (?): Just about anything short of sitting on their hands would be an improvement, though it will cost the Sox varying degrees of blood and treasure. Adam Dunn is the big game being hunted, and the likes of Cody Ross or Jose Bautista, both making relatively little in salary, could appeal as well. Hell, even The Return of Podzilla would be welcome; Scott Podsednik is hitting .302/.350/.376 and would of course satisfy Ozzie Guillen's need for speed, though the only thing really separating him from Pierre is a handful of balls in play falling for hits.
Center Field: Nate McLouth (.225 TAv, -0.5 WARP), Braves
Even with Jason Heyward in tow, Braves outfielders are hitting a combined .244/.324/.378 this year, and none has been worse than McLouth, who was hitting .176/.295/.282 when he went on the disabled list due to a concussion sustained via a collision on June 9. Given that Melky Cabrera is hitting just .259/.308/.352 against righties, the half-measure of a platoon to shield McLouth from lefties isn't really a palatable option, and while Gregor Blanco has hit .310/.394/.362 in 66 plate appearances this year, nothing in his track record suggests that's sustainable.
Remedy (?): The aforementioned Ross is a below-average center fielder (89 Rate2 over the past two years), but his .267 TAv would do a little to offset that, particularly given that Cabrera or Blanco could do some defensive caddy work if need be. Coco Crisp (.288 TAv) has been limited to just 91 plate appearances due to injuries, but he'd fit the bill as well, though the A's may be reluctant to deal him given his reasonable $5.75 million option for 2011. The Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome (.271 TAv) hasn't played any center field this year due to the arrival of Marlon Byrd and the emergence of Tyler Colvin; the Cubs would have to absorb much of the $19 million remaining on his contract through next year, though they might jump at any chance to trim their $144 million payroll and reduce their collection of eight-figure salaries.
Right Field: Jeff Francoeur (.253 TAv, -0.3 WARP), Mets
The end of the world appeared nigh when Frenchy walked eight times in his first 12 games, but he steered us clear of the apocalypse by drawing just six unintentional passes in his next 77 games, batting .227/.270/.332 along the way. During one 37-game, 137-PA stretch, he "hit" .146/.197/.228, yet manager Jerry Manuel didn't let a day go by without making sure he got a chance to take his hacks.
Remedy (?): With Carlos Beltran making his 2010 debut last week, the Mets' most productive outfielder, Angel Pagan (.300 TAv, +12 FRAA) was displaced from the position he's manned so capably all year. According to WARP, Pagan has been the team's second-most valuable player behind David Wright, with 4.1. The obvious solution if the Mets insist upon playing Beltran in center regularly—something that's probably not a good idea given his arthritic knee—is to shift Pagan to right and shoot Francouer out of a cannon. The second most obvious solution—which Manuel went with last week, though he wouldn't exactly come out and say it—would be to platoon the switch-hitting Pagan, who's much stronger against righties over the course of his career (.306/.360/.463) than against lefties (.252/.295/.416), with Francoeur (.300/.343/.480 vs. lefties, .256/.297/.406 vs righties), though that still means a bit more Frenchy than necessary when Pagan shifts to center to give Beltran the day off. If Beltran stays healthy and hits like the guy in the catalog, problem solved, but the Mets could probably use some anti-Frenchy insurance in case Beltran gets hurt and Pagan returns to center.
Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui (.264 TAv, 0.1 WARP) Angels
Angels DHs have hit a combined .201/.289/.308, and while Matsui has been better than that (.249/.329/.393) thanks to some hot hitting in his rare journeys afield, his performance has validated the Yankees' decision to let their World Series MVP walk away as a free agent.
Remedy (?): Given that they're also scrambling to overcome the loss of first baseman Kendry Morales for the year, the Halos are a team that could really use a thumper such as Adam Dunn or Lance Berkman who could DH and spot in the field if somebody else needs a half-day off. Free agent Jermaine Dye, who's looking for work, is another option; he'd cost only cash, as would the aforementioned Delgado.