In a playoff hunt, every edge matters, yet all too often, for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player’s statistics, managers and GMs fail to make the moves that could help their teams, allowing subpar production to fester until it kills a club’s post-season hopes. Back in 2007, I wrote a chapter for our pennant race book, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, in which I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. It’s a concept that’s been revisited here at Baseball Prospectus, both by myself and my colleagues, usually in-season, with an eye towards what a team can do to solve such potentially fatal problems.
I didn’t get a chance to address the topic during the 2009 season, but with the Hot Stove still burning, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the gaping holes teams tried to ignore, and what they’ve done to solve those problems as they prepare for the upcoming season. Context is important; the Killers come from teams who at least registered a pulse as contenders, and they’re not necessarily just the players with the worst WARPs or EqAs at their respective positions (all WARP figures refer to WARP3). Playing time and a team’s willingness to consider its alternatives also come into play.
An ulnar nerve problem in his left elbow caused Navarro to plummet from a .295/.349/.407 showing in 2008 to .218/.261/.322 last year, thus producing the lowest EqA of any catcher with more than 155 plate appearances. Yet he wound up starting just eight fewer games than the year before, primarily because his defense remained above average (6 FRAA). He was the proverbial gaping vortex of suck against righties (.183/.234/.255 in 254 PA), but by the time the Rays plucked the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher, Gregg Zaun, from the Orioles on August 7 to provide an upgrade beyond second-stringer Michel Hernandez, the Rays were already six games back in the AL East and another 2 ½ back in the Wild Card.
Remedy (?): Navarro underwent surgery to fix his elbow, surviving a non-tender threat and agreeing to a $2.1-million deal for 2010. Meanwhile, the Rays acquired Kelly Shoppach from the Indians in a trade that cost them just a minor-league arm, Mitch Talbot. While neither a defensive wizard nor an ideal fit with Navarro from a platoon standpoint (he hit just .191/.313/.340 against righties in 257 PA last year), Shoppach is a lefty masher who does provide an additional option with substantial major-league experience.
After a strong debut in 2008, the once well-regarded Davis’ contact woes caught up with him; he wound up producing the majors’ highest strikeout frequency. To their credit, the Rangers did try to shore up the situation by sending Davis back to Triple-A for about seven weeks, and he did hit far better upon returning (.308/.338/.496) than prior to the demotion (.202/.256/.415, with strikeouts in 41 percent of his plate appearances). The problem was that Hank Blalock was every bit as bad while filling in (.236/.270/.399 as a first baseman); he was scarcely better as a DH (.226/.280/.523). Had the Rangers managed a mere 3.0 WARP from this duo rather than -3.2, they’d have won 93 games, just two less than the wild card-winning Red Sox. /p>
Remedy (?): Davis’ high BABIP-driven late-season showing has bought him another chance, though with five-star prospect Justin Smoak starting the year in Triple-A, his leash isn’t likely to be very long, and the recent signing of Vlad Guerrero to DH could squeeze him out of the picture entirely.
The Giants finished last in the majors in EqA, and at no position did they get worse production than at second base, where five players made at least 16 starts and hit a combined .236/.281/.329; remove Juan Uribe (.274/.331/.538 in 35 games at second, less than he saw at third or short), and those numbers become .227/.269/.280. Burriss more or less held the job from Opening Day to mid-June before being sent to the minors and subsequently hurting his foot. The team then spent the next six weeks briefly trying on Matt Downs (.187 EqA, -0.1 WARP), Kevin Frandsen (.086 EqA, -0.5 WARP) and Uribe for size before trading for Sanchez, who strained his shoulder two weeks after arriving and then needed knee surgery after tearing his meniscus upon returning from the shoulder injury. All told, the team finished four games behind the Rockies in the wild card, a gap that could have easily been narrowed with a competent solution at the keystone.
Remedy (?): The Giants didn’t even wait until the World Series was done to re-sign the 32-year-old Sanchez to a two-year, $12-million deal, this despite the fact that the signing has limited them to some fairly cut-rate solutions elsewhere, which cast Mark DeRosa as a corner outfielder, Aubrey Huff as a first baseman, and Night Train as the house’s top red wine option. Yeah, good luck with all of that.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. After finishing 24th in the majors with a .685 Defensive Efficiency, the Tigers took a page from the 2008 Rays’ playbook and focused on upgrading their defense to help their pitching staff. They signed glove whiz Everett to a one year, $1-million deal to replace Edgar “Rent-A-Wreck” Renteria (.249 EqA, -10 FRAA, 0.7 WARP in 2008). While the team did see its DER improve to .695 (ninth in the majors), Everett’s defense came in as subpar according to FRAA (-3 runs), and while it did grade out better via Plus/Minus (+7) and UZR (+9), he was a complete zero with the stick, hitting just .238/.288/.325 overall, and .217/.274/.272 in 247 PA against righties. Santiago fared better against righties (.267/.325/.391 in 258 PA), but was no better at defense, grading out as average according FRAA and a few runs below via the others. All told, the team got just a combined line of .250/.302/.342 from the two (their catchers’ hitting was worse but the defense much better), and missed the playoffs after losing a Game 163 play-in to the Twins. Any better production from shortstop could have avoided such a fate.
Remedy (?): Hamstrung by the bad contracts of Magglio Ordoñez, Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Guillen, Dontrelle Willis, and Nate Robertson, the Tigers opted to go the cheap route again by not only re-signing Everett, but giving him a 55-percent raise for, um, showing up to work and stuff. Having avoided arbitration with Santiago as well, they’re in position to try it all again, because like general manager Dave Dombrowski always cautions, “Those who forget the past are… something, something, something.”
Acquired from the Nationals for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham in November 2008, Bonifacio made the Marlins look like geniuses when he hit .485/.500/.667 in the team’s first seven games. His ensuing 4-for-41 slide should have clued the team into the illusory nature of that streak, but the Marlins kept chasing that early-season rainbow until the end of July, with Bonifacio hitting just .225/.274/.273 after his start. The team tried using Helms as an occasional starter and late-inning pinch-hitter/sub, and at the deadline arrived at what appeared to be a reasonable solution, trading for Nick Johnson and sliding first baseman Jorge Cantu across the diamond. Alas, Cantu hit just .254/.311/.379 as a third baseman after a .305/.366/.479 showing at first. Worse, he played the hot corner like a man putting out a grease fire (-8 FRAA and 81 Rate2 in 45 games). All told, the Marlins’ .249/.296/.332 from their third basemen made for the lowest OPS in the majors at the position, and they fell six games short of the Phillies and five back in the wild card.
Remedy (?): With first-base prospects Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez both nearly ready for the majors, the Marlins apparently plan to keep Cantu manning third base, damn the defensive cost. If neither prospect is ready, Cantu will likely start at first, which leaves Bonifacio and Helms returning to third. In other words, it’s business as usual for the Marlins.
The Braves’ outfield was a disasterpiece last year, hitting a combined .261/.328/.393, for the third-lowest OPS in the majors, ahead of only the Padres and Royals. While their center fielders were actually the least productive of the three spots, the huge midseason upgrades provided by acquiring Nate McLouth and punting Jeff Francouer leave the focus squarely on left field. Despite ample evidence that Anderson’s bat was no longer up to snuff, the Braves signed the going-on-37-year-old to a one-year, $2.5-million deal as a free agent. Calf and quad woes limited him to just six starts in the season’s first four weeks, a span during which Diaz provided ample production before yielding to Anderson, who wound up hitting just .268/.303/.401. A stronger showing wouldn’t have been enough to close the seven-game gap on the NL East champion Phillies or the six-game deficit on the wild card-winning Rockies, but better work from the entire outfield would have.
Remedy (?): At the end of the year, the free agent Anderson did what he’s done so rarely as a hitter throughout his career: walk. The Braves acquired Melky Cabrera from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez deal. At the very least, a platoon pairing Cabrera with Diaz should be an upgrade, and it appears that a deal with Johnny Damon could still be possible given the former Yankees left fielder’s shrinking market. /p>
The Sox got a major-league worst .231/.285/.321 line from their center fielders, and while that alone didn’t prevent them from winning the AL Central race (they finished 7 ½ back), it was by far the worst offensive performance they received at any position. Ozzie Guillen spent the first half of the season trying to squeeze adequate production out of the spot from Anderson and Wise before shifting Podsednik over from left field to accommodate Carlos Quentin‘s return from a two-month absence. That helped somewhat; the Sox were in second place in the division, just 1 ½ games out when August opened. They were three back and just two over .500 when GM Kenny Williams went and claimed Alex Rios off of waivers from the Blue Jays, and while that may not have been the world’s greatest idea, it did seem reasonable to expect that he’d provide an offensive upgrade at the spot. Sadly, no. Rios hit just .199/.229/.301, at one point enduring a 5-for-64 slide, and the Sox went just 22-28 the rest of the way.
Remedy (?): Assuming the Sox buy out his 2015 option for $1 million, there are only five years and $59.7 million left on Rios’ deal. Luckily, he should bounce back at least somewhat, although the park-aided .272/.337/.444 forecast for him by PECOTA leaves his projected .262 EqA seven points below last year’s major-league average for center fielders.
In the final year of a three-year, $23.5-million deal, Winn hit a god-awful .262/.318/.353, a performance driven-through a guardrail overlooking a cliff-by a .158/.184/.200 showing in 125 PA against southpaws, the single worst righty-on-lefty performance of the Retrosheet Era (1954 onward). With Bruce Bochy dissatisfied with left fielder Fred Lewis‘ production (his .348 OBP, second on the team, clashed with the sub-.300 zeitgeist they were trying to instill), Winn also saw significant time in left so as to allow Nate Schierholtz (.267/.302/.400) to wave a wet noodle at NL pitchers. If not for Winn’s above-average defensive contributions (+15 FRAA), things would have been even worse, but as it was, this debacle and the one at second base were enough to dash the Giants’ wild-card hopes.
Remedy (?): With Winn gone and the team saving its pennies in fear of a big arbitration award for Tim Lincecum, the Giants appear to be vying for an entry on There, I Fixed It by letting Schierholtz and John Bowker battle for the right to eat up more outs than necessary.
Detroit’s designated hitters batted just .245/.325/.379, worse than any AL team except the Royals. Manager Jim Leyland juggled a less-than-healthy Guillen, a struggling Magglio Ordonez, Thames and Jeff Larish in the role until Aug. 17, when Huff arrived via a trade from the Orioles and promptly forgot how to hit even up to the mediocre level that he’d sustained in Baltimore. The Tigers held a 2.5-game lead on the White Sox and a six-game lead on the Twins in the AL Central when Huff arrived but, as discussed above, it didn’t last.
Remedy (?): Thames is gone, but between a supposedly-healthy Guillen, Ordoñez, and Ryan Raburn (who hit a nifty .291/.359/.533 in part-time duty), the Tigers appear to have enough bats on hand to cobble together some kind of solution at DH.
As you can see, not all of these teams have attacked these particular problems with the urgency one might have expected given their impact on last year’s results. That said, it’s still only mid-January, and while most of the top-tier free-agent position players have found homes, potential solutions for each position are still out there, if not at the dollar amounts some of these teams might like. The Rays could still make a deal to even out their uneven catching situation. Damon could help either the Braves or the Tigers. Russell Branyan or Orlando Cabrera could help the latter as well. Jermaine Dye might be a fit with the Giants. Joe Crede could be the glove the Marlins need at third base. And so on.
Nonetheless, and particularly in this tight economy, bet on many a general manager to keep a stiff upper lip, claim his team has the resources in-house to cover the position, and defer finding a solution until the trade deadline. In the meantime, I’ll check back sometime this spring with another, more PECOTA-driven look at potential problem spots.