Here Come the Replacement-Level Killers

It’s that time of year again:

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…

This year’s Killers don’t include any current Yankees or Dodgers, but former Yankee Hideki Matsui is the DH, and former Dodger Juan Pierre the left fielder. The right fielder is quite familiar too:

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.

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.

As the July 31 trading deadline approaches, it will be interesting to see which teams specifically target upgrades at these positions, and which paper over such problems out of self-delusion. Bet on the latter to find themselves staying home in October.

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