For the full introduction to the Replacement-Level Killers series, follow the link above, but to give you the CliffsNotes version: yes, things are different this year, and not just because the lone trade deadline falls on August 31. We’ve got just a month’s worth of performances to analyze (sometimes less, due to COVID-19 outbreaks), about a month still to play, and thanks to the expanded playoff field, all but six teams — the Pirates, Angels, Red Sox, Mariners, Royals, and Rangers — are within two and a half games of a playoff spot.
While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), I’ll incorporate our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation, considering any team with a total of 0.4 WAR or less to be in the replacement-level realm (that’s 1.1 WAR over the course of 162 games, decidedly subpar). I don’t expect every team to go out and track down an upgrade before the August 31 trade deadline, I’m not concerned with the particulars of which players they might pursue or trade away, and I may give a few teams in each batch a lightning round-type treatment, as I see their problems as less pressing given other context, such as returns from injury, contradictory defensive metrics, and bigger holes elsewhere on the roster. Got it? Good.
Note that all individual stats in this article are through August 24, but the won-loss records and Playoff Odds include games of August 25.
|Team||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+||Bat||BsR||Fld||WAR||ROS WAR||Tot WAR|
Have we discussed the possibility of adding a second designated hitter to the lineup? Some of these offensive performances truly offend the sensibilities, just as particularly inept pitchers hitting may do. By Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense, these guys should be the second coming of Johnny Bench or at least Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, and yet many of them are in the red defensively — even the team with the catcher who himself is widely acknowledged as Pudge’s successor when it comes to being the game’s best defender. Also, what the hell happened to the catchers in the NL West? Somebody should be dialing Russell Martin’s number.
Despite the superficially acceptable batting average, the Rockies are the worst behind the plate in terms of production and projection by a wide margin, even as their rotation has done an exceptional job of run prevention. Tony Wolters has gotten the bulk of the work (63 PA) but has hit just .217/.230/.267 with one walk, 15 strikeouts, and a 16 wRC+ — a day ago it was -8. Unfortunately, this is hardly a new thing for Wolters, as the 28-year-old backstop owns a career wRC+ of just 56, and was half a win below replacement level last year. In fact, the collective career WARs of Wolters and backups Elias Díaz and Drew Butera add up to -2.5 WAR. That’s a cry for help.
Stephen Vogt and Carson Kelly have split the playing time down the middle, with 49 PA apiece, but neither has done anything positive with the stick, and lately it’s Vogt, the grizzled vet, who’s been getting more reps. The 35-year-old Vogt owns a career wRC+ of 97, and was at 107 last year, but he’s hit just .154/.211/.288 (30 wRC+), while the 26-year-old Kelly, who last year hit .245/.348/.478 (108 wRC+) with 18 homers and 1.9 WAR, is at .196/.268/.275 (49 wRC+). The latter is clearly the catcher of the future, and by the metrics, he’s also the better defender, so it makes sense that he should be drawing more playing time if healthy, particularly for a team that has to be regarded as a long-shot given that a seven-game losing streak has dropped its record to 13-18 and its Playoff Odds to 18.1%, second-lowest in the league.
At 14-14, the Buffalo Jays have a 56.2% chance at making the playoffs, and their catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, both of whom are just 25 years old, was promising enough to place seventh in our Positional Power Rankings less than six weeks ago, the highest of any team in the table above. The righty-swinging Jansen, who by the metrics — including Baseball Prospectus’ gold-standard FRAA, where he ranked eighth last season — is the better defender, and despite the ugliness of his batting line (.138/.301/.259), his 65 wRC+ is just three points below last year. The lefty-swinging McGuire, an above-average defender who last year hit for a surprising 128 wRC+, albeit in just 105 PA, is just 3-for-28 with a homer but no walks. Even so, signs here point to the Jays staying the course with the kids.
Typically an excellent defender, starter Mike Zunino has been all over the map with his bat. In 2016, he hit .251/.331/.509 with 25 homers, a .355 BABIP, and a 126 wRC+. This year, he has exactly one single to go with his three doubles and four homers in 66 PA, “good” for a .148 BABIP and a 68 wRC+. He’s also striking out 42.4% of the time, the highest rate among backstops with at least 60 PA. Backup Michael Perez entered the year as a 40 Future Value prospect, “an athletic catcher with a plus arm, average receiving skills, and some feel to hit… a safe bet to be a quality backup” in the words of Eric Longenhagen. Given that the Rays are running first in the AL East at 20-11, they’re likely to ride this one out, perhaps with Perez getting a longer look, but an upgrade would serve them well just the same, particularly if they aspire to go deep into the playoffs.
Roberto Perez did the bulk of Cleveland’s catching duty last year and was quite good (98 wRC+, 3.0 WAR), but a shoulder strain sent him to the Injured List after just three games, and he only returned last Tuesday. If he’s healthy, that would provide the club with a big boost, particularly given that Sandy León, who started 13 of 20 games in Perez’s absence before leaving to deal with a family emergency, is batting .119/.288/.214 and gunning for his third straight season below the Mendoza Line.
Austin Hedges is one of the game’s elite defenders; last year, he was 26 runs above average according to Baseball Prospectus’ framing-inclusive defensive metrics. He’s hitting just .149/.216/.340 thus far, and backup Francisco Mejía, who’s supposed to be the offensively gifted one, is 2-for-38, which ain’t good even if two of those hits are both for extra bases. Former Rule 5 Draft pick Luis Torrens arrived from the alternate training site last week, but given his .163/.243/.203 in 139 PA in 2017, he’s probably not the solution.
Given Buster Posey’s decision to opt out and the offseason departure of Vogt, the Giants catching corps underwent a complete turnover this year. Even before the team began the season with rookies Tyler Heinemann, a 29-year-old switch-hitter, and Chadwick Tromp, a 25-year-old righty whose name I totally did not make up, sharing the job, the clamor for top prospect Joey Bart had begun — that despite the fact that the second pick of the 2018 draft had just 22 games at Double-A. Neither Tromp nor Heineman did anything to distinguish themselves over the first four weeks, and with the team just 9-16, they optioned the latter to their alternate training site and recalled Bart. He’s started hot, and the Giants have won seven in a row, climbing to 15-16 and sneaking into the eighth playoff spot. The future has apparently arrived.
Because he was sidelined with a COVID-19 infection on a team that endured one of the major’s biggest outbreaks, Yadier Molina has caught just 11 of the Cardinals’ first 19 games. He’s back now, while backup Matt Wieters, who went 0-for-12 while sharing starting duties with Andrew Knizner, is on the IL with a contusion on his left big toe. A few years ago, the Cardinals wouldn’t have cause to worry, but Molina is 38 year old, coming off an 87-wRC+, 1.2-WAR season, and likely to need help carrying the load given that the team has eight doubleheaders still scheduled as they try to make up ground following their 16-day layoff due. That means a bit of extra work for somebody, whether it’s Knizner, a 25-year-old former Top 100 prospect whose subpar receiving skills have diminished his stock, or Weiters, who has totaled just 0.9 WAR since the start of the 2014 season, once he returns.