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January 15, 2013

Skewed Left

Filling the Free Agent Voids

by Zachary Levine

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As this offseason’s free agent class has been shaken and largely settled, some of the jilted teams have been left in fine shape. Some immediately went out and patched the hole where a departed free agent once was—the Braves, for instance, grabbed B.J. Upton immediately to fill most of the Michael Bourn void—while others had replacements ready to go, making the free agents expendable.

Not everybody was so lucky or so prepared, however, as one can see by observing the voids forming where free agents used to be.

Here’s a look at the five positions where teams are still scrambling to replace talent or will need an in-house option to exceed expectations lest they face a looming black hole at the position.

5. White Sox catcher without A.J. Pierzynski
The South Siders avoided one potential shortfall when they were able to replace the departed Kevin Youkilis with Jeff Keppinger at third base. They’ve chosen to let things be at catcher, and they’re likely to see a big offensive drop from 2012, when they had the highest team TAv at catcher in the American League (.276).

With Pierzynski Texas-bound, it’s now on Tyler Flowers, a backup the last two years and a .205/.307/.388 career hitter in 317 major-league plate appearances, to step into Pierzynski’s vacated gear. Flowers’ minor-league numbers and that limited sample indicate some power and patience are present. His isn’t a case of bad luck so far in the majors, though, and at 26 (he’ll turn 27 later this month), he’s not exactly young. In order to catch on in his age-27 season, he’ll have to cut down on his strikeouts, which have come in an astounding 34 percent of his plate appearances.

4. Indians DH without Travis Hafner
4a. Yankees DH without Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez

The Indians have an easy fix for their DH shortage—re-sign Hafner, whose option the team declined at the outset of the offseason. Hafner, while injury-prone and coming off just 66 games last year, is an upgrade over what they have now—namely either nothing or utility man Mike Aviles on his non-field days, depending on how you look at it.

For the Yankees, this isn’t so easy. The loss of Swisher and the two backup types won’t go over too badly in the outfield, with Brett Gardner replacing Swisher, but it does create a DH vacancy. The Yankees, as old as they are, will often use the spot to rest position players—Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter should need plenty of time there when they return. But until then, it’s just another backup added to an already depleted lineup.

3. Braves third base without Chipper Jones
The last time the Braves went into a season without Jones in the lineup was 1994. It was Terry Pendleton’s last season at third base, when the former “MVP” hit .252/.280/.398 (73 OPS+) before embarking on a four-team-in-four-year career denouement. The first Chipperless season of this century does not inspire much higher hopes.

Juan Francisco has put together decent numbers on the strength of a selective usage pattern that is endangered by the needs of the Braves roster. A left-handed hitter, he has an .806 career OPS against righties but a .446 OPS against lefties that doesn’t even carry a BABIP excuse. If he can sustain his career rate of making 83 percent of his plate appearances against righties, then there’s some hope, but he doesn’t have the look of an everyday player.

Should the Braves acquire Justin Upton or should Michael Bourn run out of needier suitors and go back to the Braves, it could push B.J. Upton to left, Martin Prado to third, and Francisco to a better role. But for now, the Braves are missing Chipper more than they could have expected.

2. Rays outfield/DH without B.J. Upton
The problem here, as the Rays predictably let Upton walk, is that there’s only so much Wil Myers can solve even if he does open the season with the big league team—hardly the Rays’ M.O. anyway. A Myers call-up would put an end to an outfield forced to start Sam Fuld alongside Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, but it does nothing to solve the designated hitter conundrum. With Carlos Pena having taken the new DH role in Houston, that has become a void as well.

Ben Zobrist could move to the outfield, putting Joyce at DH, but then what becomes of second base? No matter what, Upton has thrown off the whole mathematics of this lineup construction for Joe Maddon, who has scrambled before and will have to again.

Even in the unlikely case that Myers is ticketed for the majors right away, the Rays would be wise to look for more help in the outfield in the bargain bin or in the cost-controlled portion of the trade market.

1. Yankees catcher without Russell Martin
The funny part about Martin making this list is that the Yankees still never saw the best of his ability manifested in results. His two years with New York were by far his two worst in terms of batting average on balls in play, depressing his offensive output until a terrific powerful September that helped the Yankees hold off the Orioles last season.

Martin’s BABIP by year
2006 (LAD) .305
2007 (LAD) .317
2008 (LAD) .309
2009 (LAD) .284
2010 (LAD) .287
2011 (NYY) .257
2012 (NYY) .222

Assuming Martin’s BABIP sees even a small bit of natural bounceback, the combination of his broad offensive skill set with his defensive ability will give the Pirates a very valuable backstop. Meanwhile, his old team is left to muddle through some much lesser options after not obtaining Pierzynski in this new era of Yankees frugality.

Francisco Cervelli fell out of the Yankees’ favor after a competent run as backup in 2010 and 2011, and now they’ve come crawling back to the soon-to-be-27-year-old non-power threat as a real option. Chris Stewart, who was picked for the no. 2 job last year over Cervelli, has a backup profile and not a very imposing one, though he’s a skilled framer.

If there is hope, it lies in Austin Romine, but a guy who has played a total of 30 games above Double-A is nothing but hope. Twenty-year-old prospect Gary Sanchez, who played in low-A and high-A in 2012, can’t get to the Bronx soon enough.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Free Agents

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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FastballVelociraptor

What about Bobby Wilson? He had a high line drive rate and good numbers throwing out runners. Think he could get a crack at the backup job?

Jan 15, 2013 07:47 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

I'm sorry, but I fail to see how this analysis holds up to Baseball Prospectus standards.

For starters, Jeff Keppinger is a much bigger hole than Tyler Flowers. Keppinger will be 33 this April and a career .337/.396 O/S hitter. He is an old below average 3B - a desperate fill in. Why should we expect him to maintain his 2012 career year at his age? Flowers, in the meantime hit .390/.500 in the International League during his last stint there of 270 plate appearances. Those stats were helped by a high BABiP as much as a low BABiP hurt his Major League stats that balance of that season. PECOTA isn't out yet, but Bill James Info Systems projects .338 /.453 for Flowers. That makes him offensively a YOUNG ABOVE AVERAGE catcher - certainly not a void.

Secondly, having a void at DH is not a void. Many teams prefer to use the DH to rest regulars who need a rest and, perhaps, keep their bench players from getting rusty. If a team is play-off bound and still could use a potent bat in that spot, nothing is easier to acquire late in the season than a DH. The Yankees have even stated this is essentially how they intend to use the DH spot this year. Besides that, either Russ Canzler or Ronnier Mustelier probably wouldn't be the worse DH in the league. The Indians are in a major rebuild and rightly do not intend to waste their resources on filling the most extreme old player's end of the defensive spectrum. Perhaps, Matt LaPorta will learn to hit and come up and fill that spot, anyway.

I won't discuss the Braves, because I don't follow the N.L. as closely as the A.L.

Will Myers is certainly no void. He is probably a superior player to B.J. Upton - since Desmond Jennings nicely slips over to center-field. The Rays might keep Myers in the minors for a month or two in order to delay the arbitration clock and take the pressure off of him, but he is solidly their left-fielder.

As for the Yankees' catching, I do agree that neither Romine nor Sanchez look ready to fill that hole. Every year I expect a major Yankees downfall, but they have managed to defy gravity. I wouldn't bet on that continuing this year - and their impending down period might last until the Steinbrenners sell the team.

Jan 15, 2013 09:33 AM
rating: -2
 
John Carter

By the way, I do agree TB's DH situation is a hole for a contending team. Do they really have that much confidence in 32 year old Ryan Roberts? This team is getting by with very little depth. I like Alex Torres for a 6th starter, but there's not much else to like beyond the regulars, is there? Yet, I have enormous respect for this organization's ability to turn prospects into gold. This will be an interesting battle between the Rays and the Jays.

Jan 16, 2013 08:24 AM
rating: -1
 
John Carter

What I liked about this article, however, is that he didn't use the BP dictated stat of choice: TAV. Nice try, guys, but it is time to drop that stat. It just isn't catching on. (It took me a few years to stop using O+S instead of OPS, but I've given up.) If you want to lead people away from Batting Average to better stats, the triple slash is fine. In fact, I like seeing both a player's OBA (or is it OBP? - again, I hope not, because percentage means per 100 not per 1000) and a player's Slugging Average. It says so much more than one stat, they are readily available, and anyone who passed 5th grade math can easily figure them out from their component data.

Jan 15, 2013 09:40 AM
rating: -1
 
gweedoh565

Well, I mean, the fact that TAV is not 'catching on' doesn't mean it doesn't have value in any situation.

It's a single rate metric that indicates overall offensive value... which is basically what OPS tried to be, but TAV is more accurate (FanGraphs wOBA is very similar- certainly someone smarter than me could and probably has made an argument to abandon one over the other, although I know they are not exactly alike).

I also like the triple slash, for all the reasons you cite, but for situations when you want to compare player offensive value, how do you know which one of these lines is more valuable than the other?

.300/.350/.400
.280/.320/.500

TAV would provide the answer. Just an example for how its useful.


Jan 15, 2013 14:04 PM
rating: 3
 
gweedoh565

Wanted to add that TAV is also park- and league-adjusted, which, again, is very useful for comparing player offensive value.

Jan 15, 2013 14:09 PM
rating: 2
 
gdragon1977

Yeah but one problem is that you then have to somehow adjust the triple slash line in your head with park factors.

Jan 15, 2013 17:59 PM
rating: 0
 
gdragon1977

Sorry didn't see that someone already mentioned park factors, I had an old version of this page up

Jan 15, 2013 18:44 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Good point about the park adjustment. OPS+ does that, too. I know that even if TAV was not adjusted for the park, league, etc., it is more accurate than OPS. What I'm not sure about is whether OPS+ also adjusts for the discrepancy between the significance of OBA and Slg. If TAV is just as accurate as wOBA, I actually prefer the concept of modeling it after BA rather than OBA. What's that point of the latter?

Who copied who, then fudged it up a little to make a claim towards superiority? FanGraphs likes to do that, but bless them, they've really put BP and other sites on their toes and have been a great contribution to our baseball stat enjoyment.

.280/.320/.500 is better than .300/.350/.400 parks and leagues being equal because 1.8*(.350-.320) < (.500-.400), but I get your point. My point is that if it were a .300/.350/.425 vs. .280/.300/.500, you might get a more correct answer using TAV, but who cares? The real answer is that they are very close and it would depend on your team needs or other factors depending on why you were comparing the two players. Seeing the OBA and the Slugging gives you more info which might be helpful. It certainly is more interesting. With just two numbers instead of one, you get a much better picture of the player you are discussing.

As far as having it all boil down to one stat - sure - I don't know about you, but there just aren't many circumstances where I would rather know a player's TAV instead of his OBA/Slg along with how many plate appearances that included. For projecting or assessing quality, you want to know all of that plus their age and injury history. For comparing who had the better career or season, you would want to look at their WAR and other metrics. I was overly harsh about TAV, but I feel BP has been forcing it a bit too strongly on us.

As a writer, I don't want to have to look it up, when I can easily see a player's OBA and Slugging. If I want to cut down on the number of numbers, I'd give the OPS or OPS+. More people would have a better idea of what I'm talking about and it is less time consuming for me. I'll take that at the expense of a little accuracy. Only if a TAV level of accuracy was critical to my point, would I consider using it.

Jan 15, 2013 20:34 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

OPS+ doesn't weight OBP and SLG any differently than OPS, so if you want to use one number, TAv gives a more accurate picture of a player's productivity. We don't have anything against triple-slash stats, though. We cite them in BP articles all the time (in fact, this article cited both triple-slash lines and TAv). When we write for other audiences, we either use simpler stats or explain what TAv is every time, but BP readers tend to know what we're talking about(and if they don't, there's a mouseover tooltip on "TAv" and an autolink to the glossary entry).

Personally, there are plenty of times when I'd prefer to see TAv instead of triple-slash stats. If I want to know what kind of hitter (as opposed to just how good a hitter) someone is, then triple-slash stats might give me more to go on. But if I want to know how productive someone was, I'll take the TAv. Otherwise, I'd basically be trying to translate the triple-slash stats into a single number in my mind, factoring in the relative value of OBP and slugging plus park factors, and I'd probably do a worse job of that than TAv does.

Jan 15, 2013 20:52 PM
 
John Carter

Thanks, Ben. It will be interesting to see what stats are used in the main stream 10 or 20 years from now.

Jan 16, 2013 08:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Broken Arrow

Jim Thome seems like such an obvious fit for the Yankees. His salary fits the new cost-conscious team, he's opposite handed from Jeter, A-Rod and Youklis, and he should not play every day. Plus, his LH bat would play very well at home in Yankee stadium. He could put up some impressive #s in 350 PA.

Jan 15, 2013 09:44 AM
rating: 2
 
Nacho999

If NY could work something out with the Nationals for Morse and either Ramos or Suzuki they'd be right back in the thick of things. Not ideal, but it could be worse. Hoot is right about the DH not being a void...Guys like Thome, Scott and half a dozen others would take that last minute job for $1M a season without question in this market. The alternative is forced retirement or Japan. NY needs RHH hitters with power though and that is why none of the rest of these LH DHs have been signed. They'll be there when they figure out who they can deal for as spring training nears. It sure feels like too many decent fits slipped through their collective fingers though. They'll probably wind up platooning that spot with error machine Eduardo Nunez rotating his iron glove around the diamond. They'd prefer someone with more pop, but it doesn't look like that bat is going to materialize. If this was the NL it wouldn't matter so much, but this lineup is not going to outscore anyone that way it stands. They'll get a steady diet of lefties until they remedy the situation and that might leave them 10-12 back at the break...I'm not very comfortable saying NY is a top three team in the AL East at this point...

Jan 15, 2013 10:12 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Eduardo Nunez' natural position is DH against lefties. Rotate older players through and Yanks will be fine

Jan 15, 2013 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
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