The 2019 Replacement-Level Killers: Shortstop and Third Base

MLB News

Jose Ramirez has hit better of late but is a far cry from the MVP candidate he once was. (Photo: Keith Allison)

As I noted yesterday, within the context of the 2002-19 period covered by our splits, second basemen have reached their offensive nadir, with a combined 90 wRC+ this year. At the same time, shortstops are building upon last year’s periodic zenith (97 wRC+) with an even 100 mark — in other words, one of the most demanding defensive positions is collectively producing league-average hitters. At least in part, that’s due to the kids. Last year, nobody older than 31 made even 150 plate appearances as a shortstop, and just three players over 30 played at least 100 games at the position, the lowest total since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998. This year, the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus, the Giants’ Brandon Crawford, and the Marlins’ Miguel Rojas are the only players on pace to do so.

Increasingly, shortstop is a young man’s position, and the crop of talent is remarkable: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Paul DeJong, Francisco Lindor, Jorge Polanco Corey Seager, and Fernando Tatis Jr. are all in their age-25 seasons or younger, and of the 14 shortstops who have totaled at least 1.7 WAR thus far (including Gleyber Torres, who thanks to Didi Gregorius‘ injury has played more than twice as many games at shortstop than second thus far), 10 of them are 26 or younger.

Meanwhile, just seven teams, including three contenders, have gotten less than 1.0 WAR from their shortstops to date. For this series, my definition of contenders is teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams, with the surging Giants (52-50) joining the party since I kicked off this series. For as small as that group of shortstops is, I’m making it even smaller by omitting the Nationals, whose alternatives to Trea Turner have offset his 1.4 WAR with a combined -0.8, compiled mostly while he was sidelined with a broken right index finger. I’m skipping them and, as with last year, doubling up this entry with the third basemen, who are near their own offensive high for the period, with a 105 wC+ mark (they were at 107 in 2016, and 106 last year); just eight teams, including four contenders, are below 1.0. I’m omitting one of those as well, since the Brewers’ Mike Moustakas has not only delivered 1.1 of his 2.7 total WAR there while filling in for Travis Shaw, but has opened up second base for top prospect Keston Hiura, who’s off to a flying start (136 wRC+, 1.5 WAR in 39 games).

As at the other positions in this series, a closer look suggests that some of the teams on this list are likely to remain in-house while searching for potential solutions rather than make a deal before July 31. The search for pitching appears to be taking a back seat to everything else, but given the finality of this year’s deadline — there’s no August waiver period — this exercise is worth doing at this juncture nonetheless. While I may mention some possible trade targets within each entry, for this exercise I’m less interested in providing solutions than I am in pointing out problems.

Replacement Level Killers: Shortstops

Rk Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR
29 Brewers .217 .275 .348 58 -22.4 -0.5 -2.7 -0.7
28 Giants .241 .301 .386 80 -11.2 -1.3 -3.7 0.2
26 Nationals .256 .319 .426 89 -6.3 4 -9.8 0.6

All statistics through July 23. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Brewers

Though he’s another one of the position’s youngsters (he turns 25 on August 4), Orlando Arcia is alas nowhere near as talented as the aforementioned shortstops. To put it politely, his bat is a wet noodle; through 1,487 career PA, he owns a 71 wRC+, and this year, he’s at 70 (.228/.291/.378) and in his second straight season of sub-replacement level work (-0.2 WAR). The team does have a ready alternative in 25-year-old Mauricio Dubon, who like Shaw was acquired from the Red Sox in the lopsided Tyler Thornburg deal. Just the second Honduras-born player in major league history, Dubon debuted on July 7 but made just two plate appearances before returning to Triple-A San Antonio, where he’s hit .300/.335/.472 (92 WRC+) with a career-high 14 homers (everybody in Triple-A is going yard) but just a 4.0% walk rate.

While Dubon could help Milwaukee directly, he’s been the subject of trade rumors, including one involving the Giants’ Will Smith; our own Dan Szymborski proposed including him in a Marcus Stroman blockbuster. If the two teams do hook up on such a trade, Freddy Galvis or even old friend Eric Sogard could provide help here. Elsewhere, reacquiring Jonathan Villar (who has one year of club control remaining) from the Orioles could provide a boost.

Giants

At his best, Crawford combined an outstanding glove with above-average offense; from 2014-16, he hit for a 106 wRC+ while averaging 4.1 WAR per year, tops among shortstops. Since then, he’s hit for an 87 wRC+ while totaling 4.3 WAR, with an 81 wRC+ (.238/.306/.383) and just 0.3 WAR in this, his age-32 season. Crawford’s still owed another $30 million beyond this year, and the team doesn’t really have any notable prospects at the position above Low A; Abiatal Avelino (25th on their prospect list) is the regular at Triple-A but is viewed as a glove-first utility type or second baseman down the road. But if the Giants are to rebuild, an addition from outside the organization should be high on general manager Farhan Zaidi’s to-do list, as should eating a big chunk of change to send Crawford elsewhere — if not now, then in the winter.

Replacement Level Killers: Third Basemen

Rk Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR
30 Brewers .213 .288 .400 75 -15.3 -1.7 0.4 0.0
26 Phillies .246 .309 .432 81 -10.3 -2.0 2.5 0.5
25 Cardinals .231 .317 .391 88 -7.0 0.9 -4.7 0.5
23 Indians .234 .307 .376 76 -13.5 5.4 0.8 0.9

All statistics through July 23. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Phillies

While the Phillies upgraded their lineup by adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and Andrew McCutchen, they stood pat at third base even though Maikel Franco delivered just 1.2 WAR last year due to modest offense (105 wRC+) and lousy defense (-5.0 UZR, -12 DRS). The 26-year-old third baseman has indeed turned things around, but not in a good way; he’s been better defensively (2.9 UZR, 0 DRS) but has hit for just a 78 wRC+ (.237/.306/.431) en route to 0.2 WAR. Scott Kingery, who has started at the hot corner 11 times and hit .279/.343/.522 (123 wRC+) overall, has been pressed into service in center field by the suspension of Odubel Herrera and the season-ending injury of McCutchen. Brad Miller, who’s playing for his fourth team in two seasons, has been getting reps at third lately; though he’s been productive this year (.234/.330/.455), that performance comes in just 88 PA, including 48 with the Phillies, and he just hit the IL.

While pitching will be the team’s primary focus at the deadline, a short-term rental for third base, such as Todd Frazier, would be an improvement, if the Mets are willing to deal him within the division. Just speculatin’, but if they take on the remainder of Frazier’s $9 million salary, that would probably work. The Giants’ Pablo Sandoval, who’s making the minimum (the Red Sox are paying him more than $18 million in salary this year) is another option if the team does wind up selling outright, or shuffling the deck.

Cardinals

Matt Carpenter split his 2018 season between first base and third base, hit a career-high 36 homers, and emerged as an MVP candidate before a late-season fade. The acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt sent Carpenter back to third base, but he’s spent this year, his age-33 season, looking more like a candidate for the bench. Lower back woes that shelved him during spring training and sent him to the IL in late June are the primary culprit in his dip to .215/.321/.372 (86 RC+); his quality of contact has deteriorated, with his xwOBA dropping from last year’s .392 to .324, and his hard hit rate falling from 44.7% to 34.3%. What’s more, he’s currently sidelined by a foul ball-induced right foot contusion as well, though he just began a rehab assignment.

All of this might be less of a big deal if Jedd Gyorko weren’t felled by a string of injuries; he strained a calf during spring training, suffered a lower back strain in early June, then underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right wrist on June 24, which will probably sideline him until September. Rookie Tommy Edman, who placed 20th on the team’s prospect list in November, has been passable (.261/.292/.467 in 95 PA), and Yairo Munoz has hit for a 137 wRC+ in 39 PA as a third baseman but just an 85 wRC+ in 119 PA overall. If the Cardinals want to avoid missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season, adding another bat as insurance is a move worth making.

Indians

A year ago, Jose Ramirez was in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, and occupying the number one spot in our Trade Value Series. A late-2018 slump cost him the award and carried over into this season. Due to issues that are probably both mechanical and mental, he has struggled to hit fastballs (83 wRC+ versus four-seamers this year compared to 189 last year) and to beat the shift (28 wRC+ against it this year, compared to 42 last year and 166 in 2017) while facing an increasing number of them; he’s swung at more pitches while behind in the count than before, and hit more popups than before. Some of those problems have abated; he’s hit for a 137 wRC+ in 74 PA in July, his first month above 90 since last August, but his overall line of .233/.312/.384 (79 wRC+) still rates as a major disappointment.

Given that he’s trending upward, the Indians aren’t about to replace him, but the team’s presence on the second base list as well (via Jason Kipnis) does leave open the possibility that Ramirez could return to the keystone if the right deal came along. Giovanny Urshela (117 wRC+ as a Yankee, compared to 57 prior) ain’t walking through that door unless it’s via a Trevor Bauer trade to the Yankees; if the Indians do make a major move while still contending, the fact that they have two paths to upgrade their infield is worth noting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *