The 2018 Replacement-Level Killers: Corner Outfielders

Left field, where Marwin Gonzalez leads the team in appearances, has been one of Houston’s few weak spots.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

The outfield corners are traditionally home to heavy hitters. Currently, the combined wRC+ of MLB’s right fielders (108) is just a point below those of first basemen and AL designated hitters, with left fielders (105) lagging by a few points. The last of those is a bit strange given the inherently lesser defensive responsibilities — less throwing, mainly — but many teams have taken to stashing their speedy, slappy non-center fielders there, a trend that seems to have begun back when the White Sox won it all in 2005 with Scott Podsednik.

Despite that generally robust production, several contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams with playoff odds of at least 15.0% (a definition that currently covers 15 teams) — are barely getting by at one corner or another, by which I mean receiving less than 1.0 WAR at the spot, which makes them eligible for inclusion among the Replacement Level Killers. If you’re a regular reader of my work, it won’t surprise you that one contender is somehow on both lists… as well as a forthcoming one.

As with the other installments in the series, I’m less concerned here about these teams’ eventual solutions via trades, an an area that colleague Dan Szymborski will examine. Frankly, upon closer examination, it seems likely that most will try to fix things from within, likely because outfielders are more interchangeable by position. Working left to right, and from the bottom of the barrel to the top…

Replacement-Level Killers: Left Fielders
Rk Team Bat BsR Field WAR
28 Rockies -10.6 0.9 -4.5 -0.6
22 Astros -1.7 0.5 0.3 0.7
20 Mariners 2.7 -0.4 -2.7 0.8
19 Braves 2.7 2.2 -5.6 0.9
All statistics through July 25. Rk = rank among all 30 teams.

Rockies

Four weeks ago, I mused about the Rockies’ ongoing failure to put together a productive outfield, and things haven’t gotten much better since. Collectively, the team has gotten a combined 0.7 WAR from the three spots (28th in the majors) and — spoiler alert — each one is worthy of inclusion among the Killers, even a center-field position manned by All-Star Charlie Blackmon. In left field, Gerardo Parra has gotten the bulk of the playing time (68 starts out of 101), with Noel Cuevas and first-base Killer Ian Desmond each making 11 apiece. The Rox have been long convinced that the defensive prowess that helped Parra to win two Gold Gloves (2011 and -13) is still enough to help him overcome a bat that has been better than league average just once in the past seven years (2015). Including his sporadic time in right field, the 31-year-old flychaser is hitting .287/.339/.391 for an 83 wRC+ and -0.2 WAR; he’s at -1.3 WAR in his three seasons in Colorado, which, man. Cuevas, a 26-year-old rookie, has hit for a dreadful 51 wRC+, and Desmond 92 (.241/.310/.466).

Simply moving the latter from first base to left field might constitute some improvement, as would playing oft-injured David Dahl (.275/.309/.484, 95 wRC+) here when he returns from a fractured right foot in late July or early August. One way or another, more firepower is needed.

Astros

Even the defending world champions have their issues, although this one may not be as bad as it looks. The versatile Marwin Gonzalez hasn’t had a good season (89 wRC+, 0.6 WAR), but he’s been excellent during his time in left field (133 wRC+, 4.3 UZR and 1.3 WAR in 140 PA). Alas, he’s taken a leave of absence to cover shortstop while Carlos Correa contends with a back injury. Rookie Tony Kemp has helped here (96 PA, 130 wRC+, 0.3 WAR), but fellow rookie Kyle Tucker and veterans J.D. Davis, Derek Fisher, and Josh Reddick (who generally plays right field) have not, combining for -0.9 WAR in 163 PA.

Given their multitude of options, it would be a surprise if the Astros made a move here. The 21-year-old Tucker has hit just .154/.233/.231 in his first 43 big-league plate appearances, but as a top-10 prospect, he’ll almost certainly get a chance to turn it around. If that doesn’t work, Kemp appears to have earned more playing time. With Correa (hopefully) back eventually, Gonzalez should be free to return to left.

Braves

This one probably has a happy ending. The Braves muddled through the first four weeks of the season with Preston Tucker getting the lion’s share of the left-field duty, but on April 25, with his service time sufficiently gamed, top prospect Ronald Acuña made his major-league debut. He hit for a respectable 109 wRC+ (.265/.326/.453 with five homers) over his first 29 games, but a sprain of his left ACL — which looked terrifying, but thankfully was only mild — sidelined him until late June, while Charlie Culberson and Danny Santana filled in. Acuña collected three hits including a homer in his second game back, and while he’s had his ups and downs in the meantime, he’s hit .279/.347/.515 for a 132 wRC+ since returning. All told, that’s 0.9 WAR in 204 PA for the phenom (including a bit of time in center field), and 0.2 WAR in 250 PA from among the other six players who have manned the position.

Mariners

Ben Gamel’s springtime oblique injury led the Mariners to give Ichiro Suzuki an abbreviated homecoming, but predictably, that didn’t work out well, as he was 0.4 wins below replacement level in just 47 PA before bowing out. Since then, Gamel and late-May acquisition Denard Span have shared time at the spot, with the balance gradually tilting towards the latter. Both have provided above-average offense (106 wRC+ for Gamel, 120 for Span) but fractional WAR (0.4 and 0.3, respectively). While the team would seem to have this one under control, you can’t put it past general manager Jerry Dipoto to make yet another trade.

Replacement-Level Killers: Right Fielders
Rk Team Bat BsR Field WAR
30 D-backs -22.0 0.1 1.1 -1.2
29 Phillies -13.3 -0.9 -5.9 -1.1
25 Cardinals -10.0 4.1 -2.7 0.1
20 Rockies -7.7 1.1 4.7 0.7
19 Athletics 3.8 -0.9 -2.9 0.9
All statistics through July 25. Rk = rank among all 30 teams.

When I began writing this series on Sunday, the Cardinals were 50-49, with postseason odds of 21.7%, but losing two out of three while the surging Pirates have won three out of four has dropped St. Louis’ odds to 13.4%. Thus, the authorities seized the capsule I had written describing the Dexter Fowler mess and the chances of Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Jose Martinez taking further playing time in the wake of Mike Matheny’s dismissal. On a more solemn note, I’ve waved off including the A’s here because Stephen Piscotty’s otherwise solid production (118 wRC+, 1.1 WAR) and the A’s minor deficit in replacing him owes mostly to the May 6 death of the outfielder’s mother, Gretchen Piscotty, after a year-long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Moving along…

Phillies

The Phillies have the majors’ youngest lineup. As noted in the shortstops edition of the Killers, however — where Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford made the list — not all of their youngsters are flourishing. Right field has been a WAR crater, primarily due to the struggles of what was initially a platoon between 24-year-old lefty-swinging Nick Williams and 27-year-old righty Aaron Altherr. Williams, who has made 52 starts there, has been the better hitter of the two, with a 91 wRC+ at the position but a 105 mark overall (.250/.328/.435), though lousy defense in right (-2.8 UZR, -7 DRS) has helped drag his WAR down to 0.4 (-0.1 in right alone). Altherr, who served as the regular for a couple of stretches (including one where Williams shifted to left after Rhys Hoskins suffered a fractured jaw), has “hit” for a 58 wRC+ at the position and 66 overall (.171/.290/.305) en route to an ugly -0.7 WAR.

To be fair, Williams has swung a hot bat in July (.303/.388/.471, 135 wRC+), while Altherr has been optioned, but if the Phillies are serious about maintaining their spot atop the NL East, some insurance for right field — at least a glove-wielding platoon partner for Williams, who has just an 77 wRC+ against lefties — is in order.

Diamondbacks

This was supposed to be the job of February acquisition Steven Souza Jr., but the 29-year-old outfielder suffered a pectoral strain in spring training, didn’t make his Diamondbacks debut until May 3, and hit just .163/.234/.186 in 14 games before returning to the DL with recurring problems in the pec. Since returning on July 5, he’s hit .288/.383/.481, but in 107 PA overall, he still has a 83 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR. The six other players to whom manager Torey Lovullo has turned during Souza’s absences — primarily the versatile-but-dreadful Chris Owings (32 wRC+ in 130 PA), Jon Jay (88 wRC+ in 119 PA) and Jarrod Dyson (41 wRC+ in 62 PA) — have been so bad that you have to wonder why they didn’t just give Yasmany Tomas, who was outrighted off the 40-man roster in late March, another look.

Given Souza’s rebound and Jay’s long track record of general competence, it seems likely the Diamondbacks stick with in-house solutions, particularly as it seems just a wee bit unlikely the Red Sox will solve their problems by graciously sending J.D. Martinez back to Arizona.

Rockies

These guys, again! The Rockies have Killers at every position except shortstop (Trevor Story) and third base (Nolan Arenado), though to be fair, it’s the lousy work of Cuevas, Dahl, and Parra while filling in for Carlos Gonzalez (1.1 WAR) that has placed them here. CarGo isn’t exactly tearing up the NL, in that his .277/.326/.478 line is good for just a 97 wRC+, but he’s gotten favorable defensive reviews from UZR (4.0) if not DRS (-5), so…

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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BobbyJohn69
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BobbyJohn69

Bridich needs to get a bat at 1B and move Desmond to LF, ASAP.