The 2020 Replacement-Level Killers: Third Basemen and Center Fielders

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 a little over 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 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 0.3 WAR or less — I lowered the threshold by a point, starting with this installment, to keep these final lists from getting too overgrown — to be in the replacement-level realm (that’s 0.8 WAR over the course of 162 games, decidedly subpar). I don’t expect every team I identify to 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.

Note that all individual stats in this article are through August 26, but the won-loss records and Playoff Odds include games of August 27.

This time, I’m covering third basemen and center fields, mainly so I could give a rather daunting left field herd — nine teams at 0.4 total WAR or less, and eight at 0.3 or less, when I ran the numbers on Thursday — another couple days to thin out, either by more representative performances or teams slipping below that odds threshold.

2020 Replacement Level Killers: Third Basemen
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Blue Jays .171 .223 .267 33 -9.4 -1.0 0.4 -0.6 0.3 -0.3
Brewers .180 .282 .247 50 -6.6 -0.7 0.6 -0.2 0.2 0.0
Orioles .176 .262 .398 75 -3.8 -1.9 -0.1 -0.2 0.2 0.0
Nationals .198 .321 .253 65 -4.8 -0.7 0.2 -0.2 0.3 0.1
Braves .194 .272 .350 68 -4.7 0.0 -0.3 -0.1 0.2 0.1
Cubs .180 .272 .270 53 -7.5 -0.5 0.4 -0.2 0.5 0.3
Statistics through August 26. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Blue Jays

Shortly after camps reopened in July, the Blue Jays decided that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a better fit at first base than third, a move that made particular sense given their December signing of Travis Shaw, who has spent the bulk of his career at third base. The rub is that the now-30-year-old Shaw had been non-tendered by the Brewers after a dreadful 2019 season (.157/.281/.270, 47 wRC+) in which a pair of injuries to his right hand — first a contusion via a hit-by-pitch, and then a wrist strain — and a minor swing change that produced too many harmless flies; too much swing-and miss played a part. Shaw’s 2020 slash line (.205/.271/.333, 66 wRC+) would lead you to believe that little has changed, but he’s actually scalding the ball, with a 92.6 mph average exit velocity and 51.0% hard-hit rate (both 96th percentile) while his average launch angle has dropped from 24.9 to 15.7 and his xwOBA has improved from .283 to .342. Long story short, the situation is hardly as bad as it looks, and his production should regress in a positive direction (note his .270 xBA and .458 xSLG). That said, it wouldn’t hurt to upgrade on backup Brandon Drury, who’s just 3-for-32 as a third baseman and hitting for a -6 wRC+ in 49 PA overall.

Brewers

After non-tendering Shaw, the Brewers entered the season with a hodgepodge of third base options headed by Eric Sogard, Brock Holt, and Jedd Gyorko, but that trio (and others) ranked 28th in our preseason Positional Power Rankings, and they’ve basically lived up (or down, really) to that ranking. A year after setting career highs with 13 homers, a .457 SLG, and 115 wRC+ — despite underlying Statcast numbers that didn’t support such production — Sogard (.156/.240/.156 in 50 PA as a third baseman, and just a 49 wRC+ overall) has done the largest share of the damage, while Holt has been released. Gyorko had a solid track record for production prior to his injury-wracked 2019 season, with three straight seasons with 100 wRC+ or better, and lately the team has recently experimented with middle infielder Luis Urías there; the 23-year-old former top-25 prospect has hit .268/.333/.341 in 45 PA since being activated from the COVID-19 Injured List. Either should provide some improvement, but a 13-17 team that ranks dead last in the NL in scoring (3.73 runs per game) and has just two regulars (Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura) hitting at an above-average clip cries out for a more substantial upgrade.

Orioles

Rio Ruiz has done the bulk of the work here, but his 83 wRC+ (on .193/.273/.432 hitting) is only a hair better than last year’s 79, and the 26-year-old third baseman’s Statcast numbers have actually moved backwards, and while he’s above-average defensively, he’s hardly the second coming of Brooks Robinson or Manny Machado. If the Orioles, who own the league’s ninth-best record (14-16) but Playoff Odds of just 10.6%, are serious about seizing this opportunity, upgrading here or at first base, where Renato Núñez has been filling in for Chris Davis, is definitely in order.

Nationals

Anthony Rendon’s departure in free agency left huge shoes to fill, and the Nationals attempted to do so as part of a two-position platoon, with Asdrúbal Cabrera sharing time at both infield corners, playing first base while 22-year-old top prospect Carter Kieboom manned third base against lefties, and returning to third base while Eric Thames joined the lineup against righties. Kieboom, a 2016 first-round pick who placed 24th on our Top 100 Prospects list for his strong arm and 30-homer power, stumbled out of the gate, hitting just .200/.359/.200 through 64 PA, and on Wednesday, he was optioned to the Nationals’ alternate site. Cabrera, who’s hitting .260/.333/.490 (117 wRC+) could see more time at third while Howie Kendrick joins the first base fun, though the team is mindful of managing the 37-year-old’s workload given his hamstring woes. Keeping Cabrera at first and adding Josh Harrison to the third base mix is another alternative, though as I noted in connection to the loss of second baseman Starlin Castro, the two-time former All-Star owns just a 63 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR in 548 PA since the start of 2018. The bottom line is that one way or another, the 11-17 Nationals — whose odds are down to 19.2% — need serious help in the infield.

Braves

Like the Brewers, the Braves’ Johan Camargo/Austin Riley combination has lived down to preseason expectations; they placed 24th in our Power Rankings, albeit with Camargo drawing more playing time at third base (51% to Riley’s 30% in terms of plate appearances, with Charlie Culberson, Adeiny Hechavarría, and Yangervis Solarte getting the rest). Second baseman Ozzie Albies‘ wrist injury has drawn Camargo into the keystone mix, and as a result, Riley has made 20 starts to his 10 at third base, but the bottom line is that neither has hit. Riley (.205/.256/.373, 65 wRC+) is still trying to recapture the magic of his nine-homers-in-18-games initiation in the majors in 2018, while Camargo is trying to live up to the 116-wRC+, 3.3-WAR season he gave the team that year while serving as the regular third baseman instead of his more recent utility role. Albies’ return should help, but given that both the switch-hitting Camargo and the righty-swinging Riley have been stronger against lefties, making for an ill-fitting platoon, the Braves may have to dig deeper for a solution.

Cubs

Kris Bryant rebounded nicely from a 2018 left shoulder injury, but thus far he’s hit just .177/.271/.323 in 70 PA through all kinds of health issues. Just before Opening Day, he missed an exhibition due to back stiffness, and since the season began, he’s lost time to a left elbow bruise, gastrointestinal issues, and injuries to his left wrist and ring finger caused by a dive attempt. He received an injection in the wrist on August 18 and wound up on the 10-day IL retroactive to August 19. David Bote, who’s made 17 starts at third to Bryant’s 11, has hit a flat .214/.295/.414, while Nico Hoerner (.250/.352/.283) just made his first two career starts there. Ian Happ, the regular in center field this year, has 32 games of hot corner experience if the team needs another option and finds that to be an easier path to upgrade. Given their depth, 18-12 record, and Bryant’s upside, the Cubs can afford to experiment while they await Bryant’s return.

2020 Replacement Level Killers: Center Fielders
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Indians .192 .283 .253 49 -7.1 0.9 -0.5 -0.2 0.1 -0.1
Reds .189 .267 .311 56 -5.7 -0.5 -1.3 -0.3 0.3 0.0
Rockies .244 .304 .341 61 -6.8 1.8 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
Nationals .222 .301 .333 72 -3.6 -0.3 -1.6 -0.2 0.3 0.1
Braves .206 .297 .320 70 -4.3 1.5 -0.4 0.0 0.3 0.3
Marlins .224 .309 .376 92 -1.1 1.5 0.8 0.4 0.0 0.4
Orioles .264 .317 .345 82 -2.7 0.0 0.6 0.2 0.2 0.4
Statistics through August 26. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Indians

In 2019, a lackluster offseason effort to fortify Cleveland’s outfield played a significant part in the team’s failure to qualify for the postseason; their outfield’s combined 5.1 WAR ranked 18th in the majors. This year, the entire unit is dead last in the AL at -0.7, and — spoiler alert — all three spots will qualify for this series barring a big weekend performance. Oscar Mercado, whose arrival did significantly upgrade the team’s center field situation last year, opened as the regular but hit just .111/.167/.111 through 48 PA before being sent down to the team’s alternate training site on August 17. Delino DeShields, who began the season on the COVID-19 Injured List, has gotten the bulk of the work since, but has hit just .237/.326/.237; for as strong as his glovework is in center field, he hasn’t reached 1.0 WAR in a season since 2017. Neither Bradley Zimmer nor Greg Allen has been a positive in limited duty in center, to say nothing of the corners. At 19-12, with Playoff Odds of 98.7%, the Indian are a lock to reach the postseason, but without a productive outfield, it’s hard to imagine them playing deep into October.

Reds

Between converted infielder Nick Senzel and former NPB star Shogo Akiyama, the Reds expected to have center field covered, but the former has been limited to 14 games due to multiple minor ailments before going on the IL for undisclosed reasons, taking his reasonably potent bat (.244/.327/.489, 113 wRC+ in 53 PA) out of circulation for now. Meanwhile, the latter, who has spent more time in the outfield corners, has hit just .214/.295/.271 in 78 PA and hasn’t hit the ball hard with any consistency. Reserve outfielder Phillip Ervin, a 2013 first-round pick who’s now 28, hasn’t shown that he can adequately man the middle pasture, and is just 3-for-33 this year, though he owns a 92 WRC+ for his career. Over the course of a 162-game season, this would probably sort itself out, but time is of the essence, and unless they make a move, the Reds are left to hope that Senzel makes a speedy recovery, and that the team, which has fallen to 13-17 (albeit still with 49.9% odds), is still relevant once he does.

Rockies

David Dahl, who opened the year in center field — a position where he held his own in 40 games played last year — generally does two things with consistency: hit and get injured. After batting .297/.346/.521 (111 wRC+) through the first three seasons of his major league career, however, he got off to a .189/.237/.243 start through 80 PA before lower back soreness forced him to the IL, a reminder that he managed to play just 177 major league games since the start of 2017; the guy can’t buy a break. Utilityman Garrett Hampson has done the bulk of the work in center in his absence, but he hasn’t hit, though Sam Hilliard, a 26-year-old thumper who entered the season as the team’s fifth-best prospect, has (.241/.323/.500), at least by comparison. The 6-foot-5 Hilliard, who has started just three times in center, is still rather raw and lacking in defensive instincts, but he’s got plus raw power and a plus arm. Given that the Rockies already have three other spots in this Killers series, taking a longer look at him in center isn’t a bad idea, even with Dahl close to a return.

Nationals

Victor Robles entered last season at number five on our Top 100 Prospects list, and put together a very solid rookie campaign at age 22, posting a 91 wRC+ with 17 homers, 28 steals, and 2.5 WAR while helping the Nationals win a championship. He missed the first two weeks of summer camp for undisclosed reasons, however, and has struggled mightily since returning (.222/.309/.333, 75 wRC+). His Statcast numbers are an abomination; he has barreled exactly one ball from among his first 54 batted ball events, and his 83.5 mph average ext velocity is fifth-percentile stuff. Meanwhile, his swinging strike rate has spiked from 10.5% to 13.8% (20.7% on sliders) and his strikeout rate from 22.7% to 30.9%. He’s started all but two games, and backup Michael A. Taylor, who’s had to find time all over the outfield, has hit .167/.189/.389. There’s plenty of hope for Robles in the long run, but he could probably use a hand.

Braves

Back and leg injuries limited Ender Inciarte to 65 games in 2019, and as a result, Ronald Acuña Jr. made 95 starts in center. This time around, Inciarte is healthy, and Acuña just served a stint on the IL due to a wrist injury, but the former has hit just .200/.287/.229 through 80 PA and has produced a 77.1 mph average exit velocity, the lowest of any of the 262 qualifying hitters. Acuña returned on Wednesday, starting in center for both ends of a doubleheader while Nick Markakis, who returned on the same day after missing time due to COVID-19 exposure, played right. The team could continue with that alignment or could return Acuña to right field and bring back Cristian Pache, a 21-year-old flychaser who placed 15th on our Top 100 Prospects list and who rates as a plus-plus defender in center; he went 1-for-4 in two games last week before being returned to the team’s alternate site.





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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Anon21
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Anon21

“Riley (.205/.256/.373, 65 wRC+) is still trying to recapture the magic of his nine-homers-in-18-games initiation in the majors in 2018”

That was 2019. Riley spent all of 2018 in the minors.

Riley has displayed some recent signs of life, although the power still isn’t there.