The 2021 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher and Second Base

For the full introduction to the Replacement-Level Killers series, follow the link above. While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), and that have gotten about 0.6 WAR or less thus far — which prorates to 1.0 WAR over a full season — this year I have incorporated our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation for an additional perspective. Sometimes that may suggest that the team will clear the bar by a significant margin, but even so, I’ve included them here because the team’s performance at that spot is worth a look.

As noted previously, some of these situations are more dire than others, particularly when taken in the context of the rest of their roster. I don’t expect every team to go out and track down an upgrade before the July 30 deadline, and in this two-position batch in particular, I don’t get the sense that any of these teams have these positions atop their shopping lists. With catchers in particular, framing and the less-quantifiable aspects of knowing a pitching staff make it easier for teams to talk themselves out of changing things up unless an injury situation has compromised their depth.

Note that all individual stats in this article are through July 18, but the won-loss records and Playoff Odds include games of July 19.

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Catchers
Mariners .179 .249 .326 61 -15.8 -0.4 -3.3 -0.1 0.8 0.7
Padres .201 .304 .308 73 -12.2 -4.4 -5.1 -0.3 1.1 0.8
Astros .185 .282 .304 71 -12.5 -3.7 0.2 0.3 0.9 1.2
Cleveland .177 .249 .321 54 -17.4 -0.7 1.5 0.1 1.2 1.3
Statistics through July 18. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Mariners (50-44, 3rd in AL West, 4.1% odds of making playoffs)

After missing all of last year due to a broken bone in his left foot, Tom Murphy hasn’t come close to regaining the form that helped him hit for a 126 wRC+ with 18 homers in 2019. While starting about half of the team’s games, he’s hit just .190/.274/.357 (63 wRC+) with six homers; only solid defense has kept him above replacement level. Backup Luis Torrens has provided a bit more punch than Murphy, though it took eight homers in an 82-PA span after returning from Triple-A just to get his line up to .217/.287/.453 (103 wRC+) — five of those came while DHing. He’s hit for just a 78 wRC+ as a catcher, and has been 4.8 runs below average in framing while making just 32 starts.

The Mariners have already taken an initial stab at shoring up this situation by promoting Cal Raleigh, a 24-year-old switch hitter who was the team’s third-round pick out of Florida State in 2018. Raleigh, who entered the season as the Mariners’ number seven prospect — and a Longenhagen/Goldstein “Pick to Click” — is an offense-first catcher who has worked hard to become an average defender, and earned a midseason promotion after hitting a sizzling .324/.377/.608 at Triple-A Tacoma. The expectation is that he’ll see a significant share of the playing time in the second half, which could obviate the need to add a catcher from outside.

Padres (55-41, 3rd in NL West, 93.8%)

The catching merry-go-round has been spinning pretty fast in San Diego. Recall that last August 31, the team traded away both Torrens and Austin Hedges in separate deals while bringing in both Jason Castro and Austin Nola. Castro departed in free agency (don’t worry, we’ll meet him again soon), and in December, the team dealt for Victor Caratini in the Yu Darvish trade. Instead of serving primarily as Darvish’s batterymate as initially anticipated, Caratini has started 58 of the team’s 96 games but has hit just .221/.316/.338 (80 wRC+) and has been below-average in framing as well.

The reason Caratini has seen so much work is that Nola has been limited to just 18 games due to a fractured left middle finger, which delayed his season debut until April 28, and then a left knee sprain. At this writing, he’s out on a rehab assignment, working his way towards catching a full nine innings. Barring a setback, he should be back with the big club before the deadline, but that doesn’t mean the Padres won’t spin the wheel once again, particularly given Nola’s multiposition capability, which gives the team a chance to get his bat back in the lineup without overtaxing him behind the plate.

Astros (57-38, 1st in AL West, 95.6%)

The Astros love themselves some Martín Maldonado, having traded for him in July 2018 and again a year later, then re-signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. It hasn’t worked out so well this time around, as the now-34-year-old backstop has hit just .169/.257/.288, though his defense has been adequate. The aforementioned Castro, who’s started 23 times, has hit a comparatively robust .224/.371/.353, and while his defense hasn’t been quite as strong — he’s gone from being an excellent framer in his 20s to an average one in his 30s — he’s hardly a liability.

The Astros are where they are, enjoying a 3 1/2-game division lead and just half a game off the AL’s best record — in part due to the performances of a rotation that entered the season full of question marks, and so some credit must be given to the tandem for its job of shepherding the young hurlers. Even so, an upgrade could help, as could letting Castro handle a greater share of the workload.

Cleveland (47-44, 2nd in AL Central, 5.6%)

For the second season in a row, Roberto Pérez has missed substantial time due to injuries — last year it was a right shoulder strain, this year a fractured right ring finger that cost him two months — and provided abysmal offense when available. In fact, Perez’s .167/.279/.389 (83 wRC+) line represents his third season out of four with a batting average in the .160s, and for the first time, his pitch framing is below-average as well (-1.1 runs). Not to be outdone, Hedges has been even worse with the stick (.159/.209/.254, 22 wRC+) while starting 44 times, and even with exceptional framing (3.7 runs), he’s been a tick below replacement level. With René Rivera, who filled in for Perez, having been DFA’d and lost to the Nationals and Ryan Lavarnway, who made three starts while Hedges recovered from a concussion, unlikely to escape his Quad-A tag, this is a team crying out for an upgrade. This is also a team didn’t get where it is by tending to every lineup hole that emerges, so set your expectations accordingly.

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Second Base
Mariners .201 .270 .343 73 -11.8 0.7 2.5 0.5 0.5 1.0
Giants .254 .308 .354 85 -7.7 -0.8 -2.4 0.3 0.8 1.1
Mets .229 .311 .339 85 -6.5 -2.5 0.5 0.4 1.4 1.8
Statistics through July 18. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Mariners (Yeah, Again)

It was only 159 PA, but Dylan Moore enjoyed a nice little breakout last year, hitting .255/.358/.496 for a 138 wRC+ — 50 points better than in 2019 — because he hit the ball hard (90.4 mph average exit velo, 13.8% barrel rate). That hasn’t been the case this year; after punishing four-seam fastballs for a .348 AVG and .848 SLG in 2020, he’s managed just a .194 AVG and .403 SLG against them, and his average exit velocity has dropped 3.7 mph. The only thing keeping him above replacement level is his glove (-1 UZR, 5 DRS). Meanwhile, of the five other Mariners who have played second base this year, the only one to produce at an acceptable clip is Ty France, who’s made 16 starts at the position and who has hit .275/.356/.428 (122 wRC+) overall. As noted on Monday, France, a natural third baseman, has taken over first base duties in the wake of Evan White’s season-ending hip injury, but regardless of which position he plays, the Mariners need an upgrade on the right side of their infield if they’re going to attempt to capitalize on their surprisingly strong performance; they’re 3-for-3 in making the Killers lists thus far, and they’ll surface again within this series.

Giants (59-34, 1st in NL West, 93.0%)

The Giants own the NL’s best record thanks both to the resurgence of aging veterans (Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria) and the success of several buy-low finds (Kevin Gausman, Mike Yastrzemski, Darin Ruf). Donovan Solano was among the earliest of Farhan Zaidi’s excellent finds, as he hit a combined .328/.362/.459 in 431 PA in 2019-20, but he’s been unable to replicate that magic — specifically, the .400ish BABIP needed to fuel that low-walk, low-power batting line. Despite a more disciplined approach that has boosted his walk rate from 4.9% to 6.8%, Solano has managed just a .322 BABIP en route to a .274/.325/367 (93 wRC+) line, with defense that has drawn mixed reviews (-0.2 UZR, -3 DRS, 2 OAA).

Solano missed a month in late April and May due to a right calf strain, during which Tommy La Stella and Wilmer Flores shared the job. La Stella didn’t hit and is now down with a hamstring injury and a thumb fracture, and while Flores has hit well this year (.251/.332/.416, 107 wRC+), his defense at the keystone has always been suspect (-13 DRS and -2.6 UZR in 1,418 career innings). Lately he’s been manning the hot corner while Longoria recovers from a sternoclavicular dislocation of his left shoulder, an injury that will keep him out until at least early August. Long story short, the Giants could use another capable second baseman. The Cubs’ Javier Báez would be an ideal pickup, but he’ll have plenty of pursuers. The Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop comes to mind as a lower-cost alternative, a pending free agent who can provide above-average offense and at least average defense for the position.

Mets (49-42, 1st in NL East, 68.7%)

Considering how unheralded he was as a prospect, Jeff McNeil was a revelation during his first three seasons, batting .319/.383/.501 (139 wRC+) in 1,024 PA while playing average or better defense at second, third, and both outfield corners. This year has been a different story, however, as the 29-year-old lefty-swinger has hit just .257/.347/.337 (99 wRC+), that while missing five weeks due to a left hamstring strain. Hopes that he would come around upon returning have yet to be realized. Prior to Tuesday night’s stirring victory (not included in the above stats), during which he homered, he had hit just .276/.360/.289 with one extra-base hit and two barreled balls in 86 PA since rejoining the lineup.

In all likelihood, the Mets will ride this one out; if nothing else, the Depth Charts projections based on McNeil’s proven capabilities are quite favorable. Still, this team has infield issues. Just as third baseman J.D. Davis returned from a two-and-a-half-month absence due to a sprain in his left hand, Francisco Lindor went down with an oblique strain; while both Jonathan Villar and Luis Guillorme will help to cover for the injured shortstop — the latter made three errors on Monday — Davis needs a defensive caddy, and even if McNeil were to lose at-bats to one of the other two players, he’d still be capable of fulfilling that role. Of course, Báez or Kris Bryant would fortify the infield, perhaps pushing McNeil into circulation in the outfield, but odds are he’ll be in the mix one way or another.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Jay you got to have a word with Ben and Kevin about McNeil.