The 2021 Replacement-Level Killers: Center Field and Designated Hitter

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 closer 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. As with some of the previous entries in this series, a few of these situations include midseason turnarounds where returns to normalcy are camouflaged by early-season struggles; one problem spot, that of the Rays’ designated hitters, was shored up in impressive fashion with Thursday night’s acquisition of Nelson Cruz from the Twins. As with previous entries in this series, won-loss records and Playoff Odds are through yesterday (July 22, in this case), but statistics through the day before (July 21).

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Center Field
Reds .216 .285 .342 69 -15.4 0.4 -3 -0.4 0.7 0.3
Mariners .189 .286 .339 80 -9.4 -0.2 -3.4 0.1 0.6 0.7
Yankees .186 .294 .319 74 -11.5 2.2 -0.3 0.4 0.7 1.1
Cleveland .216 .325 .343 89 -5.2 0.2 -4.6 0.4 0.8 1.2
Blue Jays .229 .287 .406 87 -5.9 -3.4 -3.8 0.1 1.8 1.9
Statistics through July 21. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Reds (49-47, 2nd in NL Central, 10.4% Playoff Odds)

Injuries and underperformance have been the constants of Nick Senzel’s major league career since reaching the majors in May 2019. A torn labrum in his right shoulder ended his rookie season in early September of that year, requiring surgery, while last year, multiple injuries and an Injured List stint for “undisclosed reasons” limited him to 23 games. He’s played just 36 games this year (including 21 starts in center, six at second base, and two at third), but none since May 17, due to various owies plus an arthroscopic cleanup of his left knee. When he was available, he hit just .252/.323/.315; his 76 wRC+ wasn’t even up to his previous career mark of 84. He’s on track to begin a rehab assignment next week, and will reportedly play both center field and shortstop, the latter of which is a position where he’s played just one game since college.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like a solid plan, it’s not like the Reds have been bursting with better ideas at either position; I chronicled their shortstop (and third base) woes on Wednesday. As for center field, in Senzel’s absence Tyler Naquin has shown a drastic contrast on both sides of the ball between his 51 starts there (73 wRC+, -3.9 UZR, -6 DRS, -0.4 WAR) and his 19 starts at the corners (183 wRC+, -1.8 UZR, -2 DRS, 0.9 WAR) while Shogo Akiyama has steadfastly refused to hit major league pitching (.196/.269/.237, 41 wRC+ this year). A trade for the Marlins’ Starling Marte would provide a boost, but the competition to land him is expected to be significant, but the cost and risk of acquiring the Twins’ Byron Buxton are probably too high for the Reds’ tastes.

Mariners (51-45, 3rd in AL West, 3.5%)

Just as he was about to launch the follow-up to his AL Rookie of the Year season, Kyle Lewis collided with an outfield wall in late March, suffering a bone bruise in his right knee. He missed the season’s first 17 games, and hit a modest .246/.333/.392 (107 wRC+) before tearing his meniscus in the same knee while trying to make a running catch on on May 31. He underwent surgery on June 9, and isn’t likely to return until late August. In Lewis’ place, the team has used five other players, with the twice-demoted Taylor Trammell leading the Mariners with 36 starts and both Jake Fraley, and Jarred Kelenic in double digits; Kelenic actually hasn’t started in left field since his post All-Star break return, a fact that escaped me due to misreading a table while writing my previous installment — ouch.

The lefty-swinging Fraley has hit .237/.409/.439 (143 wRC+) while spending time at all three outfield spots, but he’s out right now due to a positive COVID-19 test, and isn’t expected back until the end of the month. He’s at least earned a platoon role in center, but the problem is finding a match. Kelenic (who deserves a long runway in left field) and the two players getting the most time in left field recently, Shed Long Jr. and Jake Bauers, are all lefties, and neither of the last two have hit enough to deserve spots in the lineup. All of which is to say that a righty-swinging outfielder who can hit reasonably well and play center is something the Mariners could use. The list of guys who fit the description but can’t hit lefties — Abraham Almonte, Billy Hamilton, Juan Lagares, Michael A. Taylor — is long, but one player who can, and who won’t break the bank as a short-term rental, is the Cubs’ Jake Marisnick.

Yankees (50-44, 3rd in AL East, 43.9%)

This is the Yankees’ third appearance in this series and second within their outfield. Aaron Hicks was just one of several players whose early-season underperformances put the team in an early-season hole; he hit just .194/.294/.333 (76 wR+) in 32 games before a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist ended his season in mid-May. Brett Gardner, who at 37 years old was ticketed for a fourth outfielder role, has instead manned the middle pasture; between that and his work in left field, he too has managed just a 76 wRC+ (.193/.308/.309). Things have gotten so desperate that manager Aaron Boone has even started Aaron Judge there seven times despite the team’s extra-cautious approach towards keeping their oft-injured slugger in the lineup (he’s currently out with a COVID-19 infection, if you’re wondering how that’s going).

While the team has taken the wraps off prospect Estevan Florial, who doubled his total of major league games played from two to four with starts on Tuesday and Wednesday, his stock has fallen in recent years, so expecting him to have a significant impact is a stretch. Marte, on the other hand, would provide a big boost, but with left field, first base and the bullpen also representing trouble spots, the Yankees have many needs to fill, and a more flexible player with a bigger bat, such as Kris Bryant or Joey Gallo (both of whom have experience in center even if it’s not their primary position) might be the Yankees’ preference.

Cleveland (48-45, 2nd in AL Central, 4.7%)

They’re going to become the Guardians, in case you haven’t heard, and if I don’t love the name — I’ll never stop believing that they could restore Spiders to its former glory — I at least don’t hate it, and will admit that I’m a sucker for a winged logo (see: Detroit Red Wings). Perhaps the team will soon be so awash in marketing opportunities that they’ll finally be able to assemble a productive outfield, for as I teased in the corner outfield installment, this is the eighth time Cleveland’s outfielders have hit the list in four seasons worth of this series at FanGraphs, maintaining their .667 batting average. As with their left field entry, things might not be as bad as they look, but that doesn’t mean they’re great. The team began the season with Jordan Luplow and converted shortstop Amed Rosario getting most of the playing time in center field, but Luplow hit a very lopsided .173/.331/.439 (112 wRC+) before being felled by a left ankle sprain in late May, and Rosario wound up taking over shortstop duties when Andrés Giménez — who, like Rosario, was part of the return for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco — was sent back to Triple-A Columbus.

Bradley Zimmer, who began the season at Columbus, has started 35 of the team’s 43 games in center since May 27, and while the 28-year-old former first-round pick has been nothing special (.240/.366/.322, 99 wRC+), his defense has been solid enough for him to compile 0.6 WAR in just 145 PA. His track record has been wobbly enough that there’s no guarantee he continues that clip, but on the other hand, his 90.5 mph average exit velocity and 10.0% barrel rate are career bests. Adding another outfielder is in order, particularly with right fielder Josh Naylor out for the season, but this might not be as dire as it’s been in previous years.

Blue Jays (48-44, 4rd in AL East, 31.9%)

As part of the big splash the Blue Jays made this winter, the team signed free agent George Springer to a six-year, $150 million deal, but between a Grade 2 oblique strain during spring training and a recurrent right quad strain that sidelined him twice in April, he played in just four of the team’s first 70 games, all as a designated hitter. Randal Grichuk handled most of the workload in Springer’s absence, but didn’t hit; he’s managed just a .241/.266/.436 (86 wRC+) line in that capacity this season while continuing his trend of defensive struggles in the middle pasture. Jonathan Davis backed up Grichuk and was even worse, scraping up a 48 wRC+.

Springer finally returned to action on June 22, and has started in center field 16 times in the Blue Jays’ past 22 games, mixing in four starts at DH. While his overall numbers (.236/.333/.494, 124 wRC+) aren’t up to his career norm, he’s shaken free of a 2-for-27 slump by going 7-for-13 with three extra-base hits in his past four games. Long story short, so long as Springer stays healthy, the Blue Jays have solved this problem by effectively adding a player whose impact could outdo that of most hitters traded at the deadline.

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Designated Hitter
Athletics .225 .299 .402 96 -1.7 -1.6 -0.3 0.4 0.1
Blue Jays .228 .306 .414 95 -2.5 -0.6 -0.1 0.7 0.6
Rays .222 .308 .392 97 -1.4 0.4 0.2 1.4 1.6
Statistics through July 21. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Athletics (55-42, 2nd in AL West, 52.7%)

As offensive threats go, Mitch Moreland has been pretty toothless as a designated hitter, hitting a modest .239/.308/.420 in 156 PA in that capacity, virtually all of it against righties, while Jed Lowrie has hit a very similar .233/.309/.372 in 97 PA at DH, mostly starting against lefties. With Cruz off the market, there’s no obvious big DH bat available among the pending free agents, so if the A’s want to make an upgrade, they’ll need to get more creative and aggressive. The Mets’ J.D. Davis is a DH in waiting, a good hitter who’s a liability at third base or left field; if New York lands Bryant, he could be available, but with three years of club control remaining, he won’t come cheap. The Orioles’ Trey Mancini could help at DH and the outfield corners; he has one more year of control remaining, and so will command a significant return as well.

Blue Jays (Again)

The Blue Jays have used the DH spot to cycle through their regulars, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. getting the most time there (87 PA), followed by Rowdy Tellez (76 PA), Grichuk (48 PA), Bo Bichette (40 PA) and the recovering Springer (38 PA). With Tellez traded to Milwaukee and Springer back in center field, Grichuk is the lineup’s odd man out. Using him as a platoon DH against lefties — against whom he has a 111 wRC+ for his career, and 117 for 2019-21 (359 PA) — isn’t the worst idea, so finding somebody on an expiring contract who can hit righties but sit once in awhile to give the stars an occasional breather shouldn’t be a tremendous challenge.

Rays (57-39, 2nd in AL East, 72.2%)

The Rays have gotten decent returns from Austin Meadows (209 PA, 114 wRC+) and Randy Arozarena (81 PA, 121 wRC+) in this spot, generally while the other one played left field, but the other 99 PA they distributed among eight players dragged the team’s wRC+ from their designated hitters down to 97. Instead of working on some eight-dimensional chess solution to provide an incremental upgrade, the Rays traded for Cruz, who even at age 40 can still pound the ball (.294/.370/.537, 141 wRC+). They’ve set the bar for the rest of the denizens of this series to find such definitive, fitting solutions.

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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