The 2023 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher and Center Field

Tyler Stephenson
Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

Strength up the middle is important to any contender, but with so many teams still in the hunt for a playoff spot, it’s no surprise some of them are have some weak spots. Perhaps it’s easier for a team to convince itself that the metrics aren’t capturing the entirety of a weak-hitting player’s defense if they’re playing a premium position, which seems to be the case at both catcher and center fielder.

While still focusing on 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 out of a position 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. Interestingly enough, two of the seven teams below the WAR cutoff for right field also make the list for left field: one because it’s far below, and the other because it’s right on the line. I’m listing the capsules in order of their left field rankings first while noting those two crossover teams with an asterisk. As always, I don’t expect every team here to go out and track down upgrades before the August 1 deadline, but these are teams to keep an eye upon. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are through July 26, but team won-loss records and Playoff Odds are through July 27.

2023 Replacement-Level Killers: Catchers
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Reds .205 .292 .326 64 -17.5 -3.4 -5.3 -0.5 0.6 0.1
Astros .205 .259 .377 74 -12.2 -3.2 -8.3 -0.3 0.3 0.0
Diamondbacks .249 .299 .331 70 -13.9 -4.2 -2.5 0.0 0.9 0.9
Rays .220 .251 .383 75 -11.7 -1.6 -7.1 0.0 0.6 0.6
Padres .194 .265 .344 69 -14.7 -0.6 -4.8 0.1 0.7 0.8
Guardians .189 .254 .332 60 -16.8 -1.2 -1.1 0.1 0.7 0.8
Marlins .208 .273 .281 56 -20.7 -3.7 5.9 0.2 0.8 1.0
All statistics through July 26.

Reds

After a 2022 season in which Tyler Stephenson played just 50 games (45 behind the plate) due to a concussion, a broken right thumb, and a broken right clavicle, the Reds have been protective of the former first-round pick. He’s started just 45 times behind the plate, making 39 appearances at DH and four at first base. Meanwhile, Luke Maile has started 32 games at catcher, and Curt Casali has made 17 starts there. It hasn’t worked out well: Stephenson, who owned a career 119 wRC+ entering the season, has plunged to 85 (.249/.332/.362), and on the defensive side, he’s 4.9 framing runs (FRM) in the red en route to -0.4 WAR. Maile (.238/.292/.419, 85 wRC+, -1.1 FRM) has been adequate, Casali (.175/.290/.200, 39 wRC+, -1.2 FRM) less so.

With Joey Votto back from his shoulder injury, Christian Encarnacion-Strand up from Triple-A Louisville, and Casali on the IL with a foot contusion, at the very least, there’s less reason to give Stephenson playing time at DH or first base. Perhaps a renewed focus on catching could help — or at least counter the typical dog-day fatigue — and also allow the Reds to deploy Casali’s roster spot for a more useful bat. Or the Reds could pursue an upgrade in what’s likely to be an active deadline for them given their emergence as contenders; that Stephenson is only about to enter his arbitration years makes him a useful trade chip if they are thinking along those lines.

Astros

The Astros are bigger fans of Martín Maldonado than most living creatures are of oxygen, but this is getting ridiculous. The 36-year-old backstop is hitting just .170/.241/.306, setting career worsts in wRC+ (51), strikeout rate (32.9%) and pitch framing (-7.8 runs), and for what it’s worth, his Statcast metric in that last department is even worse (-10). Through Wednesday, his -1.1 WAR put him in a virtual tie for the majors’ fourth-lowest mark of any position player. Meanwhile, 24-year-old rookie Yainer Diaz has hit a respectable .263/.281/.493 (106 wRC+) with 12 homers, splitting his time between catcher (33 games), DH (28) and first base (three). His framing hasn’t been great (-2.4 runs), but via Statcast, he has a 3–1 edge over Maldonado in combined blocking and throwing runs, which is to say that even for a bat-first backstop, he’s an adequate defender. With Yordan Alvarez back from a six-week absence due to an oblique strain, it would make sense for the Astros to shift the bulk of the catching duties to Diaz, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Diamondbacks

Acquired from the Blue Jays in the Daulton Varsho/Lourdes Gurriel Jr. swap, Gabriel Moreno has been a little light on both sides of the ball, hitting .270/.316/.360 (82 wRC+) and grading out as four runs below average in framing. What’s more, he’s on the injured list due to left shoulder inflammation. “It’s something we’ve been trying to manage for some time,” manager Torey Lovullo told reporters. Moreno’s absence leaves the catching in the hands of backup Carson Kelly and Jose Herrera. Kelly has somehow managed just a 7 wRC+ this year (.167/.188/.227) since returning from a fractured right forearm that cost him the season’s first two and a half months, and Herrera has scuffled at the plate as well (.233/.319/.300, 72 wRC+).

Given that there doesn’t seem to be a high-level concern about Moreno, this is probably not a situation ripe for a major shakeup, though it might make sense for Herrera to continue as the primary backup unless Kelly starts hitting. Note that I debated about whether to include the Diamondbacks on this list at all given that they’re the one team among these seven that’s above the WAR cutoff if I swap out our defensive numbers for an aggregation of Statcast’s framing, blocking, and throwing metrics; they’re a combined five runs above average by those measures, tied for sixth in the majors.

Rays

Both Christian Bethancourt (.220/.249/.374, 72 wRC+) and Francisco Mejía (.227/.258/.400, 81 wRC+) have put up some cringeworthy batting lines; together they’re walking just 3.9% of the time. They’ve also both been below-average at pitch framing, with Mejía (-5.7 runs) especially bad; Statcast isn’t a fan of his defense either, rating him at -5 runs for framing/blocking/throwing. Given that Mejía recently landed on the injured list due to a left MCL sprain and will miss 3–6 weeks, placing his return sometime between mid-August and early September, this is a team in dire need of an upgrade. Could the Rays pry Travis d’Arnaud from the Braves, or Yan Gomes from the Cubs? Both have served as the primary catcher on a recent World Series winner, and both are pending free agents with affordable club options, which puts them in Tampa Bay’s wheelhouse.

Padres

Austin Nola’s once-potent bat has wilted to the point that he started just once after July 1 before being optioned to Triple-A El Paso on July 18, carrying with him an abysmal batting line (.146/.260/.192, 37 wRC+). What’s more, over the past two seasons, he’s declined into one of the majors’ worst pitch framers, with a combined total of -11.9 framing runs, the sixth-worst mark. Gary Sánchez, who went unsigned this past offseason and arrived in late May after making brief stops with the Giants and Mets, has taken over the lion’s share of the catching. He’s fared respectably, bopping 10 homers in 45 games and hitting .205/.278/.437 (94 wRC+) overall. His framing has been adequate by our numbers (-0.6 runs), and via Statcast, he’s been one run above average in terms of framing/blocking/throwing combined.

With Sánchez stabilizing the position and Luis Campusano off to a hot start (.346/.370/.538 in 27 PA) since returning from a three-month absence after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, the Padres appear to be in pretty good shape behind the plate. That’s not to say general manager A.J. Preller won’t make a move involving a catcher in the coming days, but it doesn’t appear to be a high priority.

Guardians

Count this as another situation where the team has already taken steps to address its issues. The Guardians began the year with a catching tandem of Mike Zunino and Cam Gallagher, but the former hit just .177/.271/.306 (62 wRC+) in 140 PA before drawing his release in late June. Somehow Gallagher has been even worse at the plate (.143/.173/.190, -6 wRC+) — so bad that it has more than offset his defense, as his -0.5 WAR suggests.

Anyway, the departure of Zunino coincided with the arrival of top prospect Bo Naylor, and while he’s yet to fully play up to his potential, his .211/.273.423 (89 wRC+) line is Piazza-esque compared to those two. Additionally, the team has recently begun giving starts to 27-year-old rookie David Fry, a four-corners utilityman who can also catch and who can actually hit; he’s batting .288/.342/.493 (130 wRC+) and has made 20 appearances at catcher (including five starts) along with eight at first base, seven in right field, two in left and one at third.

Marlins

Seven teams have used just two catchers thus far this season, but only the Marlins are on the Killers list, because neither of their backstops has hit a lick. While Nick Fortes hit for a 100 wRC+ in a part-time capacity last year as a rookie, he’s collapsed to a 52 wRC+ (.212/.261/.286), though his 8.1 framing runs ranks fourth in the majors, which is why he’s half a win above replacement level. Jacob Stallings, who lost his starting job due to his weak bat, has hit .201/.287/.271 (59 wRC+) with average framing and is below replacement level (-0.3) for the second season in a row. This is a team that should be pulling out the stops to pry a better receiver from another club.

2023 Replacement-Level Killers: Center Fielders
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Guardians .238 .305 .309 73 -12.8 2.8 -7.9 -0.3 0.7 0.4
Twins .212 .259 .381 75 -11.1 2.1 -0.9 0.4 0.8 1.2
Padres .205 .304 .372 90 -5.0 2.0 -6.5 0.6 1.1 1.7
Giants .226 .291 .369 81 -9.3 2.4 -1.7 0.6 0.7 1.3
All statistics through July 26.

Guardians

Again? The Guardians already appeared in this series via the shortstops, right fielders, and catchers lists, but hey, it’s not often we take stock of a .500ish team (52–51) with so many glaring holes in this context, because most of them aren’t in second place. Anyway, while Myles Straw has improved from last year’s 64 wRC+ to 73 (.240/.309/.303), his defensive metrics have fallen precipitously even while playing an MLB-high 878.1 innings in center field. Where his 17 DRS, 13,4 UZR, and 11 RAA all ranked among the majors’ top three at the position last year, he’s around average (3 DRS, -1 RAA, -1.1 UZR) this year and has slipped from 1.9 WAR to -0.2. Will Brennan, whose light hitting (.258/.293/.371, 81 wRC+) helped land the Guardians on the right field Killers list, would be an offensive upgrade in this context, though he’d probably give back some of that advantage on defense. Once again, the Guardians need to figure out how to get their hands on somebody who can actually hit, but their list of needs is growing longer by the day.

Twins

Michael A. Taylor has been the regular throughout the season, starting 79 of the Twins’ 104 games in center field and coming off the bench to occupy the middle pasture in another 13. He’s been pretty mediocre at the plate, batting .222/.271/.419 (88 wRC+) with the most extreme full-season strikeout and walk rates (34.7% and 5.2%) of his career. His defense has slipped, too; after back-to-back seasons with 19 DRS for the Royals, he’s down to 3 DRS this year, and his other metrics have dipped as well.

Still, Taylor has produced 0.9 WAR, which is nothing to write home about but not quite Killer territory. Somehow the other three players who have spotted at the position (Willi Castro for 24 games, Nick Gordon for 16, and Joey Gallo for three) have combined for -0.5 WAR and hit an awful .186/.223/.278 in 103 PA. Never miss work is the lesson here, at least until the Twins come up with an alternative. In theory, the team could use its stockpile of club-controlled outfielders such as Trevor Larnach and Matt Wallner as part of a package for the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Padres

After hitting a dismal .184/.284/.341 (82 wRC+) last year, Trent Grisham probably saved his job with big performances on both sides of the ball as the Padres upended the Mets and Dodgers in the postseason (never mind his 0-for-19 in the NLCS). He’s been closer to average at the plate this year (.208/.316/.385, 97 wRC+), but like Taylor, he’s fallen off defensively, from 12 to 3 in terms of RAA and 8 to zero via DRS. Still, this is a Twins-like situation, as Grisham has netted 1.0 WAR and played more innings in center field than all but four players. The three other Padres who have spotted here (José Azocar, Adam Engel, and Fernando Tatis Jr.) have somehow combined for -0.6 WAR despite taking just 30 PA. For as much committment as the Padres have shown Grisham, given that he’s just entering his arbitration-eligible years, it would surprise nobody if he’s part of a big trade.

Giants

Mike Yastrzemski began the season as the regular center fielder, but when Mitch Haniger was hit by a pitch on June 13, fracturing his right forearm, the Giants moved Yastrzemski to right field and Michael Conforto to left and recalled top prospect Luis Matos. So far, the 23-year-old rookie has been a bit wobbly, hitting just .261/.320/.348 (87 wRC+). His defensive metrics, in just 263 innings, are worth taking with a grain of salt, but they’re at the very least a bit concerning (-6 DRS, -1.9 UZR, -1 RAA).

The good news is that Matos’ offense is trending in the right direction with a 108 wRC+ in July. The Giants made the Killers list with their left field situation as well, but they appear to have the depth to cover for Haniger being out until late August; so long as Conforto, Yastrzemski, Blake Sabol, and Joc Pederson remain available, they’ll probably get by. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they add an outfielder to the mix.





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 @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

31 Comments
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Francoeursteinmember
9 months ago

The Twins have a really good CF on their roster, they should try playing him there and see if it works!

CC AFCmember
9 months ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

In all seriousness, he has to not physically be capable of playing elite CF defense anymore, right? That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. Because otherwise, just play him there, enjoy the production and if he gets hurt, he gets hurt. I’d rather have him play 90 elite games in CF than 150 meh ones at DH. The only thing I can think is that this not just about injury management and the Twins think he can’t do CF the way he used to.

Weirdly, his sprint speed is still in the 95th percentile. But obviously the Twins know more about what’s going on with him physically than we do.

HappyFunBallmember
9 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I think it’s 100% injury management, and they’re willing to eat MAT’s strikeouts in exchange for his defense.

Which isn’t to say they couldn’t stand to replace MAT, but they might prefer to makes upgrades elsewhere.

newsensemember
9 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

JJ was describing the problem as who substitutes for Taylor on his days off. That could certainly be Buxton if someone solid can DH. It’s worth the risk, even more so in the playoffs

fjtorres
9 months ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Oh, it’ll work.
For a week or so until he gets hurt again.
Dude’s cursed.

sadtrombonemember
9 months ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

I understand that they aren’t playing him there because they want to keep him healthy for the playoffs but they have a long list of players for DH and could really use an upgrade in the outfield. At some point they should be giving him reps in center field because in the playoffs I would want Taylor batting too often and I think it might be a good idea to get Buxton warmed up out there.