The 2023 Replacement-Level Killers: Introduction & First Base

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. Yet all too often, for reasons that extend beyond a player’s statistics, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could improve their teams, allowing subpar production to fester at the risk of smothering a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’ 2007 book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, I compiled a historical All-Star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. I’ve revisited the concept numerous times at multiple outlets and have adapted it at FanGraphs in an expanded format since 2018.

When it comes to defining replacement level play, we needn’t hew too closely to exactitude. Any team that’s gotten less than 0.6 WAR from a position to this point — prorating to 1.0 over a full season — is considered fair game. Sometimes, acceptable or even above-average defense (which may depend upon which metric one uses) coupled with total ineptitude on offense is enough to flag a team. Sometimes a club may be well ahead of replacement level but has lost a key contributor to injury; sometimes the reverse is true, but the team hasn’t yet climbed above that first-cut threshold. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hardcore pornography, I know replacement level when I see it.

For this series, I’ll go around the diamond, pointing out the most egregious examples of potential Killers at each position among contenders, which I’ll define as teams that are above .500 or have Playoff Odds of at least 10.0%. That definition covers 22 teams, up from 17 last year (thanks for nothing, Rob Manfred). I’ll include the rest-of-season projections from our Depth Charts, and while I may mention potential trade targets, I’m less focused on these teams’ solutions than I am the problems, because hey, human nature.

This first installment will cover first basemen. All statistics within this piece are through July 19.

2023 Replacement-Level Killers: First Base
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Brewers .214 .279 .349 68 -15.3 -3.0 -1.8 -1.4 0.3 -1.1
Padres .186 .282 .324 70 -14.6 0.9 -0.9 -0.9 0.4 -0.5
Astros .240 .287 .373 81 -9.5 -3.8 1.2 -0.6 0.5 -0.1
Angels .236 .291 .390 86 -6.6 -3.2 0.6 -0.3 0.2 -0.1
Phillies .255 .314 .391 92 -4.0 -1.2 -1.9 -0.2 0.7 0.5
Orioles .242 .276 .435 91 -4.2 0.7 -0.9 0.2 0.6 0.8
Marlins .249 .310 .386 90 -5.4 -1.1 2.8 0.3 0.5 0.8
All statistics through July 19.

Brewers

At his best, Rowdy Tellez is a lot of fun, but he struggled mightily (.213/.285/.388, 79 wRC+) before being sidelined by forearm inflammation earlier this month, and then mangled his left ring finger earlier this week shagging fly balls (for conditioning purposes, not in an attempt to move him to the outfield). He tore the fingernail off (ouch!), needed 17 stitches and surgery to repair a fracture at the tip, and will be sidelined an additional four weeks. With alternatives such as Jon Singleton, Luke Voit, and Mike Brosseau having come and gone, and Darin Ruf out due to a fractured right patella and a deep knee laceration, Owen Miller has been playing first, but his bat is light (.271/.314/.387, 89 wRC+). Given the situation, it’s probably worth taking another look at Keston Hiura, who’s been raking at Nashville (.314/.400/.572, 139 wRC+), particularly as the team is going to need multiple bats to upgrade an offense that entered Thursday with a collective 88 wRC+, fifth-worst in the majors and the worst of any team that’s made the cut for this series.

Padres

The Eric Hosmer era ended at the deadline last year, but somehow the Padres’ first base situation has gotten worse. The infield shuffle caused by the Xander Bogaerts signing — sending Ha-Seong Kim to second base and Jake Cronenworth to first — looked like a waste of the latter’s defensive versatility, but his offense has vanished into the Crone Zone (.210/.308/.350, 85 wRC+ overall, and worse while playing first). Matt Carpenter’s magic from last year has worn off, and Quad-A guys Brandon Dixon and Alfonso Rivas aren’t the answer. A trade for the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger could be a stretch, but if the Padres don’t blow up their roster, they could try to swing an intradivision deal for the Rockies’ C.J. Cron, or go after a player with club control by dealing Cronenworth, whose versatility and cost certainty (he’s got a seven-year, $80 million deal that kicks in next year) gives him some appeal despite his current struggles.

Astros

After his sub-replacement level season, the Astros let Yuli Gurriel walk in free agency and replaced him by signing another aging Cuban defector, José Abreu, to a three-year, $58.5 million deal, the largest since Jim Crane purchased the team in 2011. Though the 36-year-old slugger was coming off his best full season since 2017 (.304/.378/.446, 137 wRC+, 3.9 WAR), it appears age has suddenly caught up with him. He didn’t hit his first homer until May 28 and batted an abysmal .211/.276/.260 (50 wRC+) through the end of May. Abreu has since stopped the bleeding, managing a 116 wRC+ in June and July, but his overall .244/.291/.356 line (78 wRC+) and -0.8 WAR represent across-the-board career worsts, and his Statcast line is full of career worsts as well (89.4 mph average exit velo, 7% barrel rate, .366 xSLG, .291 xwOBA). A look under the hood shows that he’s chasing 39.1% of pitches outside the zone, and that rate is slightly higher even amid his improvement.

The Astros have been spotting Yainer Diaz, Mauricio Dubón, and David Hensley at first when Abreu needs a breather, but injuries to Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve have pressed the first two of those players into regular duty. Singleton, who’s back in the organization after a five-year absence and a brief run with the Brewers, represents an alternative; he’s hit .265/.392/.509 between his Triple-A stints at Nashville and Sugar Land, but seems like a long shot to get a look. With Michael Brantley also out due to inflammation in his surgically repaired right shoulder, it seems more likely the team will add an outfielder who could spot at first base; they’ve shown interest in Bellinger, who particularly fits GM Dana Brown’s preference for a lefty bat. He won’t come cheap given his rebound and the number of teams that could use his bat and glove, but the potential for a blockbuster that also includes Marcus Stroman is there.

Angels

The Angels have already used 10 players at first base, with Brandon Drury, Gio Urshela, Jared Walsh, Jake Lamb, and Mike Moustakas all making at least 10 starts, and the wonderfully-named rookie Trey Cabbage getting his first look this week. Drury and Urshela — both of whom have played more at other infield spots — are both on the injured list; the former has a shoulder contusion, the latter a pelvic fracture that could end his season. Walsh has struggled mightily due to insomnia and migraines and is currently at Triple-A Salt Lake City, Lamb is now in the Yankees organization, and Moustakas has been splitting time between both corners with Anthony Rendon sidelined by a shin contusion. It’s an unholy mess.

Moustakas hasn’t hit for a 100 wRC+ since 2020 (he’s at 99 now, via a .254/.337/.434 line including his time with the Rockies), and Cabbage is a 26-year-old with outstanding raw power — Baseball America suggested in 2021 that it might grade out as an 80 — but also strikeout rates well above 30% at virtually every minor league stop, which is why he hasn’t been considered a prospect. If the Angels are serious enough to hold onto Shohei Ohtani, they need a better plan than their current patchwork.

Phillies

The defending NL champions suffered a blow during spring training when they lost Rhys Hoskins for the season due to a torn left ACL. For a while, Kody Clemens and Alec Bohm shared the spot, but the former hit for just a 77 wRC+ in 148 PA before switching places with Darick Hall, who hit .250/.282/.522 with nine homers in 142 PA last year and had been getting his stroke back at Triple-A after missing over two months due to a torn ligament in his right thumb. Bohm has hit .282/.334/.421 (104 wRC+) overall, and his defense at first base has at best been less destructive than his work at third. Meanwhile, Hall hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s pop.

The Phillies are planning to give Bryce Harper a look at first base, a position he’s never played professionally. The 30-year-old superstar has hit a comparatively thin but productive .300/.394/.422 since returning from Tommy John surgery, but has been limited to DH duty so far. Getting a read on whether he can handle the new position before the deadline — something that’s been delayed by recent weather and scheduling issues — is a priority. If he takes to it, the Phillies could confiscate Kyle Schwarber’s glove, a necessity given his -15 DRS in left field, and open their upgrade pool to include outfielders as well as first basemen, or really just about anybody with some pop in their bat.

Orioles

Last year, the Orioles moved their left field wall back 26.5 feet and raised the fence height nearly six feet, and perhaps no hitter bore the brunt more than righty-swinging Ryan Mountcastle, whose 86-point gap between his slugging percentage and .509 xSLG was the majors’ largest, limiting him to a 106 wRC+. History has repeated itself this year, as Mountcastle has hit .234/.269/.426 (86 wRC+) and is 95 points short of his .521 xSLG, the majors’ third-highest mark. Compounding Mountcastle’s problems, the 26-year-old first baseman missed a month due to vertigo; he’s started at first base in just one of the team’s first seven games since returning.

In Mountcastle’s absence, lefty-swinging Ryan O’Hearn got the bulk of the first base work, and so far, he’s been punishing the ball, with a 93.5 mph average exit velo, a 58.3% hard-hit rate, and a .305/.355/.510 (137 wRC+) line. Though his small-sample defensive metrics are shaky, his bat may have solved the problem to the team’s satisfaction. At the very least, he’ll likely serve as the long half of a platoon, leaving GM Mike Elias to focus on fortifying other areas for the first-place (!) Orioles.

Marlins

The Marlins signed Gurriel to a minor league deal in March. While his 95 wRC+ (.264/.326/.387) represents a 10-point increase on last year, it’s still pretty lousy for the position, and that’s with him outdoing his .328 xSLG by nearly 60 points; things could get even uglier if he regresses. Garrett Cooper, who made the NL All-Star team last year, has hit for just an 88 wRC+ in part-time duty at first and a 101 wRC+ (.262/.303/.436) overall. Such production hardly befits a Marlins team that has the franchise’s best record at this juncture since 2016 and that entered Friday in a virtual tie for the third NL Wild Card spot. Bellinger would certainly fit here — to be fair, he’d fit just about any contender if he keeps hitting — and the team also has the option of moving Luis Arraez from second base to first, as the Twins did last year, though only if they can find a productive second baseman. Owner Bruce Sherman has publicly said he’s “prepared to give [general manager Kim Ng] and her staff the resources she needs over the next month to help the club,” which could translate into a willingness to take on significant salary or dig into the farm system — though it’s not at its strongest right now — to make a big deal.

Also: In the two days leading up to writing this, the Mariners (104 wRC+, 0.6 WAR, 1.0 projected rest-of-season WAR) and Red Sox (110 wRC+, 0.7 WAR, 0.7 ROS WAR) both flirted with landing on this list, but they’re a cut above the rest. The Mariners’ Ty France was an All-Star in 2022, but he’s scuffled thus far this year, hitting .249/.319/.373 (99 wRC+) while starting all but six of the team’s first 95 games at first base. Lefty-hitting Mike Ford, who has swung a hot bat (.260/.318/.580, 147 wRC+) while DHing against righties, is an alternative, and given all the other areas where the Mariners need help — second base, right field and DH are all in Killer territory currently — this may be a spot where they grin and bear it. As for the Red Sox, they haven’t yet given up on Triston Casas, whose offense has been trending upward; since posting a 60 wRC+ in March and April, he’s hit .274/.362/.484 (129 WRC+) since. Move along.





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.

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Alby
10 months ago

I’m sending this to some Hoskins-hating Phillies fans with an “I told you so” pinned to it.