Contending Holes: National League

Last week, we looked at some the biggest holes on American League contenders; this week, we’re back with a look at the National League. Once again, I looked only at teams within five games of a playoff spot, as of games played on July 24 (ed note: the Rockies fell below this point after the submission of the article), and focused on players whose performances to date have hurt their teams the most. As I stated last week, this shouldn’t necessarily be looked at as an affront to the team—in fact, teams that have managed to contend despite horrendous production from a regular player are actually positioned well to significantly upgrade before the trade deadline.

Interestingly, despite the evidence that the American League is the much stronger league this season, in general the top National League teams were more balanced from top to bottom, with the notable exception of the Cardinals, and in general the players on this list have been better than their AL counterparts. Being primarily an American League fan, I was surprised not to find NL rosters stuffed with Vinny Castilla-esque stiffs. Still, the AL’s relative success against the NL this season during interleague play suggests that this is probably because, for whatever reason, the top teams in the AL employ more of a “stars and scrubs” approach to team building.

One last thing before we get started: Last week, I included Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt on my honorable mention list. After reading several impassioned and well presented arguments from Mariners fans, including USS Mariners blogger and THT contributor David Cameron, I’ve realized the error of my ways. When evaluating Betancourt, I fell into the trap of not taking the effect of park effects into account enough, and underrating his defense. He doesn’t walk much and doesn’t hit for much power, but few shortstops do those well either, and after adjusting for park, his offense isn’t bad, as shortstops go. His defense is also highly regarded, which when combined with his age, makes him an asset rather than a liability.

So with that out of the way, onto the list.

10. Steve Trachsel, starting pitcher, New York Mets

Innings: 110.1
ERA: 5.14

Steve Trachsel‘s actual performance hasn’t been a complete disaster, and he’s not pitching all that worse than some other guys who won’t make the top 10, but his poor peripherals this season gave him the nod over similar pitchers like Jeff Suppan or Claudio Vargas. Despite pitching 110.1 innings in a pitchers park, Trachsel has struck out only 52 batters against 53 walks. He has a WHIP of 1.63, and amazingly can be expected to be pitching even worse going forward, according to xFIP, a stat that takes into account fielding and home run rates.

Once you wrap your head around the fact that his performance has been lucky, he’s benefited from his defense and home park, and that this guy is taking the mound every fifth day for the best team in the National League and could conceivably start a playoff game if no changes are made, it’s easy to see that it would probably behoove the Mets to do something about their rotation, unless they really think that John Maine is the real deal.

9. Aaron Miles, second base, St. Louis Cardinals

Plate appearances: 283
OPS: .660

Some players on this list are good players having bad seasons. Aaron Miles is not one of those players. Miles has a career OPS of .680, and that’s with him playing the last two seasons in Colorado. To boot, he doesn’t appear to add much on the basepaths (two for three in steal attempts) or defense. Kind of makes you wonder what general manager Walt Jocketty was doing when the Brewers, currently barely on the fringes of contention, picked up Tony Graffanino from the Royals for a relief pitcher currently on the disabled list.

That said, Miles isn’t that old, doesn’t cost that much and isn’t completely worthless either, and having him holding down second base allows the Cardinals to pay for stars like Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen within a mid-market payroll structure (just 11th in the league in Opening Day payroll). In a sense, Miles is hurt by the relative balance on NL rosters, and probably would not have made the top 10 in the AL. Still, the Cardinals are easily getting the worst production out of second base out of any NL contender, so Jocketty could probably help the Cardinals cause by picking up a second baseman to deepen out the Cardinals lineup.

8. Eric Milton, starting pitcher, Cincinnati Reds

Innings: 101.1
ERA: 5.37

Eric Milton has done most things a pitcher needs to do reasonably well: he doesn’t give up many hits (just over one an inning), he doesn’t walk many guys (2.5 per 9 innings) and strikes out an adequate number of batters (5.5 per 9 innings). There’s just one thing he struggles at, and if you’re reading this site, you probably know that it’s the worst possible weakness to have while pitching in the Great American Ballpark: giving up home runs. According to the 2006 Hardball Times Annual, Great American increases the rate at which fly balls turn into home runs by 11%, which is how it’s possible for Milton to be such a bad pitcher despite so many positive skills.

It was obvious to everyone that Milton’s signing was a bad idea at the time, and it’s even more obvious now that he’s taking up nearly $10 million of the Reds’ $61 million Opening Day payroll. Given the lack of better options, Milton’s contract and the fact that general manager Wayne Krivsky seems to have shot his wad with the Austin Kearns-Felipe Lopez deal, Reds fans will likely have to put up with Milton for the time being. However, it will be interesting to see if Krivskey, who wasn’t with the Reds when they signed Milton, does to address the situation in the offseason.

7. Ryan Langerhans, left field, Atlanta Braves

Plate appearances: 264
OPS: .712

If Ryan Langerhans played center field and hit like he did last season (.774 OPS), he’d be quite a useful player. Unfortunately, the Braves are getting by far the worst offensive production out of left field of all the NL contenders, and have some guy named Andruw Jones patrolling center field. As it is, his hitting performance is down across the board, as he’s hitting fewer line drives, popping out more often and his strikeout rate is up about a quarter from last year, while playing left field limits the defensive impact he can have.

Still, we should keep in mind that Langerhans is still young, cheap and has shown flashes of defensive brilliance, so even as is he’s probably useful as a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement type. Given the Braves’ peripheral position in the NL Wild Card race, general manager John Schuerholz would probably be best served to hold onto Langerhans as opposed to spending the resources necessary to acquire a significant upgrade, who would only hurt Langerhans’ future development anyway. If nothing else, Langerhans doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go but up, and if can get hot for a couple months, he could at least raise his trade value to a team needing a center fielder. (Think Jason Michaels, circa 2005.)

6. Mark Bellhorn, third base, San Diego Padres

Plate appearances: 205
OPS: .695

No wonder the Padres are kicking the tires on Adrian Beltre. You have to be pretty desperate to do that, like a drunken frat boy who’s whiffed his way down the bar skank ladder, in this case personified by Vinny Castilla and Mark Bellhorn. Long a sabermetric darling, Bellhorn is about two years past his sell-by date as a serviceable starter on a contender (remember when he started at second for “the greatest Red Sox team of all time”? Me neither.) Still not a horrible bat at second, Bellhorn is about ready to ease into a graceful decline as a utility man, but let’s face it, he was only thrust into the starting role after months of ineptitude on the part of Castilla.

Bellhorn’s poor OPS is exacerbated by the fact that he hardly gets on base, reaching at a .298 clip. Beltre’s not the answer, but given the relative lack of impact talent in the high minors and the up and coming prospects boasted by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, the Padres would probably be wise to take advantage of their poor production at third by getting a quick upgrade, and making a grab at the NL West while their window is still open.

5. Jason Marquis, starting pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals

Innings: 137.2
ERA: 5.62

Well, the good news is that Jason Marquis has pitched the 10th most innings in the National League. The bad news is that along the way he’s compiled the second worst ERA in the league among qualifying pitchers. Marquis’ main problem this season has been an acute case of Milton-itis, having given up the most home runs in the league. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that comes without all that other stuff about keeping runners off the basepaths; Marquis has also given up more hits than innings and has walked opposing batters at a rate nearly a quarter higher than Milton’s, meaning when he does give up home runs, there are more guys to come around and score.

Marquis’ problems seem to stem mostly from a sudden and dramatic decrease in his ground ball rate, which has quite unexpectedly (and unfortunately) come without a corresponding increase in his pop out rate. Consequently, he’s giving up far more home runs per game this season (1.56 per 9 innings, up from 1.28 last year and 1.15 in 2004) and is a far worse pitcher, despite his league-leading total of 12 wins, which probably says something about how useful the wins stat is.

On the other hand, Marquis’ other peripherals are still mostly in tact, he’s not too old and there don’t appear to be any injury problems, and in a sense the Cardinals have been lucky in that Marquis’ past performance hasn’t affected their win total nearly as much as it could have.

4. Yadier Molina, catcher, St. Louis Cardinals

Plate appearances: 307
OPS: .581

Okay, I get it, he’s a great defensive catcher. But let’s face it, no one’s this good. Forget comparisons to Neifi PerezYadier Molina makes Perez look like Michael Young. Molina’s hitting worse than Livan Hernandez, a pitcher, who’s sporting a healthy .762 OPS this season.

A one season fluke, you say? Livan hasn’t posted an OPS mark lower than Molina’s paltry number since 2003, despite playing half his games in RFK Stadium and Montreal’s cavernous Stade Olympique. In fact, Molina’s .581 mark this season is only four points higher than Hernandez’s career mark of .577, despite Hernandez having played his entire career in pitchers parks, from Dolphins Stadium to Pac Bell to RFK.

In fact, if you compare Molina’s OPS to Hernandez’s this season, Hernandez’s is 30% higher, while in 1916, a certain slugging pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth posted an OPS 22% better than the league average for the Boston Red Sox (albeit in his worst season at the plate while pitching). So you might say that Yadier Molina makes Livan Hernandez look like the Babe Ruth of hitting pitchers. On the other hand, Hernandez has had a terrible season on the mound, and I hear Molina has a live arm, so maybe if you got them together and had them switch positions …

Seriously though, when he’s hitting well (relatively speaking, of course), Molina can be an asset as a cheap defensive stud behind the plate who doesn’t kill you too badly on the offensive side. In many ways his situation is similar to that of Langerhans, in that he’s a defensively strong young player who’s having a down year. Still, the Cardinals would probably be served by acquiring a backup better than Gary Bennett, who is somehow having a worse season at the plate than Molina.

3. Clint Barmes, shortstop, Colorado Rockies

Plate appearances: 374
OPS: .655

Clint Barmes is one of those players who is vastly overrated because he was lucky enough to start his career out on a hot streak. Back in 2005, he had fantasy owners burning up the waiver wire at the prospect of a slugging Coors shortstop while putting up a 1.106 OPS. (Does that sound eerily familiar? It should.) Then in May, he promptly started sucking, then got injured. Since then, despite more than enough opportunities, he hasn’t put up an OPS of over .700 in any full month, though he will certainly eclipse that mark this month. Still, having three months of absolute suck for every month of MVP-caliber performance isn’t going to win the NL West, much less a competitive fantasy league (just ask THT contributor Vinay Kumar how that Barmes pick worked out for him).

On the bright side, Barmes is quite underrated defensively, which prevents him from being higher on this list, he’s cheap and the Rockies have Troy Tulowitzki on the way. Like the Braves, the Rockies are only on the fringes of contention, so large moves probably aren’t in order, especially one that would block one of the organization’s top prospects. Still, the Rockies probably would have been in much better position at this point if they had gotten even mediocre production out of their shortstop.

2. Royce Clayton, shortstop, Cincinnati Reds

Plate appearances: 374
OPS: .655

Royce Clayton used to make his living as a slick-fielding, light hitting shortstop. And it’s been quite a living—looking at his career stats, it amazes me that Clayton’s been around for so long (will be over 2000 career games by season’s end) without even once having had a good season at the plate. Now, at age 36, the bat is still as light, but Clayton’s defensive skills, so long his calling card, have long since gone from good to pedestrian, leaving him past the point where he’s a useful player.

Still, in the framework of this season, there is room for hope. Taking defense into account, Felipe Lopez wasn’t actually giving the Reds that much production either. Last year, his hot hitting made his atrocious defense tolerable—this year, sans the .838 OPS, he’s been a liability, posting an OPS less than 50 points higher than Clayton’s, but with much worse defense. Sure, Lopez about 10 years younger and possesses much greater upside, but the Reds have managed to contend with the not quite hitting, no fielding Lopez to this point, so the downgrade to Clayton’s production shouldn’t be dramatic for the rest of the season.

That still doesn’t make it a good deal, though, since when dealing with two comparable players the obvious move is always to take the younger one. On the other hand, Lopez was also making more money, and Krivsky felt he needed the upgrade in the bullpen. If the Reds make the playoffs this year and their bullpen acquisitions pitch well, then swapping a younger, more expensive hole at shortstop for an older, cheaper hole was probably worth it. Of course, there’s also the matter of Austin Kearns, but that’s a whole ‘nother column.

1. Jeff Weaver, starting pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals

Innings: 137.2
ERA: 5.62

It’s not a good season to have baseball playing siblings and play for the Cardinals, I suppose. What I found most amazing about Jeff Weaver‘s performance this season was the consistent inconsistency of it. Despite having an ERA well over six, he’s managed seven quality starts in 18 tries. Of course, he also has two starts in which he gave up more runs than outs.

A more detailed examination of Weaver’s performance reveals even odder trends: excluding Weaver’s two starts for St. Louis, for which we have incomplete batted ball data, Weaver has induced pop ups on a ridiculously low 4.3% of fly balls, compared to 13.4% last year and 17.3% in 2004. To put that number in perspective, Joe Blanton is 30th in the league in that category (out of qualified pitchers), and he’s induced pop ups on fly balls at more than twice the rate that Weaver has. What’s even more amazing is that on top of that, Weaver also gave up fly balls at a higher rate than any qualified starter in the American League.

Most starters with extremely low rates of pop ups survive because they get most of their outs on the ground—not Weaver. Weaver gives up more fly balls but manages to turn less of them into pop outs, which helps to explain his Milton-esque home run rate of 1.75 per game while with the Angels. He’s still striking guys out and not walking many, but because of his inability to get his defense easy outs when hitters make contact, and his tendency to give up homers (which are never outs), he’s given up a ridiculous number of hits.

What else is interesting is that most of his other peripheral stats have been relatively stable. He’s giving up about the same percentage of line drives, and his strikeout-to-walk ratios are comparable to the rest of his career. Add all that up, and there’s no easy explanation for what’s wrong with him other than that he’s injured and hiding it, which, given the way he’s been pitching, probably isn’t a great idea for the free agent to be. (You think Scott Boras is still on his Christmas card list? Does Jered Weaver ever bring this up when he talks to Boras? These are things I have to know.)

From the Cardinals’ perspective, this is doubly maddening because they could desperately use the pre-2006 version of Jeff Weaver, who would be arguably their second best starter, to slot in behind Chris Carpenter. Thus, they will probably make the playoffs regardless, so they will probably give Weaver and pitching coach Dave Duncan a couple more starts to try and figure out what’s wrong.

Honorable Mention

Brad Ausmus, catcher, Houston Astros
Taylor Buchholz, starting pitcher, Houston Astros
Doug Davis, starting pitcher, Milwakee Brewers
Orlando Hernandez, starting pitcher, New York Mets
Andy Pettitte, starting pitcher, Houston Astros
Jeff Suppan, starting pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals
Willy Taveras, center field, Houston Astros
Claudio Vargas, starting pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Preston Wilson, left field, Houston Astros
Jamey Wright, starting pitcher, San Francisco Giants

References & Resources
This article used stats from ESPN.com, Baseball Reference, Yahoo! Sports and THT’s own stats pages.

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