Pablo Sandoval, Chase Utley and Fernando Rodney lead Jay Jaffe's list of this season's worst regulars through the first half of play as he picks his vortices of suck.
As the various layers of the All-Star selection process highlight the players in both leagues having the best seasons at each position—some in their absence, because that process is far from perfect—it's worth considering the other side of the coin. Because bad baseball so often makes for good copy, it's fun to take a break from debating who's best to hunt the fish at the bottom of the major league barrel, finding those at each position who could be considered the worst this season.
Reviving a semi-annual tradition from my days at Baseball Prospectus, I present my anti-All-Star team of players who have produced tornado-level disasters amid their lineups. These are the Vortices of Suck.
All stats are as of Wed., July 8.
As so often happens, last year's out-of-nowhere veteran breakout is this year's cautionary tale. A career backup, the 30-year-old Rivera took advantage of his first season of receiving more than 114 PA at the major league level to hit a robust .252/.319/.432 with 11 homers for the Padres in 2014 en route to 3.2 WAR, not to mention an additional 25.2 runs in the framing department, the majors' second-highest total. New San Diego general manager A.J. Preller didn't take long to figure out that the only direction Rivera’s performance could go was down and included him as part of the three-way Wil Myers deal in December. That move looks astute considering Rivera's 57/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a decline to 4.2 framing runs and a ghastly -1.3 WAR—particularly for a surprise contender who may need an extra win or two come season's end.
By now you know the sad story of the 2006 NL MVP's decline. Howard hasn't been the same since blowing out his left Achilles tendon at the end of '11, and his ill-advised contract for five years and $125 million has come to symbolize the decline and fall of the Phillies' NL East dynasty. Though healthy enough to stay in the lineup nearly every day, the now 35-year-old Howard's WAR is a brutal -1.1—his third season out of the last four below replacement level.
2B: Chase Utley, Phillies
Season Stats: .179/.257/.275, 4 HR, 25 RBIs, 49 OPS+
If Howard's MLB-worst performance could have been predicted, the same can't be said for that of his 36-year-old teammate, who despite an endless series of leg injuries has averaged 3.5 WAR over the last four seasons while spending about a quarter of that time on the DL, keeping his chances for an eventual election to the Hall of Fame in play. Last year, Utley managed to play 155 games, his highest total since '09, but this year, he hit the DL with inflammation in his right ankle, the remnant of an off-season sprain, in late June. His .532 OPS is the lowest mark among any NL regular with at least 200 PA. He deserves far better, namely an exit from Philadelphia on his own terms instead of being thrown under the bus by a lame-duck GM whose recent incompetence could fill out an All-Vortices of Suck team.
As a 23-year-old rookie, Santana came out of nowhere to snatch the Twins' centerfield job in mid-2014 despite having played just 24 minor-league games at the position. He fielded the position competently and hit a sizzling .319/.353/.472, though his 98/19 K/BB ratio hinted at holes in his swing. With Byron Buxton approaching the majors, the Twins decided to move Santana back to his more familiar position at short, and it's backfired completely. His .521 OPS is the lowest of any AL non-catcher with at least 200 PA, and he's posted a 57/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio that somehow includes an intentional walk. Worse, he's been nine runs below average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to -1.7 WAR, the lowest mark of any major league position player. Not even a two-week refresher course in Triple A helped.
Sandoval's -0.3 WAR isn't the worst at the position—it isn't even as bad as that of the man he more or less replaced in Boston (Will Middlebrooks, -0.5 for San Diego) or the man who replaced him in San Francisco (Casey McGehee, -0.7 before being released). However, neither of those players nor any other contender for this spot is being paid $17 million in the first year of a five-year, $95 million deal or struggling to keep his head in the game while using the restroom. Not only is he not hitting well (his OPS+ is 28 points below his career mark), but he's also been a train wreck in the field at 12 runs below average via DRS. The Red Sox' under-performance isn't all on him, but he's earned the target on his back.
Not "werth" this year’s $21 million salary, to say the least. The 36-year-old Sasquatch look-alike has been limited to just 27 games this year due to arthroscopic surgery on the AC joint of his right shoulder and then fractures in his left wrist, but when he’s played, he’s been dreadful at the plate, with -5 DRS in the field thrown in to sink his WAR to -1.0. Given his longstanding problems with that wrist—which temporarily derailed his career circa 2005–06—it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be right again at any point this year.
Though he played just 187 games in 2013–14 due to injuries, Pagan was a solid player when he was available. His absence from the lineup served as a critical blow to San Francisco's chances in '13 but was overcome with the help of Gregor Blanco and Travis Ishikawa last year. Pagan started this season well, hitting .336/.355/.427 though May 13 (arbitrary endpoint alert), but since then, he's scraped bottom at a .206/.254/.229 clip, generally from either the first or third spots in the lineup. Overall, his poor OPS+ and -8 DRS leave him at -0.7 WAR, worst among all centerfielders. With the Giants' outfield stretched thin by the absences of Hunter Pence (since returned) and Nori Aoki, he's playing far too often.
The defending AL champions have the best record in the league thus far, but it's been no thanks to Rios, who has been impossibly awful in 153 PA. To be fair, he missed seven weeks due to an fracture in his left hand, but since then he's been even more wretched, batting .197/.226/.214. His -1.1 WAR is tied with the desiccated remains of Grady Sizemore for the majors' worst at the position. With Alex Gordon hitting the DL, Kansas City would be well served by the addition of another outfield bat or two.
The signing of Butler to a three-year, $30 million deal after a career-worst season raised more than a few eyebrows this winter, and so far, Billy Beane's Country Breakfast has been tough to digest, particularly for a team with limited resources. Butler's -0.5 WAR and .261/.297/.365 showing against righties suggest that last year’s collapse was no fluke.
In my BP days, I rarely bothered to pick on struggling pitchers in this context, but the years have apparently hardened me. A solid member of Baltimore's rotation last year, Norris has seen his ERA nearly double thanks to a falling strikeout rate and a dreadful 2.0 homers per nine. Not only does he have a 5.69 FIP and -1.8 WAR—the majors' worst mark by six-tenths of a win—but his presence in the rotation helped force the far more promising Kevin Gausman to the bullpen early in the year as the O's struggled. Both have spent time on the DL since, but this was a significant misfire on the parts of Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter.
After leading the league with 48 saves last year, his first as a Mariner, Rodney's imaginary arrows have misfired wildly this year. Even while converting 12 of his first 14 save opportunities, his ERA could have been confused with a Boeing model number, and while he's been better since then, he's been supplanted at closer by Carson Smith. Rodney's peripherals are terrible across the board en route to a 5.09 FIP; his -0.5 WAR is the lowest of any pitcher with more than one save.