April 27, 2015
The Worst Holes On Contenders
It’s the time of year when what has happened to date begins to really carry weight. The Mets have surpassed the Nationals as the most likely team to win the NL East, even though we all know that the Mets’ hot start and the Nationals’ cold one are only loosely indicative of real differences between the talent we thought each team had and the talent they actually have. The Brewers were fringe contenders when the season began; they’re non-factors now. The Royals were long-shot dreamers; they’re now serious postseason hopefuls, though not yet favorites.
Still, in most cases, we should assume that the level of play we expected from a team before the season is still its true talent level. Only injuries should be changing any minds about that at this point. What we thought we knew about each team, about each player and position, we should generally still believe.
Of course, even good teams have weaknesses. Some of these have been on especially glaring display in the early going. Others have been covered, either by surprising play from the player in that position, or by hot streaks by one or more teammates. Over the long remaining schedule, though, the safe money says that those things will even out, and that teams with bad players will have to find ways to win despite those players’ detrimental performances. Today, I want to check in on which teams, exactly, we expect to need to do that, and to what degree, and at what positions.
Importantly, pointing out an especially obvious weakness at a given spot is not a condemnation or a disparagement of a team’s chances of doing good things. To the contrary, at this point in the season, having a top-heavy roster can be an okay thing. While a team with balance and without a below-average bat in the lineup, for instance, is likely to have success, we also tend to think that they’re somehow less vulnerable to an injury or two than a team built around a superstar or three. I’m not convinced that this is so. A team full of average players can make fewer rapid, dramatic gains, be it by promoting a stud prospect or trading for an upgrade at a particular position, than can a team with replacement-level players (or worse). If the top-heavy team’s superstar does go down, it can be trouble, but no contending team is built around one lone star anyway. Moreover, it’s not all that likely that it will be the superstar who gets hurt, unless said superstar’s name rhymes with “Shmulowitzki.” Meanwhile, even a single injury to a team full of guys just barely outperforming their analogs throughout the league can ruin the chaining effect that makes those teams work. One automatic out introduced into a lineup predicated on stringing singles together can be disastrous.
Rather, when I say that, for instance, the Blue Jays are in bad shape at first base (they are, though they’re not the team I’ll talk most about at that position), I’m identifying an opportunity. If the Jays can just hang around and be in serious contention at the All-Star break, GM Alex Anthopoulos will have a pretty clear path to improving them for the stretch run: Go trade for a first baseman.
That out of the way, let’s run through the positions on the diamond, and examine the worst situation among the 20 or so contending teams at each.
Catcher: Boston Red Sox
That said, if July comes and the Sox feel a change needs to be made, there’s ample opportunity to make one. Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro are still just hanging onto the edges of their teams’ rosters. Kurt Suzuki and Carlos Ruiz will be available this summer. None of these are the names of stars, but they’re all potential upgrades on Hanigan-Leon, especially if paired with the right incumbent. The Red Sox have plenty of minor-league depth with which to effect a trade for one of them if they wish.
First Base: Pittsburgh Pirates
Josh Bell is having a decent start to his season in Double-A Altoona. If he comes to save the Pirates, the Pirates might be saved. Failing that, they have plenty of prospects to package into a trade offer, but a good first baseman is hard to find. If the Orioles fell out of contention, perhaps they’d be open to trading impending free agent Chris Davis. The Brewers look poised to shop Adam Lind some this summer. Still, this isn’t an easy patch.
Second Base: Chicago White Sox
The good news for the White Sox is that second base is a pretty easy position to fill, really, and a pretty easy problem around which to work, if that’s what needs to happen. The Orioles have won a whole lot of games over the past three seasons, mostly with Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop at second base. Aaron Hill and Chase Utley are there for the taking, and the White Sox are exactly the kind of organization who would successfully convince Utley to leave Philadelphia.
Shortstop: Kansas City Royals
Now, if one does happen to buy into PECOTA’s estimation of Escobar, he’s a pretty gaping hole in a contender’s lineup. When Ned Yost bats him near the top of the order, Escobar becomes even more of an issue. I do think Yost’s lineup construction is a problem for the Royals. I don’t think Escobar is one, or at least not a big one, outside of that misuse.
Other teams close to matching the Royals’ projected futility at short: the Yankees and the Padres. With weak farm systems and very real clunkers at those spots, I consider them both to have more serious problems than Kansas City. Neither team is in any position to upgrade the position much. The Yankees are fringe contenders anyway, and the Padres have other problems, but shortstop play could be the thing that prevents one of these teams from playing in October.
Third Base: Detroit Tigers
Left Field: Oakland Athletics
Center Field: Detroit Tigers
The only other contender within shouting distance of the Tigers’ tepidness in center is Gose’s former team, in fact. The Jays’ Dalton Pompey vexes PECOTA, and that’s probably fair, given his very rapid ascent through the system last year. When we’re trying to find ways to beat PECOTA’s system, give me the guy with the obviously unique career arc, and I’ll leave you the one whose approach problems have followed him to a fourth pro organization. Detroit is just not as good as they looked for the season’s first two weeks.
Right Field: Chicago White Sox
This is another one of those delightfully fix-friendly problems. If Garcia scuffles into July, he still should offer enough upside to be part of the trade for his own replacement. With the oddly large number of teams carrying outfield gluts right now, it’s safe to assume that the market for corner outfielders in July will be robust. If Rick Hahn wants to get a little crazy, he can solve the problems the White Sox face.
Designated Hitter: Kansas City Royals
Another thing we’re learning, as indicated by the fact that the worst projected WARP a team could manage while hanging around the race is 1.1, is that good offenses win. That’s the problem with the Royals. Unless you buy that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas finally found their way through the jungle and have seen the light, that Lorenzo Cain really is a sudden superstar, and that Kendrys Morales is going to keep doing what he’s doing, this isn’t a very good offense. They’ll continue to prevent runs pretty well, but the Royals aren’t going to take the step up to serious contention unless they add a big bat somewhere.
Unfortunately, those don’t come cheaply. It will be fascinating to see whether, if the Royals are good in July, Dayton Moore (job security restored, moral hazard removed) and David Glass (not usually prone to opening his checkbook far) take the leap and add a guy like Carlos Gonzalez. I’m not a betting man, but I’d almost bet that they won’t.
Pitchers are trickier to talk about in this way. Their projections are more volatile. Their roles match up much less easily, so apples-to-apples comparisons are virtually impossible. Any trade that adds a good pitcher almost certainly pushes the worst ones who would have covered those innings out of them, so all acquisitions come with almost perfectly efficient improvement—unless that volatility bites you.
In general, there are three units on which to keep an eye, groups of arms who could derail their teams’ seasons:
· The back of the Pirates’ rotation is much worse, and more damaging—after all, in this day and age, the back half of a rotation pitches as much as the front half. PECOTA believes A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton and Vance Worley will be worth -1.0 WARP this year, whereas teams expect 2.5 WARP from their third, fourth and fifth rotation members.
· The White Sox’s middle relief is a disaster. I suspect that calling up Carlos Rodon was an optimistic attempt at covering a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid. PECOTA is unfazed, giving the team a -1.1 WARP projection for the unit, against a league average of 0.9 WARP.
Again, there’s tons of time left in the season, and plenty of opportunities for teams to address weaknesses will crop up as the season progresses. This is just an early primer, something to monitor, something to keep us all grounded and immune to the flimsy stateliness of pretty April stat lines. The AL Central is truly up for grabs. The NL contenders seem strong and balanced, and much of their season will be spent trying to separate from the pack enough to make some of the bad teams’ good players attainable trade targets. And the Red Sox have some heavy lifting to do between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.