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March 2, 2012

Overthinking It

The Weakest Positions on 2012's Best Teams

by Ben Lindbergh

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Every year, several teams finish out of the playoffs by a handful of games, close enough to taste October but just as ineligible for post-season play as the lowliest of last-place finishers. Last season, the Red Sox and Braves were both eliminated on the season’s final day after watching what had seemed to be safe leads evaporate. Since a one-game swing for either team would have meant a much different outcome, it was tempting to look back and wonder where in the lineup they could have eked out an extra victory.

As Jay Jaffe noted in January, right field proved to be a particular weak point for both teams. Braves right fielder Jason Heyward slumped to a .254 True Average (TAv) in an injury-plagued sophomore season, and his replacements—primarily Eric Hinske, Joe Mather, and Jose Constanza—hit only .252/.294/.346 in his absence. In Boston, J.D. Drew added a 60-day DL stint for a left shoulder impingement to his lengthy injury history and hit just .222/.315/.302 when active. His replacements—mainly Josh Reddick, Darnell McDonald, and Mike Cameron—made Heyward’s look good, mustering only a .234/.282/.377 line. As a result, Braves right fielders accumulated 0.6 WARP, and Red Sox right fielders checked in at 1.3 WARP. It’s reasonable to wonder whether both teams would have made the playoffs with even average (roughly 2.0 WARP) production in right.

Of course, while neither Heyward nor Drew was a stranger to the disabled list before last season, both had been capable contributors in 2010, so the Braves and Sox couldn’t have foreseen getting so little production from the outfield corner. However, there are some problem positions that this season’s contending teams can see coming. We can pinpoint these potential breaking points with the aid of PECOTA and the playing time estimates available on our depth charts. The following are the positions we expect to contribute 1.0 WARP or less (in other words, less than half of league-average production) to teams that we project to finish third or better in their division (excluding the White Sox, who look like they’ll need more help than a modest upgrade at one or two positions could provide).

Arizona Diamondbacks 
3B (0.7 WARP) and 1B (0.9 WARP)
Last season, D-Backs third baseman Ryan Roberts hit .313/.413/.594 in April but slumped to .239/.329/.402 over the season’s final five months. PECOTA projects more of the same—.246/.330/.393—from him in 2012, without the April outburst. Sporadic starts from Geoff Blum and Willie Bloomquist will lead to even less offense, if anything.

Paul Goldschmidt helped fill a hole at first for Arizona when he was called up last August, but PECOTA doesn’t expect him to improve on his .281 TAv. He won’t have to improve to be better than the likes of Xavier Nady and Juan Miranda, whom the Snakes started out with last season, but he will if he wants to be above average at first.

Atlanta Braves
SS (-0.1 WARP), 1B (0.5 WARP), and CF (0.9 WARP)
Barring a disastrous spring, the Braves will hand the keys to shortstop to a 22-year-old without a single major-league plate appearance, and in this case, PECOTA fears the unknown. Tyler Pastornicky has the glove to stick at the position, and while he doesn’t offer much power, he could hit for a high enough average to succeed in the infield eventually. However, he’s played only 27 games above Double-A, and he’ll almost certainly experience some growing pains. Unfortunately, Jack Wilson and Brandon Hicks don’t make for much of a safety net.

First baseman Freddie Freeman finished second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in last year’s Rookie of the Year voting, but he was worth less than a win. He’s still only 22 and has a bright future ahead of him, but PECOTA doesn’t expect him to hit his stride just yet.

A measly 0.9 WARP from center field might seem like a pessimistic projection given Michael Bourn’s strong start to 2011, but PECOTA still remembers his disastrous 2008, and his .250 TAv in Atlanta last season was more reflective of his abilities than his impressive first half.

Cleveland Indians
LF (0.3 WARP)
Michael Brantley was an on-base threat with speed in the upper minors, but he makes too many outs against major-league pitching and has never developed power. PECOTA expects more struggles in 2012, with backups like Shelley Duncan, Ryan Spilborghs, and Aaron Cunningham offering little assistance.

Colorado Rockies
3B (-0.7 WARP) and RF (0.5 WARP)
Top prospect Nolan Arenado is the future at third for the Rockies, but PECOTA believes Colorado would be better-served there this season by the veteran Casey Blake. At age 38, Blake would fall short of average himself if he played every day, but rushing the 20-year-old Arenado, who excelled in the Arizona Fall League but hasn’t played above High-A in the minors, would lead to an even uglier line. Jordan Pacheco, who saw some time at the hot corner last September, isn’t the answer either: He slugged .377 with three homers last season at Colorado Springs, an extreme hitter’s haven where even Reggie Willits might clear the fences on occasion.

PECOTA projects only half a win out of Michael Cuddyer, the team’s highest-profile off-season acquisition. Cuddyer hit well last season after a dismal 2010, but he’s struggled against right-handed pitching in recent years, and while the mile-high move might prop up his bat, his lack of range makes him a poor fit for the spacious outfield at Coors. Todd Helton & Co. barely escaped joining him on the list with a projected 1.1 WARP from first base.

Detroit Tigers
2B (0.7 WARP) and RF (0.9 WARP)
PECOTA thinks Ryan Raburn’s stick can clear the second-base bar, but his glove isn’t up to the task. With Raburn, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera squeezed into the same infield, Tigers pitchers shouldn’t expect much defensive support—ground-baller Rick Porcello, in particular, might have grounds for a grievance. Bench players Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago can expect to receive plenty of work as defensive replacements, though their bats would be huge steps down from the starters.

Right fielder Brennan Boesch made some strides in the plate discipline department last season, but his low-OBP track record is long enough that PECOTA doesn’t expect the gains to stick.

Miami Marlins
CF (0.1 WARP and 1B (0.9 WARP)
Emilio Bonifacio’s .372 BABIP last season was third-highest among qualified hitters and over 30 points above his career average, which helps explain how he got on base at a .360 clip despite entering the season with a reputation as a prolific out-maker. PECOTA foresees many more outs to come in 2012.

First baseman Gaby Sanchez’s projection puts him in the same class as Goldschmidt: not a bad bat relative to the rest of the league, but below average at a premium offensive position.

Milwaukee Brewers
1B (1.0 WARP)
As I wrote last week, the Brewers made a major improvement at third base by bringing in Aramis Ramirez, but their upgrade at the hot corner probably won’t completely counteract their deficit on the other side of the diamond. PECOTA doesn’t believe that Mat Gamel’s Triple-A production will translate to average offense at first in the majors, projecting an un-Princely .270 TAv for the 26-year-old and a four-win loss at the position from last season for Milwaukee.

New York Yankees
SS (1.0 WARP)
Derek Jeter followed a disappointing 2010 with a .270/.330/.353 line in the first half of last season, heightening concerns that his days as a productive starter were over. In the second half, he looked much more like his old self at the plate, hitting .327/.383/.428, but he’ll turn 38 this season, and PECOTA doesn’t expect him to sustain his resurgence. Jeter should still be an above-average offensive shortstop, but by a narrower margin than he was in 2011, and his always-problematic defense isn’t getting any better. That’s enough to bump his overall output down to 1.0 WARP, roughly what it was two years ago.

San Francisco Giants
2B (0.2 WARP), RF (0.8 WARP), and SS (0.8 WARP)
The Giants are a team built on pitching and have habitually struggled to score runs since Barry Bonds rode off into the steroid-clouded sunset, so it’s no surprise that they’re projected to struggle severely at no fewer than three positions. In fact, only at catcher (Buster Posey) and third base (Pablo Sandoval) can San Francisco claim to be above par.

The primary culprits are Freddy Sanchez at second, Brandon Crawford at short, and Nate Schierholtz in right field, supplemented by further forgettable offense from Emmanuel Burriss, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, and Melky Cabrera, respectively. The Giants could give their flagging lineup a boost by injecting Brandon Belt at first or in left, which Bruce Bochy seemed reluctant to do last season. Fortunately, they’re projected to allow the fewest runs in the league, which gives them a first-place projection despite their inevitable offensive struggles.

Tampa Bay Rays
C (0.5 WARP)
PECOTA looks at Jose Molina and sees a 36-year-old starting catcher with a career .220 TAv who’s never made 300 plate appearances in a single season. What it doesn’t know is that Molina’s ability to frame pitches and call a good game might make him the best defensive catcher in baseball. In light of that hidden value, the Rays need only worry about what will happen if Molina can’t handle a heavy workload, not what will happen if he does.

Texas Rangers
1B (0.9 WARP)
The Rangers have the best lineup in baseball outside of the two AL East titans, but they score their runs in spite of Mitch Moreland, not because of him. Moreland can’t even claim to belong to the Goldschmidt/Sanchez club—if they’re borderline average at first base, he’s well below. The Rangers are projected to be as productive at the position as they are only because Mike Napoli and Michael Young figure to see significant time there.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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