keyboard_arrow_uptop

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

68.1 %

0.8

Ryan Hanigan, Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart, Humberto Quintero

0.2

Yes

Yes

The loss of Christian Vasquez complicated the Red Sox’s spring, but then again, Vasquez was a young, defense-first backstop. He was never meant to be the team’s star. Backup-turned-starter Ryan Hanigan frames well and has a limited but not worthless offensive skill set, and replacement Sandy Leon does perhaps 85 percent of what Vasquez did. If anything, the story here is that the Red Sox were willing to play Vasquez, despite his weaknesses, rather than acquire a catcher who might block the path of top prospect Blake Swihart to playing time. If Swihart presses the issue, the Sox could even promote him and take a gamble on higher upside than Vasquez ever had. If not, this is easily the weakest link in an otherwise very strong lineup and positional corps.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

31.0 %

0.5

P. Alvarez, C. Hart, S. Rodriguez

-0.1

Yes

Ehh…

Apparently on the theory that pure, excellent hitters are too expensive to acquire, the Pirates have spent the last few years shuffling through variously unsexy platoons at first base. Last season’s edition, which included Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis, turned out pretty well, but GM Neal Huntington preferred the idea of Pedro Alvarez taking a shot at being a regular first baseman. PECOTA was thoroughly uninspired by his cuteness, as it pegs Alvarez for a .271 True Average and some ugly defense at first base. (It forecasted a .281 TAv and above-average glove work from Davis.) I can’t help but share that opinion, especially since the brittle, diminished Corey Hart offers little hope of picking up whatever slack Alvarez leaves.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

16.6 %

0.7

M. Johnson, C. Sanchez, E. Bonifacio, G. Beckham

-0.4

Yes

Yes

Micah Johnson has the things that make old baseball men drool—speed, some contact skills, good makeup, did I mention speed? He lacks the things that make old baseball men rich, though, like plus plate discipline, power or polish with the glove. He could grow into something (despite his advanced age, for a rookie), but he’s a project right now. Ditto Carlos Sanchez, only make all of that a little less optimistic. Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham will keep making teams until people stop setting store in cheap hot streaks and unfulfilled potential, I guess.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

35.4 %

0.7

A. Escobar, C. Colon

0.0

No

You won’t find many people who agree with PECOTA more often than I do. We differ on Alcides Escobar. I think his dreadful offensive performance in 2013 was an aberration. I think he’s a solid contact hitter, impatient and relatively punchless, but able to get on base just often enough to use his legs to great effect. He puts barrel to ball often enough that I consider him a true-talent .310 or .320 BABIP guy. He’s aggressive and efficient on the bases, and he’s an average defensive shortstop. I’ll take this profile every time. I’m more inclined to value him at two wins than at one.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

64.2

0.0

N. Castellanos, A. Romine

-0.2

Yes

No

This is not only the worst projected third-base performance for any contending team, but the worst at any position. A great many are willing to dismiss this projection, since Nick Castellanos has some warmed-over prospect hype hanging on him still. I’m not inclined to do so. Castellanos struck out nearly four times for every walk in 2014. He showed power, but not enough to make up for the combination of poor plate discipline and below-average baserunning. He’s also a bad defender at third base. Maybe he’ll rediscover the knack for the spot, but in the meantime, he’s a drag on a team whose batting order only looks invincible in the glow of their strong start.

Never assume Dave Dombrowski won’t make a surprising, splashy move. He well might. It’d be his biggest surprise yet, though, given the sheer emptiness of the Detroit farm system and the fact that Castellanos represents a link to the Tigers’ otherwise bleak long-term future. Barring some strange in-season version of the Josh Donaldson deal, the Tigers will have to work with what they have at the hot corner: not much.

Left Field: Oakland Athletics

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

28.3

1.3

C. Gentry, S. Vogt, B. Burns, C. Ross

-0.6

Yes

Yes

I wanted to read this list of names and wave away the idea that they were impermissibly bad as a left-field combination on a winning team. Crisp, Gentry, Vogt and Burns all have interesting profiles, back stories, and paths to success. They’re generally underrated, or have been for much of their careers.

Here’s the problem: Gentry has never really found consistent success at bat. Vogt will be pulled into other slots in the lineup more often than they would like, especially now that Ben Zobrist is hurt. Cody Ross was a scrap-heap darling. The Diamondbacks are playing his salary this year. He might have a little left in the tank, too, that will make that worthwhile. It seems unlikely, is all. Even giving Bob Melvin a few extra points for his management of similar situations in the last few years, this is an unappealing crew.

Center Field: Detroit Tigers

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

64.2 %

0.1

A. Gose, R. Davis

0.7

Yes

No

That Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis have played much better than anyone could have hoped has a lot to do with the Tigers’ great start, but little to do with their prospective contributions to more Tigers wins through the end of the season. Anthony Gose has 19 strikeouts and one walk in 46 plate appearances this season. The people who think he’s a different player now than the one who frustrated so many in Toronto are in for an unusually cold set of May showers.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

16.6 %

0.6

A. Garcia, J.B. Shuck, T. Thompson

-0.2

Yes

Yes

The Tigers actually had a lower projection, because PECOTA and I differ on J.D. Martinez even more than on Alcides Escobar, but the White Sox are more interesting. Avisail Garcia was traded at perhaps the absolute peak of his value to date, and he was hurt for much of last season. He’s a really, really tough player to read. I’m not sure there’s a player on whom I feel so little certitude. Setting aside the question of how much value he can deliver, we still don’t even seem to have a clear picture of what shape said value might take. Garcia looks like a power hitter in one at-bat, a speed-and-defense guy an inning later, and a hobbled, fairly useless veteran an inning after that. It’s not impossible that he becomes an anchor for the lineup, a key piece stretching the heart of the order closer to the back end of it. It’s also not a good bet, right now.

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

Team’s Total Playoff Odds

Proj. WARP at Position

Players Included

Wins Above Avg to Date

Real Problem?

Fixable?

35.4 %

1.1

K. Morales, S. Perez, J. Bonifacio, P. Orlando

0.1

Yes

Not Easily

We’re learning a lot of things through this exercise. For instance, AL Central contenders sure have a lot of holes! I’ve been saying this for a while, and please, make a mental note of it, because many in the national media seem to have it backward: the AL Central is the weakest division in baseball. Even the good teams therein aren’t very good.

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

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 front of the Red Sox rotation is brutal, with Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Clay Buchholz projected to combine for about half the WARP of an average team's top three.

· 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.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Grasul
4/27
good article, an interesting read
Chef99
4/27
Good stuff; I think perhaps Cleveland with Chisenhall and San Diego with Gyorko might deserve Honorable Mention.
salernob
4/27
San Diego is trying to fix that as much as they can with Solarte.
davescottofakron
4/27
Maybe the Tribe has already fallen from contender status, sorry to say.
TGT969
4/27
Not sure I buy PECODA's projection of backend of Bucs rotation. So far so so good & Locke as a 5 and 2 starters at AAA almost ready I think we'll be fine
matrueblood
4/27
So far so good is exactly the mentality we're hoping to avoid here. What has happened over the last three weeks doesn't predict what will happen over the next 23 as reliably as what has happened over the last three years. I consider the Pirates' thin pitching to be a very real concern for them.
gpurcell
4/29
It's an interesting question how much to weigh the first 12 percent of this season over the previous three years worth of data. I'd certainly put it in the range of a 25 percent weight at the very least.
matrueblood
4/30
After about 60 games, a team's seasonal record can reasonably be weighted evenly with the team's expected record going into that season when projecting the rest of the campaign. Use run differential instead of raw record, and it comes to 50/50 at closer to 48 games. At 20ish games, a wise prognosticator is only assigning a weight of one part in six to what has happened thus far. At a player level, the number is probably even lower. I'm still expecting players to perform 90 percent according to what I expected from them before this season, and only 10 percent according to what they've done to this point.
onegameref
4/27
I like the Aaron Hill pickup for the Sox since he isn't much use to Arizona. Car-Go would look pretty nice in RF for the Sox too. Can we add him please?
Marcgiz
4/27
"For instance, AL Central contenders sure have a lot of holes! I’ve been saying this for a while, and please, make a mental note of it, because many in the national media seem to have it backward: the AL Central is the weakest division in baseball." And yet the AL West is 3-9 against KC, CLE, and MIN... Hmmm. Part of the impression comes from who you selected. It seems to me that there are lots of other "holes" out there you could have selected - LAD SS anyone?
matrueblood
4/27
I selected using our visual depth charts tool, which I want to recommend to everyone. It shows the projected WARP a team will get from a position from now through the end of the season. It wasn't an arbitrary selection process. Also: Jimmy Rollins is a pretty solid shortstop. Darwin Barney and Erisbel Arruebarrena offer very good glove work if Rollins is down for a short while, and (as Chris Crawford pointed out on Twitter last night) Corey Seager is right on the doorstep of the Majors, and has the profile of one who makes an immediate impact. The Dodgers have one of the better shortstop situations in the league, and among AL Central teams, only the White Sox have anything close to the expected production LA should get at that spot.
shmage
4/27
So the KC Royals need a DH and "cannot easily" find a good one? DH found! The Mets have a proven DH-type hitter playing(sic) second base and clogging the way for a really good young prospect who has already shown he can play in the majors-Dilson Herrera. So waste no time, Royals and Mets--make that trade for Daniel Murphy! Whatever the Mets get in exchange their up-the-middle defense will improve enough that their overall performance would be virtually sure to benefit.
Machaut
4/27
Haven't you heard? Daniel Murphy disagrees with the "DH lifestyle."
BarryR
4/27
Funny, in that I think the Mets biggest problem is 2B. Even if Murphy returns to his BA-centric offensive self, he's still a disaster with the glove. Unfortunately, at this moment, Murphy's bat is not about to improve anyone's lineup.
Chef99
4/28
Ironically, he had a great game both in the field and at the plate tonight.
matrueblood
4/28
If Daniel Murphy is a big upgrade over Kendrys Morales in your book... Well, that's one interesting book. Acquiring Daniel Murphy wouldn't make the Royals better.
Nacho999
4/28
I agree with Matthew on Murphy vs Morales...Morales doesn't walk, but the man can swing the bat...Yeah, it's been several seasons since his career wrecking grand slam, but I'm of the mind he can continue exactly what he's doing right now...Throw last year out the window, he got bad advice as did Drew and Soriano today, but he looks like the same hitter to me, which is to say 15-20 homers 80 RBIs and a .275 or so average...He's slow as anything, clogs the bases and won't dominate the free world, but a team could do a lot worse than Morales...And several are...There's nothing wrong with the Royals offense a little health (and production) from Infante and Rios wouldn't cure...They'll not world beaters, but they are defending AL champs and still have that bullpen...They need a frontline starter, but all things considered they can compete with any team in the AL as far as I can tell...
matrueblood
4/30
Infante and Rios are old and increasingly fraught with injuries, so let's not just say they could cure the offense, as though that's likely. They still have most of that bullpen. For the moment. Holland is on the shelf, and I don't really trust Kelvin Herrera to remain dominant. I certainly think they'll regress from the level they've flashed early on. They can compete with any team in the AL Central, that's increasingly clear. I still think they're the third-best team of the set, but they're right there in the mix. I do NOT think they can compete with the contenders in the other two divisions, who still aren't juggernauts, but have better depth and stronger talent cores than the contenders in the Central do.
Pernellius
5/01
I am frustrated that the only thing that can prove you wrong is a larger sample size. Everyone was talking about the Royals being a 72-win team and the AL Central being weak, yet two of the three 15-win teams in the AL reside in the Central. The Royals and the Tigers are 2nd and 5th in third-order winning percentage, and the Royals lead the league in run differential. No, I don't expect KC to win 110 games to keep up their .682 win percentage, or the Tigers to win 106, but how long does it take to admit these teams are flirting with 90+-win seasons? Both teams have banked 15 wins, meaning each needs to win slightly more than 53% of their games to win 90. Is that so nuts? I think KC's biggest concern should be its rotation; Guthrie and Vargas both have DRAs over 6! But, somehow, Volquez is 15th in baseball at 3.13.
Cronfordox
5/10
If you're going to say the AL Central is truly up for grabs, how about throwing the Twins in there? As of the end of play today they're only a game and a half out of the lead. Can we suppose their biggest need is pitching, or are there other key positional adjustments that they should be expected to make if they want to stay in the race?
Cronfordox
5/30
i'm just sayin'..................GO TWINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!