PECOTA isn’t sentient and it doesn’t have it out for your team, but goodness knows there are some players it doesn’t expect to have particularly good 2016 seasons. Much has already been made of some of the rosiest projections, or at least the most fun, but what about the real stinkers? What are the worst positions in baseball, those teams cursed with projected black holes? I looked at the worst spots by projected WARP, and tried to offer a few solutions, sometimes homegrown, sometimes in the free agent or trade market, sometimes an acceptance of fate.
Tigers’ catcher (-1.8 WARP): The combination of starters and backups in Detroit doesn’t just make it the worst projected position in the American League; James McCann and crew are projected as the worst position in baseball. McCann’s offense last year was okay; good but not great if we’re feeling charitable. But his defense, particularly his framing, was poor. By our framing metrics, he cost the Tigers 16.6 runs in 2015. His projected -1.4 WARP is actually an improvement on his -1.7 WARP 2015 campaign. Not exactly inspiring stuff.
Possible solutions: Youth getting better. The good news for Tigers fans is that the front office clearly recognized a potential problem at the position coming into 2016. The bad news is that after letting Alex Avila move over a state to the White Sox, the veteran backstop that Al Avila brought in as an insurance policy on another poor year from McCann was Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Saltalamacchia is projected to combine a weak offensive performance with especially poor defense. PECOTA doesn’t take his sparkling personality into account (no doubt a relief to the Tigers front office) but still sees him as -0.3-win player. The worse news? Help is not to be found readily on the farm, and the free agent market going into the season has been picked clean. They’ll have to hope that McCann shows himself worthy of a million bad “Yes he McCann puns,” picks up some framing techniques from Brad Ausmus, and hits more like he did in Toledo than he has in Comerica. The Tigers might look to make a trade later in the year if they’re contending, but they’ll likely have competition for scant catcher resources. More on that in a minute.
Angels’ third base (-1.2 WARP): This is a little uncomfortable. The Angels released David Freese on November 2nd. On December 10th, they traded Trevor Gott and Michael Brady to the Nationals for Yunel Escobar and cash considerations. Months later, PECOTA shakes its disinterested, algorithmic head. Escobar posted a 1.0 WARP season in 2015 but is projected for -1.2 WARP in 2016, driven largely by a drop in offensive production back to career norms (he had his best season by VORP since 2011 last year), and a strongly pessimistic view of his defense. It could be fine. The whole infield will likely benefit from the addition of Andrelton Simmons, and the Angels will hope Johnny Giavotella will play like he did after he came back from a nerve condition that affected his vision. Still, Escobar’s defense is projected to be a liability, and if his offense dips as predicted, the Angels could be in search of a new third baseman.
Possible solution: The problem with the Angels is they have nothing to trade from the farm. They might contemplate someone out of the rotation like Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, or a maybe healthy Tyler Skaggs, but given the middling expectations surrounding those three, it might not yield much. They’ll be loath to part with Garrett Richards, as well they should be, and Jered Weaver will move about as quickly as his fastball. If they can put together a package, they might look to someone deeper down the depth chart, like the Diamondbacks’ Brandon Drury, whose neutral outlook is an upgrade over what they have now. Still, the best option if Escobar craters might be bringing in Juan Uribe or a reunion with David Freese.
Twins’ right field (-1.1 WARP): The White Sox pursuit, or lack thereof, of Dexter Fowler has garnered all the outfield attention in the AL Central, but by PECOTA, it’s the Twins that have trouble brewing in right. Eddie Rosario did a lot of dynamic things for the Twins last year, but as his Annual comment notes, “He's electrifying, and there's absolutely no way, without numbers, that you'd realize he only walked as many times as he tripled, leading to a .289 OBP.” With a projected .238 TAv and bad defense, he could be a real problem.
Possible solutions: Blessed with Byron Buxton, the remaining outfield options for the Twins down on the farm are scant, at least until the Twins want to accelerate Max Kepler’s service clock. (Our depth charts assume that’ll be later in the year.) Of all the remaining free agent options, Austin Jackson is likely the most appealing. Sure he’ll be playing in right instead of center, and sure the bat is just okay, but he isn’t Grady Sizemore. Among the fourth outfielders floating through their first uniform rather than their second or third of 2016, Collin Cowgill or Sam Fuld or Rajai Davis might be potential trade targets at the deadline, but the who is less important than the what. The general theme of the what: there will likely be excess fourth outfielders (hey Justin Ruggiano) come deadline time, several of them will find new homes, and one of those homes might be the Twins. And that might be true regardless of whether or not they sign Austin Jackson.
Angels’ and Royals’ Pitching Staffs: Uh oh. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of teams whose staffs have chinks in the armor. Nick Martinez isn’t helping the Rangers that much; Kendall Graveman and Miguel Gonzalez aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire for the A’s and Orioles. But if we look at the totality of their staffs, the Angels (8.3 WARP) and Royals (8.0 WARP) are the weakest relative to the rest of the AL field. The White Sox staff is projected to be worth 13.3 WARP; in the AL West, the Astros’ projection is 12.5 WARP while the Mariners is 12 WARP. Edinson Volquez is only projected for 0.6 WARP, and PECOTA is bearish on sixth man Chris Young. The Angels problems are more diffuse; Jered Weaver and Hector Santiago aren’t doing them any favors as the second and fourth starter, and their setup men and closer don’t track that well either.
Possible Solutions: Royals devil magic? The free agent market is getting pretty thin. The Royals have some promising pitchers in the minors but they’re a ways off. They’ll probably do a deal at the deadline, or pull all their starters after two innings and hope the bullpen can do the rest. A lot will depend on how their performance relative is to what PECOTA forecasts vs. what Royals fans want PECOTA to forecast. The Angels have a trickier situation. There’s a reason their options to address third base were limited; the farm is in a drought. I don’t have a great solution here. These guys might just be in for a hard time.
Dishonorable Mention: White Sox catcher (-0.1 WARP), Rangers catcher (-0.1 WARP)
Braves (-1.1 WARP), Marlins (-0.3 WARP), Phillies (-1.1 WARP), Diamondbacks (-0.9 WARP), Rockies (-1.1 WARP) catcher: Oh boy. The National League’s worst positions are all clustered in the same spot. The Braves, Phillies, and Rockies all boast, if we can use the word, a projected -1.1 WARP at catcher. The Marlins and the Diamondbacks don’t have it quite that bad, but they aren’t projected to send anyone to the All-Star game. A.J. Pierzynski (-1.3 WARP), Nick Hundley (-0.9 WARP), Welington Castillo (-0.7) look to have a mediocre offense and awful defense. Cameron Rupp (-0.9 WARP) projects to be merely bad at both. The Marlins have a marginally positive starter in J.T. Realmuto, but fall apart after that. It isn’t pretty.
Possible Solutions: This is how backup catchers have long careers. To say that the position is shallow in both leagues beyond the top is overselling it. Some of these clubs might look to farmhands as the season progresses. Tom Murphy reached the majors for the Rockies last year and his defense and offensive profile are workable. Andrew Knapp is similarly positioned for the Phillies; he made their Top 10 Prospects List despite a terrible mustache and could be ready to contribute soon. But the Braves don’t have anyone near major-league ready. The Diamondbacks will probably have to hold their breath and wait out Welington Castillo. Beyond the farm, the trade market is pretty rough. Boston’s Christian Vazquez is projected for 0.4 WARP and might find himself dispensable behind Blake Swihart and Ryan Hanigan. Beyond that, there aren’t many third backups who project positively for the year. Jesus Sucre, who might have made sense as a trade piece, broke his leg badly in winter ball and is out six months. Even those that do carry marginally positive projections are in the midst of retooling. Given all they have said about his future place in the organization, as well as his miserable 2015, someone like Mike Zunino seems unlikely to move, and there aren’t even that many Zuninos. All of which could mean a bunch of lateral moves signifying nothing.
Braves (-0.1 WARP) spot starters and Phillies (-0.1 WARP) set-up men: Scattered among the starters and relievers and closers of the NL are various marginally valuable pitchers, many of whom will no doubt shuffle around or get sent down. The worst value in NL pitching comes from the two teams projected to be the worst in baseball. The Braves won’t be especially good anywhere; they’re projected to have the worst NL staff at 5.8 total WARP. The spot starters are the worst issue; worth 0.0 WARP here, -0.1 WARP there, all adding up to a slight negative projection for those destined for the fill in. For the Phillies, whose staff clocks in at 6.7 total WARP, the setup men are the problem; Luis Garcia is a wash at 0.0 WARP, but James Russell projects slightly negatively.
Possible Solutions: It is pretty nice to have good farm systems. Neither of these teams seems likely to trade to acquire big leaguers, and with farms like this they probably won’t have to. We used the phrase “Atlanta has more pitchers than post-work happy hour” to describe the Braves, and Philly has its own stable of high quality pitchers toiling away. The solutions might not be major league ready right now, but that’s probably fine. Now that the rebuilds are here, these guys are hopefully keen to do it right.
Dishonorable Mention: Phillies first base (0.1 WARP), left field (0.5 WARP), and right field (0.3 WARP); Padres second base (0.2 WARP) and third base (0.3 WARP)