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The Weakest Spots Among Better-Positioned Contenders

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Earlier this week, I took a projection-driven two-part look at the trouble spots on National League and American League contenders. The exercise — a sibling of my annual pre-trade deadline Replacement Level Killers series — primarily highlighted clubs in the middle of the table, based on our Playoff Odds, with many of the best teams, such as the Braves and Dodgers, going completely unmentioned.

In that regard, the exercise worked as I had intended, focusing on the teams and spots where a marginal addition from outside the organization or even a modest breakout from within it could have a sizable impact on their chances of making the postseason. To be considered contenders, teams needed Playoff Odds of at least 25%, and roughly speaking, all but one of those mentioned fell in the range of 80-85 wins. Under the 12-team playoff format, that certainly counts as contention once you consider that two of last year’s NL Wild Card teams, the Diamondbacks and Marlins, qualified with just 84 wins, nosing out the 83-win Cubs and the 82-win Padres and Reds. At each position, I highlighted the two lowest-ranked teams from within that subset, so long as they projected to produce less than 2.0 WAR, after an adjustment: I applied a 20% reduction to counter the general tendency to overestimate playing time at this point in the season. In other words instead of having a total of 1,000 WAR projected across the 30 teams, and 57% of that (570 WAR) allocated to position players, our Depth Chart values currently add up to about 682 WAR, an inflation of about 20%.

Because the mid-table teams almost invariably had some glaring weakness, seven teams escaped scrutiny. The Braves (98.5% odds), Dodgers (94.6%), and Cardinals (53.5%) — three of the NL’s top four teams by those odds, each favored to win their respective divisions — were absent from the Senior Circuit roundup, while the Yankees (75.6%), Rays (62.5%), Orioles (50.6%) and Rangers (36.3%) missed out on the fun in the Junior Circuit piece. Only one of the top four NL teams showed up with trouble spots (the Phillies at 58.5%), but the AL distribution was more haphazard, in that the Astros (86.8%), Twins (64.9%), Mariners (58.6%), and Blue Jays (47.4%) each had at least one representative within my roundup.

In response to the feedback I received, I thought it would be worthwhile to do one more roundup in this format, this time limiting it to those otherwise unexamined teams and going only one layer deep at each position. I couldn’t quite call this “The Weakest Spots Among the Powerhouses” or “… Among the Top Contenders,” hence the title. Note that not every position had a team fall below the threshold, though I do mention the lowest-ranked ones in passing for those spots. It’s worth keeping in mind the tendency for even the game’s top prospects to have fairly tepid projections based upon limited minor league data and a higher risk of being farmed out if they start slowly; those players don’t always hit the ground running. For team totals, I’ve cited the adjusted WARs, but where I reference individual player projections I’ve stuck to the published figures.

Catcher

Rays (21st, 1.9 adjusted WAR)

My AL roundup contained only the Red Sox catchers, and while I’m not sure what happened since I composed the list to move the Rays from right at the 2.0 minimum to below it, here we are. Since landing on last summer’s Replacement Level Killers list, they’ve basically turned over their tandem, with René Pinto and Alex Jackson replacing Christian Bethancourt and Francisco Mejía. The 27-year-old Pinto did the bulk of the catching in the second half, hitting .252/.267/.456 (98 wRC+) in 105 PA, with an eye-watering 34-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s true that he hits the ball hard, but the Rays seem to like him more for his defense than his offense — or, more specifically, his framing, which was 1.7 runs above average by our framing metric and two above by that of Statcast. Meanwhile, the latter system rated him at seven runs below average in blocking and one below in caught stealing.

The 28-year-old Jackson didn’t play in the majors last year, and he owns a .141/.243/.227 line and 48.1% strikeout rate in 185 PA in the majors, mostly from 2021. Nonetheless, he tore up Triple-A (.284/.347/.556 with 16 homers in 248 PA) with the Brewers and Rays’ affiliates before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. Defensively, he’s been a bit below average in framing but is otherwise average-ish. The 28-year-old Mejía, back in the organization on a minor league deal after a brief odyssey with the Angels, probably has his work cut out to regain a share of his old job. He hit just .227/.258/.400 (80 wRC+) last year and hasn’t come close to fulfilling the promise he showed at the plate in the minors.

First Base

Yankees (17th, 1.4 WAR)

Anthony Rizzo got off to a hot start in 2023, hitting for a 146 wRC+ through May 28, when he collided with Fernando Tatis Jr. and missed his next three games due to what the Yankees called a neck injury. Upon returning, he hit for just a 43 wRC+ over the next two months before the team shut him down with post-concussion symptoms; he didn’t play again, and finished at .244/.328/.378 (100 wRC+). The 34-year-old Rizzo is said to be healthy now, but he projects for just a .238/.332/.426 line, a 111 wRC+ — right at the major league average for first basemen last year — and 1.3 WAR, which won’t be a huge help to the Yankees lineup. The most likely backup is DJ LeMahieu, who’s slated to be the starting third baseman and who’s coming off his second 101 wRC+ in three years, though he did post a 129 wRC+ after the All-Star break compared to a 77 before, when he was still dealing with the effects of a right big toe injury. Oswaldo Cabrera, a switch-hitting utilityman who was very good in a late-2022 stint and terrible last year, is another alternative for first.

Second Base

Oddly enough — or perhaps fittingly, as we are talking about good clubs — none of these teams has a second base situation that falls below the threshold. Orioles second basemen project to rank 14th in the majors with an adjusted 2.4 WAR, the lowest mark from among this group, but that’s with 20-year-old Jackson Holliday, the no. 1 prospect on our Top 100 list, 25-year-old Jordan Westburg, and 29-year-old Ramón Urías projected to account for most of the playing time, with all projecting to be average or better — which particularly for Holliday would be no small achievement, even with his pedigree. Note that this is Baltimore’s only appearance within this exercise, even though the team has a lower projected value at the first base and DH slots than it does at second base; the O’s just don’t stand out relative to their competition’s weaknesses.

Shortstop

Braves (24th, 1.6 WAR)

The Braves project to be the majors’ top team, but they do have their weaknesses, and this is one. After letting Dansby Swanson depart as a free agent, they turned shortstop duties over to Orlando Arcia, who had spent five and a half seasons with diminishing returns in Milwaukee, plus another season and a half as a utilityman for Atlanta, playing a grand total of 24 innings at shortstop. The team nonetheless signed him to a three-year, $7.3 million extension — practically peanuts — and he handled the position reasonably well, hitting .264/.321/.420 (99 wRC+) with a career-high 2.3 WAR despite a mixed bag of defensive metrics. Given that he netted just 0.2 WAR from 2018–22, the projection systems are understandably skeptical he can sustain such production; if he can’t, who knows what kind of magic pixie dust the Braves can sprinkle on backups Luis Guillorme and David Fletcher to try and turn them into league-average regulars.

Third Base

Here’s another spot where none of these teams falls below the threshold, with the Dodgers (15th at 2.1 WAR) the lowest ranked. Neither Max Muncy’s fielding at third base nor his low batting averages are pretty, but he’s a disciplined hitter who can absolutely crush the ball and justify his spot in the lineup; last year, he matched his career high of 36 homers while netting 2.9 WAR. Chris Taylor and the freshly re-signed Enrique Hernández are around for those times when Muncy’s banged up or the team could use more defensive support.

Left Field

Dodgers (21st, 1.4 WAR)

This is the NL West juggernaut’s weakest spot, even after taking steps to address it. Newcomer Teoscar Hernández, who joined the fold on a one-year, $23.5 million deal, hits the ball very hard… when he makes contact. In 2023 he posted an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph (80th percentile), a 13.8% barrel rate (88th percentile), and a 49.4% hard-hit rate (90th percentile). The problem was that he struck out 31.1% of the time opposite a 5.6% walk rate, so he hit an uninspiring .258/.305/.435 (105 wRC+). To be fair, he did say he had trouble seeing the ball at the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park, where he slugged just .380, so it’s hardly out of the question that a change of scenery could drive a rebound for the 31-year-old slugger. The aforementioned Taylor and Enrique Hernández will see time here as well, but both are a few years removed from their best work. Taylor rebounded from a bad season and a slow first half to hit .237/.326/.420 (104 wRC+) but struck out 32.6% of the time himself, while Hernández perked up after returning to Los Angeles, posting a 59 wRC+ with the Red Sox and a 96 wRC+ with the Dodgers.

Center Field

One more where everybody is above the threshold, with the Rays (19th at 2.1 adjusted WAR) the lowest ranked among those here, based primarily on the projections’ skepticism that Jose Siri can repeat last year’s extreme performance. (See Davy Andrews’ piece on Tromps Per Womp.)

Right Field

Cardinals (14th, 1.8 WAR)

Given his plus-plus raw power, few people doubted Jordan Walker’s offensive ability, hence his no. 12 ranking on last year’s Top 100 Prospects list. At age 21, with no Triple-A experience, he made the Cardinals out of spring training and immediately reeled off a 12-game hitting streak. But when the league quickly adjusted, he struggled briefly and was sent to Memphis to work on his approach, particularly so he could elevate the ball with greater consistency. Even with a 46.9% groundball rate, he finished at a respectable .276/.342/.445 (116 wRC+), but his defense was another matter. Blocked by Nolan Arenado at third base, he moved to the outfield and was absolutely brutal according to the metrics (-16 DRS, -12 RAA, -11.8 UZR), and the visuals weren’t much better, even with the occasional impressive play. Thus he netted just 0.2 WAR. He does project to improve to 1.6 WAR, with Dylan Carlson getting time in right field as well — presumably when the Cardinals mercifully slot Walker at DH — and I’d bet that Walker far outhits the 116 wRC+ for which he’s projected.

Designated Hitter

Rangers (13th, 1.2 WAR)

With all but the Dodgers and Yankees projected to produce less than 2.0 WAR out of the DH spot (that’s after adjustment), this category is shooting fish in a barrel, and with the Cardinals and Rangers virtually tied, I’m focusing on the defending champions. This is hardly a bad situation, not only because Texas ranks among the upper half of the 30 teams, but also because about half the playing time projects to go to 22-year-old Wyatt Langford, who was chosen fourth in last year’s draft and rocketed through four levels to reach Triple-A, hitting .360/.480/.677 (190 wRC+) with 10 homers in 200 PA along the way. He just placed second only to Holliday on our Top 100 list as “perhaps the most complete hitter in the minors.” The problem is that he’s a 30-grade defender, with the speed for center field but a fringe-average arm and a poor feel for outfield play in general, at least at this stage; meanwhile, the outfield of Evan Carter, Leody Taveras, and Adolis García features strong defenders at all three spots. Langford could make the roster out of spring training, but it’s not a guarantee. With the possible exception of Corey Seager, who’s working his way back from January hernia surgery, no other Ranger projects to have much impact at this spot, hence the middling ranking.

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