MLB’s worst position situations: 2012 edition

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After declaring the Houston Astros in position of the game’s worst rotation earlier today, I thought it’d be fun to look at the rest of the worst. So here are MLB’s most gruesome position situations heading into the 2012 season:

Catcher: Dodgers – A.J. Ellis, Matt Treanor, Tim Federowicz

The Dodgers let the slugging-heavy Rod Barajas walk with the intention of replacing him with someone who will do little but walk. Ellis. who turns 31 in April, has hit .262/.360/.330 in 206 major league at-bats. That’s not too shabby, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to keep his OBP up once right-handed pitchers figure out he’s barely a threat to get the ball out of the infield. He’s also average at best defensively. That the Dodgers didn’t bring in anyone better than Treanor as an insurance policy was quite a disappointment.

Dishonorable mention: Rays, Astros, Blue Jays

I might have gone with the Astros over the Dodgers before they signed Chris Snyder. There’s still some hope that young Jason Castro will be pretty good anyway. The Rays are banking a lot on Jose Molina’s defense, but even if he’s as good as they think, turning him into a regular for the first time at age 36 figures to result in DL stints.

First base: Orioles – Chris Davis, Wilson Betemit

The Orioles top this list because they’re stubbornly refusing to put Mark Reynolds at first, even though Reynolds was maybe the game’s worst defender at third base last season. Davis offers a superior glove at third and his bat would play better there. I have him projected with a worse OPS than other replaceable first basemen like Matt LaPorta, Daric Barton and Mat Gamel. Betemit is currently penciled in as the DH.

Dishonorable mention: Indians, Pirates, Athletics, Brewers, Cubs

Two of these teams are going to upgrade to Derrek Lee and Casey Kotchman, taking them off the list. I imagine the Indians will be one of them, leaving LaPorta out of a job.

Second base: Mets – Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner, Ronny Cedeno

There aren’t any particularly bad second base situations out there, though the Mets’ could quickly turn into one if Murphy struggles to recover his mobility. He sustained season-ending injuries to his right knee in 2010 and his left knee last year. Murphy can hit enough to make up for below average defense, but he’s just not likely to hold up physically while playing second base.

Dishonorable mentions: Orioles, Tigers, Cardinals, Cubs

The Orioles will go back to Robert Andino at second if Brian Roberts can’t overcome a nasty case of post-concussion syndrome. The Tigers can set up an offense-defense platoon of Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago, but Raburn probably isn’t good enough offensively to make it worth it.

Third base: Dodgers – Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston Jr., Adam Kennedy

Uribe kicked off a three-year, $21 million contract by hitting .204/.264/.293 in 270 at-bats for the Dodgers last season. He can’t be that bad again, but he still gets a worst offensive projection than Ian Stewart, Danny Valencia and some of the other contenders here and I’m not sure his glove will allow him to overcome it.

Dishonorable mention: Cubs, Pirates, Twins, Rockies, Mariners

I’m of the belief that the Pirates need to send down Pedro Alvarez and use Casey McGehee as a stopgap third baseman. Alvarez belongs at first base anyway. The Mariners make an appearance even though I’m somewhat optimistic about Kyle Seager. He should start against righties.

Shortstop: Giants – Brandon Crawford, Mike Fontenot, Ryan Theriot

Crawford hit .224/.282/.318 in 107 at-bats in Triple-A and .204/.288/.296 in 196 at-bats in the majors last season, so his glove will have to be awfully good to make him serviceable. For what it’s worth, I have him projected at .222/.300/.303 for this year. The Giants will have a couple of weak defenders backing him up.

Dishonorable mention: Braves, Red Sox, Twins

I see Atlanta’s Tyler Pastornicky outhitting Crawford, though I expect he’ll be a bit weaker defensively. That the Giants claimed the top spot here came down to the backups; Jack Wilson is the better insurance policy. The Red Sox will try to get by with Nick Punto and Mike Aviles, at least for a few months. The Twins also make the list: I know Jamey Carroll’s defensive numbers have been pretty good, but at age 38, range is certainly an issue.

Left field: Blue Jays – Eric Thames, Travis Snider, Ben Francisco, Rajai Davis

What the Jays lack in quality, they do make up for in quantity. Still, manager John Farrell is likely to have a difficult time figuring out the best arrangement here. Thames looks like the early favorite for playing time, but he’s also the worst defender of the bunch. Snider is just 24, so there’s still plenty of promise in his bat. He’s the one in the group capable of making me look silly here in a few months.

Dishonorable mention: White Sox, Dodgers, Mariners, Twins, Astros, Pirates

I’m not optimistic about Alejandro De Aza for the White Sox or Ben Revere for the Twins, but both should be excellent defensively, making up for OPSs in the 700 range.

Center field: Astros – Jordan Schafer, Jason Bourgeois, J.B. Shuck

The Astros are banking on Schafer after picking him up from the Braves in the Michael Bourn trade. I have him projected at .252/.326/.353, which won’t be so bad if it comes with plus defense. However, he is injury-prone and there’s not much behind him.

Dishonorable mention: Nationals, Rangers, Mets, Royals

The Nationals have yet again struck out on obtaining a center field upgrade, leaving them with the option of shifting Jayson Werth from right or letting Roger Bernadina and Mike Cameron battle it out in spring training. The Rangers will have Julio Borbon, Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry compete, but they always have the fallback of returning Josh Hamilton to center.

Right field: Astros – Brian Bogusevic, Fernando Martinez, Jack Cust

At least the Astros avoided the clean sweep in the outfield; I think J.D. Martinez will be below average in left, but he does have a nice glove. Bogusevic just doesn’t possess the power to be useful as a regular, and the alternatives aren’t pretty.

Dishonorable mention: White Sox, Red Sox, Athletics, Giants

Right field stands as one of the game’s strongest positions at the moment, and none of these situations are nearly as bad as Houston’s. The White Sox will turn to Dayan Viciedo after trading Carlos Quentin, and while I don’t think he’ll be outright bad, I don’t see him being much of an asset offensively or defensively right away. The Red Sox can try a Ryan Sweeney-Cody Ross platoon, at least until Ryan Kalish gets back. The big problem there is that they may need to start both Sweeney and Ross if Carl Crawford starts off on the DL.

2017 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

The first rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts. The second rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts.

For the uninitiated, we’re now up to 15 years in which the Mariners have failed to contend for a championship title. The highlight reel of their 1995 and 2001 playoff runs has worn thin; so, too, have the slogans and promises of the nine managers and four general managers who have cycled through the franchise during their 15-year drought.

That all could change under the direction of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is approaching his third year at the helm of the Mariners’ organization after making the most single-year offseason trades in club history. In February, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince estimated Dipoto’s totals had reached 13 trades involving 36 players since the start of the 2016-17 offseason. “Go back to when [Dipoto] arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season,” Castrovince writes, “and it’s 37 swaps involving 95 players.”

That’s an insane number of players to be moving around, especially when a team is leaning toward playoff contention rather than a fire sale, and you have to hope that Dipoto has a reason for the high-stakes shuffling.

One possible reason? There’s an expiration date on Seattle’s most treasured veterans, including Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, even Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez hasn’t received a Cy Young award in seven years, hasn’t tossed a perfect game in five years, and hasn’t maintained an ERA below 3.00 in three years. Iwakuma nearly crested 200 innings for the second time in his career, but his good health and durability was punished by a career-worst 1.3 HR/9, 6.6 SO/9 and 4.12 ERA. As expected, Cano, Cruz and Seager all turned out solid performance at the plate, and but it’s the hazards that come with aging and inevitable decline that exert pressure on Dipoto and the rest of the Mariners to deliver a postseason finish sooner rather than later.

Dipoto’s machinations have, for the most part, been both team- and fan-friendly this offseason. He didn’t move any major contracts or trade away any familiar faces on the Mariners roster, choosing instead to excise fringe players and adding short-term depth where it was needed. He reinforced a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma and James Paxton with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, Max Povse and Rob Whalen and left-hander Drew Smyly. The bullpen received right-handers Shae Simmons, Dan Altavilla and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the latter of whom inked a two-year, $11 million deal, while Carlos Ruiz gave the Mariners another option behind the plate. Jarrod Dyson was thrown into the outfield mix alongside Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura took over for Ketel Marte at short, and infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia lined up behind Dan Vogelbach at first base, where he later won the starting role.

It’s enough to make your head spin, but the takeaway is simple enough. Investing in younger, cheaper players provides the Mariners with enough defense and athleticism to compete for a postseason berth without the drawbacks of weighty contracts and long-term commitments. If the experiment doesn’t pan out as expected, there’s nothing to stop Dipoto from making another dozen trades during next year’s offseason and restarting the whole process.

As with any roster overhaul, there’s no predicting how much the Mariners of 2017 will improve on their 2016 counterparts. The starting rotation still leaves much to be desired, and without productive turnarounds from Hernandez and Iwakuma, even the cavernous maw of Safeco Field won’t be able to stave off another collapse. James Paxton and Drew Smyly, while not rotation headliners, project to be the most stable of the bunch so far.

The bullpen profiles a little better, notwithstanding Steve Cishek’s lengthy recovery from hip surgery this winter, Ariel Miranda’s demotion to Triple-A Tacoma and the unexpected forearm issues that cropped up in Shae SImmons’ right arm. At one point, manager Scott Servais said he was considering an eight-man bullpen featuring Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, though the details have yet to be worked out before the team opens their season on Monday.

While some kinks still need to be worked out among the Mariners’ pitching staff, their offense and defense look sharper than they have in years. According to FanGraphs, Dipoto invested in some pretty sizable upgrades with Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and backup outfielder Ben Gamel, enough to make them the most improved outfield defense in the league.

It’s plausible that the 2017 Mariners have improved as a whole. It’s also plausible that all of Dipoto’s frenzied offseason moves were more focused and premeditated than they appeared. It’s even plausible that the tinkering and trimming and restructuring of the Mariners’ defense could attract a heftier win-loss record and a participation trophy — heck, even a championship title — in this year’s postseason.

But you didn’t hear it here. The first rule of playoff droughts, after all, is that we don’t talk about them until they’re finally, mercifully snapped.

Prediction: 2nd place in AL West.*

(Note from Craig: I did the Rangers preview and picked them to be in second place. I did so without coordinating with Ashley on where she’d place the M’s because, let’s face it, details are not my strong suit. Upon reading the preview above and thinking harder I’m probably leaning more toward the Rangers coming in third to be honest, but I won’t change either preview because taking predictions seriously is pointless. We’ll all just check back in October and see who was right. Ashley was probably right). 

2017 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.