On the eve of this season, we at FanGraphs compiled our annual Positional Power Rankings, examining the projected depth charts at every position for every team. Things are very exciting at the top of these rankings — monitoring the center field situation for the Angels, for example, will be a thrill for the foreseeable future.
Also a thrill — at least for this impartial observer — was the situation at the very bottom of the same rankings. While just about every position for just about every team has been serviceably filled by the end of winter, a few slipped through the cracks here and there. Of the dozens of major league positions amongst the thirty teams, only four were projected to produce at below replacement level. Here we will examine just how things are going for those four positions, plus starting here with a fifth position that, while projected for marginally above replacement level, lagged remarkably behind the other 29 teams:
Oops. Mike lamented Arizona’s catching scenario in his write-up, and that projection gave about half a season of playing time to veteran Gerald Laird, who has only had two plate appearances and who is presently on the 60-day DL. Instead it is Jordan Pacheco — who has attained nary an above-replacement season in his four partial big-league years — who is splitting the time with primary starter Tuffy Gosewisch.
The result has been significantly worse than the perhaps-already-dire preseason projection. In 87 plate appearances, this three-headed journeyman hydra has struck out 18 times, singled 14 times, and gotten extra bases no times. What’s perhaps more surprising is that, while the Diamondbacks are in last place in terms of catcher production, they definitely have company, with the Rays, Mariners, Angels, and — gasp! — Brewers all in hot pursuit for the bottom of the pile. It should be noted, though, that Rene Rivera, Mike Zunino, and Chris Iannetta are at least providing elite framing despite their poor offense — a plus that the Diamondbacks cannot claim.
Welp, things are going worse than expected over here, too. Both Darin Ruf and Ryan Howard have been suffering from some crippling BABIP numbers, going just .197 between them. They’re also striking out over a quarter of the time, so a BABIP regression-boost won’t carry this duo very far above the Mendoza Line. In his write-up, Eno predicted that the Phillies would be calling up Maikel Franco, which has not yet happened despite Franco’s torrid start in Triple-A. Hm.
This is, somehow, not the most dire first base situation in the majors. Actually, it’s not even the second-most dire. The Astros, Red Sox, and Mariners have all received worse production from their first basemen so far, thanks to slow starts/careers from Chris Carter, Mike Napoli, and Logan Morrison. With a wRC+ of just 22 between Morrison and trusty back-up Willie Bloomquist, Mariner first basemen are being out-hit by the Rockies’ pitching staff.
Our preseason depth chart included significant playing time for both Ryan Ludwick and Nate Schierholtz, neither of whom are in the major leagues right now, never mind still with the Rangers. After Opening Day starter Ryan Rua went on the DL after just five games, the unlikely source of the Rangers’ alright-ness in left field has been Carlos Peguero, who is keeping this situation afloat in Arlington with his surprisingly useful glove.
By hanging around replacement level, the Rangers are approaching the middle of the league in left field production! Seeing how the bottom can really fall out from underneath some of these positions, the Rangers should rejoice for this stretch of adequacy. The Cincinnati Reds, who were projected to have the 26th-best left field after acquiring Marlon Byrd in the offseason, have seen that position fall into disaster and ruin, with a platoon of four players already posting nearly -2 WAR.
As Neil noted last month, on the eve of the season the Phillies had a projected weaker right field than the still-available free agents. Eternally present baseball player Jeff Francoeur and owner of very depressing career arc Grady Sizemore have gone on to confirm the validity of this projection. Help is not on the way: last year’s starter Domonic Brown is slashing .139/.268/.167 in Triple-A. Given the available dramatis personae, it would appear that the Phillies simply forgot, as an organization, about right field, and this is what they were able to throw together.
Woe and behold, both the Brewers and Red Sox are faring even worse at right field than the Phillies — the Red Sox employing a former Phillie in Shane Victorino as part of their below-replacement platoon.
Texas Rangers | Bullpen
You win some, you lose some: one of just four positions projected to be below-replacement in the preseason, the Rangers bullpen has actually been above average. What the projections understandably did not project is that Shawn Tolleson would, thus far into the season, do an uncanny impression as a shutdown relief ace: witness his sterling 0.68 FIP through his first nine appearances. Tolleson’s performance alone has provided enough buoyancy for the Rangers to drift up the rankings.
The least-productive bullpen, thus far, belongs to the San Diego Padres. Not only were the Padres projected to have the league’s third-best bullpen before the season started, but they were projected to do so prior to the ballyhooed arrival of Craig Kimbrel. Depending on your worldview, the vast differences between projection and performance for both the Rangers and Padres is either further evidence that projection systems are whack — or perhaps further evidence that life in the bullpen will always be a place of pretty wild variation.