James Shields Can’t Solve The Biggest Padres Problem

Last week, I had the pleasure of being present at a panel of baseball people talking about 2015’s big stories, and one of the questions was, “are the Padres contenders?” Some said yes. Others said no. Most of the discussion centered on the rebuilt outfield of Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers, mainly about how that could possibly come together on defense. Now, we’re hearing about how they may yet be the team that comes away with James Shields, who would inject some stability into what is a talented-but-fragile rotation.

Jeff will have more on that signing later, but obviously: Shields will help! Adding him makes for a rotation front four of Shields, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross, which is potentially pretty impressive. More innings from Shields means fewer that you need to rely upon from Odrisamer Despaigne, Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow, and that’s a good thing. Signing Shields and trading for Cole Hamels would help! Lots of things, likely and less so, would help. Here’s what I had wanted to ask that panel, though, especially those who believe that the reworked Padres are now contenders: How many people can actually name all four Padres starting infielders?

Obviously there’s a bit of hyperbole there, but the point is that this isn’t a question you want to be asking about a team that wants to be included in the October conversation. If you didn’t follow the team closely, would you be able to come up with Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Alexi Amarista, and Will Middlebrooks off the top of your head? Because this group, despite returning only one player who took more than 50% of the plate appearances at the same position last season, doesn’t look good. It’s actually a considerable issue, if you look at Steamer’s 2015 projections combined with our curated depth chart playing time inputs:

infield_war_2015

For a team that expects to be a contender this year, that’s not particularly encouraging, and it’s not only showing time from the four presumed starters. It also includes varying amounts of playing time from Clint Barmes, Tommy Medica, Yangervis Solarte, Jake Goebbert, and Cory Spangenberg, and while the exact dispersal might not play out in reality as we’ve guessed it will here, the general outlook is the same: Yikes.

Obviously, we’re focusing only on the infield here. Even more obviously, there’s much more to a baseball team than just the infield, things like the catchers and outfielders and pitchers and ballpark and manager and luck. It takes a lot of things to have a successful baseball team, and good teams can overcome weaknesses if they’re strong enough elsewhere. Now, whether or not the Padres are strong enough elsewhere to overcome a lousy infield is another conversation entirely, but that leads into an interesting question: How often does a team find success when its infield is an anchor, rather than an engine? Is it somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?

To test that, I looked at the last five seasons of play and 150 team seasons, mapping the relationship between infield WAR and team wins. I used the positional splits in our leaderboards, so this is accounting only for value created while playing that position. (For example, the Blue Jays had seven players see time at first base last year, and Edwin Encarnacion compiled 3.0 of his 3.6 WAR there.) Unsurprisingly, there’s some relationship between having a good infield and winning baseball games. Also unsurprisingly, it’s not the strongest relationship you’ll ever see, because there’s so much more to a baseball team than just an infield.

Still, it’s not exactly a great omen for these Padres:

if-war-wins-10-14

It’s really hard to have an infield worth fewer than five wins above replacement and win even 80 games. It’s really hard to have an infield worth more than 15 wins above replacement and win fewer than 88 games. In between, there’s a wide variety of outcomes, though clearly it’s easier with better players. Better players win more ballgames. This isn’t a groundbreaking finding.

But it’s not impossible, is it? There’s an outlier to the upper left, and similar teams near the green line. If you’re looking for hope, that red dot to the upper left would be the 2012 Orioles, who somehow won 93 games despite managing just three WAR from an infield that was mostly made up of Mark Reynolds at first (with a little of a pre-breakout Chris Davis), a Robert Andino / Omar Quintanilla mess at second, a solid J.J. Hardy campaign at short, and Wilson Betemit-giving-way-to-Manny Machado at third. How’d they do it? All due respect to good years from Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, that was the Baltimore team that managed a hilariously unsustainable 29-9 record in one-run games, along with 16-2 in extra innings. So if the path is “be the luckiest team ever,” that’s a hard one to replicate.

Next to that is the dot that represents the 2012 A’s infield of Chris Carter, Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, and Brandon Inge, who got by with some of the best outfield hitting in baseball and snuck into first place only on the final day of the season when the Rangers collapsed. This would seem to be probably the closest recent comparison point for these Padres, although those A’s were helped by good run prevention skills partially fueled by the outfield defense of Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp, and outfield defense might plague this particular Padres roster.

(If you’re curious, the team that had the best infield production yet still didn’t make the playoffs would be the 2011 Red Sox, who had baseball’s best offense, but won only 90 games because they could offer only two starting pitchers who were even league-average in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett; had it been in place at the time, they would have made the wild card play-in game.)

The obvious retort here is, “well, projections are only that, and I think the Padres infield will outplay that 5.6 WAR projection because: ____________.” And, fair enough. Perhaps they will. Let’s at least take a lap around the infield and see how San Diego got here, and whether there’s reason to hope for more than these players have provided in the past.

At first base, Yonder Alonso is headed into his age-28 season having only once taken 400 plate appearances in a year, missing multiple stints over the last two seasons due to right hand, wrist, and forearm injuries. (Though he got more plate appearances as the Padres first baseman than anyone last year, it was still fewer than 50%, particularly as the departed Yasmani Grandal saw a good deal of second-half time.) He’s had a 98 wRC+ over the last two years, 105 for his career, and Steamer sees him getting up to 112 along with nearly two wins this year. It’d easily be the best season of his career, and if healthy, doesn’t seem unattainable. This seems like a fair projection, even a generous one, for a player who has yet to show he can be more than average.

Second belongs to Jedd Gyorko, who followed up a good rookie season (111 wRC+, 2.5 WAR) with a disaster sophomore season (78 wRC+, 0.0 WAR), with reports of plantar fasciitis being one potential cause. Steamer predicts a bounce-back to a league-average bat and overall value, which isn’t unfair given how awful he was last year. Since he was much better after coming off a DL stint, nearly back to where he’d been as a rookie, there’s reason to have some expectations for production here. There’s just no cause to think he’s going to be better than he was in 2013, when he was good, not a star. If he can even match that, 2015 is a success, and of course there’s clear risk that he can’t.

It’s the left side that gets problematic, however. With the departed Everth Cabrera unemployed and mired in legal issues of his own making, the Padres look to promote utility guy Alexi Amarista into the role, along with support from veteran import Clint Barmes. Amarista’s wRC+ in his three big league seasons: 85, 75, 71. His Steamer projection: A perhaps generous 80. Valuable as a flexible backup, he’s barely above replacement as a starting shortstop. Not that Barmes is much of an alternative: At 36, he’s long since proven he’s not much of a bat, though he’s an acceptable fielder. We have this pair down for 0.6 WAR. That doesn’t feel incorrect.

In a post-Chase Headley third base world, there’s newcomer Will Middlebrooks, who has been injured, atrocious, or both over the last two seasons. Improved health would be welcome, but so would reversing this scary K% trend of 24.5 -> 26.2 -> 29.9. Steamer isn’t a fan, nor is there much reason to dream on Yangervis Solarte, a career minor leaguer who had a 135 wRC+ in his first two months in the big leagues last year, then only an 83 in the four months afterwards.

If the projections are down on these guys, well, it seems defensible all around. It’s certainly possible that Gyorko or Middlebrooks or even Alonso bounces back in 2015. It’s just very, very hard to see that happening all around the infield at the same time, and it’s pretty difficult to get to the playoffs with a porous infield. Maybe the Padres shake all this up by signing Hector Olivera; maybe if they ever get around to trading excess outfielders Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, or Carlos Quentin, they’ll do so in a way that brings back some infield support. Until then, this is what they’re going into the season with.

The Padres are going to be better than last year, almost certainly, and that’s a good thing. At the very least, they’re going to be considerably more entertaining than last year’s boring and unwatchable group, and that’s a very good thing. I think for a lot of Padres fans who have felt like the team was barely even trying for so many years, that alone might be enough, and we’ve seen how just being decent can pay off in the world of two wild cards. They’ve at least taken steps in the right direction this winter, and Shields is yet another one. To be true contenders, though, something’s got to be done about that infield. It’s a problem big enough that it won’t just go away on its own.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Forrest Gumption
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Forrest Gumption

That 2012 A’s infield had the breaking-out Donaldson, who started the last 47 games of the year at 3B. Inge barely played in the second half. Also Brandon Moss and his .954 OPS played more games at 1B than Carter too.