Testing the Depth: The American League

With the elimination of the waiver deadline, the last two months of the season (or more accurately now, the last six weeks) can leave front office personnel feeling like little more than helpless observers. Problems at the big league level, whether of the health or performance variety, are going to pop up, but for the most part, the answers to those problems have to come from within. Yes, there’s the occasional player who gets designated for assignment who deserves consideration, but otherwise teams will either lean on the depth they’ve spent much of the year trying to establish or curse the risks they took in terms of depth in order to improve their big league roster. Here are the depth situations for the American League playoff contenders, with the National League to follow tomorrow.

American League East

Tampa Bay Rays
Strengths: The Rays bolt together pitching staffs as well as any team in baseball, and there are plenty more pieces available to them at Triple-A Durham should the need arise. They load up on pitch-data darlings while also developing plenty from within, and the result has been the best record in the International League, with their staff generating a team-wide strikeout rate of over 28%. With five current Durham pitchers already on the 40-man roster, managing innings down the stretch shouldn’t be an issue, be it for need or just for the purposes of keeping players fresh. In terms of position players, Vidal Bruján continues to slot in all over the diamond; his ability to play six positions makes him the most likely hitter to be called up.

Weaknesses: As good as the Rays bullpen depth is, if the club needs a starter, it might pose a problem. The club would likely cover with cobbled-together ‘pen games, a strategy they are among the innovators of, and one they execute exceptionally well. It should be mentioned that a rehabbing Chris Archer remains a wild card. While Bruján certainly covers the team up the middle, the Rays really don’t have a corner bat they can rely on at a pair of positions where they already have time-shares. But the biggest possible disaster would involve Mike Zunino missing time; Tampa just signed David Freitas, back from a unsuccessful stint in Korea, to give the team somebody at Triple-A who can catch and has a modicum of big league experience.

Boston Red Sox
Strengths: The Red Sox have shuffled their rotation around in the second half, and while both Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards have scuffled this year, as backup plans go, they’re far better than most team’s minor-league options. There are four active pitchers at Triple-A Worcester on the 40-man, but a sleeper to help down the stretch might be right-handed reliever Durbin Feltman, who has sacrificed a bit of velocity for significantly better command, and has many scouts believing he’s ready for a big league look. Any outfield issues should be covered by Franchy Cordero and/or Delino DeShields.

Weaknesses: The Red Sox were especially exposed in the infield, but the recent acquisition of Travis Shaw off the waiver wire should help to assuage the issue, at least at the corners. But Boston has spent all season with Xander Bogaerts as the team’s only legitimate shortstop, and that remains the case. Chris Herrmann (currently on the IL) and Jett Bandy provide little comfort behind the plate.

New York Yankees
Strengths: The Yankees have used 28 pitchers this year and done an excellent job of navigating their way through injury issues and a series of COVID outbreaks. Deivi García and Luis Severino are working their way back, and Luis Gil remains an option as an emergency starter. They should feel well-stocked in terms of covering innings down the stretch.

Weaknesses: Position players, period. The Yankees are desperate for their everyday players to stay healthy. Their infield problems are already on display, as they opened a critical series against Boston by lining up Andrew Velazquez at shortstop and Rougned Odor out of position at third base. A Clint Frazier return would help their outfield flexibility considerably, as leaning on Greg Allen and Ryan LaMarre is far from ideal for a team hunting for a playoff spot.

Toronto Blue Jays
Strengths: The Toronto bullpen has been an issue throughout the season, and while fringy contributors like Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay can provide innings, the actual impact may come in the form of Nate Pearson, who recently transitioned to a relief role in preparation for a September move to Toronto’s ‘pen. While the 40-man is currently full, keep an eye out for non-roster relief arm Bryan Baker, who has recently been up to 98 mph and has a plus slider.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jays need their bats to stay healthy. The recently called-up Otto Lopez provides coverage at second base and all three outfield positions with a skillset similar to Tony Kemp‘s, though with a bit more speed. Desperate for outfield depth following George Springer’s injury, the club recently acquired a struggling Mallex Smith, who had a 60 wRC+ at Triple-A with the Reds; their catching situation is similarly shallow.

American League Central

Chicago White Sox
Strengths: Chicago’s biggest strength is the standings themselves. The White Sox don’t need depth to get to the playoffs, as the American League Central title is all but clinched. They’ve already proven that they have plenty of hitters who can contribute with players like Jake Burger, Gavin Sheets and Yermín Mercedes, though none of that trio offers any kind of positional flexibility. Seby Zavala’s shockingly good month at least gives the team some comfort as a third catcher once Yasmani Grandal returns from his rehab assignment.

Weaknesses: In shades of their 2005 championship season, the White Sox rotation has remained remarkably healthy, with only eight starts by pitchers outside of their five primary rotation pieces. Carlos Rodón’s IL stint should help manage innings for him, but if a real need arises, the options at Charlotte are quite thin. Other than former Oriole and Mariner Mike Wright Jr., who is pitching well after spending 2020 in Korea, the remainder of the Knights rotation has an ERA north of five.

American League West

Houston Astros
Strengths: The Astros had a bullpen problem, and that problem was solved during the last week of July. An additional benefit of those deadline deals was sudden bullpen depth, as Enoli Paredes, Bryan Abreu and Brandon Bielak are now safe call-ups from Triple-A, while Josh James has looked sharp at times in his rehab outings so far. A return to health for Alex Bregman solves the Astros’ infield issue, but they have more options at the corners than up the middle; keeping Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in the lineup will be the key to their October fortunes. Similarly, José Urquidy gives the club much-needed rotation depth at the big-league level; a six-man rotation to keep the arms fresh is worth considering for the final month of the season.

Weaknesses: The Astros took a depth risk in their surprising deal to trade Myles Straw to Cleveland on deadline day. The argument is easy to understand from Houston’s point of view, as they believe some combination of Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers will be at least as good as Straw, while the ‘pen is bolstered by the addition of Phil Maton. The risk is that any injuries to the big league group increase the pressure to play Yordan Alvarez and/or Aledmys Díaz out of their comfort zones, as no minor league outfielder is ready for a September look.

Oakland Athletics
Strengths: The Athletics addressed some of their depth issues with one of the low-key best trades of the deadline when they acquired Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison from the Nationals. The loss of Ramón Laureano was covered by the Starling Marte deal, with Chad Pinder and Skye Bolt providing solid options as well. The club has plenty of arms already on the 40-man roster in Las Vegas who could fill in as extra relievers, but a rotation need would be problematic.

Weaknesses: Oakland has spent most of the year with just one actual shortstop on their roster and that remains the case, though Elvis Andrus is an offensive zero with a 66 wRC+. Pete Kozma remains at Las Vegas as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type, but at least he’s still a solid defender. The team would be severely hampered by the loss of either Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, especially now that Frank Schwindel is getting his chance with the Cubs.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

The Yankees look like they’ll be getting Rizzo back today, and Gio Urshela/Domingo German/Aroldis Chapman within a week or two. They’ll also get Clay Holmes back from the covid list, and potentially be getting Kluber back in a couple weeks as well. Severino looks like he’s either going to be done or maybe pitch out of the bullpen with that latest setback.

The Jays rotation/bullpen might sink them. They are 4 games out with just 44 left to play. They play the Rays/Red Sox/Yankees again this year, so they need to win lots of those head to head matchups, which won’t be easy. Not impossible though. So if the Red Sox go 24-20, they’ll need to go 28-16, just to tie. And they’ll have to bypass two teams which makes it that much tougher. They’ve certainly got the lineup to do it, but Springer being out hurts quite a bit.

My prediction is the Red Sox and Yankees get the final two playoff spots. The Athletics fall out of contention (look at their schedule) and the Jays put themselves in a hole this past week or so. Could definitely be wrong though and there are lots more baseball left to play.

Rex Manning Daymember
2 years ago
Reply to  steveo

For the Yankees, I’d also note that a Frazier return this year is starting to look increasingly unlikely. He was just sent back to the IL this week, and given his concussion history, the neurological nature of his symptoms is pretty worrisome. I think at this point the hope is mainly that he’s ok in the long term; if he can come back this year, that’s just gravy.

That said, with Voit back and Rizzo returning, the Yankees will basically be forced to play Stanton in the OF with some regularity just to fit everyone in the lineup. That doesn’t fix the depth issue, exactly, given everyone’s health concerns, but it does mean less Allen and LaMarre, at least for the moment.

2 years ago

True. But in this lineup, what does Frazier do exactly? He’s a worse defender than Stanton/Judge/Gallo/Gardner/Wade by a mile. And he’s a worse hitter than at least 3 of them, and maybe 4. Frazier will have three years left of control after this season and if he’s lucky he’ll get dealt to a team that has a spot for him for a couple of prospects. I think he can be a good player, but I get the feeling that the Yankees have grown tired of him. But if the Yankees don’t get any decent offers for him, they’ll just keep him since he’s got an option left.

Rex Manning Daymember
2 years ago
Reply to  steveo

Yeah, that’s all fair, I was just mentioning it because the article included his possible return. I like Frazier a lot, but he’s been pretty bad this year, so even if he does return I doubt he’d be much help.

Agreed on all counts about his future, too. It’s just never seemed like NY’s really considered him as a part of their long-term plan; even in 2019, when they were breaking IL records, he barely got playing time. As a NYY fan, I’d love it if he became a long-term starter, but for his sake I kinda hope he gets traded somewhere that’ll give him a real chance. Besides, the kid deserves to play for a team that’ll let him grow his hair however he wants.