The Biggest Holes on Contending Teams, Part One: The Infield

The offseason is a time for dreaming, for picturing your team getting better. Anyone could sign Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon. Anyone could trade for Mookie Betts. The world is everyone’s oyster.

But it never lasts, naturally. The Yankees sign Cole, and the superposition of every team potentially having Cole at the front of the rotation collapses. The Angels sign Rendon and the Twins sign Josh Donaldson, and third base becomes a weakness instead of being one signature away from a strength.

With the free agency market now winding down (the top remaining free agent is probably Yasiel Puig), rosters feel pretty solidified. That doesn’t mean that Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, or Nolan Arenado can’t headline a trade tomorrow and alter some team’s fate. But it does mean that for the most part, what you see is what you get.

That said, there’s always hope for an upgrade. There are a few free agents left, and the trade market’s doors are always open. Let’s take a team-by-team look at which positions are the weak points on contenders. I arbitrarily drew the cutoff line for contention at 20 teams — so if you’re a fan of the Marlins, Pirates, Giants, Rockies, Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Mariners, or Rangers, don’t fret; your team has weaknesses, though they won’t be addressed in this series. With that, on to the infield!

Cincinnati Reds

The Hole: In 2017, Tucker Barnhart beat out a weak field to win his first Gold Glove. He also put up a 90 wRC+, and was worth a whopping 1 WAR. That was his best offensive season, and his best season from a WAR standpoint. In 2020, he profiles as half of a platoon (he’s technically a switch hitter, but sports a career 54 wRC+ against lefties and has even dabbled with batting left-handed full-time).

Curt Casali is the other half of the platoon. He hits lefties a bit, plays acceptable defense behind the plate, and is fine but unexciting. Kyle Farmer is around in case of emergency, but only in case of emergency. Overall, it’s just a lot of spare parts that the Reds are hoping will surprise to the upside — but at ages 29, 31, and 29 respectively, betting on a breakout seems like wishful thinking.

The Fix: Uh. Uh. Catcher is a tough hole to fix, because there aren’t a lot of good backstops on bad teams. Buster Posey theoretically qualifies, but there’s been absolutely no smoke around the Giants moving him, and I don’t expect that to change. The Mariners might listen to offers for Tom Murphy, but he feels like a slightly different flavor of what the Reds already have.

The only realistic trade partner, in my mind, is the Blue Jays. They have two interesting young backstops, and the Reds have a Nick Senzel burning a hole in their pockets. Danny Jansen is the more highly regarded of the two, and while there are question marks around his offense after a rough 2019 at the plate, his plate discipline-based game provides a nice offensive floor and his framing grades out well.

Reese McGuire also looks acceptable, though he’s more of a Barnhart type than the Reds are probably interested in. But his existence makes it more reasonable for the Blue Jays to trade from catcher. A reader in my chat last week suggested Senzel for Ken Giles and Jansen, and that sounds enticing to me. There might need to be other names in the trade to give the Blue Jays the years of control they so deeply desire, but Jansen and Giles would boost the team right now, and given the rest of their maneuvers this offseason, that’s exactly what they need.

Other Possible Upgrades: Yeah, the Reds infield has some gaps. Freddy Galvis is their plan at shortstop at the moment, and while he’s been durable over his career, his bat has never been all that exciting. But in my mind, Steamer is too low on Galvis. It has him down for a 71 wRC+, which would be his lowest full-season line, and middling defense. Statcast’s Infield OAA loves Galvis, and I’m higher on his bat than Steamer is, which makes me think he’ll be just fine.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Hole: As I’ve already discussed, the Brewers are hurting at third. Their likely platoon of Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard doesn’t inspire fear or awe, unless you count Milwaukee fans’ fears when their lineup spot comes up.

Sogard has the more recent success, and Gyorko had a decent run with the Cardinals, but expecting either of them to carry the position is optimistic at this point in their careers. Milwaukee’s lineup isn’t exactly lights out as it is — you could make a decent argument that first base (where Justin Smoak is the new Eric Thames) or catcher is as worrisome as third. But third seems like it has the combination of the lowest upside and the greatest downside to me.

The Fix: Jerry Dipoto hasn’t made a trade since December, and that trade was with the Brewers. His phone-dialing fingers are likely a-twitch with impatience. And, what do you know, there’s a third baseman in Seattle just waiting to be dealt.

Kyle Seager’s contract is tricky — his 2022 club option for $15 million, which has a variable buyout based on performance incentives and escalators that could raise its total value to $20 million, is specifically designed to make him less attractive in trade. If he’s moved, it converts from a club option to a player option. In a vacuum, he’s more valuable to the Mariners than to whichever team acquires him.

Fortunately for their ability to keep breathing, however, the Mariners don’t play in a vacuum. In their current reality, Seager is unlikely to help them to a division crown or a Wild Card berth, and sending a franchise stalwart off to chase the playoffs sounds like a nice gesture that could also return prospects.

Cost complicates things, but it doesn’t make them impossible. Value Seager with a generic aging curve and at $8 million per win, and the contract looks like this:

Kyle Seager’s Contract, Post-Trade
Year Projected WAR Value ($8m/WAR) Salary Surplus
2020 2.3 18.4 19.5 -1.1
2021 1.8 14.4 18.5 -4.1
2022 1.3 10.4 15 -4.6
Total 5.4 43.2 53 -9.8

On the surface, Seager’s contract (with the trade kicker included) is ever so slightly underwater. But the two teams have a match here as well. The Mariners are well below their recent payroll levels, while the Brewers are acting as though salary is a constraint in their recent signings.

Let’s have the Mariners chip in half of each year’s salary. This turns Seager from a slightly overpriced competent third baseman into a nice piece for a contender. In exchange, the Mariners could snag a prospect from the Brewers’ thin farm system; maybe Carlos Rodriguez, or Antoine Kelly if they’d prefer to acquire pitching. It’s not a home run for either side, but it’s the kind of trade that fits both teams’ plans.

Other Possible Upgrades: Myriad. First base and catcher are potential problem spots. The team patched left field by signing Avisaíl García, but they’re only one Lorenzo Cain decline away from needing to upgrade the outfield again. And the rotation, aside from Brandon Woodruff, is full of unknowns and assumptions. If Seager isn’t available, there are other moves to make. But third feels like the right combination of weakness and available solution.

Washington Nationals

The Hole: Ryan Zimmerman is Mister National — he was the team’s first draft pick after their move from Montreal and has played his entire career with them. But at 35, his best days are behind him, and he’s probably most useful as the skinny end of a platoon at this point. Howie Kendrick will be able to chip in as well, but only on the margins; he’ll play some second and some third, and he’s also old enough that expecting a full season out of him is wishful thinking.

Eric Thames is the lefty side platoon, and he’s still a cypher. He put together a decent 2019, buoyed by the Brewers keeping him away from lefties almost completely (397 PA against righties, 62 against lefties), but his 2018 was shaky, and his strikeouts-and-power game feels balanced on a knife’s edge, with any drop-off in BABIP or power likely to be disastrous.

The Fix: Hoping Thames gets better. The trade market isn’t awash with competent first basemen. Brandon Belt is a perpetually interesting trade chip, and if the Nationals hadn’t signed Thames he’d make a lot of sense, but they both don’t seem interested in trading from their stash of prospects and have already inked Thames and Zimmerman this offseason — it’s clear they see the duo as the solution at first.

If I were the Nationals, I would have gone after Belt earlier in the winter. Thames and Zimmerman didn’t cost much, but they were marginal spending that probably prices the team out of also adding Belt’s contract. The Farhan Zaidi-led Giants seem like the type of team that would be happy to either eat Belt’s contract for a prospect or shed the deal as is for a minimal return. But as we stand now, the Nats are locked in. Better hope Thames is more 2019 than 2018.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Hole: Christian Walker came out of nowhere in 2019 to become a valuable major leaguer. He’d been roughly replacement level in four previous cups of coffee, but broke out to post a 112 wRC+ over 600 plate appearances. He did everything decently enough to make the whole package work: not enough strikeouts to be ruinous, an uncharacteristically high walk rate, 29 home runs, and extra dollops of value from defense and baserunning.

Maybe he’s the answer. But it’s entirely possible that he reverts to his prior form, or simply doesn’t hit enough to play first base. Steamer is skeptical of his prospects, and ZiPS also sees a decent amount of regression. It would surprise no one if he puts together another solid season at the plate, but it also wouldn’t be a shock to see the strikeouts catch up with him.

The Fix: Walker might not even need a fix. The Diamondbacks are awash with average-to-good players, however, which limits their ability to upgrade. Maybe their bullpen could use some work, but trust me, there are plenty of contenders who could use bullpen help, and first base is more fun.

So with that in mind, how can the Diamondbacks improve at first base? Internally! Kevin Cron torched Triple-A in 2019. He raked in 2018 to the tune of .309/.368/.554, but 2019 was really something else, even in the offense-mad PCL. He hit .331/.449/.777, and seriously, .777! That’s absurd! He walked 16.2% of the time, struck out only 20.4% of the time, and was just generally ludicrous.

How much of that will translate to Arizona? It’s obviously too soon to say. But Cron might be more exciting, right this moment, than Walker, and Walker has already succeeded at the major league level. The Diamondbacks might have the wrong guy at first base right now. But they can fill the hole automatically, from their own roster. Cron could be the next Christian Walker, if it turns out that 2020 Christian Walker is no longer 2019 Christian Walker.

Atlanta Braves

The Hole: Third base strikes again! The Braves lost Donaldson to free agency, and they’re running out a combination of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo in his stead. I mean — sure? It’s not an inspiring group, particularly if your view of Riley is more Steamer (0.6 WAR) than ZiPS (1.9 WAR).

But as holes go, this one seems fine. The Braves have built their roster to have few holes, and while their outfield looked patchy earlier this offseason, acquiring Marcell Ozuna put paid to that. The team could theoretically look for upside at third, but Riley provides that, and between him and Camargo, it’s unlikely to be a giant sink on the team’s production.

The fix: None necessary. The Braves could still use a superstar to boost their roster, like most teams in baseball. But they don’t have any true holes. When your biggest weakness is a position where you can run out one of your top prospects, you’re doing something right. I wouldn’t mind seeing them sign Brock Holt to put more of a floor on the position and provide a smidge of Nick Markakis insurance, but this seems like a weakness that doesn’t need addressing.

Didn’t see your favorite contender here? Fear not. Or rather, do fear — I’ll be addressing their shortcomings later this week when we cover pitching and the outfield. Every team, however well constructed, has a weakest point.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

I’m not so sure that the D-Backs or Brewers see themselves as “contenders”, which is likely why those holes in the lineup exist in the first place. At least, I don’t think they seem themselves as contenders compared to the Nationals or Braves, or even how the D-Backs and Brewers saw themselves in the recent past.

David Kleinmember
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think they both view themselves as playoff contenders, and Arizona improved from last years 85 win team with their acquisitions of Madbum and Marte and if Walker stumbles they have Cron. I think the Brewers have taken a step back and on paper they have but somehow they find a way to fit the puzzle pieces together and overachieve. That said, their third situation looks really bad.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

“We certainly intend to be competitive once again next year.”
David Stearns, Dec. 2, 2019

“[We] will be evaluated on our ability to participate and move through the playoffs.”
Mike Hazen, Jan. 27, 2020

2 years ago
Reply to  32roland

Of course they’re going to SAY that.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They better see themselves as contenders after spending prospect capital in the Marte trade. I just think that they don’t see 1B as a weakness because they believe in Walker and have plenty of minor league depth if he doesn’t work out in Cron, Beer, and Smith.

2 years ago
Reply to  BenSharp

“They better see themselves as contenders after spending prospect capital ”

The Diamondbacks are one of the teams that get extra prospect capital. They get an extra high pick every year and they get a 1st round comp pick whenever they Qualifying Offer a free agent. If you pay attention you’ll notice that the teams that don’t get the extra prospect capital are much more frugal in dealing those picks.

Big market teams are cut off from young talent. The Nats got nothing for Harper and the Red Sox will get nothing for Mookie Betts, which is why they are talking seriously about dealing him.

2 years ago

I dunno how Phoenix, the 6th largest media market in the country according to wikipedia, qualifies as “small market.” Also, how in the world are the Nats, who brought Harper, Rendon, Strasburg, and Soto “cut off from talent?”

Greg Simonsmember
2 years ago

Let us lament the sad status of big-market teams.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

How is Arizona not a contender? And why would they see themselves as such when trying and succeeding to acquire Marte? Which is definitely a win now type move.