The Biggest Holes on Contending Teams, Part Three: The Outfield

By now, you know the drill. Earlier this week, I highlighted contending teams with weak points in the infield and on the mound. We’ve still got eight teams to cover today, so there’s no time to waste. Let’s dive in!

St. Louis Cardinals

The Hole: Two years ago, the Cardinals were so overloaded with outfielders that they traded Tommy Pham to open up playing time for promising youngsters Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. This offseason, they had enough of an outfield surplus that they traded Randy Arozarena and José Martínez, but the top-end talent the team hoped for still hasn’t materialized.

That’s not to say that the Cardinals don’t have outfielders. O’Neill and Bader are still around. Dexter Fowler is solidly in his decline phase, but will likely take up a season’s worth of plate appearances. Tommy Edman will see some time in the outfield in addition to sharing third base with Matt Carpenter.

But while they have bodies, they’re lacking in upside. Bader looks like a long-shot to ever recapture his 2018 offensive line, O’Neill’s 2019 was gruesome (35.1% strikeout rate), and Fowler is subsisting on walks at this point. They might field an entire outfield of sub-100 wRC+ batters, and only Bader can make up for that with his glove.

The Fix: This would have been a lot easier to write before the Angels acquired Joc Pederson, who would be a perfect fit for St. Louis. Pederson fits the team’s needs, and the Dodgers had an outfield surplus. With him gone, the team could turn to another former Dodger by signing Yasiel Puig to a one-year deal.

Puig is high variance, and he’s coming off his worst season with the bat. But he’s never had a wRC+ below 100 in the majors, he’s only 29, and he wouldn’t cost a draft pick. For the Cardinals, who desperately need some offense, he’s worth a shot, even if he’d make them righty-heavy.

If the team isn’t looking outside the organization, then they should at least look to the minors. Lane Thomas is an org favorite and plays sparkling outfield defense. Even if his bat is Baderesque, he’ll add value with his glove and legs. Dylan Carlson, arguably the team’s top prospect, obliterated Double-A last year, and while he’s only 21, he’s a hot start in Triple-A away from appearing in the majors. He might not be ready, but if Fowler and O’Neill are scuffling, the Cards should take a chance and let him play.

Cleveland Indians

The Hole: Coming into last year, the Indians had a gaping hole where an outfield should be. They compensated for it midseason by trading for Puig and Franmil Reyes. With Puig gone in free agency and Reyes slated for full-time DH duty, they’re back to square one.

And square one is bleak. Jake Bauers hit .226/.312/.371 last year, and he’ll probably start. Tyler Naquin rode a .345 BABIP to a league-average batting line last year. Greg Allen should be minor league depth, but we project him for 250 plate appearances. Delino DeShields will be involved, though he probably shouldn’t be.

Oscar Mercado’s 2019 had its share of highlights, he still only posted a 95 wRC+. His 2019 Triple-A line was the first time he’d showed true offensive might, and it would hardly be a surprise if he’s a glove-first fourth outfielder going forward. And the only prospect even remotely likely to arrive in 2020 is Daniel Johnson, a toolsy but raw right fielder who tore up the minors last year.

That leaves Jordan Luplow, and he’s the kind of guy you want as your third outfielder, not the headliner. He tapped into his power last year, though both ZiPS and Steamer are skeptical.

The Fix: I really want to say Puig here, but I won’t. Cleveland also should have been in on Pederson, and they should be calling the Mets everyday hoping to catch BVW in a trading mood. The Pirates might listen on Bryan Reynolds if the Indians dangled some high upside prospects, and he’s even a fit for budget-conscious Cleveland, though it’s likely that Ben Cherington holds onto Reynolds, who is only 25 and has a ton of team control remaining.

If Pittsburgh won’t listen on Reynolds, they probably would on Adam Frazier, who is a below-average hitter and would also be one of Cleveland’s top two outfielders. While we’re on the Pirates, why not consider Gregory Polanco? He’s returning from injury, but he’s at least exciting.

And if none of these pan out, they should sign Kevin Pillar. He’s not going to set the world on fire, but he’s also not going to set your house on fire, which is more than you can say for the Tribe’s current crop.

New York Mets

The Hole: While I said the Indians should be trying to pry Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto from the Mets, the Mets shouldn’t listen, because they have outfield issues of their own. Things aren’t as grim as they are in Cleveland, but the Mets will probably go into 2020 with J.D. Davis as an everyday outfielder, and uh, have you seen J.D. Davis play the outfield?

Davis can at least hit, unlike fourth option Jake Marisnick. When Marisnick plays, he’ll play center, pushing Davis to the bench (or to third if Robinson Canó is resting). Yoenis Céspedes is also theoretically involved, though the boars might keep him on the IL all year.

The risk here is all downside. J.D. Davis can probably hit, but if his bat falls off at all, his defense is going to sting. Marisnick can field, but if his bat declines further he’s waiver wire fodder. Céspedes might not play. If even two of these three bad outcomes happen together, left field is going to be a problem.

The Fix: In reality, the fix is just to get lucky. There are no clear upgrades on Davis and Marisnick, and no obvious trade the team can make to consolidate at the position. They can squeeze maximal value out of the platoon by using Davis when strikeout pitchers are on the mound and Marisnick when contact is on the menu, which should help, but their options are limited.

And there’s not much of a left/right platoon available. Conforto and Nimmo are good enough hitters overall that I’d rather have them than Marisnick against lefty pitchers, even inclusive of defensive value. It’ll be a challenge to get the most out of this roster, but I think that’s still the best choice. It might be a weak spot, but it’s one they should live with rather than trying to buy a quick fix.

Other Holes: Wilson Ramos isn’t getting any younger, and his framing was, to use the technical term, really-hard-to-watch-and-made-Syndergaard-call-him-out-in-public. Tomás Nido is, well, Tomás Nido. The only reason I didn’t include catcher is because the bar is pretty low behind the plate. But if the Mets are being honest with themselves, their plan is just to hope that Ramos dinks and dunks his way to something near his career 104 wRC+, which would make the defense a lot more forgivable. If the offense declines at all? Yikes.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Hole: Philly’s plan for the outfield has some high points. Bryce Harper in right — that’ll play! Andrew McCutchen in left — that’s former MVP Andrew McCutchen to you, and if his knee is healed, he’s still solidly above average.

It has some low points too, though. Adam Haseley in center? Whoops! Haseley might yet turn into the kind of prospect Philadelphia thought he was when they took him out of UVA, but he looks more likely to be a slap hitter without the plate discipline or speed to make that profile work. Ignore the power spike in Double-A; Reading’s stadium is the biggest bandbox in the minors, and our minor league stats don’t park-adjust.

Haseley is a fine major leaguer — I’d just prefer to see him as a fourth outfielder or platoon bat rather than an everyday regular. There’s no harm in having him on your roster — but in a cutthroat NL East where four teams could win the division, Philly can ill afford a weak link.

The Fix: Time travel back to two weeks ago and acquire Starling Marte.

A fix without time travel? This one is going to be a stretch, but get the Cardinals on the phone and ask for Lane Thomas. A fix won’t be airtight at the price point the Phillies would tolerate, but they need a righty to work with Haseley, someone with everyday upside. Thomas might not be that guy, but he stands a better chance of it than Haseley does, and given the logjam of mediocre outfielders, the Cards might be interested. They might have outfield problems, but theirs is a surfeit of mediocrity, not a gaping hole.

Failing that, why not sign Pillar? He’s right handed and can play center, which checks off a lot of boxes. I’d like to see them do something, though, because every little drop counts this year for the Phils.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Fix: Do the Rays have a problem at catcher? Maybe! Mike Zunino was tire-fire-esque in 2019, combining his customary lack of contact with a distressing lack of power. He did manage his usual excellent framing, which propped his overall line up above replacement level despite a 45 wRC+, but “hey he was replacement level” is hardly high praise. And backup Michael Perez is a backup catcher, soooooo.

But I don’t have to try too hard to convince myself that this combination should work. Zunino’s defense gives him a high floor, and he’s not hopeless with the bat. Plus, catcher is just hard to fill!

Meanwhile, the Rays are doing something very Rays-y in the outfield. They have two everyday outfielders in Austin Meadows and Kevin Kiermaier. Then they have a very Rays-y blend of José Martínez, Hunter Renfroe, Randy Arozarena, and whoever else they can shoehorn into left field.

I’m not convinced it won’t work. I’m half-convinced it will work. Arozarena has been a prospect crush of mine for a long time, to the point where if Tampa Bay gave him the job, I would have called catcher their weakness.

But I can’t shake the feeling that a pile of righties who can’t play center isn’t going to work out that well. If Arozarena is in the minors, does that mean Renfroe and Martínez are “platooning?” If you take Steamer’s projected batting lines and league-average platoon splits, Meadows projects better without the platoon advantage than Renfroe does with it, so it’s not clear where Renfroe fits into the picture against lefties.

And if you’re giving Kiermaier a day off against lefties, who plays center? Arozarena can, but none of the other three should, even if Meadows and Renfroe theoretically could. The whole situation feels either one center fielder or one left-handed bat short, and a few right-handed corner outfield bats too heavy.

The Fix: Give Arozarena a chance as the starter. He can spell Kiermaier in center against left-handed pitching, with Meadows and Martínez (or Renfroe) flanking him.

This isn’t really an outlandish fix; in fact, it could definitely happen. Arozarena is 24, so there’s less icky advantage to gaming his service time than there would be for a younger prospect. Renfroe might be a better play than Martínez against lefties anyway; Cafecíto has absolutely mashed lefties for his career, but over a tiny sample. If he’s really just a normal-platoon-split guy, he’s more of a DH and pinch hitter, which clears the way for Renfroe to get more run.

Quite honestly, I almost left the Rays, Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros out of this series. But I decided to poke and prod for a hole, and so here we are. This one doesn’t look all that serious, I’ll grant you that. But it’s the weird part about the 2020 Rays season in my mind, and I’m curious to see how they’ll handle it.

San Diego Padres

The Hole: Right now, we’re projecting Franchy Cordero to roughly split center field with Manuel Margot. Cordero hasn’t played much in the last two years due to injury. We’re talking quad strains suffered while rehabbing from elbow injuries, surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow (a different elbow injury, to be clear), everything you can possibly imagine.

Of course, Margot isn’t exactly a proven commodity either. He’s been mostly healthy the past three years, but healthy and not hitting might be worse than injured — at least injured carries some intrigue. Margot’s defense has been excellent the past three years, and he and Cordero are opposite-handed, so the platoon idea makes sense — but it’s risky for a team that sees themselves as a contender to give 600 plate appearances to a mystery box. There could be anything inside — even a boat — but there could also be sawdust and cobwebs.

The Fix: Eh, I’m not convinced a fix is necessary. The Padres are contenders this year, but they’re not capital-C Contenders. There’s still a lot of young talent that needs to gel, a lot of Hosmers that… well, fine, I’m not exactly sure what the Hosmers need to do. But if the Padres spend this year figuring out what they have in Cordero and Margot, both 25 years old, that’s fine with me. There’s always 2021.

New York Yankees

The Hole: I don’t know, man. First base? Luke Voit and Miguel Andújar are both exciting, Mike Ford does nothing but crush the ball, and DJ LeMahieu will spend time there. Third base? Gio Urshela might be the real deal, and the Yankees will give him time to find out. Plus, Andújar can theoretically play there. The rotation took a hit with the news of James Paxton’s back surgery, but even there, the Yankees have depth, and Paxton is slated for a May return.

If there’s any place that could be a true disaster for the Yankees, it’s center field. Brett Gardner figures heavily into their plans there, and while he’s a great player, he’s also 36. One achy knee, one neck twisted while sleeping, and things get dicey. Mike Tauchman is the backup, but he’s also going to play a lot of left to let Giancarlo Stanton DH. Not only that, but he still doesn’t have a lot of major league track record; ZiPS loves him like Dan’s long-lost son, but Steamer is sanguine about his projection.

The Fix: Stop it. Stop it. The fix is that they have Giancarlo Stanton, the 2017 NL MVP and a plus outfielder for his career, ready to play left so that Mike Tauchman, who was worth 2.6 WAR in only 296 plate appearances last year, can slide over to center.

If that fails, they’ll trade two sticks of bubble gum and their 13th-best reliever to the Rockies for a future MVP. The Yankees don’t really have holes in their 2020 roster, at least not long-term ones.

Houston Astros

The Hole: You’re expecting comedy here. I just did it with the Yankees, after all, and the Astros might even be more well-rounded. But I’m actually worried about one thing in particular: Kyle Tucker’s development.

Houston’s in a weird spot this season. Not competitively; on the field, they’re built to win now, with team control ticking away on their best young players and the anchors of their pitching staff not getting any younger. They have good players at every position and a solid rotation and bullpen.

But with this offseason’s management turmoil, it’s not clear who’s in charge. Dusty Baker is a capable manager, and he’s been overly maligned for his handling of pitchers, but there’s a clear tension: he was brought in to optimize this major league team, now. That fits Houston’s plans, but it might not fit Tucker’s best reality.

Josh Reddick is fine. He’s a decent outfielder, a low-strikeout, empty-average type who plays the game the right way, and other generic platitudes. He’s a lefty, as is Tucker, which limits the platoon opportunities. And honestly, he’s just plain good, so it’s not crazy to use him as a starter.

But to go nova, the Astros probably need Tucker. They’re not bad at any position, but they’re average at several: at catcher, at first, and even potentially in left as Michael Brantley gets older. With Reddick, you can add right to that pile. Tucker is their chance at a standout position player in this group.

The Fix: Just play Tucker! Let him start the season playing every day. If he’s good, run with it. If he’s bad — run with it. It’s not as though there are real consequences to being wrong; even with a good A’s team, and a Rangers squad that’s trying, and newly Rendon’ed Angels, the Astros are still the heavy favorites to win the West. This is about being great, not good, and for many years, not one. I’m not sure if Tucker is that type of player, but he might be, and Reddick isn’t. The Astros should try their best to find out.

Was I wrong about your team’s position of need? Possibly! I am, after all, merely a generalist, a dude on the internet opining about a bunch of teams all at once. But it’s easy to get a little inside your own head, to convince yourself that everything’s great or everything’s terrible, when you focus on your own team all the time. Hopefully this bird’s eye view of the league’s weak spots has provided a little perspective on the broader picture, or at least a quick chuckle at your rival’s misfortunes.

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

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David Klein
4 years ago

I’m not worried about the Mets Outfield honestly if Ces can’t go I might try Davis at third again as outs above average rates him much better than the other metrics at third and have McNeil play LF again. Conforto is rated as a very good right fielder by outs above average and he and Nimmo put up very good wRC’s respectively. Yes in the perfect world Nimmo plays a corner spot but with better positioning by the Mets I think he can play a competent CF.

4 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

Davis. Nimmo. Conforto.
Marisnick comes in for defense in late innings, shifting Nimmo to left.
That’s not… terrible?

Aaron Hicks will be back at some point, right? Until then, Gardner/Tauchman is fine.

4 years ago
Reply to  ScottyB

Its a deep stretch, but Brett Phillips could be a good platoon/defensive replacement

4 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I’ve been dying to see if Brett Phillips can hit enough against righties to platoon, because right now he can’t even do that. If so, he’d be awesome because he’s an 80-grade defender out there, on par with Kiermaier and Bader.

I also remember when Phillips was back on the same roster as Keon Broxton, who is basically his mirror image. It’s too bad that it doesn’t look like either of them are going to pan out.

4 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

Yeah, as a Mets fan, our weakness is not outfield, it’s ownership.

4 years ago

I was gonna say, I’m worried about the Mets, but only in how off the field stuff and operations might screw with on the field stuff in a division where there’s zero margin for error this year.