The Weakest Positions on American League Contenders, 2024 Edition

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Even with an extra day in February this year, Matt Chapman remains unsigned, his free agency having lingered past the start of exhibition season. Admittedly, the soon-to-be-31-year-old third baseman is coming off of an uneven season marked by a late slump related to a finger injury, but he’s been reliably productive throughout his seven-year career, with good-to-great defense bolstering his value at the plate. Meanwhile, his former (?) team, the Blue Jays — who reportedly offered him a nine-figure extension before he hit free agency — have cobbled together an uninspiring solution at third base.

Chapman isn’t the only remaining free agent who could provide a significant upgrade, but he’s by far the best position player remaining on the shelves, and the combination of his absence and the Blue Jays’ needs stands out as I turn to the American League edition of my roundup of the most glaring holes on contending teams (the National League edition is here). For this exercise, I’ve highlighted the spots that per our projections — which combine ZiPS and Steamer as well as playing time estimates from RosterResource — fall below a combined 2.0 WAR on teams whose Playoff Odds sit at or above 25%.

Why 2.0 WAR? That’s the rough equivalent of average play across a full season, but because of the general tendency to overproject playing time and keep even the weakest teams with positive WARs at each position (in reality over 10% of them will finish in the red), our position player Depth Chart values at the team level are inflated by about 20%. That is, instead of having a total of 1,000 WAR projected across the 30 teams, and 57% of that (570 WAR) allocated to position players, our Depth Chart values currently add up to about 682 WAR. Thus, I am discounting the team values that you see on the Depth Chart pages by 20%, and focusing on the lowest-ranked contenders among those whose adjusted values fall below that 2.0 WAR threshold. The individual WAR values cited will remain as they are on the Depth Chart pages, however, and it’s worth noting that many of the players here — particularly youngsters with shorter track records, including some from our Top 100 Prospects list — don’t project particularly well but still have considerable upside.

Why 25% as the cutoff for a contender? In the past — both for this preseason exercise and its older sibling, my annual Replacement Level Killers series, which doubles as something of a trade deadline preview — I’ve generally used a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs as the cutoff for what we might loosely define as a contender. However, this year’s odds are distributed such that only four teams (the A’s, Nationals, Rockies, and White Sox) fall below that threshold. Thus I’ve raised the cutoff to 25%, leaving the Angels, Pirates, and Royals below the bar but including the Red Sox (25.5% at this writing) and Reds (25.4%), both of which forecast for 80 wins. If you think it’s a stretch to call such teams contenders, consider that prior to Opening Day last year, the team that finished with the AL’s best record, the Orioles, had just a 10.4% chance of making the playoffs, while the NL pennant-winning Diamondbacks had a 15.3% chance, and the Marlins, who claimed the third NL Wild Card spot while going 84-78, a 23.6% chance. The same exercise for 2022 — the first year of the current 12-team format — would highlight the AL Central-winning Guardians (15.2%) and the Wild Card Mariners (22.8%).

Eagle-eyed readers probably noticed that the top NL teams, namely the Braves and Dodgers, didn’t have a single entry in the Senior Circuit edition, and neither did the Cardinals, whose 84.2-win projection ranks fourth in the league. For the AL edition, the same is true for the Astros, Yankees, Rays, Orioles, and Rangers — which is to say a majority of the eight teams that project to finish above .500. The ensuing roundup may feel like I’m picking on the fringiest contenders, but that’s part of the point: These are the teams for whom a marginal addition or even a modest breakout at these trouble spots could have a sizable impact on their chances of making the playoffs, not that I expect every team to pursue an upgrade.

With that preamble out of the way, I’ll go around the diamond. Unlike in the NL, where I was able to go two deep at every position, there’s enough talent at some of these spots that I could only cite one team that falls below the threshold.

Catcher

Red Sox (28th, 1.2 adjusted WAR)

The Red Sox got just 1.2 WAR out of their Connor Wong/Reese McGuire tandem last year, and despite a regime change, they’re content to stick with that plan because fixing things costs money, and this pair is making less than $2.5 million. After cups of coffee in 2021 and ’22, Wong — the last vestige of the Mookie Betts trade — stuck around last year, starting 105 games and hitting .235/.288/.385 (78 wRC+) while striking out one-third of the time; at least his 9.1% barrel rate offered some hope. Defensively, he was 9.6 runs below average in framing by our measure and five below by Statcast; the latter system did rate him at five runs above average in terms of catching baserunners stealing. McGuire, the older of the two by a year (he turns 29 on March 2) and the more experienced, made 51 starts last year and hit .267/.310/.358. His 78 wRC+ was identical to Wong’s and his 5.3% walk rate nearly so, but his 2.8% barrel rate a long way off. Defensively, he was about average across the board, which isn’t enough to offset his offensive deficiencies.

First Base

Twins (26th, 1.0 WAR)

Once again, Alex Kirilloff was beset by injuries; this time, it was a recovery from offseason right wrist surgery and a right (non-throwing) shoulder strain that limited him to 88 games, still his highest total in three major league seasons. His solid offense (.270/.348/.445, 120 wRC+) was alas offset by subpar defense (-8 DRS, -5 RAA). He’s reportedly healthy after undergoing a bursectomy in his right shoulder; thankfully his labrum and rotator cuff did not need repair. His struggles against lefties and his penchant for injuries led the Twins to sign 37-year-old switch-hitter Carlos Santana, who joins his sixth team in the past four seasons. He’s hit for a 113 wRC+ against lefties since 2020, but just an 87 wRC+ against righties. The projection suggests he’ll get far too much exposure, so the healthier Kirilloff is, the better.

Astros (24th, 1.0 WAR)

The first year of José Abreu’s three-year, $58.5 million deal resulted in a career-worst season, as he finished at .237/.296/.383 (86 wRC+) with -0.6 WAR even after digging out of an early hole. He increasingly struggled against fastballs, and set career lows in pull rate (33.9%) and average exit velocity (89.0 mph) while posting his lowest barrel rate (8.7%) since 2017. His work with hitting coach Alex Cíntron did pay dividends late in the year, especially in the Division Series, but he doesn’t inspire much confidence entering his age-37 season. Prodigal son Jon Singleton is the top alternative. His return from baseball oblivion after eight years out of the majors was a triumph, but he’ll have to do better than the .165/.267/.264 line he posted in 105 PA to stick, even as a reserve.

Second Base

Tigers (22nd, 1.8 WAR)

Colt Keith has yet to play in the majors, but the Tigers believe enough in the 22-year-old former fifth-round pick — no. 46 on our Top 100 — to have signed him to a six-year, $28.6 million extension in late January. They’ll give him a chance to win the second base job this spring, though he’s played more third than second in the minors. Keith’s a 30-grade defender at either spot due to throwing issues, though he projects to provide enough power to play every day, even as a DH. In his first taste of the high minors, he hit a combined .306/.380/.552 (140 wRC+) with 27 homers in 2023 split between Double- and Triple-A. The top alternative to Keith, whether he’s in the minors or DHing, is going-on-31-year-old utilityman Andy Ibáñez, who hit a respectable .264/.312/.433 (103 wRC+) last year, with 28-year-old utilityman Zach McKinstry, who hit just .231/.302/.351 (81 wRC+), also in the picture.

Shortstop

Guardians (23rd, 1.8 WAR)

Though Gabriel Arias received the bulk of the reps at shortstop after last summer’s trade of Amed Rosario, Brayan Rocchio has long been considered the better prospect and is the likely heir to the position. Rocchio, a 23-year-old switch-hitter, has been a 50 FV mainstay throughout his development, one who just placed 59th on our Top 100 list for the combination of his feel for contact, his pitch recognition, and his skill (if not his athleticism) at handling shortstop. He hit .280/.367/.421 (101 wRC+) at Triple-A Columbus last year but scuffled to a .247/.279/.321 (65 wRC+) line with a 31.4% strikeout rate and 4.7% walk rate in 86 PA for the Guardians; he chased a whopping 44.5% of pitches out of the zone. Though he could win the starting job out of spring training and projects for a 92 wRC+, he’ll have to improve his plate discipline to survive. The 24-year-old Arias, who hit just .210/.275/.352 (74 wRC+) last year while striking out 32.8% of the time — that 30-grade hit tool was no joke — will either be a backup or a stopgap who will settle back into a utility role if and when Rocchio is ready.

Third Base

Tigers (25th, 1.7 WAR)

Though 2022 first-round pick Jace Jung (no. 48 on our Top 100) is considered the third baseman of he future, he hasn’t played above Double-A and will start the year in the minors, leaving the Tigers planning for some kind of mix that may center around righty Gio Urshela, whom the team signed to a $1.5 million-plus incentives deal last week. The 32-year-old Urshela hit .299/.329/.374 (92 wRC+) — numbers that were well ahead of his Statcast metrics — with two homers in 228 PA last year for the Angels before fracturing his pelvis on June 15. His addition marks a departure from the plan as of December, when 27-year-old righty Matt Vierling was the favorite to start at third. Vierling hit .261/.329/.388 (99 wRC+) and played 35 games at the hot corner last year in addition to 130 in the outfield. The aforementioned McKinstry (a lefty) and Ibánez (a righty) could also be involved, depending upon how the second base situation unfolds.

Blue Jays (24th, 1.6 WAR)

Instead of re-signing Chapman, Toronto is cobbling together a lower-cost solution via free agent additions Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Justin Turner and holdovers Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio. The 28-year-old Kiner-Falefa, the best defender of the group, projects for the most playing time, but his .261/.314/.346 (82 wRC+) line for the Yankees last year was thoroughly representative of his offensive “skills” even with a career-best 3.1% barrel rate. The 38-year-old Turner has been an excellent hitter, but last year’s 114 wRC+ (.276/.345/.455) was his lowest mark since his Mets tenure, and it included just a 105 wRC+ against righties; what’s more, he played just 57 innings at third base, and his metrics were trending downward even before that. Espinal has fallen from a 115 wRC+ to 100 to 80 since 2021; last year, he managed just a 1% barrel rate. Biggio, the only lefty of the group, hit for a 103 wRC+ but has played just 65 innings at third over the past two seasons. Signing Chapman would clean up this mess while providing a boost in the competitive AL East, but it would push the team past the $257 million second tier Competitive Balance Tax threshold.

Left Field

Mariners (22nd, 1.3 WAR)

Seattle ranked sixth in the majors with 3.3 WAR from its left fielders last year, with Jarred Kelenic accounting for nearly half the playing time and value. Even given the protracted slump that followed his white-hot April (and a self-induced broken foot), it came as a surprise to see him traded in the name of salary relief. Replacing him is a mix headed by Luke Raley. The lefty-swinging Raley broke out in his age-28 season, hitting .249/.333/.490 (130 wRC+) with 19 homers and 14 steals overall, but he managed just a 93 wRC+ in the second half and struck out 31.5% of the time overall. While he hit lefties, the same can’t be said for 26-year-old lefty Dominic Canzone, who as a rookie batted .220/.258/.399 (79 wRC+) in 182 PA split between Arizona and Seattle. Yet another lefty, 26-year-old Cade Marlowe, could also figure in the plan, as could jacks of all trades Sam Haggerty, a 29-year-old switch-hitter, and Dylan Mooore, a 31-year-old righty.

Twins (19th, 1.5 WAR)

Last year, four different Twins played at least 40 games in left field, and all but Joey Gallo (now a National) figure to contribute this year. The likely starter is 26-year-old lefty Matt Wallner, who hit a beefy .249/.370/.507 (144 wRC+) with 14 homers in 254 PA as a rookie but struck out 31.5% of the time and went 5-for-42 against lefties. Neither of the other holdovers, 27-year-old lefty Trevor Larnach and 27-year-old switch-hitter Willi Castro (who managed just an 82 wRC+ against lefties), are good fits for a platoon, but freshly acquired 29-year-old righty Manuel Margot makes sense in that capacity. He hit for just an 84 wRC+ against lefties last year but owns a 109 career mark and a 115 mark for the past three seasons.

Center Field

Guardians (25th, 1.6 WAR)

Myles Straw totaled 5.3 WAR in 2021–22 on the strength of defense that was a combined 20–22 runs above average per DRS, UZR, and RAA, and despite plummeting from a 98 wRC+ in ’21 to 67 in ’22. His offense was still dreadful last year (.238/.301/.297, 69 wRC+) — he barreled just two balls — and with declining defense (his best showing was his 6 DRS), he totaled 0.4 WAR. Two alternatives could provide some punch for an outfield that totaled just 18 homers all season. Lefty-swinging former Yankees prospect Estevan Florial, now 26 years old, hit .284/.380/.565 with 28 homes and 25 steals at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but even amid a flood of injuries, the Yankees gave him just 71 PA, all in September, because he’d been removed from the 40-man roster. Twenty-nine-year-old righty Ramón Laureano hit a combined .224/.304/.371 (91 wRC+) with 1.0 WAR for Oakland and Cleveland. He played just 148.1 innings in center field, but as most of those came after the trade, the team seems comfortable putting him there.

Tigers (22nd, 1.8 WAR)

Riley Greene started 168 games in center over the past two seasons, but with the arrival of Parker Meadows in late August, the Tigers began experimenting with Greene in both corners before he tore the UCL in his left (non-throwing) elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. The 23-year-old Greene, who hit a solid .288/.349/.447 (119 wRC+) before getting injured, might still spot in center but Meadows is slated to be the regular. The lefty-swinging 24-year-old hit .232/.331/.368 (94 wRC+) in 145 PA for the Tigers last year, following a modest .256/.337/.474 (99 wRC+) for Triple-A Toledo. Meadows doesn’t project as an impact player on the offensive side, but should be more than adequate in center while at the very least occupying the long half of a platoon. The aforementioned Vierling is the only righty among the top alternatives, though 23-year-old prospect Eddys Leonard, who hit .302/.374/.530 (123 wRC+) in 40 games at Triple-A after being purchased from the Dodgers, also fits that bill.

Right Field

Mariners (22nd, 1.1 WAR)

Mitch Haniger spent a miserable season in San Francisco, where he played just 61 games, missed four weeks due to an oblique strain and 11 more due to a fractured ulna that required surgery, and hit .209/.266/.365 (73 wRC+). Now 33 and back in the fold in Seattle, he’s played just 338 games while totaling 4.2 WAR over the past five seasons; it’s a stretch to expect him to replicate his 2018 or even ’21 production. The aforementioned Canzone, Haggerty, and Marlowe are the top alternatives. After a strong performance off the bench in 2022, Haggerty started slowly and was demoted to Triple-A Tacoma for over two months; following a strong mid-August return, he finished at .253/.364/.341 (108 wRC+) with 10 steals in just 108 PA. Marlowe hit a respectable .239/.330/.420 (112 wRC+) in 100 PA after Kelenic broke his foot. He’s a 35+ FV prospect whose speed is his only above-average tool.

Designated Hitter

Tigers (23rd, 0.8 WAR)

The end of the Miguel Cabrera era (CabrEra?) means that the team no longer has an aging superstar serving both as a set DH and a massive drag on the offense. The plan now is to rotate players through the spot, though the Opening Day DH and most likely go-to for manager A.J. Hinch is 26-year-old lefty Kerry Carpenter, who hit .278/.340/.471 (120 wRC+) season with 20 homers. He was around average at the outfield corners, where he played 91 games (80 in right), but with Meadows bumping Greene to a corner, there will be less demand for Carpenter’s glove. The aforementioned Keith could see substantial time here, as could newcomer Mark Canha, the other likely corner; the 35-year-old righty hit .262/.355/.400 (111 wRC+) for the Mets and Brewers last year.

Twins (16th, 1.0 WAR)

In an effort to keep the oft-injured Byron Buxton healthy, the Twins kept him from playing a single defensive inning last year, but the decision didn’t really pay off, as he hit just .207/.294/.438 (98 wRC+) and still missed 12 days due to a rib contusion and two months due to a hamstring strain. He’s slated to return to regular center field duty but still projects to spend more time at DH than any Twin within a rotation that could include just about every decent-hitting regular and part-timer, with Kirilloff and Santana, who already put a dent in this list above, the most likely alternatives after Buxton.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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LesVegetables
2 months ago

I am actually kind of optimistic about Connor Wong this year. For whatever reason all of his struggles have come against left handed pitching. which he didn’t struggle against in the minors. He might be able to correct that.

rickdugo3000
2 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

respectfully, you wouldn’t be optimistic if you watched him day in and day out last year. maybe he’ll get to his power a little more, which would be nice, since he does have good raw power, but he is the kind of MLB hitter that genuinely would strike out against any pitcher at any level as long as they threw him a slider.

LesVegetables
2 months ago
Reply to  rickdugo3000

I watch just about every single Red Sox game and I don’t really see why Connor Wong would run a 22 wRC+ against lefties and a 99 wRC+ against righties, when he actually hit better against lefties in the minors. Not saying it will happen but it is definitely a possibility.

Binyamin
2 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

I’m very optimistic about Connor Wong being replaced by Kyle Teel sooner rather than later.