The Weakest Positions on National League Contenders, 2024 Edition

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is in full swing, and while there’s still a trickle of higher-profile free agents such as Cody Bellinger and Tim Anderson finding homes — not to mention a handful of unsigned ones, from NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and postseason stud Jordan Montgomery on down — most teams are taking shape, albeit with plenty to sort out while in camp. Still, all but the powerhouses have some lineup holes remaining, and while they may not be likely to open their checkbooks to land the likes of Matt Chapman, it’s worth keeping their vulnerabilities in mind.

To that end, I wanted to revisit an exercise I performed last year, one that bears more than a passing resemblance to the annual Replacement Level Killers series I roll out prior to the trade deadline. This one is a little different, as it comes prior to the season and relies entirely on our projections, which combine ZiPS and Steamer as well as playing time estimates from RosterResource. Those projections also drive our Playoff Odds.

There are a couple of wrinkles to note here. Where last year and for the in-season series I have generally used a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs as a cutoff for what we might loosely define as a contender, 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 (25.6% at this writing) and Reds (25.7%), both of which forecast for 80 wins. Gotta love this expanded playoff system, right? Ugh.

Also, because of the general tendency to overproject playing time and keep even the weakest teams with positive WAR 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 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’ve discounted the team totals from the position pages by 20% across the board, and focused on the lowest-ranked contenders among those whose adjusted values fall below 2.0 WAR, the general equivalent of average play across a full season. The individual WAR values cited 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 — don’t project particularly well but aren’t without upside.

With that in mind, I’ll go around the diamond, limiting myself to a maximum of two teams per spot. We’ll cover the National League today, with the American League to follow later this week.

Catcher

Reds (25th, 1.3 adjusted WAR)

Tyler Stephenson totaled 3.6 WAR with a 118 wRC+ in 2021–22 despite a concussion, broken thumb, and broken right clavicle limiting him to 50 games in the latter season. In 2023, manager David Bell somehow thought it would be worth making up for that lost time by DHing Stephenson when he wasn’t catching, but he slipped to a .243/.317/.378 line (85 wRC+) while his strikeout rate spiked to 26.1%. Meanwhile, his framing declined from -2.9 runs in 940 innings in 2021–22 to -10.6 runs in just 703 innings in ’23, which may help to explain those 43 games at DH and eight at first base. Backup Luke Maile hit for just an 86 wRC+ and was 3.2 runs below average in framing in just 500.1 innings, and third-stringer Austin Wynns owns a 61 wRC+, -9.5 framing runs and -0.9 WAR for his career. It’s on the 27-year-old Stephenson to turn things around, and maybe the Reds’ glut of infielders will keep Bell from asking him to DH.

Cubs (24th, 1.4 WAR)

Yan Gomes couldn’t match the production of departed free agent Willson Contreras, but he did hit .267/.315/.408 for a 95 wRC+, up 22 points from 2022 and his highest full-season mark since ’18. Alas, he offset that by dropping from league-average framing to -8.2 runs. At 36 years old, he’s not a great bet to repeat his offensive contributions. Backup Miguel Amaya hit .214/.329/.359 (94 wRC+) in 156 PA as a 24-year-old rookie while barreling 9.7% of his batted balls, and was an above-average framer as well. If he can build upon that and take over a larger share of the playing time than the 38% share we have forecast for him, this situation could improve markedly.

First Base

Cubs (25th, 1.0 WAR)

Lefty-swinging 26-year-old rookie Michael Busch — a born DH who hasn’t played first base regularly since college — is forecast to get a plurality of the playing time here but the picture has shifted considerably given the re-signing of the 28-year-old Bellinger and the addition of 33-year-old righty Garrett Cooper on a minor league deal. The 84th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 list, Busch hit a sizzling .323/.431/.618 (150 wRC+) for the Dodgers’ Triple-A Oklahoma City affiliate last year but just .167/.247/.292 (49 wRC+) with a 33.3% strikeout rate in 81 PA in the majors. He could share time in a platoon with Jones or Patrick Wisdom. The real question is how soon center field prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong (20th on our Top 100) is ticketed for the majors. He’s likely to start his season at Triple-A Iowa, but his eventual arrival could push Bellinger from center field to first, where he played 59 games last year and 321 during his career. Obviously, he’d be an upgrade here.

Padres (24th, 1.0 WAR)

The Jake Cronenworth end of last year’s infield shuffle did not pay off, as the two-time All-Star created a huge drag on the offense by slipping from a 110 wRC+ to 92 and shed about three-quarters of a win in terms of defense (including positional value); he plunged from 4.2 WAR to 1.0. While the Padres are again reshuffling their infield to put Xander Bogaerts at second base and Ha-Seong Kim at shortstop, Cronenworth remains at first. Unless he can reverse three straight seasons of declining average exit velocities, barrel rates and hard-hit rates, he’ll again be a liability. As for the versatile players who might fill in, neither Matthew Batten nor the just re-signed Jurickson Profar figures to provide much help, and Nathan Martorella, a 45-FV prospect during last year’s list cycle who has just 99 PA above A-ball, isn’t ready yet.

Second Base

Brewers (25th, 1.5 WAR)

Brice Turang entered last season at no. 65 on our Top 100 Prospects list on the strength of his defense and despite concerns about his offense. Those concerns manifested themselves in a .218/.285/.300 (60 wRC+) performance, with his key Statcast numbers placing in the fifth percentile or lower; meanwhile, though he was 12 runs above average via DRS, both UZR and RAA put him more modestly above average. His 1.2-WAR projection requires much better work on both sides of the ball. Joey Ortiz, a slick-fielding 25-year-old prospect (no. 45 overall this year) who arrived as part of the Corbin Burnes trade represents a palatable alternative, but he’s currently the leading candidate for playing time at third base. That leaves light hitters such as Owen Miller and Andruw Monasterio as the other near-term options, with prospects Tyler Black and Oliver Dunn further off and longer shots to stick; the former is notably more suited for third base.

Giants (23rd, 1.8 WAR)

Though 28-year-old Thairo Estrada totaled 6.7 WAR while hitting for a 104 wRC+ in 260 games in 2022–23 (3.9 WAR and a 101 wRC+ in 120 games last year), our projection systems are nonetheless skeptical he can sustain such production. He doesn’t hit the ball hard (his barrel and hard-hit rates placed in the 16th and 17th percentiles, respectively) and walked just 4.2% of the time; he outdid his .293 xwOBA by 23 points and his .368 xSLG by 48 points. Perhaps he can hustle his way into a similar performance, but the Giants lack depth behind him; nobody from among the alternatives such as Nick Ahmed, Otto Lopez, Casey Schmitt, and Brett Wisely has proven he can hit major league pitching, and Wilmer Flores is just a break-glass-in-emergency option at this point.

Shortstop

Giants (30th, 1.1 WAR)

In the post-Brandon Crawford era, the Giants plan to give 22-year-old rookie Marco Luciano a chance to secure the everyday job, but the projection systems aren’t impressed. Luciano slipped off the Top 100 list by striking out 31.3% of the time while hitting .223/.334/.442 (106 wRC+) in 56 games at Double-A and 18 at Triple-A, then .231/.333/.308 in 14 games for the Giants. While our prospect team has praised his plus-plus power, they’ve noted his contact issues and remain convinced that he lacks the range and hands to stay at shortstop. The most obvious fallback option, Ahmed, won’t hit, and if Estrada — who played 24 games at shortstop last year — is pulled into duty here, the team may as well go into Panik mode and track down their long-lost second baseman.

Marlins (27th, 1.3 WAR)

Anderson is a two-time All-Star and former batting champion who had hit for a .300 average with a wRC+ above 100 from 2019–22, but his performance collapsed after he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee during a rundown last April 10, which sidelined him for 18 games and hampered him all season. With his front leg compromised, he hit .245/.286/.296 (60 wRC+) with one homer and a 2.9% barrel rate, half of what it was in 2022. Meanwhile, he slipped from -7 DRS to -16; while his other metrics were in the red, they didn’t fall off much. He’s only 31, but he’s also played just 448 games over the past four full seasons. Hopefully he bounces back, but the projection systems seem particularly pessimistic. If he can’t rebound, the versatile Jon Berti makes for a good fallback.

Third Base

Diamondbacks (27th, 1.6 WAR)

Diamondbacks third basemen combined for just a 75 wRC+ and 0.5 WAR in 2023, primarily via four different players who made at least 24 starts. Evan Longoria and Josh Rojas are both gone, the former in free agency, the latter as part of a trade. Returnees Jace Peterson and Emmanuel Rivera will take a back seat to Eugenio Suárez, whom the Snakes acquired from the Mariners in a late-November swap. The 32-year-old Suárez is coming off a middling season at the plate, having hit .232/.323/.391 (102 wRC+) with 22 homers but a 30.8% strikeout rate. His .159 ISO was his lowest mark since his 2014 rookie season, but some of that may have been bad luck and/or his home ballpark; he fell 32 points short of his .423 xSLG. On a positive note, his 8 RAA still propped up his value, but it was an outlier amid other metrics that were in the red. Escaping from T-Mobile Park may help, but Chase Field isn’t great for home run hitters.

Phillies (23rd, 1.7 WAR)

Philadelphia’s third basemen — mainly Alec Bohm and Edmundo Sosa — were even less productive than Arizona’s last year, turning up on my midsummer Killers list and combining for just 0.3 WAR. Bohm is entering his age-27 season, Sosa his age-28, so you might think they’d be on the upswing, but here they are. Bohm’s 105 wRC+ (.274/.327/.437) was his best mark since his 2020 rookie season, but his defense drew mixed reviews; DRS double-digit hates him (-10 runs this time) but for the first time he was slightly in the black via both UZR and RAA, albeit in a sample reduced by his time at first base, which is now Bryce Harper’s business. Sosa’s a better fielder but a true hacker, with a 44.8% chase rate and a 2.7% walk rate last season. Yikes.

Left Field

Padres (30th, 0.4 WAR)

After opting out of the final year of a three-year, $21 million deal, Profar spent most of last season with the Rockies but drew his release in late August, returned to the Padres, and finished with just a .242/.321/.368 (76 wRC+) season line. The 31-year-old switch-hitter projects for a nearly identical line (.237/.325/.368), which in a more pitcher-friendly park translates to a 95 wRC+. He might serve as a stopgap as the Padres, determined to make the whole team out of shortstops, give 20-year-old prospect Jackson Merrill a long look in left field, where he has just five games of regular season experience. He hit a combined .277/.326/.444 (108 wRC+) with 15 homers and 15 steals split between High-A Fort Wayne and Double-A San Antonio; despite no Triple-A experience, he could make the team out of spring training. That could be interesting, and perhaps exciting, but there’s a non-zero chance it could be developmentally detrimental.

Marlins (29th, 0.7 WAR)

Incumbent Bryan De La Cruz has been declining since his 58-game rookie season; last year, he hit just .257/.304/.411 (92 wRC+) and was well below average defensively. More interesting is Nick Gordon, famous for his bloodlines but now 28 years old and a decade removed from being the fifth pick in 2014. After establishing a solid foothold in the majors in 2022 (.272/.316/.427, 111 wRC+, 1.8 WAR), he scuffled in 34 games early last year before fracturing his right tibia by fouling a pitch off his leg. Two weeks ago, he was traded to the Marlins for lefty reliever Steven Okert. He’s versatile, having played left, center, and both middle infield positions. A return to form would provide a boost for the Marlins, whether here or at any of his other positions.

Center Field

Padres (28th, 1.4 WAR)

The middle pasture isn’t in much better shape in San Diego than first base or left field, particularly with Gold and Platinum Glove winner Fernando Tatis Jr. expressing a strong preference towards staying in right, which leaves 28-year-old José Azocar as the closest thing to an incumbent center fielder. He hit just .231/.278/.363 (78 wRC+) in 102 PA last year and wasn’t much better in 216 PA in 2022. Most likely to push him for playing time is 22-year-old lefty-swinging Jakob Marsee, a speedy 40+ FV center field prospect who hit a combined .274/.413/.428 (141 wRC+) with 16 homers and 46 steals in 456 PA split between High-A Fort Wayne and Double-A San Antonio, then capped it with an MVP-winning performance in the Arizona Fall League. Merrill’s progress in the outfield could lead to experimenting here, too, but an outside addition wouldn’t be a surprise.

Phillies (27th, 1.5 WAR)

Righty Johan Rojas is an elite flychaser who totaled 15 DRS, 5 RAA and 4.2 UZR in just 392 innings as a rookie while hitting a sizzling .302/.342/.430 (109 wRC+) in 164 PA. Between his 41.5% chase rate, 3% walk rate, and 0.9% barrel rate, the chances of him sustaining that offensive line appear slim; he was miles ahead of his .247 xBA and .302 xSLG, and while he can make up some of the difference with his 70-grade speed, pitchers are likely to exploit his weaknesses. With the signing of Whit Merrifield, lefty Brandon Marsh could see considerable time in center (he started 100 games there last year compared to just 13 in left) while occupying the long half of a platoon in left. He underwent arthroscopic debridement surgery in his left knee on February 9 and will miss three or four weeks; Opening Day is still a possibility if there are no setbacks. Cristian Pache, who has a similar skill set to Rojas, is around if Marsh isn’t ready, but as he’s out of options, he could be on the move.

Right Field

Phillies (29th, 0.5 WAR)

By improving only from -0.8 WAR in 2022 to 1.0 last year, Nick Castellanos has now turned up in two straight editions of the Replacement Level Killers and last year’s preseason exercise. In part that’s because Harper’s elbow injury and subsequent move to first base has made the DH-caliber Castellanos an everyday right fielder despite appalling defensive metrics (-13.3 UZR, -9 DRS, -6 RAA last year), but his offensive decline isn’t helping. Last year, he hit .272/.311/.476 (109 wRC+) while setting career highs in strikeout and swinging-strike rates (27.6% and 18.7%, respectively). If the Phillies cared about defense, they’d put a more adept fielder – Merrifield, Marsh, Pache if he’s around — out there once in awhile, but we have ample evidence that’s a once-a-fortnight occasion.

Marlins (24th, 1.0 WAR)

Save for a brief rehab stint following a hamstring strain, Jesús Sánchez finally spent a full season in the majors, setting career highs with 125 games and 1.3 WAR while hitting .253/.327/.450 (109 wRC+) with 14 homers. The now-26-year-old lefty is still too chase- and groundball-happy to fully realize his exceptional raw power, and his ongoing struggles against lefties (50 wRC+ last year) cast him as a platoon player. Righty Avisaíl García was limited to 37 games last year due to back tightness and a recurrent left hamstring strain, and has managed just a 59 wRC+ and -1.0 WAR in 498 PA over the past two seasons. His ability to hit lefties makes him a useful fit if he can rebound, but at 32 years old and with his track record, that’s hardly a guarantee. De La Cruz could see time here as well, which doesn’t leave much room for optimism.

Designated Hitter

Marlins (27th, 0.6 WAR)

As Chris Gilligan wrote recently, NL teams have yet to really figure out this DH business; a handful of teams (the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Padres, Reds, and Cubs) project to be just a few runs better than the Marlins, who appear likely to split up the duties between García, switch-hitting Josh Bell, and lefty Luis Arraez, with righty Jake Burger getting some reps as well. Bell is the big liability afield; his career splits are level, but last year he struggled to a 92 wRC+ against righties.

Mets (26th, 0.6 WAR)

The Mets have flirted with free agent J.D. Martinez, but their payroll situation has left them looking inward. They gave rookie corner infielder Mark Vientos a long trial at DH last year (37 games out of 65 total), but while he hit the ball quite hard, he batted an ugly .211/.253/.367 (69 wRC+) in 233 PA, with a 30.5% strikeout rate and 4.3% walk rate. The 24-year-old righty will have a chance to secure the everyday role, but his approach needs real work. The most likely alternative is 30-year-old lefty D.J. Stewart, who broke out to hit .244/.333/.506 (130 wRC+) in 185 PA last year in the absence of the injured Starling Marte. Righty Luke Voit and lefty Ji Man Choi are in camp on minor league deals that probably depend upon the possibility of Vientos getting farmed out, while Francisco Alvarez could see some time here on days he’s not catching.





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.

37 Comments
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sadtrombonemember
3 months ago

What is a playoff contender anyway? Is it a team that is positioned to make the playoffs, or is it a team that could make the playoffs if everything breaks right, or is it something in between?

Looking at this list of teams, it seems like 25% is a nice cutoff for “teams that could make the playoffs if everything breaks right,” but these are the teams who are going to be the least aggressive about searching for fixes (Giants, Tigers, Red Sox, Marlins, Mets, and Reds). Some of those teams have explicitly disclaimed trying to plug holes this winter, saying that this “isn’t their year.” I guess the Reds have been a little aggressive, even if it hasn’t been to fix a hole (Candelario).

The highest of that group is the Giants at something like 30.6%. Things are still a little dicey just above the Giants level with the Guardians (32.7%), Brewers (34.2%), and Padres (33.6%), and even sort of the Rangers (35.9%), who aren’t being very aggressive in adding players this winter either. Although in these cases, you could argue the causality runs the other way, that the teams’ lower percentages reflect their lack of aggression in the free agent and trade market.

Delgado4HOF
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah I thought the same. I wouldn’t really call the Giants, Marlins, Mets, Red Sox as contenders. Most would be lucky if they finished in 2nd of their division. Hard to see a world where the Red Sox don’t finish last.

david k
3 months ago
Reply to  Delgado4HOF

Did you see the world in 2023 where the Yankees actually were behind the Red Sox in the standings in mid-August? OK, it didn’t end up that way, but if I squint, at least I can SEE that world.

frankenspock
3 months ago
Reply to  david k

I did see that they finished six games under .500 last year. Also, the Yankees weren’t actually contenders.

david k
3 months ago
Reply to  frankenspock

But this is a PRESEASON article assessing possible contenders. Last year, during the preseason, nobody would have thought the Yankees would fall behind the Red Sox that late in the year. Let’s compare apples to apples here please.

Delgado4HOF
3 months ago
Reply to  david k

Because mid August really matters. Or the Yankees who also missed the playoffs.

‘Squinting’ to see that world would fall in the category of ‘hard to see’. But hey, keep on keeping on…

david k
3 months ago
Reply to  Delgado4HOF

I know Mid-August wasn’t the end of the year, but it was far enough along to be statistically significant at that point, and I DID point out that it wasn’t how it ended up, although at the pace things were going, it could EASILY have ended up that way. And, Yes, the Yankees missed the playoffs, but both you and nicko both missed the same point: this is a PRESEASON article assessing playoff contention. I am trying to compare an apple to an apple, and if you looked at LAST YEAR’S PRESEASON, nobody would have thought the Yanks would fall behind the Red Sox with the rosters those two teams had. When someone says “they can’t see a world where…” I was just pointing out that nobody saw that world last year either, and it almost happened, and could have easily happened.

I really thought that people who come to a site like this would have had much better takes than these. It’s as if logic was just tossed out the window.

The Ghost of Johnny Dickshotmember
3 months ago
Reply to  david k

a lot of the commenters on this site tend to believe they are much smarter than they actually are.

Delgado4HOF
3 months ago
Reply to  david k

Horseshoes and hand grenades. It didn’t happen – and it was never really close to. Tampa and Baltimore were much ahead of the field. Boston was 10.5 games back on August 15th. NYY 14 GB. If you think they had a chance, then God bless your soul.

david k
2 months ago
Reply to  Delgado4HOF

It is as if you cannot read at all! Please re-read the sentence that I was responding to: “Hard to see a world where the Red Sox don’t finish last.”. We were talking about FINISHING LAST, we were NOT talking about MAKING THE PLAYOFFS. I was CLEARLY commenting on the fact that it isn’t too hard to see a world where the Red Sox WILL NOT FINISH LAST. So, yes, very late in the season, the Red Sox were not in last place, and were ahead of the team that everyone thought was going to win the division! Why are you even on this site if you can’t understand something so BASIC.

david k
2 months ago
Reply to  Delgado4HOF

I figured you wouldn’t be back to admit you were wrong on this. Very, very wrong.

Last edited 2 months ago by david k
Matthew Habelmember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I wonder if it would be beneficial to break this into 2 different groups of teams; playoff contenders and WS contenders. Might be more insightful?

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Habel

If we’re talking “world series contenders” it’s really limited. In the AL it’s basically just the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles, Mariners, Astros, and Rangers; in the NL it’s the Braves, Dodgers, D-Backs and Phillies.

That’s…eleven teams? You can basically throw out all the central teams, who have a decent chance of making the playoffs but we really don’t expect to win the pennant.

I actually don’t know that I was thinking of throwing out the central teams, though. I was thinking more with the teams in the NL East (Marlins, Mets) and West (Padres, Giants) and Red Sox. They play in competitive divisions and so their chances of making the playoffs are really low despite being average-ish teams.

CC AFCmember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Let’s be real, any playoff contender is a World Series contender by definition. I know we call the better teams among the potential playoff teams “World Series contenders,” but hey, D-Backs happen.

leftycurve66
3 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Exactly. You would think after last season and multiple seasons prior of the “not so great” teams going into the playoffs and making a run would kill this perception of “World Series” contenders. This isn’t the NBA or even the NFL where 80-90% of the time the best teams win out because of an overly dominate player just takes over a series at will (QB in NFL, or a top 5 player in the NBA). That can’t happen in baseball.

Last edited 3 months ago by leftycurve66
gettwobrute79member
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Did we expect Arizona to win pennant before last year? Any team who is a “playoff contender” is a World Series contender. They’re the same thing. Even if commenters here don’t want to believe it is so.

jfree
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

What is a playoff contender anyway?

Well based on the article, the Rockies either aren’t a contender or have no glaring weaknesses. Things that make you go hmmm.

montrealmember
3 months ago
Reply to  jfree

Well Dick Montford believes the Rockies have a decent shot at winning the World Series. Of course Montford also believes in the Easter Bunny and the world being flat.

Lanidrac
3 months ago
Reply to  montreal

The Easter Bunny is a good joke, but I’d be careful mentioning the world being flat now that there’s a significant group of people who actually proclaim that nonsense to where it comes a little too close to slander/libel to say/type that someone shares that belief.

Smiling Politelymember
3 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

…can we all not agree the earth *isn’t* flat? a lot of how baseball works depends upon a certain consistency of classical physics