Who Is the NL’s Most Irreplaceable Player in 2022?

Corbin Burnes
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Who is baseball’s most irreplaceable player in 2022? This doesn’t mean the most valuable player, and in terms of the playoff hunt, the hardest player to replace isn’t necessarily the best one. Some teams are either cruising to the playoffs or effectively eliminated in practice, if not in purely mathematical terms (hello, Tigers and Royals). To answer this question, I ran the updated ZiPS projected standings after Tuesday’s games and then re-ran the entire simulation with the assumption that each relevant player missed the rest of the season due to injury.

For the NL, ZiPS estimates that nine teams remain plausible playoff contenders, which I define as having a 5% chance of making MLB’s new 12-team playoff format. The exceptions are the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Rockies, Pirates, Nationals, and Reds. Seven of the nine remaining teams are above 50%, with only the Phillies (27%) and Marlins (8%) between a coin flip and that arbitrarily chosen 5% threshold. Let’s jump right into the NL’s top 10 list.

1. Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers, -11.0%

Burnes was always going to make this top 10 list, but Brandon Woodruff‘s ankle injury and Freddy Peralta‘s more significant shoulder injury push him into the top slot. The hit may even be more severe than the -11% listed here; ZiPS puts a lot of stock in Aaron Ashby’s presence, but any kind of forearm pain for a pitcher should lead fans to look sadly into the middle distance. Nobody on the Brewers comes even close to Burnes in playoff impact, so a nasty surprise here ought to make them very aggressive about picking up a pitcher. After all, we’re already into the Chi Chi González portion of the depth chart.

2. Matt Olson, Atlanta Braves, -9.0%

Ronald Acuña Jr. has a better projection than Olson, but ZiPS sees Atlanta’s options at first base to be relatively bleak. That was one of the team’s biggest questions back when Freddie Freeman was a free agent, and though Atlanta has patched together DH somewhat, all bets are off with a serious Olson injury. In the event he goes down, I expect it’s more likely that Austin Riley plays first with Phil Gosselin playing third than Adam Duvall or Eddie Rosario getting shifted to first, but since ZiPS isn’t a Gosselin-stanner, it thinks that’s only shuffling a hole around.

3. Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies, -8.5%

The Phillies have had a healthy rotation this year, with their front five making all but four of the starts this season. But it doesn’t take a lot to test this team’s rotation depth, and ZiPS is extremely unenthused by the prospect of Bailey Falter or Cristopher Sánchez stepping in for the rest of the season. Noah Skirrow possibly having a breakout season does raise ZiPS’ eyebrows a bit, but given his lack of real prospect status coming into the season, I doubt the Phillies would aggressively push him to the majors unless there was a superspreader event in the clubhouse.

4. Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres, -8.4%

The Padres have more than survived so far without the services of Tatis Jr., but that doesn’t mean that’s an experiment they want to keep trying, and San Diego’s high playoff probability contains the assumption that he is most likely to return sometime around the All-Star break. Having Ha-Seong Kim as a spare option, at least when Manny Machado is healthy, is a good thing, but Tatis Jr. would have been the best-projected player in baseball entering 2022 if not for ZiPS being suspicious about his health.

5. Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies, -8.4%

Remember, the Phillies basically needed to sign Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber because their outfield options were bleak, and this issue didn’t magically fix itself since April. Any outfield injury likely leads to a lot more Matt Vierling, who is a lot closer to his 2022 line than last season’s small sample .324/.364/.479 line. ZiPS does not see Mickey Moniak as even a decent emergency plan, leaving Philadelphia’s best option being a trade for someone like Tommy Pham, something complicated by the fact that the organization has had a lot of failures lately in player development.

6. Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants, -7.9%

ZiPS likes Jakob Junis, Sean Hjelle, and Gregory Santos as replacements who are safely above replacement level. Matthew Boyd was just shut down for another month due to a flexor strain, but he remains at least a theoretical possibility in August and September. Despite this depth, ZiPS is a big fan of Webb, so it sees his loss as being the most significant one the Giants could face. Carlos Rodón isn’t far behind, just missing the top 10, but ZiPS already assigned a higher probability to losing him to injury than Webb. None of the team’s position players come even close to making this list, a testament to how well constructed this roster is to combat nearly every eventuality.

7. Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves, -7.6%

Acuña Jr. ranks surprisingly low based on the simple fact that Drew Waters exists. More playing time for Duvall or Rosario wouldn’t be an ideal situation, but like last year, it would be enough to get by, though quite obviously not the desired scenario. The baseball gods better not do this with Tatis Jr. not having played this season and Juan Soto trapped on an extremely lousy team.

8. Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals, -7.1%

Like Tampa Bay, St. Louis rarely ranks highly in this exercise. But ZiPS has been much less excited about the team’s depth in 2021 and ’22 than in past seasons. Helping is that ZiPS still isn’t giving up on Paul DeJong and thinks a scenario in which Tommy Edman is at third and DeJong back as the shortstop is not really that frightening.

9. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies, -7.1%

Nola appears here for the same reason that Wheeler does: Philadelphia’s rotation depth is basically a trade or an emoji shrug. The Phillies ought to be highly concerned that Nola only has a 2023 club option and there’s no flood of imminent pitching past Mick Abel. Losing him to free agency after 2023 would be a massive blow to the franchise.

10. Manny Machado, San Diego Padres, -7.0%

Machado leads the league in WAR, but the Padres have a decent playoff cushion, and Tatis Jr. simply projects as the superior player. I know “decent playoff cushion” is something that was written about the Padres last season, but their rotation depth hasn’t been nearly as tested as it was last year, and Jake Arrieta is safely retired.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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9 days ago

If we assume that Brendan Donovan takes over as the everyday 3B, does Arenado still make this list?

Or perhaps I should ask, “Should Arenado still make this list?”

Personally, I think the Cardinals would be in bigger trouble were they to lose Flaherty (yet again), Mikolas, or Wainwright for the rest of the season.

Last edited 9 days ago by Lanidrac
8 days ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I am not convinced Flarhety matters much; they’re here without him and he’s looked very bad in his tuneups (SSS, sorry). Mikolas or Wainwright, yes, but I’d be curious how much zips trusts Jack at this point in the season, with the injuries piling up on him recently and not being the dominant force he was in that one brilliant 2nd half.

8 days ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

My guess is that ZIPS isn’t trusting Donovan yet, and that it’s still giving DeJong more credit than he probably deserves at this point.

I agree though, a loss of pretty much any position player probably isn’t going to damage the Cards nearly as much as the loss of any starter, or for that matter any one of Helsley, Cabrera, and Gallegos.

CC AFCmember
8 days ago
Reply to  olethros

If I’m reading correctly, ZIPS is pegging him as about a 2-2.5 WAR player over a full season, which seems like a pretty good amount of trust already. Great plate discipline and contact ability, Madrigal-ian lack of power, versatile defensive player who may or may not be particularly good at any of those positions. Feels pretty fair.

8 days ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I’ll be damned. ZIPS is actually even higher on him than that since that 1.1 fWAR projection for the rest of the season is based on only 60 games played, which I think I’d take the over on.

random Colorado guy
8 days ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

A question: is it assumed that the other Nolan (Gorman) is no longer a candidate to step in at 3B? I thought the whole reason for moving him to 2B was the assumed invulnerability of the incumbent there. But if Arenado gets a long-lasting flat tire …

Note that I am somewhat more bullish on Flaherty than some. He still has that pitcher’s body, even with a few patches on it, and he may have been rushed back (partly at his own urging) too quickly while the “pitchability” part (what a hideous word!) is still coming around. We’ll see.

Travis Lmember
8 days ago

> He still has that pitcher’s body

Also relevant, how attractive is his wife? Does it show he has “ace” confidence, or are these items nearly irrelevant and add more bias and noise than signal?

7 days ago

That’s also a possibility, but given that Donovan has already played a few games at 3B, while Gorman has played nothing but 2B and DH since being called up, I think Donovan would be their first choice at 3B if Arenado were to go down.

Travis Lmember
8 days ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Arenado -> Donovan is about a 1.5-2.5 WAR drop, which is crucial on their spot on the win curve. Donovan looks like a pretty solid average player, but Arenado is a (lesser) star.

7 days ago
Reply to  Travis L

Yes, but Donovan is still an above-average MLB player who once again won’t have a permanent spot on the field or in the lineup once O’Neill returns in a couple of weeks. The downgrade from Arenado to Donovan is still quite a bit less than it is between Mikolas and whoever would take his spot in the rotation (or the other guys on this list), not to mention the downgrade the bullpen would then take if the Cardinals had to use either Pallante or Hicks as that rotation replacement for the rest of the season rather than just until Matz returns.

Last edited 7 days ago by Lanidrac