How '21 contenders can fill their lineup holes

December 9th, 2020

While a few notable moves have been made so far in this nascent offseason, most contenders still have the same problem areas to address that they did a month ago. More, actually, depending on who was non-tendered earlier this month. So, with virtual Winter Meetings week here, who are those contenders -- and where are those must-be-filled weak spots?

Let's start by figuring out who "contenders" even are, lest we write a dozen identical sections along the lines of "the Orioles need help at seven spots," and "the Rockies need help at five spots," and so on.

We'll start by eyeballing 2021 projected wins above replacement, based on current depth charts supplied over at FanGraphs. WAR is hardly infallible, but there's unsurprisingly a pretty strong relation between "lots of WAR" and "lots of wins." The 2019-20 WAR team leaders for position players: Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, Twins. For pitchers? Twins, Indians, Rays, and Dodgers. The top projected 2021 position players? Mike Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., Alex Bregman, Juan Soto, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts. Hard to argue with that.

Then what we'll do is draw a line. We'll say that only teams projected to have at least a .475 winning percentage, or the equivalent of at least 77 wins, are "contenders," which cuts out the bottom eight teams. (Sorry, Orioles, Rockies, Tigers, Pirates, Rangers, Mariners, Marlins and D-backs. We wouldn't be shocked if one or two of you poke over .500 in 2021, but only one of you managed it in 2020 -- Miami, barely, at 31-29 -- and the line has to be drawn somewhere.)

That leaves us with 22 teams. Then, we'll look at the positional breakdowns (as of 8 p.m. ET Monday) and make a color-coded projected WAR chart that shows red as "good" and blue as "weak." In the world of WAR, 2 is roughly average, and anything north of 4 is a star, but it's those handful of 0 WAR areas we're most interested in. If we just look at position players -- every team could use another handful of pitchers -- and ignore DH, due to the uncertain status of it in the NL next year, we'll find that on our 22 contenders, we have 13 problem spots, highlighted in dotted boxes below.

Anyway, investigate the chart. Some of these positions just leap off the page at you. (Here's a larger version.) Not hard to find the bright shining red box that signifies Trout, is it?

A view like this pretty clearly shows how teams like the Nationals (Soto, Trea Turner) and Rockies (Trevor Story, Nolan Arenado) have two elite stars and not a whole lot else. See that red spot at third base for the Pirates? The projections love Ke'Bryan Hayes. You know what else stands out, which might be worthy of further investigation? All of the best teams -- all of them -- have strength on the left side of the infield, with the Dodgers being an exception only because they've not yet re-signed or replaced Justin Turner. But just about no one without Christian Yelich has strength in left field, which increasingly seems not to matter.

Let's focus on contenders, and let's focus on those dark blue "0 WAR" blocks, the 13 big problems. The thing about these is that the bars here are so low to clear that it's not actually that difficult to improve; one team that was in the original draft was the White Sox and right field, but they bumped that up -- not a lot, but enough -- by signing Adam Eaton.

The 13 0-WAR problem spots for contenders

Angels right field
Projected current starter: Jo Adell

Adell was the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball entering the 2020 season, but his Major League debut was extremely rough. Adell hit just .161/.212/.266, which was literally the weakest line of any hitter who had at least 130 plate appearances, in part because his 41.7% strikeout rate was the second-highest of those hitters. He didn't distinguish himself on defense, either. It was, all in all, a forgettable first impression.

That, as well as a relatively unimpressive half season in Triple-A in 2019, is largely why the projections look so negatively upon him. We understand yet don't fully agree, because 132 plate appearances in a pandemic season from a 21-year-old aren't exactly enough to give up on his future, and don't forget that even the great Trout hit only .220/.281/.390 in his 135 plate appearances in a 2011 cameo.

Possible solutions: Just play Adell. It's not hard to dream on Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, Eddie Rosario, etc., in an outfield corner, but Adell isn't even 22 until April, so the Angels have to give him a full season to prove himself -- or not. A veteran lefty backup type like Robbie Grossman might not be a bad depth reinforcement, though.

Astros left field
Projected current starter: Chas McCormick?

Unlike the Angels, the Astros don't really have an in-house solution here due to the likely free-agent departures of an entire trio of outfielders in Michael Brantley, George Springer and Josh Reddick. Kyle Tucker seems likely to man one of the outfield spots -- maybe he ends up in left, not right, but it doesn't matter that much right now -- and he's certainly not going to be joined on Opening Day by both McCormick, who hasn't yet made his Major League debut, and speedy Myles Straw.

Possible solutions: The free-agent market is absolutely stuffed with corner outfielders of varying shapes and sizes, even excluding the three former Astros. In left field, Schwarber, Pederson, Rosario or David Dahl would all make sense -- as, possibly, would Marcell Ozuna, if they wanted to shoot higher. At a lower level, perhaps Adam Duvall, Hunter Renfroe or Nomar Mazara fit. And since we're here, wouldn't Jackie Bradley Jr. look good in center field? Why not just bring back Brantley? How about two? They could really use two.

Red Sox left field
Projected current starter: Michael Chavis

Red Sox first base
Projected current starter: Bobby Dalbec

Let's lump these two together. (We've assumed that with Bradley a free agent, left fielder Andrew Benintendi will slide to center.) Dalbec, 25, hit for some power and struck out a ton in a brief look. Chavis, also 25, didn't hit for much power but still struck out a ton. Combined, and this is much more Chavis than Dalbec, they've been worth 0.6 WAR in parts of two seasons. It's not hard to see either player making a contribution to the 2021 Red Sox, but it is difficult to see them going into the season with these positions handed to them.

That's especially true in left, where a post-Mookie Betts and likely post-Bradley outfield has a lot of questions to answer. Put it this way:'s Ian Browne recently offered "5 thoughts on Boston's 2020 offseason," and the first four were about the outfield.

It's a little more complicated on the right side of the infield, where Dalbec and Chavis are first-base options, and there's something of a grab bag of choices at second base, including Christian Arroyo, Yairo Muñoz, Jonathan Araúz, C.J. Chatham, and Chavis again. (In parts of two seasons with Boston, he's played 73 games at first, 53 at second and a dozen more in left.) There are too many options, which is another way of saying there's not enough options. Hey, Dustin Pedroia technically hasn't retired yet.

Possible solutions: In left, the same group of players -- Rosario, Ozuna, Schwarber, Dahl, Pederson, Brantley, Duvall, etc. -- we've been talking about for each other team's outfield hole, though it would be really interesting if they brought in New England native Springer to play right, moving Alex Verdugo to left. Or just bring back Bradley for center, pushing Benintendi back to left. There are so many outfielders.

First base is a little more complicated, especially now that Carlos Santana is headed to Kansas City. We like lefty Tommy La Stella here, perhaps as a platoon option at first and second with Dalbec and/or Chavis.

Braves left field
Projected current starter: Ender Inciarte

Another team, another corner outfield issue. Ronald Acuña Jr. can play any of the three spots, but we're assuming he's the right fielder and that young Cristian Pache will get the first chance to handle center. (We have no doubt he can do well defensively, because his glove is elite, though whether he can hit enough to start every day is an open question.) The Braves are currently without three corner outfielders from 2020, as Ozuna and Nick Markakis are free agents and Duvall was non-tendered.

Inciarte was once the smooth-fielding center fielder holding down the Atlanta defense, but due to injury and ineffectiveness, he's got a mere 70 OPS+ in 361 plate appearances over the last two years. If not for the fact that he's due $8.7 million in 2021, he likely wouldn't be on the roster. He may yet stick around as a defensive-oriented backup.

Possible solutions: At the risk of sounding repetitive, you know the names. Rosario, Ozuna, Schwarber, Dahl, Pederson, Brantley, Duvall. On and on and on. It's musical chairs, with eight or so corner outfielders and a similar number of interested teams.

Indians second base
Projected current starter: Yu Chang

This is definitely the Indians' middle-infield situation you're thinking about. No question. Anyway, Cleveland got a solid return out of a one-year investment in Cesar Hernandez, who was a better-than-average hitter (106 OPS+) and a strong defender. He's currently a free agent, so if the season began today, Cleveland's second baseman would either be Chang (47 OPS+ in a mere 97 plate appearances), prospect Ernie Clement, who has a .688 OPS in the Minor Leagues, or 21-year-old Tyler Freeman, who hasn't played above Class A.

It's not hard to see why the projections aren't high on this position. It's 29th-best among second-base spots, just a hair ahead of the Phillies, another team that let Hernández go.

Possible solutions: They're not going to go after DJ LeMahieu. Maybe just bring back Hernandez? Kolten Wong is a good defense-first option here, too.

Rays catcher
Projected current starter: Ronaldo Hernández

They don't have one. Seriously. Let's just quote ourselves from a J.T. Realmuto piece the other day to illustrate: "Currently, the Rays have one catcher on their 40-man roster. That catcher, Ronaldo Hernández, was last seen putting up a .299 on-base percentage in 2019 in the Class A Florida State League." That's obviously not going to cut it.

The Rays know that, of course, as catcher is reportedly "their primary focus." How could it not be? Fortunately for them, the free-agency market after Realmuto has some options.

Possible solutions: Reunions with free agent ex-Rays Mike Zunino, Curt Casali or Wilson Ramos may make sense, or somewhat similar veteran placeholders like Jason Castro, Alex Avila or Tyler Flowers. Probably it's more than one of those guys, but if the Cubs really do trade Willson Contreras, Tampa Bay would be an interesting option.

Nationals left field
Projected current starter: Andrew Stevenson

Did we say there were a bunch of teams that needed a corner outfielder? We've listed left field here because we think Soto will be in right, but either way, the Nationals will need a new outfielder to pair with Soto and Victor Robles, now that Eaton's in Chicago and Michael A. Taylor is in Kansas City. Stevenson has been around for parts of four seasons, and he's never really been given much of an opportunity, totaling just 236 league-average-ish plate appearances. That's not bad, really, especially since he's quietly hit a little better each year, though it seems unlikely he'll be given a chance to start.

Possible solutions: You might have heard that there are a lot of free-agent corner outfielders out there. We'd actually like to see what Stevenson can do.

Cardinals right field
Projected current starter: Dexter Fowler

Maybe this feels a little unfair to Fowler, but then again, maybe it's not. In the shortened 2020, he was worth 0.0 WAR. From 2018 through 2020, he was worth 0.4 WAR, and he'll be 35 in March. With one more year remaining on his contract, he's better suited to a bench role. It's not like the Cardinals have any shortage of in-house options here; assuming Harrison Bader is in center, you've got Dylan Carlson, Tyler O'Neill, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, Justin Williams and, we assume, Willie McGee and Stan Musial are kicking around somewhere there, too.

Not all of those names are starting options, and it's unclear how aggressive St. Louis will be after choosing to decline Wong's option. "As far as the outfield goes, clearly we’ve got to find consistency and offensive production," said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently. True enough, but where from? One of baseball's most disappointing offenses can't simply roll back the same lineup yet again.

Possible solutions: Sign Pederson or Rosario to play one corner, but mostly just play Carlson, the No. 14 prospect in baseball, every single day. If that means Fowler and O'Neill lose opportunities, so be it.

Phillies catcher
Projected current starter: Andrew Knapp

Phillies center field
Projected current starter: Roman Quinn

Phillies second base
Projected current starter: Scott Kingery

If you're wondering how a team with this many holes could be viewed as a contender, well, we are, too. They're one of the last teams that qualified, so take that with a grain of salt, but also it's a good reminder that there's still a ton of talent on a top-heavy roster -- like Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Bryce Harper, Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins.

Let's take these one at a time. Catcher is easy; they had Realmuto, and now they don't. That's why they're projected so poorly. Bringing him back would immediately make this a middle-of-the-pack team again. Easier said than done, obviously, but that's the play. Center field is easy, because Quinn is a backup who was pressed into starting duty due to lack of options at the position. Second is more problematic, because Kingery has done little to live up to his once-lofty expectations, but once you read about his struggles with COVID-19, you're more likely to look past his disappointing 2020.

There's almost no chance at all the Phillies will sign a free agent at each spot. They'll need some kind of internal improvement, or trades.

Possible solutions: Just bring back Realmuto before the fans burn down the stadium. Let it ride with Kingery, and let him play just one position for once. Ideally that's second base with a new center fielder -- Bradley would be a nice fit -- but if it's too hard to find one, then he can cover center with a low-cost free agent like Wong or Hernandez at second, or perhaps if they plan to shoot higher, then incumbent shortstop Jean Segura moves back over to second to clear room for Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien or Andrelton Simmons.

Reds shortstop
Projected current starter: Jose Garcia

Garcia probably shouldn't have been in the Majors at all in 2020, so let's not worry too much about the .194/.206/.194 line in 68 plate appearances. He's well-regarded defensively and the Reds would like for him to be the shortstop of the future. He won't be in 2021, though, and the Reds are currently staring at the No. 29 ranked shortstop position. It's difficult to know how aggressive they'll be, though, given that they've made a series of cost-cutting moves in recent days, from non-tendering Archie Bradley to trading Raisel Iglesias.

That would seem to rule out a pursuit of Semien, and possibly Gregorius and Simmons, too. A return engagement with Freddy Galvis isn't exactly exciting. They have to do something, though.

Possible solutions: They really should just sign one of the free agents -- Gregorius or Simmons would be perfect -- but let's offer a trade option. With the ascension of Andrés Giménez with the Mets, Amed Rosario seems to have fallen out of favor, yet he's only 25 and is projected to be a full-season 2-WAR player. That's not a star, but the Reds don't need a star. They need a shortstop.