Every team enters the trade deadline with a wish list. No one gets everything they want — even if in San Diego it might feel that way right now.
No roster is perfect. There are always holes on even the most powerful clubs, little problems the front office and manager must try to solve, game after game.
Let’s drill down on a few of these potential sore spots, focusing on contenders. We’ll use some basic criteria: If a contending team has a position group that has performed, according bWAR, at least a half-standard deviation below average, and projects to continue at that level for the rest of the season, they might be on this list.
Below are the roster holes with the greatest potential impact on the title chase, with some possible solutions. Positional rankings are listed for each spot: season to date and forecasted, based on baseball-reference.com’s WAR for season-to-date production and Fangraphs’ rest-of-season forecasts.
Problem position: Second base (19th season to date, 28th rest of season)
Chicago’s inaction at the deadline was troubling, though it may have been more a reflection of how much its system has thinned out than a lack of motivation to improve the roster. There is no position at which the White Sox needed more of an upgrade than second base, where their rest-of-season projection is 1.6 standard deviations below average. Congratulations: This makes this the single biggest positional hole on a contending team.
The White Sox are left to stand pat, leaning on defensive production at the keystone and hoping they can make up the offense elsewhere. Josh Harrison ranks fifth in Fangraphs’ defensive rankings. Meanwhile, the White Sox rank 24th with a .611 OPS at the position.
And it might get worse. Harrison has a .691 OPS, and he’s been a positive offensive contributor in the past. But over the four-year period entering this season, his aggregate OPS was .683. He’s been fairly hot for the last few weeks, so maybe he’ll be better than what Chicago could have gotten from a trade pickup like Brandon Drury or Whit Merrifield. The projections don’t like his chances.
At 34, Harrison likely needs an occasional day off, but the fewer the better. That’s because Chicago’s other option at second is utility player Leury Garcia, who has had a dreadful season. Garcia’s OPS is .511 and in the last run of my AXE ratings — a consensus rating of advanced metrics — he ranked 1,342nd out of 1,345 players this season. And yet only five White Sox hitters have more plate appearances.
It’s possible an option could spring up on the DFA front and, if so, the White Sox should pounce. Their bar for upgrading second base, especially on days that Harrison is out of the lineup, is quite low.
Problem position: First base (19th season to date, 22nd rest of season)
The Guardians traded backup catcher Sandy Leon to the Twins at the deadline. Leon promptly stroked a key two-run double in his first at-bat for Minnesota, the team Cleveland is chasing in the AL Central.
I bring that up not because I think the Guardians will rue the day they traded Sandy Leon (the curse of Sandy!) but because that transaction is an unabridged summary of what Cleveland did at the deadline. The Guardians could use a catcher, especially now that they’ve traded Leon, but I want to focus on first base, mostly because it should be so easy for a team struggling at that spot to find at least a marginal upgrade in the trade market.
And Cleveland has struggled at first base: A No. 19 ranking, primarily put up by Josh Naylor and Owen Miller. Naylor has hit righties very well this season, which is the main reason the Guardians aren’t worse at this spot. The problem is Naylor can play in the outfield as well and the Guardians might need him to do that, or at least fill in at DH more often.
And that is because Franmil Reyes‘ season-long slump has gotten so bad the Guardians sent him to the minors earlier this week. Maybe Cleveland can piece it together at first base, but they clearly needed a bat at the deadline, almost any bat, but they sat back, did nothing, and as usual lauded their internal options.
The Guardians are a smart, well-run franchise, and it’s easy to take potshots at them from the outside. But it feels like we’ve been repeating this rant about their deadline approach for years now.
Problem position: Center field (15th season to date, 18th rest of season)
The Astros have a good margin for error in carrying a positional hole because they are so good elsewhere. They rank 17th in bWAR in center this season, but that’s misleading. Houston ranks just 25th in OPS at the position, so the overall middling production is mostly due to defense. Which would be fine, but the player most responsible for the defensive standing was Jose Siri, whom the Astros traded to the Rays at the deadline.
I have to think that at the time Siri was moved, the Astros felt they’d snag another center fielder before the deadline, perhaps a splashy one like Oakland’s Ramon Laureano. It didn’t happen. For now, the Astros will go with a combination of Jake Meyers, Mauricio Dubon and Chas McCormick in center. Lately, it’s been exclusively Meyers and Dubon, but McCormick has offered the most at the plate this season.
Houston’s rest-of-season forecast for center field isn’t tragic, and the talent they have on hand is capable of doing better. But the group is also unproven, so things could get worse. Again, the Astros are so good overall they can afford to juggle options for the rest of the season and still win the AL West going away. The problem would come when we get to October and a potential showdown with the Yankees, in which every marginal advantage (or disadvantage) might make the difference.
The Astros might be another team keeping its eye on the transaction wire, where one intriguing name — Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr., released on Thursday — has already surfaced.
Problem position: Catcher (27th season to date; 19th rest of season)
It’s clear teams value their catchers in ways that don’t necessarily dovetail with the formulations of WAR. The Astros, one of baseball’s smartest teams, have been perfectly intent on using Martin Maldonado as their regular catcher the last two years even though he’s hit for an OPS+ of 60. Houston did trade for Boston’s Christian Vazquez at the deadline but that had less to do with Maldonado and much more to do with the season-ending knee injury suffered by backup backstop Jason Castro.
With the Mets, there was a quandary. They rank fifth in Fangraphs’ defensive ratings at catcher and eighth in pitch framing. They also rank 29th in catcher OPS, just behind Houston, and just ahead of the Cardinals. Obviously, the Mets have put a premium on defense at the position. None of Tomas Nido, James McCann or Patrick Mazeika have cracked a .550 OPS. All three have positive defensive metrics, with Nido ranking fifth overall at Fangraphs.
So, fine. You like the way your pitchers work with your current catchers, and perhaps what you needed to trade for Cubs free-agent-to-be Willson Contreras was too much. So you let it ride with the guys who have gotten you this far. McCann is nearing a return from an oblique injury and he at least has some plus offensive seasons on his record.
Overall, the Mets project to rank 20th in catcher WAR the rest of the season. The problem is the teams the Mets are jostling with atop the National League — the Dodgers and Braves — don’t have any issues with having to pick offense or defense behind the plate. They’ve gotten plenty of both, with the Dodgers’ rest-of-season projection at catcher, the best in baseball.
The Mets will have to make up this sizable deficit at this position in other ways once they get into postseason showdowns with the Dodgers and Braves, and let’s not forget about J.T. Realmuto and the Phillies. The deficit could have been all but erased with an acquisition of Contreras.
Then there is the elephant in the room, as in a prospect with a very large body of hype behind him: catcher Francisco Alvarez, who by the way hit a ball completely out the minor-league ballpark he played in Wednesday. Earlier this week, Mets GM Billy Eppler told reporters Alvarez was “not an option right now.”
In the absence of a deadline upgrade at catcher, the Mets’ best chance for better production at the position might be if Alvarez forces Eppler’s hand by getting real hot, real soon.
Problem position: Shortstop (29th season to date, 25th rest of season)
Apparently, the Phillies agree. While this was being written, news dropped that Philadelphia had released Didi Gregorius — its most oft-used shortstop this season.
The Phillies rank 29th in bWAR at shortstop with Gregorius, Bryson Stott and Johan Camargo combining to produce minus-0.4 wins. They are 29th with a .570 OPS at the position, and 22nd defensively according to Fangraphs. With Gregorius gone, the defense should at least get better. Over a multi-year period, he’s been one of baseball’s worst overall defenders, regardless of position.
The plan to replace Gregorius seems pretty clear: Let the kid play. Stott has been roughly a league-average defender as a shortstop so far, though the sample size is too small to make any firm declarations on his acuity with the glove. Baseball America rated him as an 55-grade defender (a little above average) in its preseason guide.
Stott hasn’t hit so far, posting a .196/.262/.314 slash line, but he’s hit .300/.389/.495 as a minor leaguer and the upside of those numbers looks like the Phillies’ best chance at turning this position into a strength, or at least a non-hole, down the stretch. The Phillies also have recently-acquired Edmundo Sosa in the mix after picking him up from the Cardinals at the deadline.