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Where the Winners Are Weak: The Biggest Holes That 12 MLB Contenders Need to Fill Via Trade

Some playoff hopefuls have already drastically improved their outlooks by promoting prospects. For everyone else, there’s the trade market, which is about to start dominating the baseball discussion. It’s too soon to talk specific deals, but we can put together an early trade-season primer by identifying some of the positions where contenders are trying to call in the cavalry.

From a budget-conscious baseball team’s perspective, and also from a fan’s, there’s no better way to shore up a roster than to promote a top prospect who makes the league minimum and generates excitement just by being around. It was apparent a month ago — before Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Miguel Sano joined the Class of 2015 — that we were witnessing an unusually rich year for top-prospect arrivals, extending (or even accelerating) the sport’s trend toward young talent. The updated count is astounding: Twenty-two of Baseball Prospectus’s preseason top 101 prospects have already made their major league debuts, including the entire top five, six of the top 10, and 11 of the top 20. Compared to the earlier list, the current top 50 looks as depleted as the duct-tape aisle after an anthrax scare. Most teams that were lucky enough to have minor league pegs prepared to fit major league holes have already broken the glass and summoned them to the majors.

For everyone else, there’s the trade market, which is about to start dominating the baseball discussion leading up to the July 31 non-waiver deadline. It’s too soon to talk specific deals (unless you’re really into Clayton Richard), but we can put together an early trade-season primer by identifying some of the positions where contenders are trying to call in the cavalry.

We’ll suss out these weak spots using Wins Above Replacement Player projections from Baseball Prospectus, generated by combining expected rest-of-season stats from BP’s projection system, PECOTA, with manual playing-time estimates from the BP Depth Charts. Below, I’ve listed every position on a contending team that’s projected to be worth half a win or less over the rest of the season, and every contending rotation that’s projected to be worth one win or less, defining contenders as clubs with at least a 15 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds — a cutoff that eliminates 12 teams.

Plenty of good teams could stand to be one bullpen arm better, but for now, let’s focus on position players and starters. If your team doesn’t appear here, it’s either because the playoff odds say it’s an extreme long shot, or because the projections don’t think any of its individual positional needs are acute enough to qualify. My condolences or congratulations, depending on which explanation applies.

Note: WARP projections reflect action through Tuesday’s games.

Baltimore Orioles: 2B (0.5 Rest-of-Season WARP), DH (0.5)

Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop was slugging .630 when he hurt his knee in mid-April, but in the wake of his offensive struggles last season, nine strong games aren’t nearly enough to convince PECOTA that he’ll be an average hitter now that he’s back in the lineup. The system’s also not high on DH Jimmy Paredes, who got off to a strong start that made him one of the first half’s biggest projection-overperformers, but who has hit a much more Paredes-like .266/.296/.385 since May 20. These positions were offensive black holes for Baltimore in 2013, when the team narrowly missed the playoffs, and it’s possible to construct a scenario in which the same outcome recurs this year. I could toss out some well-known players who might be able to help, but we all know that GM Dan Duquette will claim an obscure 29-year-old on waivers, tap into some unsuspected talent, and siphon off a few WAR before releasing him back into obscurity.

Boston Red Sox: C (0.5), Rotation (0.7)

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Injuries at catcher lead the lengthy list of things that have gone wrong for the Red Sox this season. Instead of enjoying the superstar defense of Christian Vazquez and the good glove and hollow OBP of Ryan Hanigan, the Sox have had to rush Blake Swihart and dumpster dive for Sandy Leon, leading to belowaverage defense and one of the majors’ worst-hitting catcher combos. Hanigan is no longer the hitter he was with the Reds, but his recent return should stop some of the bleeding in Boston. The Sox might also decide to send Swihart to Triple-A for more seasoning once his foot permits him to play, in which case we could see them add one of the always-available over-30 catchers who exist in a perpetual state of preparing to be traded: A.J. Pierzynski, Brayan Pena, Geovany Soto, or Nick Hundley.

The Red Sox rotation has already claimed one pitching coach as a victim. Boston resisted the urge to trade young talent for an ace over the offseason, but the temptation must be even stronger now. After some early struggles, Clay Buchholz has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, and hard-throwing rookie Eduardo Rodriguez — one of those 22 top prospects — hasn’t missed a beat since his debut. Beyond that, the ERAs are ugly, although the defense-independent stats tell a happier story. Replacing Justin Masterson with one of the better arms on the market would cure the rotation’s remaining ills.

Cleveland Indians: 3B (0.5)

A year ago, Lonnie Chisenhall was hitting .332/.391/.533 for the Indians. He’s now playing for the Columbus Clippers, having finished last season with a .226/.292/.316 line and started this season with an even worse one. Chisenhall seems to be back on track in Triple-A, so he’ll probably get a chance to unseat defensive specialist Giovanny Urshela, whose .247/.297/.329 line is about as good as it’s going to get. If Chisenhall slumps again, an impending free agent like Juan Uribe, who’s hit .304/.365/.488 for the Braves since the Dodgers dealt him in May, might be a smart target.

Detroit Tigers: 3B (-0.1), CF (0.2), RF (0.4), C (0.4)

The Tigers and Twins (more on them below) are the only contending teams with more than three positions projected below the half-win bar, but Detroit’s weak spots come with encouraging caveats: (1) While it’s problematic that suddenly adequate defender Nick Castellanos is one of the worst hitters at third base, he has produced at the plate in the past; (2) While PECOTA remained pessimistic about Anthony Gose throughout his uncharacteristically productive two months to start the season, and while his .169/.213/.183 June seemed to support the system’s caution, the Gose/Rajai Davis platoon is bringing the best out of both players; (3) While the projections still aren’t buying into catcher James McCann, who’s been a below-average framer, his performance at the plate has improved rapidly since his early struggles in the low minors; (4) While PECOTA’s also not quite buying J.D. Martinez as the middle-of-the-order beast that he’s been for a season and a half, if we stipulate that Martinez is a monster, McCann has made real strides, and projection systems have a hard time with platoons, the Tigers appear to have a lot fewer holes. Plus, they have a bigger concern in the short term: replacing Miguel Cabrera, whose absence has made Alex Avila a miscast first baseman. Cabrera’s absence could be a killer.

Houston Astros: 1B (0.4), 3B (0.5)

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Luis Valbuena has delivered one of baseball’s oddest statistical seasons: .203/.286/.438 with 19 homers, a classic Dave Kingman line. Valbuena makes more contact than Kingman did, so a boost in his league-low (non-Drew department) BABIP should bring his average up to a respectable range, and his below-average baserunning and defense won’t entirely eat up his value. Chris Carter’s season-long slump, which has shown no signs of abating, is more worrisome. Houston recently called up Jon Singleton from Triple-A Fresno, where he was hitting .280/.387/.553, but in his first several games, he’s displayed the same swing-and-miss tendencies that hurt him last season, whiffing 12 times in 25 PA, against only two walks. PECOTA thinks both can be better hitters than they have been thus far, but not by enough to stand out at power positions.

On the bright side, it’s incredible how quickly the Astros have made their weakness from April into a strength. Had I gone through this exercise earlier in the year, the Astros’ rotation would have looked like a glaring flaw. Two prospect promotions later — the ace-like Lance McCullers and the polished Vincent Velasquez, who was briefly demoted to Double-A this week to save his arm for October — the Astros are one Scott Feldman rehab assignment away from fielding a rotation that compares favorably to almost any team’s.

Kansas City Royals: SS (0.5), Rotation (minus-0.2)

Alcides Escobar is an All-Star in a weak AL shortstop class, so there’s no risk that he’ll be replaced: His projection is pulled down by his anomalous 2013 and his just-OK defensive stats, which rarely match his reputation. Concerns about the rotation contributed to many of this spring’s forecasts for Royals regression, though, and they’ve been borne out by the results so far: Among winning teams, only Toronto’s starters have a higher FIP than Kansas City’s. It’s true that treating pitching as if it’s separate from fielding underrates the Royals’ very real defensive advantage, and Chris Young thinks FIP is funny. But this is a rotation without a second starter, let alone an ace. Leveling up the best available lefty from Danny Duffy or Jason Vargas to, say, Scott Kazmir would inject the missing dose of strikeout stuff.

Los Angeles Angels: 2B (0.5), 3B (0.5)

Neither of these numbers would have been a big surprise at the start of the season. Johnny Giavotella is giving the Angels exactly what they should have expected when they sacrificed Howie Kendrick’s proven production at second in order to add pitching prospect Andrew Heaney: slightly below league-average offense and an ugly glove. PECOTA also doesn’t care for David Freese due to his bad defense from the past two seasons, but the stats say he’s been better this year, and his offense has settled into a reliable, if unspectacular, range. The Angels will likely ride out Freese’s walk year, but they’ll examine their options at second. They’ve gone from fielding a 2014 offense that had 10 average-or-better bats to a 2015 lineup with four, so they’d love to add production, but good-hitting second basemen aren’t available to teams that don’t have the prospects to trade for Ben Zobrist, so it’s more likely that L.A. will try to find a better fielder. DJ LeMahieu, anyone? The Rockies’ second baseman is an NL All-Star, which means he must be better than Clayton Kershaw.

Minnesota Twins: SS (0.2), 3B (0.4), Rotation (0.4), RF (0.5)

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The Twins are still eight wins better than their BaseRuns record, and they’re coming off an 11-17 June, but they’ve hung in long enough to clear the 15 percent playoff odds threshold. Shortstop Danny Santana, who’s running a 57-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, is one of the worst everyday players in baseball, a below-average fielder (by shortstop standards) who’d have to turn into Andrelton Simmons to deserve a spot in a contender’s starting lineup. To their credit, the Twins are trying to improve, promoting top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano as soon as it was conceivable that those two could help. Ervin Santana’s return from suspension strengthens the rotation, but this is still a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact group that would benefit from an arm like Chicago’s Jeff Samardzija — if the Twins had enough of a talent base to make a playoff push realistic and justify trading prospects who could help when the roster is really ready to compete. Regardless, Cincinnati’s Mike Leake, a man of modest strikeout rate, is more their speed.

New York Yankees: SS (0.4), 2B (0.2)

Only the White Sox have gotten less value from their middle infielders than the Yankees. And unlike last year’s replacement-level shortstop, Didi Gregorius doesn’t sell tickets. Trading prospects for Zobrist would go against Brian Cashman’s recent commitment to rebuilding — not that the Yankees haven’t flip-flopped about that before — but it wouldn’t be un-Yankee-like to take a flier on a veteran whose contract is coming to a close: Alexei Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, or Chase Utley might lease space below the Mendoza Line, but they’re probably less likely than Stephen Drew to take up permanent residence.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 1B (0.3)

If the Brewers don’t trade Adam Lind to the Central’s first-place team, they could try to send him to the Cardinals’ closest competitors, who were hungry enough for a bat to claim Travis Ishikawa’s. GM Neal Huntington has bolstered the position at the deadline before — he traded for Gaby Sanchez in July 2012 — but it’s less likely that he’ll make a similar move this season. With only one year of team control remaining after 2015, Pedro Alvarez will be a trade or non-tender candidate this winter, but he probably hasn’t been bad enough to lose his job in 2015. PECOTA’s pessimistic projection is largely based on its belief that Alvarez is baseball’s worst-fielding first baseman, a position supported by every defensive stat. On the other hand, Alvarez hits the ball harder than all but a handful of MLB’s best sluggers, even though he produces too many grounders to put up the power numbers one would expect of someone so strong.

St. Louis Cardinals: 1B (0.3)

St. Louis signed Mark Reynolds last December to serve as Matt Adams’s right-handed platoon partner. With Adams likely out for the season after May surgery to repair a torn quad, Reynolds has taken over as the primary starter, spelled by a soupçon of Xavier Scruggs. The results have been predictably poor: Reynolds is hitting .227/.295/.377 with his usual 30-plus-percent strikeout rate, the worst offensive performance by any regular first baseman other than Mike Napoli and the injured Ryan Zimmerman. The 31-year-old Reynolds hasn’t been a league-average hitter against pitchers of either handedness since 2012, so this dilemma isn’t likely to fix itself. And Dan Johnson, the 35-year-old occasional hitter of historic home runs who was promoted on Wednesday after his latest run of modest Triple-A success, probably won’t be the remedy, either.

Lind is the obvious answer here. The lefty is batting .296/.378/.521 with 15 homers for a bad Brewers team, and he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. The Brewers know what it’s like to rely on Reynolds, so they shouldn’t let the stigma surrounding intra-division trades stop them from playing profiteer and dipping into St. Louis’s system for a player who’ll replenish their own.

Toronto Blue Jays: CF (0.5), Rotation (1.0)

There’s no reason for a team with big bats throughout its order to settle for an empty bat at the bottom: No number of runs scored is ever enough to call off the attack. But while Kevin Pillar’s offense is a big step down from that of the hitters at the heart of Toronto’s order, he isn’t far below the center-field standard, and the projections might be shortchanging his defense, which has been very strong so far. It’s more important for Toronto to upgrade in left, where Ezequiel Carrera isn’t cutting it, Michael Saunders can’t be counted on, and Chris Colabello is over his head. Gerardo Parra, whom the Diamondbacks traded to the Brewers at last year’s deadline, would meet the Jays’ needs nicely.

Toronto entered the season with a starting staff that combined the very old (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle) and the very young (Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris). Buehrle has been his usual, steady self, but the rest of the results have been volatile. Hutchison, a popular preseason breakout pick, has pitched much better than his ERA indicates, but the opposite could be said about Sanchez, and Norris made only five starts before being demoted. Felix Doubront had a strong first start for Toronto, but the Jays would be a better team in the short term with Sanchez in relief and one more reliable arm in the rotation — the Jays’ white whale in recent seasons.