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N.L. Wild Card preview: Part 1

Today, we’ll look at the position players on the teams that could factor into the N.L. Wild Card.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Real baseball starts in less than two weeks! The Cardinals figure to be part of the Wild Card chase, along with the Giants and Mets, who played in the Wild Card game last year. The Pirates will also again be in the mix. For teams more on the fringe, there is the Marlins, Rockies, and Diamondbacks. According to the projected standing over at Fangraphs, here’s how each team is projected to do in 2017:

According to those same projections, the Dodgers have about a 80% chance of winning the west, the Cubs have a 87% chance of winning the central, and the Nationals have a 70% chance of winning the east. So those teams could end up being relevant to the Wild Card race. Using the percentages above, it’s about a coin-flip as to whether all three will win the division or not. The next best projected N.L. team is the Braves, who project for 73 wins, and for just under 2% chance of reaching the playoffs. That’s where I decided to draw the line on Wild Card competitors.

These projections are the result of the individual player projections at Fangraphs. They use an average of zips and steamer for rate stats, with playing time allocated by their writers. Using those, I grabbed the projections of the eight position players projected for the most playing time for each team. The only problem was this was that sometimes, the starting catcher wasn’t among the top 8. In those cases, I switched in the starting catcher for the player with the 8th most projected PA. Then I pro-rated their projection to 600 plate appearances each, and averaged them. Here’s how these seven Wild-Card contenders fared:

The Cardinals place third, and behind the division rival Pirates. The Giants top the list. Here are those eight players and their projections for the 2017 season:

Well, yeah, Buster Posey is good at baseball. Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Joe Panik join him to make up an above-average position player core that makes up for the hole in left. Jarrett Parker will likely be the left-handed side of a platoon with Mac Williamson, who raises left-field’s value up to about a win, but it’s still the weakest part of the diamond.

With the Cubs dominating and the Brewers so far making all the right moves in their rebuild, it would be nice to just forget about the Pirates. But they’re still right there in the thick of things, and with a better set of starting position players than the Cards. Here’s their top 8:

The Pirates’ position flexibility makes framing a top 8 players difficult. Jordy Mercer is projected for most the plate appearances at shortstop, and he was projected for the 8th most plate appearances. That top 8 didn’t include Francisco Cervelli though, so Mercer got the bump.

Andrew McCutchen is projected to bounce-back, and it’s safe to say that some of the team’s chances at a play-off spot depends on it. This is a player who was worth 7 WAR/year from 2013 to 2015, before a 0.7 WAR performance in 2016 became the worst year of his career. His previous career low was 3.4 WAR, back in 2009. It’s easy to say that he just turned 30 and that we’ll never see that MVP-caliber player again, and maybe so on defense, but I wouldn’t rule out another amazing season at the plate.

This guy called David Freese is projected to split his time between first and third base, along with Josh Bell and Jung Ho Kang respectively. Bell is also projected to get time in the corner-outfield spots. The starting outfield will be improved, with the team’s best outfielder finally taking over center-field.

It might surprise you that the Marlins’ top 8 project similarly to the Cardinals. Here’s their projected starters:

Christian Yelich and Giancarlos Stanton are both a lot of fun to watch, and make up for some of the deficiencies at other spots in the lineup. Justin Bour is a lot like Matt Adams: above-average left-handed hitter with platoon issues, and not an elite enough hitter to be an above-average player as a first--basemen. Adeiny Hechavarria is a shortstop that used to be an example of why the advanced defensive metrics are flawed. He’s always looked good to most people’s eye test, but was generally rated weakly by UZR. However, the last two years, UZR has loved him. Regardless, he posted a 56 wRC+ last year, meaning even with great grades on defense, he was only a little above average.

I know the Mets are known to be a little weak on the position player side, but their rating was surprisingly low to me. So let’s check their starters out:

Some of their low rating comes from playing Jay Bruce over Michael Comforto. We’ll get a better idea of that here soon. They also take a hit from having to play Jose Reyes over David Wright. If you forgot that David Wright was a major league baseball player you could be forgiven, as he’s only had half a season’s worth of plate appearances over the last two years due to injuries.

It’s a good thing their pitching staff strikes so many people out, because you can make the case that both Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson are playing out of position at this point in their careers.

Here’s the Rockies:

This is actually a pretty interesting set of players to me, as Ian Desmond was worth 3.3 WAR last year and Charlie Blackmon was worth nearly 4. David Dahl was worth about 1 win last year - in 237 plate appearances. He’ll be 23 this year and had a 140 wRC+ over half a season at Double-A. Desmond will miss part of April at least due to injury, but that’s 4-5 extra wins that the projections could be short on. Emphasis on the could be, though. I'm not saying the projections are way off or anything. This team needs everything to break right to contend. Just that they do have some upside I think.

And on to the Diamondbacks:

That’s quite a one-two punch in Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, but it goes north from there. In a bad way, the Diamondbacks show us how a team needs depth. The Giants are the only team shown here with a clearly better top 2 position players, but they still rank at the bottom in top 8 players. The early 2000’s Cardinals may have been too heavy, but Goldschmidt isn’t quite prime Pujols, Pollack isn't quite the Cards version of Jim Edmonds, and they have no one to play the role of Scott Rolen.

Of course, the top 8 position players aren’t everything. Team’s also have benches, and over the slog of a 162 game season, they can become pretty important. Continuing on, we can rank the players with 9th-13th most projected time on each team. Doing the same thing we did for the starters, here’s each team’s “bench”, going by projected playing time:

The Mets top the Cardinals here, but it’s mostly because of Conforto not being a starter, and David Wright being considered part of the bench. Here we see part of the reason why the Rockies and Diamondbacks have such fringe chances. For them to be in the hunt, they’ll need to suffer very few injuries.

Here’s the Met’s projected bench:

This notably doesn’t include Rene Rivera, the team’s backup catcher, projected for just 179 PA. Wright doesn’t even project to be that strong when he plays. That is weird to me, because he has performed well when healthy the last two years. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty around his future. With Reyes and Cabrera being the team’s best bets at third and short, this could become a real weakness for the Mets in 2017.

We’ll also take a look at the Pirates’ bench:

Here we find Jordy Mercer. The position flexibility of the infield, as well as Josh Bell’s ability to play the corner outfield spots, basically means the team has 8 quality options, any seven of which can fill all the non-battery positions That gives them one injury that is easy to overcome, as well as easy ways to keep everyone rested while healthy.

Because the Giants rank first in the top 8, and in the middle of the pack in 9th-13th, you could make the case that injuries have the greatest chance of derailing their season. Not that you ever want to hope for that to happen, but injuries are bound to happen over a 162 game season. Let’s check out the replacements that the Giants could need in 2017:

As Parker’s platoon partner, Mac Williamson leads the way. An injury to Parker or Pence would put Williamson in an every day role, which might expose him a bit. Connor Gillaspie offers a clear downgrade from Belt and Eduardo Perez at the corners, but the big fall off would be going from Buster Posey, the team’s best projected player, to Nick Hundley.

On to the Marlins:

Derek Dietrich is the only backup at any position besides catcher that projects above replacement level. Luckily, the Marlins can work him in left, third, and second. Other than that though, you see the low margin for error the Marlins have. Ichiro will likely enter the Hall of Fame, but at this point you don’t want to see him in the lineup regularly.

And now the Rockies:

Pretty poor sight to see. The Diamondbacks are only marginally better:

Again, not a strong bunch. At least they got a few guys that aren’t complete zeros though.

Now let’s quantify the difference between the starters (top 8) and bench (9th-13th):

The Mets win this one, but again, that’s because they’re keeping one of their best outfielders on the bench, and have an injury plagued third-baseman. It's also because their starters rank low. After that, the Cardinals come out on top. The Marlins, Rockies, DBacks, and Giants all have similar problems replacing their starters, though in the Giants case it’s because their position players are so good, and in the Marlins, Diamondbacks, and Rockies case, it’s because their bench is underwhelming.

Position players are of course just part of the situation. On Saturday, we’ll grade these teams by their rotations and bullpens. Until then, enjoy the impending return of Cardinals baseball.