In 2017, FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections correctly predicted the winners of all six divisional races. Perhaps this has more to do with the current, conducive-to-tanking climate in baseball than the precision of various algorithms, but either way the point stands that nowadays, some teams seemingly have postseason berths wrapped up by Memorial Day. (In fact, four clubs held division title odds of at least 91.2% by the end of May last season.)
While these projections are generally considered fairly conservative in nature, to an extent regressing everybody towards the mean, FanGraphs projects three teams to win their respective divisions by at least 11 games in 2018 and another two to have a cushion of seven games or more. While the Cardinals have the second highest odds of any team to usurp a division favorite, reinforcements to the Cubs’ rotation (a full season of trade deadline acquisition Jose Quintana plus free agent signees Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood) have rebuilt Chicago’s margin of error despite St. Louis’ trade for Marcell Ozuna. Bona fide stars like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are expected to more-or-less sustain their past performance while regression appears imminent for breakout position players including Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong.
John Fleming examined what the Cardinals need to do to reclaim the NL Central crown on Tuesday, but today I will be breaking down a more likely scenario among the range of potential outcomes. For starters, here is how FanGraphs currently projects the NL standings to shake out:
2018 National League team projections
|Team||W||L||Run Differential||Runs Scored per Game||Runs Allowed per Game|
|Team||W||L||Run Differential||Runs Scored per Game||Runs Allowed per Game|
Even if we assume the Cubs will retain first place in the division–which again, is far from a sure bet–the Cardinals still have a rather clear path to playoffs through a Wild Card spot. On paper, they look to be five wins better than the Giants for the first Wild Card and six wins above the Diamondbacks and Mets for the final postseason spot.
Erstwhile VEB writer Ben Markham authored a similar playoff hunt preview last spring, and I also intend to divide this dissection of the NL Wild Card pack into two parts. This article will take an early glance at the position player corps of possible contenders while a future piece will discuss pitching staffs.
I began by resorting to the aforementioned Depth Chart projections, which also distribute playing time. I divided teams’ most notable position players into two camps based on how many plate appearances they are projected to receive: the top 1-8 and 9-13 players. In some instances, a starting catcher would be relegated to the 9-13 group because they aren’t expected to accrue enough playing time, so I made the executive decision to ensure that the 1-8 buckets were represented by each position. I also chose to omit the Padres, Braves, Reds, and Marlins from this post, as they all project for 72 wins or less and realistically won’t pursue the playoffs in 2018.
In the table below are the eight teams I will be overviewing, ranked by their 1-8 position player’s projected WAR/600 plate appearances.
WAR/600, 1-8 position players
By less than one tenth of a WAR, the Cardinals barely edge the Giants’ starting lineup in expected productivity to lead the way among playoff hopefuls. If the Brewers and Rockies were flipped in rank, this list would perfectly mirror the projected win totals.
Let’s begin by previewing the Cardinals’ top eight players in projected playing time.
1-8 position player breakdown: Cardinals
For the sake of brevity, I will try to keep these team breakdowns as concise as possible. (Retrospective update from proofreading Tyler: smooth move, moron. How did that whole “as concise as possible” thing work out for you?)
After shoring up their outfield by landing Ozuna, the Cardinals don’t project to have any gaping holes in their lineup. Concerns regarding the recently-extended Paul DeJong’s batted ball metrics have been well-documented, and subsequently shortstop looks to be St. Louis’ weakest position entering 2018. Personally, Yadier Molina’s 2.5 WAR projection seems a bit optimistic to me. I don’t see his offensive production declining by only 0.3 runs and his defensive value rising 4.7 runs from last season.
Following a flurry of moves to make one final run with a core that won three world championships, the Giants are projected to sneak away with the second Wild Card and extend their streak of even-year playoff appearances to four.
1-8 position player breakdown: Giants
San Francisco is banking on bounce-back campaigns from numerous veteran players after suffering 98 losses last year, tied for the second-highest amount in franchise history. Giancarlo Stanton nixed a trade to the Giants–who also fell short after being named finalists in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes–but they were still able to swing offseason deals for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. Those two–albeit post-prime players–obviously address major needs for the Giants, but McCutchen is their only outfielder who projects to be worth more than 0.9 WAR/600 this season.
Up next is a team that was the inverse of the Giants in 2017. While the Giants were projected to host the Wild Card Game but utterly failed to meet expectations, the Diamondbacks surpassed their projections to seize the first Wild Card for themselves.
1-8 position player breakdown: Diamondbacks
|RF||Steven Souza Jr.||595||0.244||0.336||0.446||0.335||-0.4||0.8||2.0||1.5|
The last time A.J. Pollock remained healthy for a full season, he posted 6.5 WAR. That season was also three years ago. He is projected to be squarely above-average in every facet of the game en route to a 3.6 WAR projection in 616 plate appearances. The FanGraphs projections–a combination of the ZiPS and Steamer systems–evidently don’t buy Steven Souza’s 2017 breakout with the Rays, projecting his wRC+ to fall from 120 to 100. Besides Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt–who projects to be the fourth most valuable first baseman in baseball–first-time All-Star Jake Lamb is the only other Arizona position player expected to produce an above-average WAR.
We move on to the Mets, who–like the Giants–took a nosedive in 2017 after being favorites to earn another trip to the postseason.
1-8 position player breakdown: Mets
Michael Conforto was enjoying the best season of his young career before it was ended prematurely by a shoulder injury that is expected to sideline him to begin 2018 as well. Meanwhile, the Mets bolstered their lineup with Todd Frazier, who could easily be a bargain on his new two-year, $17 million contract. The Mets haven’t enjoyed above-average production from their catchers in years, but that projects to change with a platoon between Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki.
First base prospect Dominic Smith isn’t expected to immediately contribute to the big league club, leaving Adrian Gonzalez to hold down the fort in the interim. With top prospect Amed Rosario likely to experience growing pains in his first full MLB stint and Asdrubal Cabrera projected to decline upon an already meager 1.3 WAR last year, the Toms River, New Jersey native Frazier is the only Mets infielder with an above-average projection.
Next on the docket are the Rockies, fresh off their first trip to the playoffs since Matt Holliday definitely touched home plate.
1-8 position player breakdown: Rockies
2017 NL MVP candidates Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon are the only Rockies hitters who project for an above-average WAR. Colorado lost Jonathan Lucroy to free agency after he provided a full win in just 175 plate appearances at catcher during the stretch run. Their three primary outfielders other than Blackmon (Ian Desmond, Carlos Gonzalez, and Gerrardo Parra) combined for -0.2 WAR last season.
With the resigning of Gonzalez, the Rockies could explore a platoon at first base between Desmond and rookie Ryan McMahon, with DJ LeMahieu and Trevor Story rounding out the infield. The latter two names disappointed at the plate last year after promising 2016 seasons, but the projections aren’t entirely confident in the middle infield pair to tap into their offensive upside once again.
Finishing just one game behind the Rockies in the Wild Card standings were the Brewers, whose ahead-of-schedule rebuild resulted in an aggressive offseason in Milwaukee.
1-8 position player breakdown: Brewers
Leading the charge on the position player front are the two big fish the Brewers reeled in this winter: Christian Yelich in a blockbuster trade with the Marlins and Lorenzo Cain through free agency. Looking at the infield, Travis Shaw projects to be a steady two-win player at third base after breaking out to the tune of 3.4 WAR and a 119 wRC+ in 2017. (Regression is expected due in large part to generous batted ball luck that propped up Shaw’s numbers last season.) Second base appears to be Milwaukee’s greatest weakness while shortstop Orlando Arcia has yet to establish himself as more than a 79 wRC+ hitter through 208 MLB games.
As an aside, it will be interesting to see what the Brewers do with Ryan Bruan going forward. The age-34 slugger was still 10% above average at the plate last year and projects to be 14% above average in 2018. Domingo Santana’s 3.3 WAR campaign solidified himself as the third starting outfielder, leaving Braun as the odd man out. The Brewers are considering playing Braun at first base to potentially share at-bats with Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar, although the experiment has not been very successful thus far.
Our next team is the Phillies, who made a splash in free agency this offseason after oozing with payroll flexibility the past few years.
1-8 position player breakdown: Phillies
Steamer and ZiPS are hopping on the Rhys Hoskins hype train all the way to a 3.6 WAR projection to lead MLB left fielders. Hoskins is being pushed into the outfield after Philadelphia added perennial walk machine Carlos Santana for $60 million over three years. Besides those two, however, Odubel Herrera is the only other above-average player in this lineup. The Phillies’ two weakest positions are catcher and right field. Regarding the former, Jorge Alfaro rode a superficial .420 BABIP to a 127 wRC+ in 29 games last season while Cameron Rupp has yet to develop a strong enough bat to be more than a fringe starter or solid defensive backup.
Finally, we have the Pirates, who appear to be trending on a downward slope after moving some of their cornerstone players (McCutchen and Gerrit Cole) this winter.
1-8 position player breakdown: Pirates
Of the teams I am writing about today, the Pirates are the only one whose inclusion I questioned. Their window of contention has likely closed as Pittsburgh is launching its rebuild after notching 280 victories from 2013 to 2015. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are the only remaining position players projected to produce above-average value. The Pirates have a few interesting hitters in Josh Bell and the recently-acquired Corey Dickerson, although both are one-dimensional players who project for far-from-stellar wRC+ marks of 111 and 101. You have to do an awful lot of squinting to envision the Pirates as a legitimate playoff contender in 2018.
So this post doesn't completely devolve into a Red-Baron-esque epic that is void of his literary prowess, I am going to speed through the 9-13 position players (i.e. each team's bench).
WAR/600, 9-13 position players
Led by the bats of Jose Martinez and Luke Voit, the Cardinals also project to have the most productive bench among Wild Card contenders. Even more impressive is that the Cardinals takes first place with all of their 9-13 players being true backups. Case in point: Eric Thames was booted from second place Milwaukee's 1-8 grouping to clear a spot for catcher Manny Pina while the third place Mets saw Wilmer Flores move to their 9-13 listing. Not surprisingly, we find that the Brewers and Mets possess the smallest talent gap between their 1-8 and 9-13 players.
Difference in WAR/600, 1-8 players vs. 9-13 players
|Team||1-8 WAR/600||9-13 WAR/600||Difference|
|Team||1-8 WAR/600||9-13 WAR/600||Difference|
If you are interested, here are the full Depth Charts projections for each of the eight teams’ 9-13 position players:
9-13 position player breakdown: Cardinals
9-13 position player breakdown: Giants
9-13 position player breakdown: Diamondbacks
9-13 position player breakdown: Mets
9-13 position player breakdown: Rockies
9-13 position player breakdown: Brewers
9-13 position player breakdown: Phillies
9-13 position player breakdown: Pirates
When comparing the Cardinals to their NL foes, it becomes easier to understand why the projections view them as clear favorites to clinch the first Wild Card. With Ozuna on board, they become the only team in the field of eight that projects to have a capable everyday regular at each position. From top to bottom, the Cardinals extract solid value from every spot in their lineup. After leading MLB in pinch-hitting wRC+ for two consecutive seasons now, St. Louis is also poised to have the strongest bench of the NL’s postseason aspirants.
So this is where the Cardinals’ position players stand relative to the competition. I hope you’ll check back later as I dive into what has been a source of criticism for many fans: the starting rotation and bullpen.