Exposing Depth Issues for Top MLB Contenders Heading into 2013
Just because a team is considered a playoff contender doesn’t mean its not vulnerable in certain areas and couldn’t be exposed by an injury or a player not living up to expectations at a certain position.
Would the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants have survived the season if they had lost Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner or Ryan Vogelsong and had to throw Yusmeiro Petit or Eric Hacker out there every fifth day? I’m sure the Giants are glad they didn’t have to find out.
How about the Cincinnati Reds, who had the same five pitchers start 161 of 162 regular-season games? Would the sixth starter in waiting, Todd Redmond, have been a capable replacement if Johnny Cueto or Mat Latos got hurt? Not even close.
On the other hand, star first baseman Joey Votto missed a good portion of the second half with a knee injury, but the Reds overcame it thanks to the versatile Todd Frazier, who filled in at first base and third base during a very productive season.
It’s rare for a team to be strong in all areas and able to overcome multiple injuries. A little bit of luck in the injury department certainly helps.
Having versatile players on the bench who are good enough to be starters elsewhere is a key. Not a lot of teams have a Todd Frazier on the bench. Not even the 2013 Reds have that luxury since he’s now their starting third baseman.
Let’s take a look at five teams with high expectations for 2013 and identify where they could be in trouble if a key player underperforms or is injured.
Depth Concern: Outfield
The outfield trio of Jason Heyward (pictured), B.J. Upton and Justin Upton has Atlanta Braves fans pretty excited about the upcoming season. You know what they shouldn’t be excited about? Whoever will be playing the outfield if any of the three starters gets hurt.
The veteran Reed Johnson is a capable fill-in against left-handed pitching (career .828 OPS versus left-handed pitching). He's also 36 and is off to a 10-for-48 start this spring. Not the long-term answer should the Braves need one.
Evan Gattis, who just started playing left field last season, could be a dark horse. The 26-year-old rookie will likely start the season as catcher Gerald Laird's backup, but if his minor league and spring training (18-for-46, 4 HR, 5 2B) success carry over to the big leagues, he could be the answer at a corner outfield spot should the Braves need someone.
After that, there are slim pickings with the light-hitting Jose Constanza or Jordan Schafer next in line. The Braves will likely have their fingers crossed that the trio will avoid the disabled list as they did in 2012.
Depth Concern: Corner Infield
As I mentioned earlier, Frazier is no longer the super-utility man off the bench, able to fill in at any of several spots when needed. The 27-year-old has the third base job locked down, and the Reds’ corner infield depth isn’t nearly as strong as it was a year ago with Scott Rolen out of baseball.
Frazier's backups are Jason Donald and Jack Hannahan, both pretty good role players off the bench, but neither is going to come close to replacing what Frazier brings offensively if they are forced to play on a regular basis.
And what if Joey Votto’s (pictured) knee acts up again? It’s either prospect Neftali Soto, who struggled in his first full season in Triple-A last season (.713 OPS, 116 strikeouts in 465 at-bats), or the Donald and Hannahan combination at third base with Frazier moving over to first.
Either way, the difference between Votto to Frazier in 2012 won’t be anywhere near the drop off that would occur if either misses extended time. Even a very good Reds lineup might not be able to overcome it.
Depth Concern: Starting Pitching
If the Rick Porcello trade rumors have any truth to them, then you have to wonder who the Detroit Tigers expect to step in should one of their starting pitchers land on the disabled list. Currently, that would be Drew Smyly (pictured), so they’re in pretty good shape one-through-six right now.
If Smyly is in the rotation because Porcello is traded, however, the next pitcher in line would be Duane Below, recently sent to the minors after allowing 11 earned runs in eight spring innings, or Casey Crosby, who doesn’t have enough command (11 BB, 9 K in 12.1 big league innings; 6 BB, 3 K in 7 IP this spring) to trust in any capacity at this point.
With two much-improved teams in the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, the Tigers may not have a lot of margin for error this time around, so I’d expect they hold on to Porcello and look to add another veteran to the Triple-A rotation.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Depth Concern: Infield
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have the largest payroll in baseball, but it doesn’t mean they have a good backup plan for position player depth. We’ve quickly discovered this with Hanley Ramirez (pictured) expected to miss two months due to a thumb injury. The backup plan is to shift Luis Cruz to shortstop and to go with a combination of players at third base that will likely include Nick Punto, Juan Uribe and Jerry Hairston Jr.
They are currently eight-deep in the rotation and have a deep bullpen as well, but an Opening Day lineup that could include Skip Schumaker (filling in for Carl Crawford, if he starts the season on the DL) and Punto isn’t exactly what Dodgers fans had in mind when new ownership took over and the team quickly took over the league lead for highest payroll.
Now they better hope that Adrian Gonzalez can stay healthy, considering there doesn’t appear to be any fallback plan at first base aside from non-roster player Scott Van Slyke, who was 9-for-54 as a rookie last season.
No one can deny the talent on this team, but it doesn’t stretch much further than the 25-man roster, at least when it comes to position players who can help the team in 2013.
Depth Concern: Starting Pitching
Even the Washington Nationals, a team that doesn’t appear to have a hole on the 25-man roster, are vulnerable. Don’t think so? OK, tell me who the fifth starter is if any one of Stephen Strasburg (pictured), Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren or Ross Detwiler goes down with an injury.
How about Chris Young, who has rarely stayed healthy himself over the past several years? Ross Ohlendorf? Yunesky Maya? Ryan Perry? Those are pretty much your choices.
The guy they were excited about as a potential "sixth starter" down in Triple-A was Christian Garcia, a 27-year-old who had a terrific season as a reliever in 2012 after he had fallen completely off the radar since he was a Yankees prospect several years ago. But he’s currently sidelined with a partial tendon tear in his right forearm and might not be able to help anytime soon even if he does come back and begin the transition back to starting pitcher.
Expect the team to look for help on the waiver wire or possibly add a veteran who is released from a minor league deal between now and the start of the season.