Fixing Surprising Team Weaknesses

The offseason is barely half over, so teams still have time to fill the remaining holes on their rosters before spring training starts. Some of those weaknesses are obvious; everyone knows, for example, that the Angels need another starting pitcher and that the Yankees, as currently constructed, might not be able to cobble together four healthy infielders at the same time.

However, some teams’ flaws are flying a bit more under the radar and, unless fixed, could have an impact on 2014’s pennant races. Here’s a look at four teams with surprising weaknesses and potential fixes for each.

Team: San Francisco Giants | Weakness: Starting pitching

For a team that has long survived — excelled, really — on great pitching carrying a merely decent offense, the Giants have started to lean the other way over the past year or two. The problem with last season’s 86-loss team wasn’t the lineup, which had three star-level performers (Brandon BeltHunter Pence and Buster Posey) and at least two wins above replacement from all eight lineup positions, counting the combination ofAngel Pagan and Juan Perez in center. It was the starting rotation, where Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong each fell apart, Matt Cain had his worst year since his rookie campaign and Tim Lincecum continued to look like a shell of his former elite self.

Tim Hudson, going on 39 years old and coming off a severely broken ankle, was the Giants’ big winter upgrade, although he should still be a considerable step up from Zito. Even so, a rotation led by underappreciated young ace Madison Bumgarner is largely treading water and, afterranking 27th in MLB in WAR last season with 6.4, is projected to reach just 9.6 this year. (By comparison, Detroit led the majors in 2013 at 25.3.)

Proposed fix: Vogelsong’s comeback story was nice, but he’s best served as depth rather than guaranteed a rotation job. A No. 14 overall pick is too much to give up for free agents Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, so adding Northern California native Matt Garza, the most talented pitcher remaining who’s not subject to a qualifying offer, makes a lot of sense for a team that needs to improve to compete with the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers. The Giants won’t, but they should.

Team: Cincinnati Reds | Weakness: Outfield

Last season, the Reds had three of the better offensive performers in the National League in Shin-Soo ChooJay Bruce and Joey Votto, along with reasonably productive infielders Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips, so it’s somewhat surprising to see them ahead of just five other offenses in FanGraphs’ 2014 WAR projections. That gets less surprising when you see that both left field and center field are projected to be barely above replacement level, with each position ranking worst in the league.

The downgrade from Choo to talented-but-risky Billy Hamilton is obvious, yet it’s really Ryan Ludwick who’s the issue here. Ludwick will turn 36 this year, is coming off a 2013 that was marred by a shoulder injury and poor performance, and has been worth fewer than 2 WAR in three of the past four seasons. Because he’s also a negative defender, he shouldn’t be counted upon to be an everyday player at this point, especially if the Reds are going to gamble on Hamilton in center.

Proposed fix: Choo would be ideal but likely will be priced out of a return to Cincinnati, and the outfield free-agent market behind him, including the overrated Nelson Cruz, is barren. Instead, this is a rarely discussed but smart landing spot for Andre Ethier, whom the Dodgers are likely to deal. Yes, he’s overpriced, but the Dodgers can eat enough salary to make him palatable, and as a top-10 hitter against righty pitching over the past three years, Ethier would make for a great complement to the right-handed Ludwick while adding some Hamilton insurance after spending most of 2013 playing a surprisingly not-awful center field.

Team: Colorado Rockies | Weakness: First base

It’s been a long time since the Rockies needed to fix up first base; the last time they entered a season not expecting Todd Helton to be the primary first baseman was 1997, when the Diamondbacks and Rays had yet to play their first games. With Helton finally riding off into retirement, Colorado went out and signed former Twin Justin Morneau. That would have been fine if this were still 2006, but at age 33, with declining defense and negative value on the bases, Morneau is barely above replacement-level these days. Throw in a total inability to hit lefty pitching — .298 career OBP, a number he hasn’t even managed in a season since 2010 — and it’s easy to see how first base in Colorado could be among the least productive positions in baseball.

Proposed fix: Fortunately, the Rockies have an in-house solution for this problem in Michael Cuddyer, who won a batting title in 2013 but isn’t likely to repeat the .382 batting average on balls in play that helped make it happen. He’s still a reasonably productive hitter, however, and giving him 50 percent or so of the time at first base would not only help minimize Morneau’s exposure, but it also would keep one of the worst defensive right fielders of 2013 from doing as much damage in the outfield. So far this month, Colorado has added defensively proficient outfielders Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs, giving it both the depth and flexibility to make such a move. The Rockies have some interesting pieces, but they just need to deploy them correctly.

Team: Toronto Blue Jays | Weakness: Starting pitching

A year ago, Toronto’s rotation was newly assembled and fascinating, with NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Miami ace Josh Johnson and the reliable Mark Buehrle joining Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ. Beset by injuries and Dickey’s inability to repeat his 2012 performance, last season the Jays ended up using 13 starters, including digging up discards like Ramon Ortiz and Chien-Ming Wang. Now, Johnson is gone to San Diego, Dickey is 39, Morrow’s health can’t be counted on and the Jays suddenly have a rotation that’s middle-of-the-pack at best. In a tough American League East and with a still-dangerous lineup, Toronto badly needs a starter it can rely on in order to make the run it was supposed to go on last season.

Proposed fix: Because Toronto failed to sign its 2012 first-round pick (No. 10 overall) and finished with the No. 9 overall pick this year, the Blue Jays have two protected first-round picks. That means that signing a player who received a qualifying offer would cost them only their second-round pick (their third in the draft, somewhere around No. 45 overall) and shouldn’t cause hesitation on moving on such a player the way it might for other clubs.

Santana is a possible fit, but the better choice is Jimenez, who is less homer-prone than Santana while missing more bats, important in an offense-friendly Toronto park. The draft pick is immaterial here, while the boost to what is clearly a win-now Toronto team is essential.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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Oh god someone just fix the Mets