Josh Rutledge was a compelling sleeper entering 2013 after his 23-year old rookie season in which he put up a 93 wRC+ with a flash of both power and speed as a middle infielder. Unfortunately, Rutledge fell two points shy of a .300 OBP over the first month and a half of the 2013 season and was optioned to AAA. He made two return trips to the majors later in the season, but he never recaptured his fantasy success from the year before.
His replacement, D.J. LeMahieu, is not exactly Barry Bonds. LeMahieu carried a .311 OBP and a 70 wRC+ over 434 plate appearances last season, but the Rockies are clearly satisfied with him since he once again made the team at Rutledge’s expense this season.
The reason for that satisfaction is defense. When Rutledge was optioned on May 22, 2013, he had already cost the Rockies nine runs per Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). That was tied with Dan Uggla for the worst total of any second baseman and ahead of only Michael Morse (-12 DRS) for worst among players at all positions at that time. LeMahieu, meanwhile, saved the Rockies 10 runs last season and now has 19 Runs Saved in 181 career games at second base.
For young players like Rutledge who are clearly below average at their defensive position, you cannot simply wait for regression to turn their seasons around. They have to hit consistently or their teams will move them to the minors or the bench. These players’ fates will not be decided by the first week and a half of this season, but their early-season defensive struggles at least have me paying closer attention to their production both offensively and defensively.
Cody Asche (-3 DRS)
Cody Asche has a .273/.360/.455 triple slash over his first 25 plate appearances this season. That makes you forget all about defense. That said, Asche has already cost the Phillies 10 runs per DRS in his first 50 big league games. That has him on pace to easily trump Michael Young’s minus-20 DRS season from 2013 at the hot corner. Clearly Asche is in the right organization to ride this out, but where it was once believed that he and Maikel Franco would battle for playing time at third base, it seems more likely now that the two will duke it out for innings at first base, where Franco has played to start the year in AAA.
Avisail Garcia (-5 DRS)
Fresh off a two-homer game to jump start his season, there may be no better time to trade Avisail Garcia than now. The situation would be much worse if Garcia were on a probable contender because the White Sox have more incentive to let Garcia take his lumps in the majors. Those lumps have been plentiful in the early-going, as Garcia is tied with Mark Trumbo and Michael Bourn-replacement Nyjer Morgan with minus-5 Run Saved so far this season. Trumbo is a good comparison for Garcia. Both players have exceptional power and rarely take a walk, and both probably belong at first base or DH but play in the outfield. All of that makes them more valuable in roto formats than actual baseball, which is why Garcia, specifically, risks a demotion you might not see coming. Garcia’s free swinging—he has a career 3.8 percent walk rate, which is much lower than Trumbo’s 6.3 percent rate—remains a concern, as well.
A pair of Astros are next on the list, and while their team is more clearly rebuilding than the White Sox, neither player has the inherent job security of Avisail Garcia because both are threatened by elite prospects. With minus-4 Runs Saved across split between all three outfield positions, Grossman has had the worse performance to date. He also is probably the safer of the two players since he primarily plays in left while Alex Presley more directly blocks George Springer. As I write this, Grossman just struck out to extend his streak of hitless at bats to 24 in a row. That was probably all the incentive you needed to ignore Grossman in fantasy, but he could easily be the playing time casualty of the Springer promotion.
Marc Krauss is likely on even fewer fantasy radars than Grossman is, but his hitless five-game start to the season will not be a deterrent for the Astros in promoting Jonathan Singleton when he’s ready. That is especially true if Krauss is a subpar defensive option at first base, as he seems to be.
Conor Gillaspie (-2 DRS)
The White Sox surprised me this preseason when they optioned recently-traded-for Matt Davidson to AAA in favor of starting Conor Gillaspie at third base. In my mind, that is simply as a stop gap so Davidson will be clearly ready to contribute when he makes his debut. Gillaspie has cost his teams 10 runs at third over 1,062 career innings and offers little offensive upside.
Yangervis Solarte (-2 DRS)
I probably don’t need to harp on Yangervis Solarte’s .478 BABIP to this audience, but I think it is worth mentioning that he has already cost the Yankees two runs at third base this season. Combined with the statue that is Derek Jeter at shortstop and without the services of the defensively-elite Mark Teixeira, the Yankees have a truly disastrous defensive infield. I think the team will have to cycle in Brendan Ryan regularly at both shortstop and third base, and that could cost Solarte some playing time unless Jeter winds up on the DL.
Mike Zunino (-2 DRS)
Mike Zunino is not Jesus Montero behind the plate, but his minus-7 DRS in less than 500 career innings in the majors has him among the worst defensive backstops in the game. The truth is that Zunino was likely rushed to the majors before he was ready. If the power comes, then perhaps the Mariners will put up with him learning the position on the job. However, if his bat stagnates, the Mariners and Zunino would likely both be better off if Zunino spent some additional time in the minors.
Grady Sizemore (-4 DRS)
You will find no bigger fan of the Grady Sizemore comeback than me, but even before injuries knocked Sizemore out of baseball for two seasons, he was showing dramatic defensive declines from his heyday. Early indications this season are that center field will be a struggle for him. I wonder if left field would make more sense at this point, but the Daniel Nava–Jonny Gomes platoon has been very productive there and Shane Victorino was tremendous last season in right field. I’m worried that the Red Sox will solve this dilemma by replacing Sizemore with Jackie Bradley Jr.—who already has two Runs Saved in right field this season and may well be elite defensively in center—late in many games and on days when flyball-heavy Jake Peavy pitches. That reduction in plate appearances would be frustrating for Sizemore owners, especially in leagues with weekly lineups.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt