Playing the field: Which teams improved glovework?
Tigers, in need of a defensive makeover, among those who addressed deficiencies
Unless you're blessed with the eyes of a scout or born with the soul of a stickler, you might not fully appreciate the finer points of defensive play.
Oh, sure, any of us can gawk at the beauty of Andrelton Simmons' magic at short or one of those Mike Trout catches deep in the wilderness. But to hone in on team defense and the importance of efficiency in casual conversation is, unfortunately, to sound like the snob at a party who scoffs at the Top 40 and instead espouses the quality of Yo La Tengo's deep cuts.
You might very well be right, but you will always be among the minority.
So it is that Hot Stove talk is littered with analysis of the big bats and ample arms that have been on the move this winter, with most discussion of defense taking place in the nether regions of the internet.
What we'll attempt to do here, then, is discuss the offseason from a defensive perspective and ask a simple question: Which teams have made the greatest gains with the gloves?
Tigers: The degree by which the Tigers have reinvented themselves this winter is remarkable, given their incumbent talent level and the expectations and pressure placed upon them to win a World Series. The good news is that, in terms of efficiently turning batted balls into outs, Brad Ausmus' club might be better aligned for October than any of Jim Leyland's squads.
Miguel Cabrera acquitted himself at third base quite a bit better than most anticipated when Prince Fielder came aboard in 2012, but the fact of the matter is that Miggy was miscast at the hot corner. Rookie Nick Castellanos isn't regarded as a supreme defender, but he'll nonetheless be an improvement, should he nail down the job, and a full season of Jose Iglesias at shortstop should provide a dramatic improvement to the Tigers' defensive-runs-saved tally, which last year was a ghastly minus-66 (28th in the Majors). Furthermore, Ian Kinsler is an able defender at second base and Rajai Davis adds speed to the outfield.
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello allowed three of the highest batting averages on balls in play in the American League last season. That should change for the better, and the Tigers will be better for it.
Cardinals: One of the many reasons to love the Cardinals' chances (again) in 2014? They aggressively addressed a defense that was subpar in 2013.
A trade with the Angels shored up the Cardinals in two spots. For one, David Freese had an abominable season, not just at the plate but in the field, and the Cards will replace him at third base with Matt Carpenter, who will move from second base to his natural position. The trade netted the Cards center fielder Peter Bourjos, who will be a major upgrade, if healthy, over Jon Jay, who made several misplays on the postseason stage. Bourjos has amassed 33 defensive runs saved since arriving to the bigs in 2010, compared with Jay's minus-7 mark over the same span.
Furthermore, St. Louis brought Mark Ellis and his dependable glove aboard to share second-base time with Kolten Wong. Jhonny Peralta won't be winning any Gold Gloves at short, but he's no worse than Pete Kozma. The Cards clearly prioritized the pursuit of increased efficiency this winter, and it should pay off.
Rays: The Rays have a reputation as a superior defensive unit, and they should maintain that in 2014. For one, they re-signed first baseman James Loney, putting a bold bid of faith into his first-half performance at the plate in 2013. But no matter what the Rays get from him offensively, they know Loney will live up to his reputation as a solid defender.
Furthermore, the Rays traded for Ryan Hanigan to be a backstop alternative to Jose Molina. Hanigan was one of the more underrated players in the National League, given his value to the Reds' pitching staff as a game-caller, pitch-framer and running-game controller. He'll be a nice fit for skipper Joe Maddon's defensive-minded squad.
Orioles: Baltimore allowed just 31 unearned runs last season, fewest in the Major Leagues. Because they play so many close games, the Orioles know what an asset their defensive play is to their bottom line. Unfortunately, given an extremely quiet offseason in which they've left a ho-hum rotation untouched, they will be relying on that defense all the more.
But purely from a defensive standpoint, the Orioles adequately addressed the departure of outfielder Nate McLouth by adding David Lough from the Royals. Lough recorded 1.3 defensive wins above replacement, a plus-14.5 ultimate zone rating and 15 defensive runs saved with the Royals last season. The O's could be in for another defensive gain if prospect Jonathan Schoop steps up and claims the second-base job.
Of course, any positive analysis of the Orioles assumes a speedy recovery from knee surgery for third baseman Manny Machado, who is obviously a big piece of the defensive picture. Also, Lough should see the bulk of time in left field while Delmon Young, if he makes the club, is primarily be a designated hitter. Otherwise, that defensive strength in left morphs into a considerable weakness.
A's: Outfielder Craig Gentry was a really good addition to a really good defensive team. The biggest key to the Athletics' success is that what they lack in starpower they make up for with the absence of significant holes. Gentry further solidifies that stance. He ranked sixth in zone rating among all outfielders with at least 65 starts last season, and he'll allow the A's to put Yoenis Cespedes at DH on occasion, while also spelling Coco Crisp in center without missing a beat.
Mets: Adding Curtis Granderson and Chris Young and pairing them with Juan Lagares should give the Mets one of the most athletic outfields in all of baseball, assuming they don't keep bumping into each other (and Lagares hits well enough to stay in the lineup).
On the other hand, we've also learned that the Mets are sticking with Ruben Tejada at short, so maybe it's not all gravy.
Phillies: Don't confuse defensive gains with defensive prowess, because the Phillies still have issues all over the field. But there's no question that Marlon Byrd, no matter what you think of his contract, is a major defensive upgrade in right field over the likes of John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young and Darin Ruf.
Royals: One reason the Royals saw such surprisingly positive strides from Ervin Santana and other pitchers last season was their defense, which, according to the defensive runs saved metric, was the best in baseball.
Despite some noteworthy offseason tinkering, the Royals should remain elite in that area. They acquired Omar Infante to solve a long-standing black hole in their lineup, and while the defensive work of the revolving cast the Royals used at second base was not in question, Infante will be a steady presence at that spot. He ranked fifth among all Major League second basemen in range factor over the last three seasons. Paired with a supreme defender at short in Alcides Escobar, Infante will help ensure that the Royals continue to eke all possible value out of their pitching staff.
White Sox: We won't know much about first baseman Jose Abreu until we actually see him play in meaningful games, but we can safely say that the addition of center fielder Adam Eaton should provide a dramatic improvement to what was one of the worst defenses in baseball last season. Center field, specifically, was a problem for the Sox, as they had a minus-19 defensive runs saved mark at that spot. At the very least, Eaton should improve upon that tally.
On the flip side, how about another question?
Which teams have created new concerns on the defensive side?
Diamondbacks: The D-backs will maintain a reputation as one of the better defensive clubs, especially in the infield, but it's no secret they're taking a little bit of a risk in thrusting Mark Trumbo into left field.
Mariners: Robinson Cano will shine at second base, but the Mariners were already accepting a defensive step backward when Brad Miller took over for Brendan Ryan at shortstop late last season, and outfielder Logan Morrison and outfielder/first baseman Corey Hart both come with defensive question marks.
Rangers: I'm not as gloom and doom about Shin-Soo Choo's defense as some others. The Indians believed that Choo, nearing free agency, had become too tentative around the outfield walls in 2012, and the Reds played him out of position in center field in 2013. In slotting Choo in left, the Rangers will be in better position to take advantage of his rocket arm.
But there's no question Choo will be making an adjustment, and the same goes for Jurickson Profar at second base. Profar will be excellent once he settles in, but he'll have to settle in. The Rangers also dealt Gentry, which weakens the outfield defense. And the biggest defensive concern, of course, is the swap they're making at first base, where Fielder supplants Mitch Moreland. In a perfect world, Moreland would play first and Fielder would DH, but that's a tough sell to the big man.
Giants: Hunter Pence in right and Michael Morse in left? Root for ground balls, Giants fans.