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Next-generation defenders have golden glovely futures

Addison Russell is a player to watch for future Gold Gloves at shortstop. Jon Durr/Getty Images

While this year’s Gold Glove winners include an impressive nine first-time winners, you can expect the field of fielders to get even more crowded in the years to come. Looking at the young players only just now getting established in the major leagues who didn’t earn gold this year, that kind of turnover might become a regular feature of awards season.

Let’s start at shortstop, the premium defensive position. As good as newly-crowned NL Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford is -- answer: very -- seeing the electorate unseat Andrelton Simmons might seem more than a little unfair. After all, the Braves’ slick-fielding shortstop did just lead MLB shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved (with 25) and Ultimate Zone Rating (17.3), and he posted an MLB-best ratio of Good Fielding Plays to Misplays and Errors (2.26). But in a field already crowded by the Giants’ Crawford and Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins, you can add 2015 rookies Nick Ahmed of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Addison Russell of the Cubs.

Russell is the guy to watch. Coming up during the year, Russell split his season between both positions around the bag, starting off playing second base before getting to move back to his natural position at shortstop in early August. Between the two positions he accumulated an impressive 19 Defensive Runs Saved, but it’s his 10 DRS in just 53 starts that suggest that, given a clean shot at playing short every day in 2016, he’ll be contending consistently for top honors in the NL. If you look at his performance per 1,200 innings, his value (25 DRS) rates with Simmons’ (23), Ahmed’s (23) and Crawford’s (20).

Similarly, over in the American League I wouldn’t encourage anyone to believe that Alcides Escobar's new trophy is going to be joined by many more. That’s not a comment on Escobar’s ability; he finally got some extra credit for playing decent defense (with a 7.1 UZR) for a championship team. However, the arrival of Francisco Lindor with the Cleveland Indians last season provided instant reason to believe he’ll be earning top defensive marks in short order. In a partial season with the Tribe, Lindor was good for 10 Defensive Runs Saved, and he was a key part of the Indians’ in-season turnaround on defense: From the time he made his first start at short on June 16, the Indians ranked first in the AL in Defensive Runs Saved.

At the hot corner, the guy I’d keep an eye on is Matt Duffy of the San Francisco Giants. While he was a finalist on the third-base ballot in the NL, I’m including him here because I think we have to acknowledge there’s a real possibility that he could be an impact defender for his entire career, but he might never win a Gold Glove because of the unhappy coincidence that he’s in a universe already populated by Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. But after prying the job at third base from veteran Casey McGehee, Duffy finished behind those two and Hall of Famer-to-be Adrian Beltre with an even dozen DRS. Via UZR, he trailed only Beltre. Keep in mind, during his minor-league career he’d made just three starts at third base, and seemed destined for more of a utilityman’s career before this year’s breakout at the plate. Now the bat has bought him an opportunity to develop at a position he’s already shown considerable talent at, so we’ll see what he does with repetitions and opportunities to grow into the job. I wouldn’t bet against his eventually taking home a trophy.

If left field used to be a position associated with big-time offensive production, an appreciation for defensive value might help keep Eddie Rosario in the Twins’ outfield mix in years to come. He finished second among AL left fielders in DRS, with his arm playing a big part in his value, notching seven baserunner kills throwing from left while also deterring almost 70 percent of baserunners from testing his arm. The only guys who did better in 2015? Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes, arguably the two best left fielders in the game today.

Finally, I’m including catcher Austin Hedges of the San Diego Padres. You might ask why, because between Petco Park and his own limited upside as a hitter, Hedges might struggle to hit .200 or post an OPS north of .500, and that may seriously handicap his chances to become a regular. But Hedges’ glove work behind the plate is so good that he might have to be voted an honorary Molina. Scouts and player evaluators have been singing praises for his skills as a polished catch-and-throw type, and now that he’s made it to the majors, we got a taste of what sort of impact that ability could have on defense.

We already knew about his throwing arm, throwing out 34 percent of stolen-base attempts in the minors, followed by another 33 percent in the majors. That’s already exceptional, but the really impressive stats come from skills as a receiver: Despite starting just 41 games, on Baseball Prospectus’ catcher stats report he finished just outside the top 10 in runs saved through pitch-framing, preventing wild pitches and passed balls, and plate-blocking.

Perhaps not everyone’s on board with the impact of catcher framing, and over whether the data is concrete about a good catcher’s impact or just very suggestive. But we’ve already seen teams bank on Jose Molina despite his bat -- and contend with him. Recent work by Ben Lindbergh suggests we re-evaluate the impact that a light-hitting backstop like Brad Ausmus had. And I’m reminded that, given a choice between Rick Dempsey’s defense and Earl Williams’ bat, Orioles great Earl Weaver declined to sacrifice defense for offense. Now the data’s there to support some classic old-school wisdom, and teams are taking this kind of data seriously when it comes to performance evaluation, so if ever there was a time for people to look past Hedges’ limited contributions on offense, it’s going to be now, thanks in part to numbers like those.

Keep an eye on: Right fielder Jorge Soler of the Cubs held opposing baserunners in check; they didn’t advance on him 56 percent of the time, a better rate than Jason Heyward (54.4 percent) and almost as good as Giancarlo Stanton (56.4 percent). … A full, healthy season from Joe Panik could also put him in that kind of company; paired with Crawford, the Giants boast the best double-play combo in baseball for years to come. ... Odubel Herrera is a premium fly-chaser on a Phillies team allowing a ton of hard-hit balls in play; his 10 DRS last year kept a bad situation from getting worse … Never, ever, ever forget about the impact Byron Buxton could have, because if anyone is going to be the complete package in center field in the AL next year, it’s him.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.