SweetSpot: Chris Stewart

NL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
9:31
AM ET
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we would take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our National League look:

NL East
Braves: The big change for Atlanta will be dealing with the departure of Brian McCann, whose strike-stealing skills will be hard to replace. Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will try. Gattis may be better than you think (3 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013). By our tally (and that of StatCorner’s publicly available data), he ranked among the best in the majors at getting pitches in the strike zone to be called strikes.

Marlins: The Miami infield rated as average last season, but it has a new -- and potentially worse -- look in 2014, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria as the lone holdover. The Marlins will try Garrett Jones (and his negative-22 career Runs Saved) at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base (last played there for two innings in 2004) and Casey McGehee at third (bad numbers there in 2009 and 2010, but average in 2011). They’ll also have Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching; he typically rates bottom of the pack when it comes to defensive metrics.

Mets: The big story for the Mets will likely be how three center fielders coalesce in the outfield. If it works, the Mets could have the best ground-covering combo in the league. The likely alignment will be Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, though Young could shift to center (with Granderson moving to right and Eric Young to left) if Lagares’ offense isn’t to the Mets liking.

Nationals: Washington hasn't done anything to tinker with its primary starting unit. Arguably the biggest worry will be making sure Bryce Harper doesn’t overhustle his way into any walls as he did last season. The other thing that will be intriguing will be how new acquisition Doug Fister fares with a better infield defense behind him than he had in Detroit the past couple of seasons. Some think that could bode really well.

Phillies: Many scoffed at the Marlon Byrd contract, but he represents a huge defensive upgrade for the Phillies in right field. The transition from John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young, Darin Ruf and Laynce Nix to Byrd represents a swing of 31 Runs Saved (the four combined for negative-19 Runs Saved; Byrd rated among the best with 12).

The Phillies still have a lot of defensive issues, though. First baseman Ryan Howard has minimal range. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins may still pass the eye test but has rated poorly three years running (negative-30 Runs Saved in that span). Their third-base combo rated almost as badly as right field. And primary center fielder Ben Revere had all sorts of issues with balls hit over his head last season. There is a lot of potential trouble brewing for 2014.

NL Central
Brewers: Ryan Braun will not just be returning from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He’ll also be playing a new position, right field, as the Brewers announced their intention to shift him from left field. Braun has 23 Runs Saved over the past four seasons, but the deterrent value of his throwing arm, which is minimal to below average, will now be a bigger factor. He’ll have to be pretty good all-around to match what the team got from Norichika Aoki & Co. (combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved).

Cardinals: St. Louis ranked second to last in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved last season and had only one position that rated above the major league average. That shouldn’t happen again.

The Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter from second to his natural spot at third, where he should be an upgrade over David Freese. Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who, if his hamstrings are healthy, could be a 20-plus run improvement over Jon Jay in center field. Another great glove in Mark Ellis signed to share second base with Kolten Wong, which will be an improvement over Carpenter. And Jhonny Peralta probably is no worse than on par defensively with the man he’ll replace at short, Pete Kozma. In sum, the Cardinals could be the most-improved defensive team from last season to this season.

Cubs: The Cubs aren’t vastly different from what they were at the end of last season, at least not yet. Their outfield defense needed an upgrade, and the one thing they’ve done to that end is obtain Justin Ruggiano. He has fared both well and poorly in center field in the past. Ruggiano may get a full-time shot to see what he can do in 2014.

Pirates: Pittsburgh liked Russell Martin so much it brought in a defensive standout to back him up in Chris Stewart. Stewart excels in all areas and could invert what the team got in 2013 from its backup catchers (negative-6 Runs Saved). The Pirates were also smart about keeping Clint Barmes around on a low-salary deal. He’s no Andrelton Simmons, but he rates among the best defensive shortstops in the league.

Reds: Cincinnati will give Billy Hamilton every chance to be the every-day center fielder in 2014. He rates as “fine,” which will be a major upgrade from the struggles of Shin-Soo Choo, who was forced to play out of position last season. The Reds will also fully take the training wheels off Devin Mesoraco with outstanding defender Ryan Hanigan having been traded to the Rays. Keep an eye on that one. The security of having Hanigan could be a big loss on the defensive side.

NL West
Diamondbacks: Mark Trumbo shifted back and forth between first base and the outfield with the Angels, but he should be the full-time left fielder in 2014 for a team that had four players with 25 or more starts at the position last season. Trumbo showed he could handle left in a stint there with the Halos two seasons ago (a better fit there than in right). My guess is the Diamondbacks will play him deep and concede some singles to limit the number of times he’ll have to retreat to chase a potential extra-base hit.

Dodgers: Yasiel Puig posted a terrific defensive rating in his initial stint in the big leagues (10 Runs Saved), but one concern the Dodgers will have was visible in the NL Championship Series -- how Puig does at limiting his mistakes.

Puig ranked 20th in innings played in right field last season but had the seventh-most Defensive Misplays & Errors (22) based on Baseball Info Solutions’ video review. Over 162 games, that might not affect his overall rating, but that sort of thing could play a large role in swinging a couple of important games one way or the other.

The loss of Mark Ellis could also be big, though the jury is out until we see how Alexander Guerrero handles second base.

Giants: San Francisco cast its lot with a pair of outfielders who will look a bit awkward in the corners, with Mike Morse in left and Hunter Pence in right. This could be a problem if the pitching staff is fly ball inclined. Pence is at negative-16 Runs Saved over the past two seasons. Morse fits best as a DH, and his value will be in whether he can drive in more runs than he lets in. Whoever the Giants' center fielder is this season will have his work cut out for him.

Padres: San Diego will look to run Seth Smith, whom it got from the Athletics for Luke Gregerson, in right field. This could be a little dicey. Smith has negative-13 Runs Saved in the equivalent of about a season’s worth of games there. Expect Chris Denorfia (21 career Runs Saved in right) to remain as a valuable fourth outfielder, late-game replacement.

Rockies: The big defensive-themed news for the Rockies this offseason was their decision to commit to Gold Glove left fielder Carlos Gonzalez as a full-timer in center after trading Dexter Fowler. So long as he’s not the Gonzalez of 2012, who looked a little heavy and finished with negative-13 Runs Saved, that should work out all right.

Colorado does have a lot of flexibility in its outfield with Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs coming off the bench for now. Either could come in as a late-game replacement for Michael Cuddyer if needed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if either got some significant playing time in left field too.


On July 18, the New York Yankees blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 in a rain-shortened game. Hiroki Kuroda pitched the seven-inning shutout, Mark Teixeira homered and the Yankees ripped 12 hits off Ricky Romero. The Yankees were cruising, having won nine of 11 and 16 of 22 games, and were leading the American League East by 10 games, on pace for 95 wins.

The hated rivals up in Boston already were turning into a bad joke, barely a rival anymore after the Yankees had taken three of four a few days before. The upstart Baltimore Orioles had won that day but had lost 13 of their pevious 19, slowly drifting into their usual pathetic irrelevance. The Tampa Bay Rays? Hey, never discount them -- they'd made a big comeback in 2011, after all -- but this wasn't their year, the lineup wasn't any good and the rotation wasn't as dominant as expected.

Yes, the Yankees were going to cruise to another division title. Print the playoff tickets.

* * * *

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the modern Yankees dynasty is their numbing consistency. Sixteen playoff appearances in 17 years. Twelve division titles. Twelve 95-win seasons in the past 15. Yes, they have more money than Zeus, but money is no guaranteed road to success.

Just look at their neighbors to the north, who are going to miss their third postseason in a row and have won just one division title in 16 years. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the second-highest opening-day payroll. The Phillies had a nice run, five National League East titles in a row, but age and injuries caught up to them this season, and they're struggling to finish .500. The Angels will have spent more than $300 million the past two seasons and another $104 million in 2010, and might have no playoff appearances to show for that.

The Yankees have kept their dynasty going, defying age and bad luck. They did miss the playoffs in 2008, a season in which they won 89 games. Yes, that was the season they gave 20 starts to Darrell Rasner and 15 to Sidney Ponson. That offseason, they reloaded with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they won the World Series.

Still, this can't go on forever, can it?

* * * *

The Yankees lost 5-2 to the Rays on Tuesday as Tampa slugged three home runs off Freddy Garcia, and a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez, Jayson Nix, Chris Dickerson and Chris Stewart failed to do much against Alex Cobb. The Orioles pounded the Blue Jays 12-0 on Tuesday as Zach Britton pitched seven scoreless innings and Mark Reynolds belted his fifth home run in five games.

The Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place.

"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves," Reynolds said after the game. "Everybody knows the situation we're in but we're just taking it day by day and having fun."

Something tells me the Yankees aren't having a lot of fun right now.

Here's some data from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:

Since July 19:
Yankees: 19-25, run differential of plus-3
Orioles: 29-15, run differential of plus-37
Rays: 28-16, run differential of plus-84

As Katie points out, Nick Markakis returned from an injury after the All-Star break and the Orioles' offense has been vastly improved since. The O's hit .240/.302/.402 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the first half and .253/.322/.423 in the second (entering Tuesday's game). Markakis' .343 average and .902 OPS in the second half rank fifth and 13th, respectively, among AL hitters (before he went 3-for-5 on Tuesday). In their past 11 games, Orioles starters have nine quality starts and a 2.22 ERA.

Why not Baltimore?

* * * *

If the Orioles and A's are this year's miracle teams, that means we now have to consider the Rays grizzled vets, even if their $64 million payroll is higher than that of just five other teams. The Rays were a miracle in 2008 and a mini-miracle in 2011. We are no longer surprised.

Since the All-Star break, the Rays have a 2.45 staff ERA, which would be the second-lowest second-half ERA by an AL team since the first All-Star Game in 1933 (the 1972 Angels had a 2.37 ERA).

Pitching, my friends, pitching. The Yankees are relying on Sabathia's elbow to hold up, and the retread Garcia, and the inconsistent Phil Hughes, all the while hoping 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will return to offer a lifeline.

The Yankees look old, mediocre and beaten up.

Why not Tampa Bay?

* * * *

From 10 games ahead to pure panic. Yankees fans should be worried. Right now, they're the third-best team in the AL East. They're even with the Orioles, and the Rays are 1.5 games back, with a chance to cut the deficit to a half-game with a win Wednesday.

Sure, injuries. Sure, Alex Rodriguez just returned and Robinson Cano didn't play Tuesday and Teixeira is out. But that's what happens when you get old. Ibanez is old. Ichiro Suzuki is old. Andruw Jones is old. Curtis Granderson isn't old but has morphed into Dave Kingman in the past couple of months, a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.

The Yankees are struggling. The Yankees are not going to win the AL East.

The playoffs? Hey, it's still the Yankees; you never want to count them out. They have four games left with Tampa Bay and a four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, but the rest of the schedule is soft other than one series with Oakland -- six games against the sinking Red Sox, seven against the banged-up Blue Jays, three against the Twins. Even if the Orioles and Rays rise past the Yankees, New York can make the wild card if it can hold off the Tigers/White Sox loser and the A's and Angels.

I want to say the Yankees won't make it, that they're too old, overpaid and overrated. People in baseball often talk about digging deep. It's just something they like to say.

But I'll say this: Get out your shovels, Yankees.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Nick MarkakisBrad White/Getty ImagesNick Markakis slips in the same way the Orioles tied for first: Stealthily and safely.

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