Falling back in love with defense

February, 8, 2009
02/08/09
10:19
AM ET
It did sometimes look like slow-pitch softball, a bunch of high-OPS dudes whose best work was done in batting practice. OK, the post-steroids era may play out here, but the fact is that as we close out the first decade of the 21st century, baseball has nudged back toward the baseball that Whitey Herzog cherished, where athleticism and defense and baserunning really matter.

No one has come up with the perfect defensive matrix, although a lot of brilliant people from Bill James onward have tried.

"The defensive studies we do are very useful, but they remain road maps more than absolutes," one executive says.

"No matter how we try to study defense, there still has to be a subjective element to what we do," one GM says. "But that's not to say that what we have isn't very useful."

Says another GM: "I still believe that one of the factors that has hurt some of the good offensive free agents this winter, like Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn, is the concern about how many runs they give back defensively. There is a great deal more appreciation for defense than there was a decade ago."

Nowhere is it more evident than in center field. Most of the clubs that discussed the subject had Minnesota's Carlos Gomez rated the best defensive center fielder in the game last season, in most cases followed by the Mets' Carlos Beltran. Now, although Beltran's low-key personality sometimes frustrates fans, he is a tremendous five-dimensional player -- a top-three defender and great baserunner who's reliable and so much an offensive weapon that during the past three years he has averaged 34 homers and a .912 OPS.

One of the advantages of the longer spring training, thanks to the World Baseball Classic, is that teams can better gauge where their young players are in their careers, and several of those young players are center fielders who can become vital parts of their teams.

The Rockies are counting on Dexter Fowler to take over in the middle of their outfield. The Marlins hope Cameron Maybin is ready. The Cardinals really want Colby Rasmus to play center, even if Rick Ankiel has blossomed into a premium defender. The Braves and Pirates will give every opportunity to Jordan Schafer and Andrew McCutchen, respectively, to win their center-field jobs, while the Rangers want to find out how close Julio Borbon is to reaching the majors after posting a .380 on-base percentage in 60 games in Double-A.

As Texas tries to figure out how to develop pitching in its ballpark, the emphasis is being placed on the defense behind the pitching, working Elvis Andrus in at short and Borbon in center while allowing Michael Young to try to become a Gold Glove defender at another position and form what the Rangers hope will be one of the league's best defensive left sides of the infield.

Everyone saw what happened to the Tampa Bay Rays when they concentrated on run prevention. They improved almost every defensive position in 2008 and went from the bottom to close to the top in defensive efficiency, and topped it with the maturation of B.J. Upton in center field.

Minnesota won 88 games with Gomez and Denard Span as the key ingredients. Jacoby Ellsbury changes the Red Sox with his defense and baserunning. One of the most underappreciated aspects of the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies is the athleticism of Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth in their outfield.

Oakland's Ryan Sweeney and Baltimore's Adam Jones are on their paths to being significant center fielders, and once the Dodgers' Matt Kemp will have played enough baseball, he, too, should be a really good outfielder. Don't bet against Brett Gardner's seeing considerable playing time with Melky Cabrera for the Yankees. And we already know how good Grady Sizemore and Curtis Granderson are, and what the Indians and Tigers are with and without them.

Three times this week I heard baseball people talking about University of Miami shortstop Ryan Jackson's possibilities in the June draft. All three people said the same thing: Jackson is a world-class defensive shortstop, as sure a Gold Glove defender as there has been in a while, but he's highly suspect on offense.

"Defense has come back into the consciousness so much that we try to measure what his glove means to a team's success, even if he is no more than a .650 OPS guy," one executive says.

That discussion wouldn't have held a decade ago. On the other hand, 25 years ago you could have sat in Herzog's office as he drew up his daily defensive charts and listened to him try to calculate how many runs a defense with Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Tommy Herr, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke might save.

***

The Giants may well be seriously considering constructing a three-year package for Manny Ramirez, especially knowing the condition he is in working out religiously at API in Pensacola, Fla. They believe that with Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito and Randy Johnson -- as well as Brian Wilson at the end -- they may have the best pitching in the division. They need offense; only three of the other 29 teams scored at least four runs fewer times. They have their own regional network. Their fans embraced Barry Bonds.

Scott Boras has put the heat on Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, and there has been no love lost. The L.A. scouting department has been told it will not draft Boras clients come June.

That may hold true for a number of teams. With the economy in its current state, the Yankees, Red Sox and perhaps two or three other teams may be willing to ignore the commissioner's office's attempts to fix draft prices. Boras and other agents may determine that high school players would be better off coming out in 2012 when the economy should be more stable.

Boras represents outfielder Donavan Tate, Baseball America's top high school positional prospect, and could decide that Tate will be better served playing quarterback and baseball at North Carolina and allowing MLB and the NFL to set his price in 2012. Without the Dodgers and Tigers in the bidding, there may be very few teams other than the Yankees and Red Sox that may even contemplate Boras' price on a high school player.

"It's going to be very important for small and Rust Belt market teams to get off to good starts," one baseball management person says. "If they get off to bad starts, in this economy, fans may lose interest in a hurry. It's going to be hard to keep people paying in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati if they're in a building mode, at least this season."

Hence, some of the richer teams have tucked cash away with the assumption that some franchises have to move contracts.

"The problem will be that the owners and general managers of distressed teams are going to have to realize that they're not going to get valued prospects for what, for them, are bad contracts," one GM says. "They may be put in very difficult positions of having to explain to their fans that they simply have to get out from under some contracts to afford to build from scouting and development."

The Tigers, for instance, are on the hook for nearly $140 million to Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Guillen, Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson. The Reds are on the hook for $100 million on Francisco Cordero, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Brandon Phillips.

"The sports media has no concept how layered this recession is in terms of our industry," one official says. "We always hear about the need for cost certainty. Right now, more than half the teams are going to spring training with few economic certainties."

Which makes one laugh at those who criticize the Mets' Fred and Jeff Wilpon for not shelling out another $100 million for Ramirez. The Mets have the highest payroll in the National League. They have arguably the league's best pitcher in Johan Santana, three of its best players in David Wright, Jose Reyes and Beltran, and a reconstructed bullpen.

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