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January 14, 2009
Last week, we looked at the top five defenses from 2008, trying to assess how they might perform in 2009 based on the shifting makeup of their rosters. This week we'll take a look at the bottom feeders from last year to see if you still need to be wary of drafting their pitchers, or if the teams have taken the steps needed to boost their win totals as well as their players' fantasy value.
The Seattle Mariners were lucky to win as many games as they did in 2007 with that defense, and though they were slightly improved in 2008, it's not surprising that they lost 100 games and then hosed out their front office. They converted just 68.2 percent of balls in play into outs, and they were 23rd in the majors in strikeouts; with a staff like that, they needed to upgrade their fielding to begin the healing process.
New general manager Jeff Zduriencik made defense a priority with some of his first few moves. The non-transaction that let Raul Ibanez walk came first; despite his production at the plate, he was really just a DH patrolling a corner spot. Then Zduriencik traded away Jeremy Reed and J.J. Putz in a three-team swap that netted him two of the best defensive outfielders in the game today, Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez. Neither player is an accomplished hitter, but both of them field at a level that makes their acquisition worthwhile.
Jeremy Reed was a solid enough defender in center field last year, but Franklin Gutierrez comes in as the best defensive outfielder on the Mariners, even better than Ichiro, who will be flanking him in right field. Endy Chavez is known for his epic catch during the playoffs, but unlike Gary Matthews Jr., the praise thrown his way following that single moment is well-deserved. He's capable of playing all three outfield positions, and though having him in left is a head-scratcher-he only has one season with an above-average EqA to his credit-there's no question that the Mariners are a better team with those guys around than they were beforehand. Erik Bedard (1.2 career G/F, 0.9 last year) will be thankful that they're in town, as will Jarrod Washburn (0.9, 0.8, and 0.9 the past three years with the M's), and anything that helps speed up Carlos Silva's innings can't be a bad thing.
The Pittsburgh Pirates should also field a better defense than last year, though the change may not be enough to make their pitchers more attractive on draft day. Not having Jason Bay around all year will be a plus-that he's an upgrade over Manny Ramirez for the Red Sox doesn't mean that his glove is anyone's preference for the position-and Nate McLouth is still patrolling center; not a good thing, especially without any great defenders to back him up out there.
The infield defense-the Brothers LaRoche on the corners, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez up the middle-is the high point for the club, but they aren't a good match for most of the pitching staff. Paul Maholm (1.9 career G/F) can and does utilize the infield (.289 BABIP last year) in order to pitch more effectively, and Zach Duke also induces more grounders than fly balls, but Ian Snell (1.2, 1.2, 1.0 the past three years), Ross Ohlendorf (1.3 for his short career), and Tom Gorzelanny (1.1 average G/F in his four years with the Pirates) need a better outfield than the one the Pirates deploy if they intend to succeed. Make note of that on draft day, as the team also lacks a great offense, so it's going to be a challenge for their pitchers to generate any value for you.
The Cincinnati Reds converted a paltry 67.3 percent of balls in play into outs, which, given their personnel, was not a surprise. Not all of the blame belongs where you might think it does however-for example, Adam Dunn was an average left fielder last season; John Dewan's RZR had him ranked fourth in the majors at .899.
Jay Bruce wasn't very good in right-his .884 RZR would have been one of the worst in the league among qualifiers had he logged enough innings in the field-but it was just his first year in the majors. Chris Dickerson, who's capable of holding his own, will be patrolling left, and while Willy Taveras isn't going to help this team win any games with his wittle bat, he's a great glove to have in center and will do much to help Bruce and Dickerson in the corners. Though the departed Dunn may have improved on his poor play afield, these changes are an upgrade overall, and one that the Reds needed to make given the tendencies of their rotation.
Aaron Harang has been leaning towards being a fly-ball pitcher for his entire career, so any improvements in the outfield will give him more value. Edinson Volquez has been essentially neutral both last year and in his time with the Rangers, but given his high walk totals, extra plays made on the balls that do make it to the outfield should help cut his runs allowed. Bronson Arroyo (0.9, 0.8, and 1.2) should have more value this year because of the changes, as will Johnny Cueto (1.0 G/F, 1.5 HR/9). The fifth spot is still up for grabs between Micah Owings and Homer Bailey, but both are pitchers who give up too many home runs and fly balls for their own or anyone else's good, so the changes should affect both of them positively regardless of who wins the job.
The Texas Rangers had the worst defense in all of baseball last year, which went a long way in helping their miserable pitching staff to produce even less. They converted a mere 67 percent of balls in play into outs, though any improvements won't necessarily make their pitchers any more attractive as fantasy options.
The Rangers also ranked 28th in strikeouts, and were one of just a seven teams to miss the 1,000 K mark. They allowed the sixth most walks in the league, giving them a team K/BB ratio of 1.5, which by itself would be damaging, but let's remember that their park is the American League's version of Coors Field; along with their being tied for the sixth-most home runs allowed in the majors with 176, you just have to avert your eyes. If the Rangers pitching staff's stats were tallied for a Three True Outcomes hitter, we would be praising him for excellence.
There are some subtle changes to the Rangers' defensive alignment. As long as Ian Kinsler stays healthy, the defense at second should improve slightly; the replacements at the position last year were less than ideal. First base will be patrolled by Chris Davis all year, which, based on early returns, may not be a good thing for their defense; had he qualified, he would have been one of the worst in the league via RZR, and his Rate of 91 shows that without some improvement he's going to cost the Rangers with his glove.
Having David Murphy in left all season will be an improvement, as his bat was a disappointment in the minors, but his glove was considered a reason to keep pushing him through the levels. He's another player who didn't qualify for the leaders at his position, but his RZR would be among the game's best if it had; whether that's all small sample size is something the Rangers will find out this year.
Fielding systems still do not agree about Michael Young; RZR says he was one of the better shortstops in the league last year, as does FRAA, but according to Plus/Minus, Young was 27th at shortstop since he still cannot move to his left effectively. That's where he used to rank when Plus/Minus was first unveiled to the public, and Young had publicly vowed to improve on his defense. Based on both the way that the Defensive Efficiency ratings shook out, and the Rangers' own insistence that Young was moving down the defensive spectrum, it's safe to assume that for Young, the reality leans more toward the Plus/Minus score than Dewan's system. If a trade does occur, you may see some additional improvement from the pitching staff, however slight.