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With the bubble in the pitching market still expanding, can a path to run prevention be found that’s more efficient than paying the inflated rate for mediocrity? Lacking the mandate and motivation to enter the arms race–and with Russ Ortiz’s $33 million contract to remind management of past mistakes in that arena–Arizona has instead slashed payroll, jettisoning two of the team’s three biggest 2005 salaries in Troy Glaus and Javier Vazquez. Forced into a trade of Vazquez that further weakened a rotation ranking 14th in the National League in SNLVAR last year, GM Josh Byrnes is attempting to contend in 2006 without strong starters. The moves Arizona has made suggest a commitment to building a fearsome defense a la the World Champion White Sox as a means of supporting a below average staff.

In seeking defensive ability, it appears ex-Red Sox executives Byrnes and AGM Peter Woodfork are attempting to acquire players undervalued by the market. While offensive metrics such as OBP and OPS have gradually become regarded as essential measurements throughout baseball, defense remains the theoretical frontier of sabermetrics. Traditionally seen by performance analysts as far less important and attention-worthy than offense, defensive impact has proven difficult to accurately quantify. So while the 1890 census on offensive production is nearly complete, Frederick Jackson Turner has yet to explain the significance of defense in the American game. Judging by its off-season activity, Arizona is attempting to exploit the gap between the perceived and actual value of glove work by applying a new evaluative filter on defensive importance. The following chart lists Arizona’s aggregate Rate score at several positions in 2005, alongside the projected 2006 starter with his career Rate and games at the position:

Pos. 2005 Rate  2006 Starter  Career Rate  Career Games
2       96      J. Estrada       101            350
3       95      C. Jackson        89             20
4      108      O. Hudson        115            454
5       94      C. Tracy          98            135
6       93      C. Counsell      107            247
8       91      E. Byrnes        102            134

The Diamondbacks can expect substantial defensive improvements from five of the six positions listed, an upgrade that will be in the vicinity of 50 runs should the career rates above hold. Most important to the improvement was the trade of Glaus to the Blue Jays, which freed the Dbacks from about $35 million over the next three years and netted them Orlando Hudson, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time. Hudson has led major league second basemen in RAA all three of his full seasons, and was also tops among all fielders in 2003, finishing seventh each of the last two seasons. Despite the fact that Glaus had a 45.4 VORP and 859 OPS last year to Hudson’s 17.4 and 727, Hudson was the more valuable player by WARP (5.2 to 5.0) solely due to his spectacular defense at a premium position.

Hudson’s acquisition also has an important trickle-down effect in the Arizona infield. Craig Counsell will be shifted from second to shortstop to replace Royce Clayton, who despite a sterling defensive reputation slipped badly the past two seasons, and Chad Tracy will move from first to third base, providing a better glove than the creaky Glaus. Eric Byrnes, best known for his old-school hustle and diving grabs, should stabilize a center field position that was butchered last year by corner outfielders Shawn Green and Jose Cruz. At $2.25 million for one season, Byrnes will warm the spot for sleeper prospect Chris Young, acquired from the White Sox in the Vazquez trade. Behind the plate, Johnny Estrada is a strong backstop (110 Rate last year) with a first-year arbitration-eligible price tag. First base is the only position that is shaky defensively, as Conor Jackson, by all accounts a horrendous fielder, takes over primary duties. Veteran Tony Clark (career Rate at first of 100, exactly average) will likely spell the rookie a good amount, however, especially in situations calling for a defensive replacement.

The realignment has not appreciably hurt the offensive production of the Snakes, either. Swapping Hudson into the lineup for Clayton is a positive, Estrada is better than the Koyie Hill/Chris Snyder/Kelly Stinnett monstrosity (631 combined OPS last year), and Byrnes’s career 762 OPS should bump up in the desert air. Tracy is a good bet to out-produce Glaus, as he did last season (0.257 MLVr to 0.185). That leaves first, where Jackson should provide a solid bat in his first full season, but likely won’t match the production that Tracy and a mysteriously revitalized Clark put up last year.

Arizona now has an elite run-saving double play combination, and the Dbacks’ ace has the most groundball-inducing stuff since Kevin Brown in his prime. Brandon Webb blew away the rest of the field with a 4.58 G/F ratio last year (Derek Lowe was second at 3.69), and has led the major leagues all three years of his career. Webb is a valuable pitcher–3.99 RA, 2.07:1 K:BB, 0.73 HR/9 in 617.7 career innings–and has yet to pitch in front of a good defense, as Snakes fielders ranked 18th in defensive efficiency in 2003, 28th in ’04 and 24th last year. If Arizona’s defense moves into the league’s upper tier as the changes made suggest, Webb could cut his career 8.2 H/9 mark substantially and earn Cy Young votes for helping the defensive-minded Snakes contend in a weak division.

Thanks to Tom Gorman for arbitration information.

Caleb Peiffer

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After the apocalypse, civilization has collapsed. Grown men eat dog food straight out of the can while scavenging for gasoline. An entire infield is dispersed across the continent. Roving gangs of minor league pitchers prey on the weak, desperate for a place on the 25-man roster.

In those few places where society, in some form, persists, petty warlords insult each other’s height, and argue about how to pay for a retractable Thunderdome.

Oh, things are ugly in Southern Florida.

Remember Juan Encarnacion and Juan Pierre? Here are your new outfielders. You’ve already met Jeremy Hermida–he made quite a first impression, what with the grand slam and all that. Given that Hermida was our #35 prospect, and he’d posted a .975 OPS in AA, before he hit that grand slam, he oughta be alright. You’ve also met Chris Aguila, but under less auspicious circumstances. Aguila’s been a backup for the club over the past two seasons, compiling a .218 EqA in 94 games–mainly pinch running and defensive replacement work. Although he’s been impressive in his time off from the Marlins during that span–.325/.389/.534 in the Pacific Coast League over the past two years–Aguila will already be 27 before Opening Day. Most sources have Eric Reed playing center between Hermida and Aguila. Reed’s speedy, but he spent 2005 regressing in the Southern League and posting one of the emptier .310 averages you’ll see in the PCL. Typically, that doesn’t augur Major League success.

Around the infield, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is Miguel Cabrera returning from his outfield exile to take over at third base. Cabrera hit for a .321 EqA last year, matching Albert Pujols‘s age 22 production. If Cabrera can be an asset at the hot corner–something that was pretty much taken off the table after Pujols’s first season in the bigs–his value will soar.

The bad news is that everywhere else around the infield, the names are also changing. The World Series double play combination of Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo is gone. In their places, you’re likely to see a pair of former Red Sox properties–prospect Hanley Ramirez and journeyman Pokey Reese. Ramirez might not be quite ready for prime time, having posted a .271/.335/.385 line in his second shot at Double-A. Still, you’d have to think that if the Marlins care about public opinion, at all, they’d want to get Ramirez in there to justify the Josh Beckett deal. Then again, if they cared about public opinion, the Marlins probably wouldn’t have picked up Pokey Reese. Reese missed the 2005 season to injury, but even when healthy, Reese hadn’t broken a .600 OPS since 2002. The next couple of guys down the depth chart don’t inspire much more confidence. Dan Uggla, a Rule 5 pick, did a much better job in Double-A (.297/.378/.502) than Ramirez did–he’s also nearly four years older. Robert Andino performed slightly worse than Ramirez at AA, and is a few months younger. The fact that Reese is the only one of these guys who’s seen an at bat at Triple-A could spell more moves for the Marlins.

While the middle of the infield stands to be a competition between lesser evils, first base looks like a fun battle royale. Mike Jacobs was one of those guys who didn’t seem to mind moving up from Double-A to the majors last year, slugging 11 homers in 100 major league at-bats. If he can keep that up, he probably wouldn’t need a platoonmate such as former Brewers cornerman Wes Helms. Helms hits lefties hard (.905 OPS vs. lefthanded pitchers over the past three seasons), and has the “advantage” of veteran-ness. Less veteran but more exciting is Josh Willingham, who could find himself in the picture at first or possibly catcher. Willingham lost a ton of time to injury in 2005, but up to that point had shown signs of a good prospect with the bat–high isolated power in the minors, consistent on base skills–good enough to be our #48 prospect last year.

If he’s headed behind the plate, Willingham faces former prospect Miguel Olivo as his primary competition. Olivo was one of the biggest disappointments in baseball after he was obtained by the Mariners from the White Sox in 2004, but he hit well enough before and after his stint in the Pacific northwest to merit a shot in Marlin Teal. Further muddying the waters is holdover Matt Treanor, who needs one more year in the supporting role to get his card from the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers.

Considering that Jacobs has also caught in the minors, manager Joe Girardi could try some interesting roster construction–not that any small changes would compensate for the team’s overall weakness up the middle. Between the challenge of working with this gutted roster, and trying to find space for the dozen or so young arms the Marlins have picked up in their immolation sale, Girardi may find himself wishing he could hop the last of the V8 Interceptors right out of town.

Derek Jacques

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