By MARK SIMON
Leading up to Opening Day, we’re going to preview all 30 MLB teams and how they could fare defensively in 2021.
A team’s hitting and pitching are easy to evaluate when previewing a season but defense is a little harder because of the nature of the numbers available to assess a player’s skill.
But that sort of thing is our specialty and we’re happy to take our best shot at it.
Today’s look is at the AL East.
Greatest Strengths: Center Field
Biggest Weaknesses: First Base
George Springer has played a bunch of partial seasons in center field, but because he also played right field for the Astros, he never played a full one there.
Once he gets healthy, Springer will be an interesting test for how defensive performance in small samples translates to that of larger samples at that position. In the last two seasons, he’s totaled 13 Runs Saved in center in just under 900 innings. His per 1,000-inning rate in that time is comparable to Kevin Kiermaier, who gets praised later in this piece.
Vladimir Guerrero got a look-see at first base last year and the numbers indicate it didn’t go great. Nonetheless, the Blue Jays are committed to playing him there and Cavan Biggio at the other corner.
How Biggio and Marcus Semien fare at positions they haven’t typically played recently could dictate whether the Blue Jays are an alright defensive team or a bad one. Biggio has rated slightly above average at second base, but that’s Scutaro’s spot.
Toronto is counting on the idea that Semien will play second base like the guy who saved 18 runs at shortstop in 2018 and 2019 and not the one who cost the Athletics 6 runs at that position last year. Semien has 29 career games at second base but none since 2014.
Greatest Strengths: Right Field
Biggest Weaknesses: Catcher
Much of the Orioles talent is in the minors with the expectation of seeing time in the majors next season and beyond. The exception is catcher Adley Rutschman, though we don’t have a full enough sample on his minor league performance to make an evaluation of his performance.
So we focus on what we do know. The Orioles best-performing defender is right fielder Anthony Santander, who has saved 13 runs in about 650 innings there the last two seasons. Santander has added value with some of the catches he’s made in the deepest parts of the ballpark, including three home run robberies in that timespan. He placed third in the Fielding Bible Awards for right field last season.
Baltimore’s trouble spot is catcher, which Rutschman could solve in due time. For now, Baltimore’s top backstop is Chance Sisco, who cost the Orioles 17 runs behind the plate in the equivalent of about a half-season of playing time combining 2019 and 2020.
Other than that, the Orioles don’t stray far from average at the other positions. First base will be the biggest question mark with Ryan Mountcastle likely to play there rather than the outfield.
Greatest Strengths: Center Field, Second Base
Biggest Weaknesses: None.
Kevin Kiermaier was highly disappointed that he wasn’t an AL Gold Glove finalist in center field last year, but he did win his second Fielding Bible Award. As long as Kiermaier is in the field, the Rays are likely to be in good shape. They’re basically playing with two center fielders, with Manuel Margot stationed in right field
The Rays infielder to pay attention to is Joey Wendle. As you saw in the postseason Wendle played a solid third base. He’s been good in a little less than 500 innings there in his career but he’s been better at second base, where he’s saved 18 runs in about 1,500 innings (a little more than a season). The Rays already have a solid defensive second baseman in Brandon Lowe, so Wendle is likely to see most of his time at third base.
Catcher should also be a strength, though Mike Zunino cost Tampa Bay two runs with his defense in the shortened 2020 season. He saved a combined 19 runs in 2018 and 2019 and his rep is as one of the top defensive catchers in the game.
The Rays have a chance to be a very good defensive team, one with no significant holes. What you saw in the postseason may repeat itself in 2021.
Greatest Strengths: Second Base
Biggest Weaknesses: Shortstop and Third Base
Kiké Hernández is proud of his versatility but he’s most valuable as a second baseman. His 21 Runs Saved there in the last two seasons ranks second behind Kolten Wong, but Hernández has played nearly 800 fewer innings in that time. Dustin Pedroia won four Fielding Bible Awards for the Red Sox. Hernández has the capability to win one in 2021.
The outfield will also be interesting with Alex Verdugo likely replacing Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field and Hunter Renfroe taking on right field. Verdugo played only one game in center field last season but saved four runs in a 61-game stint there in 2019. Renfroe is two seasons away from saving 12 runs in right field for the Padres. He graded average in 39 games with the Rays in 2020.
Boston has put considerable time into shoring up its defensive weakness, the left side of the infield in spring training. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers have ranked in the bottom 25% of the league in Runs Saved throughout their careers, as too many batted balls have not been converted into outs.
Greatest Strengths: Right Field, Second Base
Biggest Weaknesses: Shortstop, Center Field, First Base
The Yankees could regularly start three very good defensive players if Aaron Judge is healthy, DJ LeMahieu locks in at second base, and Giovanny Urshela matches what he did in 2020 at third base.
Judge’s path to a Fielding Bible Award is blocked by Mookie Betts, but Judge combined good range with a throwing arm that has high deterrent value. His 40 Runs Saved the last three seasons trail only Betts’ 48 among outfielders.
LeMahieu won a Fielding Bible Award in 2017. He’s established himself as being capable at both corner infield spots, though second base has long been his specialty. Urshela recorded the best Runs Saved total of his career (5) last season, as his stats caught up with the eye test that grades him high.
Why the Yankees project as a below-average team is that their holes are significant. Gleyber Torres has not handled shortstop well. He’s cost the Yankees 14 runs in a little more than 1,000 career innings there.
Luke Voit’s defense at first base is statistically problematic. He’s cost his teams 25 runs there the last three seasons, the worst total at the position.
And Aaron Hicks, who had 12 Runs Saved in center field in 2017, has cost the Yankees 16 runs since then.
The other big topic is Gary Sánchez at catcher. Sánchez cost the Yankees 4 runs defensively in 2020, the worst total of his career. Sanchez has had trouble in the past both blocking and framing pitches. Work to get better in each has not yet reached fruition, though maybe a full season would help him establish a track record of success.