Four Quieter Upgrades This Winter

If the goal of any team’s offseason is to improve its roster, then there are several pretty obvious places where that has occurred so far. Seattle, of course, improved enormously at second base by adding Robinson Cano. The Yankees, even having lost Cano, collected big upgrades behind the plate and in the outfield with Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury.

There are more than a few situations like that — Texas’ outfield, the Angels’ rotation, etc. — but anyone who has been even casually following baseball this winter knows about them. What about the quieter upgrades, the ones that maybe weren’t so obvious but could still lead to nice gains for their teams in 2014? Today, we shine a spotlight there.

New York Mets: Outfield defense

For most of the first third of 2013, the corner outfielders in New York wereLucas Duda in left and Marlon Byrd in right, flanking a rotating combination of Rick Ankiel, Collin Cowgill, Jordany Valdespin and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. Defensively, it was a disaster.

While Byrd was somewhat above average in right before being traded, Duda played left like the first baseman he is, putting up a shocking minus-42 defensive runs saved (DRS) in parts of four seasons for the Mets, including minus-11 in just 58 games in 2013. Duda was eventually replaced by Eric Young, but even he was only slightly better, with minus-7 DRS for the season. (Obviously, single-year defensive stats are more guidelines than anything concrete, though these pass the sniff test.)

Things turned around when Juan Lagares took over the bulk of time in center, since even in a partial season he proved himself to be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. And now that Lagares is going to be flanked by Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets should head into 2014 with one of the better defensive trios in baseball.

For years, Young roamed center for Arizona and was very good at it, putting up top-three Fielding Bible Awards finishes in 2010 and ’11 while coming in second in DRS at the position in both years. Granderson was obviously signed for his bat, but he has years of center field experience as well, putting up a total of 27 DRS in his time there.

At this point in their careers, neither Young (right field) nor Granderson (left field) should be expected to be what they were at their peak in the field, but the Mets didn’t sign them to play center, and any steps they may have lost will be less noticeable in the corners. With Lagares in the middle — as long as he hits, which is no guarantee — the Mets have three center field-quality outfielders, a huge improvement over last year’s troubled group in a big home field.

Oakland Athletics: Bench

In the grand scheme of things, Oakland signing 36-year-old utility infielder Nick Punto for a mere $3 million guaranteed barely registered a blip on the baseball radar. When Billy Beane later swapped young outfielder Michael Choice to Texas for outfielder Craig Gentry (along with minor prospects on both sides), it was mainly notable only within the confines of the AL West.

Yet these are exactly the kind of moves that keep the A’s in the hunt every year, because for the price of a minimal financial outlay and a decent-but-hardly-elite outfield prospect, Beane greatly improved his team’s depth and flexibility.

When Hanley Ramirez was unable to stay healthy for the Dodgers last year and backups Dee Gordon and Justin Sellers flopped miserably, it was Punto who answered the bell, starting 33 games at shortstop (along with 38 more at second and third) and doing so with plus defense and some amount of on-base skill (.328 OBP). Punto now moves to a team that has a shortstop with an injury history (Jed Lowrie), no real backup at third, and some open questions at second. It’s not dissimilar to the situation he left, and the Dodgers will miss him.

Gentry was rarely more than a part-time player in Texas, and he’ll largely take the playing time vacated by Chris Young and Seth Smith in Oakland. But in 556 plate appearances over the past two seasons — or roughly the equivalent of one full season — he was worth more than 6 WAR to the Rangers, thanks to his outstanding defense (37 defensive runs saved for his career, mostly in center) and his elite baserunning skills.

For his career, Gentry has been successful on 85 percent of his stolen base attempts, and roughly equivalent to Ellsbury on the basepaths. Ellsbury is obviously in a completely different galaxy as far as overall offense goes, and that’s what drives huge free-agency paydays. But for a fraction of the price, Oakland added an outfielder who will add more value than his slash line would indicate. Along with Punto, the A’s now have a pair of undervalued yet productive bench pieces.

Colorado Rockies: Bullpen

Believe it or not, Colorado actually had a reasonably useful bullpen last year. Despite having a relief corps asked to throw more innings than any bullpen other than Minnesota’s, the Rockies finished with middle-of-the-pack marks in FIP and xFIP. But that was largely concentrated in the trio of Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle and Adam Ottavino, with far too many opportunities given to the likes of Edgmer Escalona and Rob Scahill. With the injured Rafael Betancourt‘s career possibly over and Josh Outman traded to Cleveland for outfielder Drew Stubbs, depth was suddenly a huge issue.

Enter the ageless LaTroy Hawkins, signed to a very reasonable one-year deal; lefty Boone Logan, who received a far-less-reasonable three-year contract; and former Rockie Franklin Morales, acquired from Boston for infielder Jonathan Herrera. With Logan (.281 wOBA against lefties), Morales (.215) and Brothers (.230), manager Walt Weiss now has a trio of southpaws who proved to be well above average at neutralizing same-side hitters in 2013. (MLB as a whole allowed a .317 wOBA to lefties.)

A bullpen sextet of Hawkins, Brothers, Logan, Ottavino, Belisle and Morales isn’t going to win any name recognition contests. But in a winter where the Rockies have done little to upgrade their team other than take a shot in the dark on Brett Anderson and add the well-past-his-prime Justin Morneau, they’ll at least have a surprisingly deep bullpen to call upon.

St. Louis Cardinals: Infield and outfield defense

More than a few people have had St. Louis atop their “best offseasons” lists to this point, and it’s not hard to see why. Jhonny Peralta should bring a huge offensive upgrade at shortstop over Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, and getting some trade value for declining third baseman David Freese was seen as a coup.

Yet while most of the focus on St. Louis is on the talented group of young arms and the impact that Peralta will have on the lineup, what the Cardinals have really done is improve their defense throughout the field. Jon Jay‘s defensive follies in the playoffs probably made him look worse than he was, but he’s long been overmatched in center, and now the Cards get to replace him with Peter Bourjos (acquired for Freese), who has not only been great enough with the glove to push the otherworldly Mike Trout to left, but who is either the best defensive center fielder in baseball or very close to it.

If that was all they did, that’d be improvement enough. But moving Freese — who has never had the defensive metrics to back up his reputation, and who bottomed out badly in 2013 — set a chain reaction of moves into motion. The trade with the Angels allows Matt Carpenter, who had been surprisingly valuable in a crash course at second base in 2013, to move back to his natural position of third, where he should be an upgrade over Freese on both sides of the ball. Replacing Carpenter at second will be a combination of rookie Kolten Wong and veteran acquisition Mark Ellis, who has lasted in the big leagues this long almost entirely because he’s a plus defender. (Ellis has been ranked by both DRS and UZR/150 as being above average in every season of his career, despite repeated leg injuries.)

From a strictly statistical viewpoint, Peralta is a step down from Kozma on defense, but not by nearly as much as their respective reputations would have you believe, and his offense obviously makes it worthwhile. Throw in the fact that Allen Craig — or Jay, or rookie Oscar Taveras, or some combination — will replace the aging legs of Carlos Beltran in right, and the Cardinals’ defense is going to be a real asset in 2014. That’s just what the rest of the NL Central wants to hear, anyway: more advantages for St. Louis’ dangerous young pitchers.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and is an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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