Defense should be a priority this off-season

(AP)

If you haven’t watched playoff baseball this year and the last few, that’s okay. The Yankees haven’t won a postseason series since 2004 and unless you LOVE baseball like I do there isn’t a lot of reason to be subjected to Joe Buck and Tim McCarver (or worse… Chip Caray) if you can avoid it. But, if you have been watching, you might notice that the teams that play deep into October tend to rate well in Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, or how well a team is at turning balls in play into outs.

This year, the Red Sox and Rays were 2nd and 3rd in all of baseball in PADE while the Phillies were 6th. In 2007, the Red Sox and Rockies were 1st and 2nd on their way to the World Series. In 2006, the Tigers were 4th when they won the AL pennant. They lost in the World Series to the Cardinals, who were 9th. The White Sox were 1st when they won the World Series in 2005. The Cardinals and Red Sox were 2nd and 4th in 2004 when they met in the World Series. Not since the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series has there been a World Series without a team that was in the top ten in PADE during the regular season. So, really, defense wins championships (a true sports cliche, who knew?).

The Yankees were 25th in all of baseball in PADE this year, a fairly large step back from being 12th in 2007.

The fact that the Yankees defense took this step back and still were able to decrease their runs allowed total from 777 in ‘07 to 727 in ‘08 is a testament to how terrible this team’s pitching was in 2007, where the team had 30 starts from Kei Igawa, Tyler Clippard, Matt DeSalvo, Sean Henn, Jeff Karstens and Chase Wright. Credit is also due to Joe Girardi for improved bullpen management and the ‘08 Yankee pitching staff for striking out 132 more batters than they did in ‘07.

Why was the Yankees defense so much worse in 2008?

1. Jason Giambi only played 18 games at 1B in ‘07, 113 in ‘08. He is a terrible defender and the more time he spent in the field the more runs the Yankees gave away.

2. Bobby Abreu became the worst RF in the league with a -14 FRAA. Abreu seemed disinterested when it came to fielding balls at the wall.

3. Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano regressed. Each lopped at least 10 Fielding Runs off their ‘07 totals.

But, there is hope. It isn’t impossible to have a large defensive turnaround in one year. Part of the reason the Rays have had so much success this year was their large defensive turnaround. In 2007, they were dead last in baseball in PADE. This year, they were 3rd. That’s how you go from winning 66 games to 97 games in one year.

So, what do the Yankees need to do to be a top ten team in PADE in 2009?

1. Let Giambi walk and sign Free Agent 1B Mark Teixeira, who was 19 runs better than Giambi in the field this year, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs.

2. Let Abreu walk and insert Xavier Nady in RF. Any average RF will be almost a 15 run upgrade off the bat. Nady was +10 FRAA in LF this year, its unlikely that he repeats that as he is -32 for his career.

3. Cano and Cabrera would be good bets to bounce back in the field should the Yankees choose to retain both players as starters. It looks like Cano will keep his job as it has been reported that hitting coach Kevin Long will go to the Dominican Republic this off-season to workout with Cano, which is a sign the Yankees don’t plan on trading him. However, if they do trade him, signing free agent 2B Mark Ellis, who has led AL 2Bs in RZR the past two seasons, would make the Yankees better defensively.

Melky is a different story. There aren’t any obvious free agent centerfielders that the Yankees should be interested in like there is with Teixeira at 1B. If the Yankees really want to improve in center they’re going to have to get creative and make a trade, which is something I doubt they do. With 21-year-old Austin Jackson to start next year in AAA, the Yankees just need to hold the fort in CF for one year (maybe less than that) before they turn the reins over to the youngster that led the Eastern League in Equivalent Runs this year. The Yankees probably feel that in Melky, Brett Gardner and Johnny Damon they have enough to get by for one year without giving up value. They might be right.

I know you haven’t seen him pitch in awhile because of a fluke foot injury this year, but in case you forgot the Ace of the Yankees is still Chien-Ming Wang, a sinkerball pitcher. The fact that the best pitcher on the team gets so many balls in play makes it even more important for the Yankees to have a good defense. The Yankees are said to be interested in free agent starter Derek Lowe, another sinkerballer. An improved Yankees defense would be a great way to recruit Lowe.

Any way you slice it, defense is very important. Remember, base runners = runs and runs = wins. Part of preventing runs is preventing base runners and turning balls in play into outs. The Yankees need to get better at doing that or get used to watching the playoffs from home.

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