October 31, 2010 at 10:04 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
The defensive deficiencies of the Atlanta Braves have been blatantly apparent to the observant fan and well-documented by nearly everyone with a typewriter and an active telephone line as of late, so I won’t spend too much time discussing the fact that they need to improve defensively. Things in the universe more apparent could be counted using the digits of a typical human. The organization took the first step in that regard shortly after they were eliminated from the playoffs by naming Terry Pendleton their 1B/Fielding Coach. The fact that he was removed from his hitting coach position doesn’t seem significant to me (I’m with Mac), but the fact that Chino Cadahia won’t be responsible for fielding instruction or defensive alignments does. In his playing career Pendleton was a much better fielder than hitter outside of ’91 and ’92 (career dWAR – 7.9, career oWAR – 6.5; 1991 and 1992 excluded) and I’ve always thought he’d be best used as a fielding coach. Not that I think he did a poor job as hitting coach or that he’s responsible for the team’s somewhat deservedly perceived offensive ineptitude the past few years–I don’t–just that letting him instruct players about the thing at which he truly excelled at would be a better allocation of resources. Maybe it will be, maybe not, but from here it’s a reasonable decision and calls for as big a dose of cautious optimism as a coaching staff change could possibly merit.
Though coaches can coach, the players have to play, and the decision to use Pendleton as the fielding instructor has to be augmented with some player personnel changes that improve the team’s defense. It’s going to be difficult to do this. The team’s entire starting infield–along with their right-fielder–is set in stone and they’re likely stuck with a bad defensive CF’er. The only starting spot for which the Braves likely don’t already have a player they’re committed to in 2011 is left field. Good defensive left-fielders don’t have a ton of impact. Further muting their opportunity for improvement is the fact that the team desperately needs an offensive threat to play left field and probably doesn’t have the resources to acquire a complete player (because they either don’t have the money to sign the Crawford/Werth types or won’t part with their top pitching prospects for a Kemp/Rasmus type).
There are two ways we can reasonably expect the Braves to improve defensively in 2010 that don’t involve individual players taking massive steps forward (something we shouldn’t rule out). One is by replacing Troy Glaus/Derrek Lee with Freddie Freeman. Just like replacing Francoeur/Church with Heyward in 2010 improved the team’s defense, Freeman should give the right-side of the field another shot of youth and, more importantly, plus fielding ability. Freeman has soft hands and great receiving skills, good mobility for a 1B, and a strong arm. He could be one of the better first basemen in the league next year and will certainly be an above-average defender in 2011.
The other is by replacing Matt Diaz with an elite defensive OF’er to a) be leveraged in the late innings as a defensive replacement and b) improve the team’s defense on days in which Nate McLouth, Jason Heyward, or Atlanta’s left fielder to be named later don’t play. Coupling the move with getting McLouth more instruction on and reads in left field would greatly improve the team’s chances of holding leads late. Imagine the team’s outfield defense if McLouth were accustomed to playing left such that he’s at least a league-average defender there along with Heyward in right and a +15 center fielder in the middle. You’re looking at a ~+20-to-+30 defensive outfield.
The problem is finding elite defensive center fielders that can hit is nearly impossible–you have to develop them yourself–so this type of alignment can’t be employed most of the time if the Braves plan to score enough runs. Therefore, the solution is to find the best defensive OF’er you can get for under $2.5 million (regardless of his probably non-existent ability to hit) and maximize his ratio of defensive innings to plate appearances. After their left-fielder gets his 3rd or 4th PA of the game, the elite defender comes in to finish it out with McLouth in left, rinse, and repeat.
But even if they can’t hit, these guys aren’t easy to find and I can only think of two respectable options and a few more back-up plans. And they are:
Carlos Gomez — Gomez can’t hit at all, but he’s a legitimate 70 fielder. With excellent speed, a good arm, and great instincts, he’s one of the two most ideal players in the game for the role I’m talking about. The Brewers will use Lorenzo Cain as their primary center fielder in 2011 and may elect to keep Chris Dickerson as their 4th OF’er and dispose of Gomez. Gomez is eligible for arbitration, but won’t get much of a raise on account of his inability to hit and is looking at a sub-$2 million salary in 2011 if the Brewers offer him arbitration. It’s up in the air whether or not they do, but even if he isn’t non-tendered he should be available via trade (Moylan for Gomez?).
Tony Gwynn Jr. — Gwynn made some offensive progress in 2010 that didn’t show up because his batting average on balls in play fell to .236 and he hit only .204/.304/.287. He’s not much of a hitter, but his true talent level is probably closer to his career .244/.323/.314 line than his 2010 campaign would indicate. That’s not why he’s a fit for Atlanta, though. He’s an elite defender in center with burner speed and an average arm; having saved 22 runs in just over 1500 innings over the past two years according to +/-. Like Gomez, he’s one of the two most ideal players in the game for the team’s defensive specialist role and like Gomez he may be non-tendered in the offseason. This is Gwynn’s first time being eligible for arbitration and the Padres may elect to cut him lose and go with a Ludwick/Venable/Blanks/Cunningham/Durango rotation rather than giving him a sizable raise via arbitration. Even if they don’t non-tender him, he would probably be available in a trade.
Some other guys:
Matt Young — I figure I’d mention the lone internal option. He’s a better defensive outfielder than anyone the Braves have on their roster, but he’s far from spectacular with the glove. They could do worse. They could do better, too.
Dewayne Wise — His perfect game-saving catch with the White Sox in 2009 was no fluke, he’s an elite defender in center. He’ll provide even less value with the bat than the other guys mentioned, but if leveraged properly Wise could be an asset on a team needing to improve their outfield defense.
Josh Anderson — Our old friend hasn’t hit enough to latch on as a regular since being traded to Detroit during 2009 spring training, but he was never ticketed to be an offensive star anyway. He could be useful if leveraged exclusively as a defensive replacement, though. While he could be had for nothing, his defensive skills aren’t particularly refined and gets by on the field exclusively on his speed. They’d probably do just as well to use Matt Young.
Alfredo Amezaga — Another one of those he can’t hit but he can run types, Amezaga can play nearly anywhere on the field. He’s been a plus defender in center and at SS who could be leveraged all over the place. Unfortunately he’s 33 years old next year and played all of 1 pro game at AA last year, and there’s not much of a way to know how much he’s got left.