In 2008 the Seattle Mariners lost 101 games. They had just two hitters who cleared a .330 OBP, and just one pitcher who made 20 starts with an ERA below 4.69. The team was a shambles and ownership knew it, firing GM Bill Bavasi mid-season. Yet in 2009, after GM Jack Zduriencik’s first off-season, the team added 24 wins to its ledger. This time they had just four players who cleared an OBP of .330. So how did the Mariners do so well?
Anyone paying attention knows the story. Instead of looking for highly regarded offensive players, Zduriencik and his staff sought the best defensive players. Baseball games are won, after all, by outscoring your opponents, and a team can accomplish this by either adding runs on their side or subtracting runs from their opponent’s side. The Mariners chose the latter, and went from allowing the fourth most runs in the AL in 2008 to allowing the fewest, by 40 runs, in 2009.
Yet, not a whole ton changed in the Mariners rotation. They had many of the same pitchers pitching a similar number of innings as 2008. The big mutation came on the defensive side of the ball, where they assembled a top flight group of players who could turn batted balls into outs. This included an outfield featuring Franklin Gutierrez, baseball’s best center fielder last season, and Ichiro, plus Endy Chavez in the first half and Ryan Langerhans in the second, both above average defenders. Their infield defense went from good to better as well, as they replaced the weakest link, Yuniesky Betancourt.
It seems that other teams have caught on, adding more defensive-minded players this off-season. The Red Sox let Jason Bay walk so they could sign the cheaper and defensively superior Mike Cameron, and then picked up Adrian Beltre to man third. The Yankees let Johnny Damon walk in favor of giving playing time to Brett Gardner and Randy Winn, inferior offensive players but far better at running down fly balls. Yet the Yankees hold an advantage over both the Mariners and the Red Sox: they still have a powerful offensive core.
The Mariners, as we know, still do not have a terribly powerful offense. They might have improved, though losing Russ Branyan’s production certainly hurts a bit. The Red Sox have a far better offensive team, but their core players do not match those of the Yankees. Martinez and Youkilis compose a solid 3-4 combo, but they’re no Teixeira-Rodriguez. Dustin Pedroia is a very good leadoff hitter, but he’s no Derek Jeter — and the gap extends even further if Ellsbury mans the leadoff spot. So while the Red Sox might prevent a few more runs, the Yankees figure to score quite a few more.
This I like, because it represents a balanced approach. The Yankees can afford to go defense in the outfield, particularly left field, because they already have a strong core of offensive players. The Red Sox chose to go defense in the outfield as well, but they will do it to the peril of their offense. Make no mistake, however: the Red Sox will do very well next season, despite what some pot-stirrer says. But I like the Yankees chances better. They’ve minded the defense, but only because they already possess a monstrous 3-4 combo and an exemplary leadoff hitter. The Red Sox, defensively savvy as they may be, just don’t have that core.