Since the day he was hired as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December of 2005, Joe Maddon has preached an organizational philosophy that starts with pitching, strong defense, and aggressiveness on the base paths. The organization-wide changes took a couple of seasons to fully catch on, but by his 3rd season on the job the Rays were fully buying in to Maddon’s methods, particularly on defense. The 2008 Rays possessed the most efficient defense in baseball, turning balls put into play into outs at a 70.8% frequency, just one year after having the worst fielding team in baseball, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency at 65.2%. In terms of defensive runs saved, the 2008 Rays were credited by Baseball Info Solutions as being over 100 runs better on defense than they were in 2007. That kind of improvement led Tampa’s pitching staff to cut out 300 hits from their opponents, nearly 2 per game, and it produced the franchise’s first winning season ever. Those Rays would eventually fall to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, but even in defeat Maddon’s principles had taken hold of the franchise.
Together with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Tampa has been able to continue to excel on the defensive side of the ball since that pennant-winning season, frequently ranking among the top 5 in most team defensive statistics. But the 2012 edition was a little bit different. While the Rays were still one of baseball’s five most efficient teams in the field, it was more a product of a fantastic pitching staff and Maddon’s frequent shifting more than great team play in the field. The team actually led the AL in errors committed while ranking in the middle of the pack in most of the advanced range statistics. That kind of thing is bound to happen when you ask Hideki Matsui or Luke Scott to don a glove. The difference between having the 5th best defense and the first may not seem like a lot, but for a team on a limited budget with an even more limited offense, it may have been the difference between watching baseball in October and playing it.
Under Maddon’s leadership the Rays have made the playoffs three different times, and in each year they boasted one of the best defenses, by any metric, in baseball. Although last year’s unit was better than average on defense, they slipped in the rankings just a little bit, which may be driving Friedman’s pursuit of better glove men. The Rays front office has already acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and 1st baseman James Loney to meet those needs, and they are hot on the trails of an outfielder. Both, Escobar and Loney, come with excellent reputations with the glove that are backed up by most advanced numbers, and they should thrive behind a brilliant pitching staff.
Yunel Escobar in particular should feel right at home on Maddon’s ball club. A year from now, when we look back at the good moves and bad from this offseason, I have a strong feeling that most people will agree that this move was the big one the put Tampa Bay over the top. Escobar fills a gigantic hole in the middle of the Rays’ infield, one that’s been left opening like a festering sore since the departure of Jason Bartlett. He’s due just $5 million this season, and the Rays hold a couple of options for the same amount in 2014 and 2015 as well. All that adds up to a terrific bargain, especially if Escobar can stay out of trouble and hit somewhere around the .290 mark like he did in 2011.
But the Rays didn’t acquire Escobar for his bat, they desired the shortstop for his defensive prowess. According to Baseball-Reference, Escobar was credited with saving his team 16 runs a year ago at the shortstop position, which was good for the 2nd best total in baseball. In contrast, the variety of players Tampa Bay ran out at shortstop a year ago were believed to have cost the Rays 6 runs in the field according to those same metrics. Baseball Info Solutions plus/minus system had Escobar worth somewhere around 19-21 runs saved on defense, while Tampa’s shortstops cost their team 5. Even the simpler statistics, range factor and fielding percentage, sway heavily toward the former Blue Jay, which means that Tampa Bay has the potential to squeeze an extra of just this one position, and with any luck at the plate, Escobar could be worth even more.
Escobar’s acquisition also allows Tampa Bay to Ben Zobrist back into his super-duper utility role. Zobrist ended the 2012 season as Tampa’s nominal shortstop and he was surprisingly effective at the position, but that takes him away from his most valuable role. Andrew Friedman noticed this as well and cited it as one of the reasons for acquiring Escobar. “One of the benefits here is that Yunel will obviously be our primary shortstop.” Friedman said. “This will allow us to deploy [Zobrist] in more effective ways and utilize his versatility.”
Zobrist is one of just 19 players in the World Series era to have played both middle infield positions and at least one outfield position for a minimum of 100 games in his career. And it’s not just Zobrist’s ability to play those positions. Any schmuck can put a glove on and run out to 2nd base and take some grounders. Zobrist actually plays each position well, which provides an enormous amount of unseen value to a team.
The super-utility man can fill in wherever he’s needed when players hit the DL, and when Joe Maddon wants to make a double switch late in a game, Zobrist can switch positions, giving his manager extra flexibility. With Escobar on board the Zorilla will probably spend a large amount of his time this upcoming season at 2nd base, while seeing at least 200+ innings in right field as well.
With Escobar at short, Zobrist at 2nd, and Evan Longoria locked up for life at 3rd base, Andrew Friedman decided to use his last infield spot on James Loney, who inked a 1 year/$2 million dollar deal at last week’s Winter Meetings. Loney isn’t much to watch with a bat in his hands, but over the course of his 7 year career he’s proven to be fairly slick with the glove. Loney, who turns 29 next season, should be a slight upgrade in the field over the man he’s replacing, Carlos Pena. While both players have solid defensive reputations, Pena’s play has slipped with age and he’s no longer as quick as he used to be in the field. Loney on the other hand has proven quite adept at snaring hot shots smashed down the line, and his ability to cleanly scoop throws in the dirt will allow Rays’ infielders to be more aggressive on their throws to the bag. Neither player puts you on the edge of your seat at the plate, although Pena has 20+ homer power, whereas Loney will be lucky to top 10 long balls next year. But that’s not going to be his job. Loney will be counted on to save runs not score them, although Tampa’s front office will be tickled pink with whatever offense he give them.
While the defense is already shaping up to be the best in baseball, the Rays still have some work left to do. At least one cheap outfield/DH will have to be picked up thanks to the loss of former centerfielder BJ Upton. A couple of bullpen arms still need to be added as well and a trade may be in the works for one of those pieces or both. Escobar (and Loney to a much lesser extent) greatly improves the Rays defense to the point that they may lead all of baseball in run prevention, and historically that’s been Maddon’s golden ticket to the playoffs. If nothing else David Price, James Shields, and co. should be a happy group of campers right now.