Four contenders that made huge under-the-radar upgrades

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TAMPA, Fla. — At first, the baseball skipped into the glove of Josh Donaldson, but when it spilled out onto the ground to his right, he loudly formed a familiar four-letter word. Donaldson then returned to the deep crouch on a back practice field at the New York Yankees‘ spring training complex, his body language imploring guest instructor Willie Randolph to hit him another ground ball.

The Yankees need Donaldson to get it right in his glovework this year, just as they need all members of their madeover defense to be productive. The Yankees’ fan base has been screaming for upgrades to match those affected by division rivals, big moves with big names. What the front office has bet on, instead — and bet on heavily — is that the team could be significantly improved through wide augmentation of its defense.

The post-lockout headlines have been dominated by stars like Freddie Freeman and Carlos Correa finally landing in new homes, and Oakland’s blockbuster deals. Within the fine print of transactions, however, some clubs have seemingly improved crucial elements of their respective teams.

Because the Braves spent part of the offseason getting sized for championship rings, it’s easy to forget what a mess the Atlanta bullpen was for a lot of last season. The ownership mandate to reduce payroll hit the corps of relievers harder than any other team, with closer Mark Melancon walking away after the Braves couldn’t muster a $3 million deal for him. Atlanta’s bullpen stabilized late in the year, with Will Smith dominating three rounds of the postseason, throwing 11 scoreless innings and racking up six saves.

Freddie Freeman, a World Series champion last season with the Braves, joins the Dodgers on a six-year, $162 million deal. Story »

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The Braves have rebuilt their group of relievers this offseason, signing Kenley Jansen for $16 million in a one-year deal, and Collin McHugh for $10 million over two years. Additionally, Atlanta reunited with Darren O’Day. “Our right-handed side was lacking a little bit in depth,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said last week. “We knew coming in that we needed to solidify that, and then BANG, Alex pulls both Kenley and Collin.”

Jansen had a strong season for the Dodgers last year, regaining velocity and movement on his cut fastball, a pitch he threw 58.1% of the time, according to Fangraphs. McHugh was exceptional last season for the Rays, who carved out what seemed to be a perfect role for the right-hander — they never pitched him on consecutive days, instead giving him multiple days of rest between appearances that typically ranged from three to nine outs. McHugh closed the year with 74 strikeouts and just 12 walks and three homers in 64 innings.

The Braves also return lefties Smith, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter, and righty Luke Jackson, who posted a 1.98 ERA last year.

“When you have that many quality guys in a bullpen,” Kranitz said, “you don’t have to overuse your bullpen. You don’t have to rely on the same guys day after day.”

New York Yankees: Defense

The Yankees didn’t land one of the elite free-agent shortstops. They didn’t snare of the better starting pitchers available. They were unable to outbid the Braves and trade for Matt Olson, and they never got close to a deal for the guy Olson supplanted, Freddie Freeman. They didn’t spend money like the Mets did this winter. Thus, all the conversation among angry Yankees fans is what the Yankees didn’t do.

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But the Yankees have seemingly bolstered their defense all over the place — alterations that were badly needed. As ESPN researcher Paul Hembekides notes, the Yankees’ defensive metrics last year were nothing less than horrific.

To borrow the shorthand for scorebooks, the 2021 Yankees turned 18 6-4-3 double plays — shortstop to second to first — and that was the fewest in the majors.

The Yankees’ infielders posted minus-54 defensive runs saved (DRS) last season. That was the worst in the majors. They had negative DRS ratings at each of the four infield spots, at catcher and in left and right field. Their center fielders had the best DRS metrics — with a collective zero.

There has been complete turnover since last July in the group, and if Donaldson and new shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa play to their recent standards, the left side of the infield might see an improvement of about 30 defensive runs saved in those two spots alone. (Hembekides notes that 10 DRS is generally worth one additional win.)

Randolph spoke the other day about how much more confident Gleyber Torres has looked since moving from shortstop to second base. Anthony Rizzo, one of the best defensive first basemen over the past decade, will hold down that spot over a full season. Additionally, the Yankees sacrificed the offensive potential of Gary Sanchez in the Donaldson/Kiner-Falefa trade, and will go with two defense-first catchers. (For now — the Yankees could also target Cubs catcher Willson Contreras sometime in the months ahead.)

The Yankees don’t have a deep rotation. They don’t have as deep of a lineup as, say, the Dodgers.

But they should catch the ball a lot better.

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Detroit took a big step forward in AJ Hinch’s first season as manager, but rival evaluators talked in October about how the organization needed a lot of defensive help. Only the White Sox and Yankees had fewer defensive runs saved last season, a symptom of the problems up the middle. In response, the Tigers spent $140 million on Javier Baez to take over at shortstop, and traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner.

“We were good last year at inducing double play [chances],” Hinch wrote in a text, “but not so much at our percentage of actually turning them. Baez immediately makes us better — his feel for the position, and his presence, have been noticeable.

“I had heard all about Javy’s baseball acumen, but seeing it day to day has been welcomed. Barnhart will have a similar impact on our pitchers.”

All right, you’ve heard before about how the Angels have tried to improve their pitching, and the fact is that the team’s last postseason victory occurred when Shohei Ohtani was 15 years old. But the team might actually have some depth to back up the rotation, after spending about $100 million on relievers, far more than any other team — $58 million to re-sign Raisel Iglesias, $17 million for lefty Aaron Loup, $14 million on right-hander Ryan Tepera, $6.75 million on Michael Lorenzen and $3.75 million for Archie Bradley.

Big money investments in the bullpen is loaded with risk, and every new Angels reliever could be on the downslope of his respective career. But the group could be a lot better, as well, as the Angels aim to get Mike Trout back to the postseason.

Source: ESPN MLB


Author: Ellen Garcia