So in the quick season predictions piece I put together in March, I dealt with the media fascination of which team would be this year's Rays, going from nowhere to contention. I said that no one would fill that role this year, and in one sense I was correct. But not in the sense of there not being a 'This year's Rays'. Because what the Rays really did was go from last to first by improving their defense, providing a blueprint that three teams have followed this year. And while none of those teams have had as large a turnaround as the Rays did last year, all three can make a case to be the Rays of this year (Please note that the Royals, preseason expert consensus to fill the Devil-free shoes this year, will not be appearing in this article except to note that Dayton Moore is a terrible General Manager who must have incriminating pictures of the team owner that he used to get his four-year extension. Or ownership is for some reason trying to lose games. Either/or).
In 2007 the Devil Rays were dreadful, both in the standings and with the glove(s), finishing in the AL East basement with a record of 66-96, and allowing 57.7 more runs than an average defensive team, worst in the league by a full 9.6 runs (All defensive data is UZR from Fangraphs, which is scaled to the simplest possible figure: +runs (Runs saved) and -runs (Runs allowed)). Then in 2008, the Rays suddenly jumped to +74.2 defensive runs as a team, best in the majors. How did they do this? It was surprisingly simple. They mostly moved their existing players around the diamond until they found a part where each was good, or at the least serviceable (Aiding this adjustment was the fact that many of the Rays' players were young and athletic, making positional transitions easier). BJ Upton was an absolute butcher in the infield, so he was shuffled to centerfield, where he was worth +10.3 runs in 2008 (To give you an idea of how good that is, playing Upton in center would completely cancel out playing (post-hip replacement) Mike Lowell at third, no easy task). Akinori Iwamura moved from third to second, and super-prospect Evan Longoria replaced him. Delmon Young and his impressive brand of butchery were exiled to Minnesota, replaced by Gabe Gross (+11.4). Carl Crawford rebounded from a poor 2007 to do that thing he does (+19.6). Essentially working with parts they already had, the Rays allowed 129.9 fewer runs in 2008 than in 2007 simply by improving their defense. So who made a similar leap this year? Three teams.
Firstly, we have the Detroit Tigers. They've gone from -39.1 to +44.0 over the course of one season by moving Brandon Inge to third (Where he excels to the tune of +9.6), getting Carlos Guillen out of the infield (And Guillen was hurt for quite a while this year, replaced by Josh Anderson in the outfield. Anderson hits worse than I do, but he's a great fielder), and replacing the corpse of Edgar Renteria with Adam Everett at shortstop. Add in that they played Magglio Ordonez less in right than in previous years and that Miguel Cabrera has proved surprisingly competent at first base and you have another last to first story, albeit a less dramatic one.
The Texas Rangers are the team that has gotten the most praise and press this year for revamping the defense, probably because they went about this in the most visible way of these three teams. The Rangers moved incumbent Gold Glove shortstop off the position to the less-demanding third base this offseason to make way for slick-fielding freshman Elvis Andrus. Young fought the move at first, leading to a good amount of ink spent on the issue. But eventually he relented, and the move has indisputably helped the team. The Rangers have gone from -51.7 in 2008 (Worst in the majors) to +33.0 (6th). A lot of this turnaround can be attributed directly to Young and Andrus. In 2008 the Rangers 3B position was an absolute revolving door, with the common link between all the men trotted out being putrid defense. Five men combined to cost the team 26.5 runs, far worse than even Manny Ramirez has managed in a single season. This year Young has improved the position from historically bad to merely bad, as he has staunched the bleeding to an extent by only being 7.5 runs worse than average. Meanwhile, Andrus has taken over for Young at short admirably, upping Young's -5.6 runs in 2008 to a Gold Glove-consideration-worthy +8.2 this year (See, Young's Gold Glove last year was silly and wrong. He didn't make errors primarily because he had no range, preventing him from, you know, fielding baseballs. We call it Derek Jeter Syndrome in these parts. Though Jason Bay Syndrome would also be appropriate and accurate). Josh Hamilton has been hurt, sparing the team a repeat of last year's version of centerfield butchery, Hank Blalock has been permanently DH'd to reduce the risk of injury to both himself and fans in the front rows, and statuesque wind turbine Chris Davis has been sent to first base under strict orders to not move anywhere else for the good of the team. The result? A surprising playoff contender.
But the most dramatic turnaround has been that of the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners fired the clueless Bill Bavasi after last-year's team became the first-ever 100-100 club ($100 million payroll, 100 losses), and replaced him with Jack Zduriencik to clean up the mess Bavasi left behind. And the early returns are beyond good. The Mariners have gone from a poor (Though not putrid) -20.9 runs last year to this year's league-leading figure of +76.2 runs. Yes, +76.2. That is a full 33% better than the second-best team in baseball (The Rays), an amazing margin. The key to this was the 17-team, 180,000 player deal between the Mariners, Nets and Indians which netted the M's both Endy 'Gold Glove' Chavez and, more importantly, The Big FraGu (Franklin Gutierrez). Chavez took over for the departed Raul Ibanez and his glove of -18 putrification, saving a quick 18 runs at the position before he suffered a season-ending injury. Ichiro slid back to RF from CF, replacing 'cast' there with his usual brand of steady D (+8.4). But most important is the man in centerfield. Gutierrez this year has been worth +24.7 runs, an amazing number that can essentially be read as 'Willie Mays in his prime' (Random Mays aside, apropos of nothing, from Bill James: "Catching Willie Mays in a rundown is like trying to assassinate a squirrel with a lawnmower.") Based on last year's free agent contracts, Gutierrez's defense alone has been worth $11.25 million to the Mariners this year, before you factor in his offense or position. He even managed to make Jarrod Washburn look competent for half a season. So, yeah. Nice trade. Then there's the infield, which is merely good rather than spectaular (Exiling Yuniesky Betancourt, a.k.a. The Worst Player in Major League Baseball, to KC helps a lot, as well as Adrian Beltre finally not being injured (Beltre's defense is awesome. He is not at all overpaid, as many media members like to claim)). Put them together and you have the best defensive team in the majors, and it's not even close.
So there it is, this year's Rays, as well as a bit on the value of defense, something that the Red Sox front office is hopefully paying close attention to (As the season has gone on, the Sox D has improved. They are now merely bad, as opposed to awful, which they were for the first three months of the year). And while none of these teams underwent as impressive a turnaround as the Rays did over the course of a single season, the fact that their General Managers seem to recognize both the value of defense and how to build around it bodes well for their respective futures, all of which look much brighter than they did a mere twelve months ago.