By MARK SIMON
Leading up to Opening Day, we’re going to preview all 30 MLB teams and how they could fare defensively in 2021.
Hitting and pitching are easy to evaluate when previewing a season. Defense is a little harder because of the nature of the numbers available to assess a player’s skill.
But that sort of thing is our specialty and we’re happy to take our best shot at it.
Today’s look is at the AL Central
Greatest Strengths: Catcher, Center Field
Biggest Weaknesses: Dependent on Playing Time
Any projection of how the Cleveland defense will fare hinges on a couple things we don’t necessarily have a handle on now. The most significant is who plays shortstop: Andrés Giménez or Amed Rosario?
Giménez is viewed as someone who could be as good defensively as Francisco Lindor was. He impressed in a brief look with the Mets, though he only saved 1 Run. Rosario’s defense has improved but has been below average in all four seasons he played at the position. If Giménez plays shortstop, that means Rosario could move to center field, where he’s never played in the majors, and could displace a standout defender, Oscar Mercado (11 Runs Saved the last two seasons).
One thing this team doesn’t have to worry about is catcher, where they have the two top catchers in Defensive Runs Saved the last three seasons in Roberto Pérez and Austin Hedges. Each excels at pitch framing, with Pérez an excellent pitch blocker too.
The other hinge in their defensive performance is third baseman José Ramírez. From 2016 to 2019, Ramírez saved 10 runs there but in 2020 his numbers dipped and he cost the Indians 6 runs. Whether that’s a blip or the start of a downward trend can be further established in 2021.
Greatest Strengths: Catcher, Second Base, Center Field
Biggest Weaknesses: Third Base
The Royals are well built up the middle with veteran Salvador Pérez still going strong behind the plate, Nicky Lopez at second base, and Michael A. Taylor in center field.
Pérez’s history as a basestealing deterrent and pitch blocker offsets some of his issues with pitch framing. He’s not what he was at his best, but he’s still at least a little above average.
Lopez tied for the MLB lead in Runs Saved at second base last season showing good range and improvement at converting double plays. Taylor hasn’t played much center field the last two seasons (only 36 games), but in 2017 and 2018, when he was a regular for the Nationals, he combined for 26 Runs Saved there, second to Kevin Kiermaier’s 33.
Hunter Dozier moved off third base last season, but with Carlos Santana now occupying first base and Jorge Soler entrenched at DH, Dozier likely goes back to the hot corner. This is important to note because he struggled there, costing the Royals a combined 19 runs in 2018 and 2019. That position is Kansas City’s biggest defensive weakness.
Greatest Strengths: Second Base
Biggest Weaknesses: Shortstop
This Tigers team is not likely to be a good defensive team, as it has too many holes. The biggest is at shortstop with Willi Castro, whose .349 batting average and .550 slugging percentage last season necessitate his lineup presence. The problem is that Castro has cost the Tigers a combined 11 runs in two seasons at the position, and he hasn’t even played 500 innings there.
New acquisitions, catcher Wilson Ramos and first baseman Renato Núñez among others, bring defensive flaws. They’ve cost their teams 12 and 7 runs the last two seasons at those positions, respectively. New right fielder Nomar Mazara saved the White Sox 2 runs in 2020 but cost the Rangers 16 runs in four seasons at that position prior to that.
Potential for good play comes from second baseman Jonathan Schoop (29 Runs Saved in 2017 and 2018, -1 saved since) and corner infielder Jeimer Candelario (5 Runs Saved split between first base and third base last season). Perhaps we’ll also get a better sense of what to make of outfielder JaCoby Jones, who saved 20 runs in 2018, but has cost the Tigers 16 runs since and missed considerable time due to injury on multiple occasions.
Greatest Strengths: Shortstop, Center Field, Right Field
Biggest Weaknesses: First Base
If Andrelton Simmons and Byron Buxton stay healthy this season, the Twins are going to have a formidable defensive team.
Simmons dealt with both physical and mental health issues last season. His defense cost the Angels 2 runs at shortstop, which was tremendously out of character for him. Hs saved a combined 25 runs there in 2018 and 2019, though injuries took him out of a good chunk of the latter season too.
Buxton led center fielders with 11 Runs Saved in 2020, the second time in his career that he had the most at the position (also did it in 2017). But he too has health concerns. He’s totaled 152 games in center field over the last three seasons.
We listed right field as a strength not necessarily because of excellence, but rather consistency. Max Kepler has posted five straight seasons of positive Runs Saved there, peaking with 11 in 2018.
Miguel Sanó’s first look as a regular first baseman didn’t go well. He cost the Twins five runs there last season. How Jorge Polanco handles the move to second base is also something to keep an eye on.
Greatest Strengths: Center Field, Catcher
Biggest Weaknesses: Left Field
The White Sox finished second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved last season. To come close to that again, they’ll need a couple of players to prove that their small-sample excellence wasn’t overachieving.
We’ll come back to that thought in a second and first point out that Luis Robert had a fine rookie season in center field, saving eight runs, which ranked third among center fielders behind Kevin Kiermaier and Byron Buxton.
The White Sox will go from alternating between Yasmani Grandal and James McCann behind the plate to Grandal seeing more time with Jonathan Lucroy as a potential backup.
Lucroy was formerly a very good defensive catcher, but the numbers don’t show him to be one now, so this could be a downgrade. Nonetheless, Grandal had 5 Runs Saved last season and ranks third among catchers in Runs Saved since 2017.
As far as potential overachieving goes, we were referring to José Abreu, who looked more nimble in the shortened 2020 and saved a career-best 5 runs at first base, and Tim Anderson, whose numbers at shortstop are hard to figure out. He saved the White Sox 12 runs in 2018 and 2 runs in 2020, but cost them 23 in 2017 and 6 in 2019. He’s tough to project going forward.
Eloy Jiménez is the biggest cause for concern on this roster. He’s cost the White Sox 14 runs in left field the last two seasons, despite Robert’s best efforts last year to help him.