BY MARK SIMON
Continuing what we started last week with the AL, we’ve got a stat-driven defensive theme or story to watch for each NL team. Play ball!
Braves – We’re curious to see what Michael Harris II’s defensive ceiling is. Harris has already won a Minor League Gold Glove and at times showed the potential to be the best defensive center fielder in MLB. His 8 Runs Saved tied for 4th-most. We wouldn’t be surprised if he led MLB in 2023.
Brewers – Said manager Craig Counsell of rookie second baseman Brice Turang: “He showed us this camp that he is going to win games playing defense.” Counsell knows of what he speaks. His 30 Runs Saved at second base in 2005 are tied for the most by anyone at the position.
Cardinals – The most intriguing thing to watch will be how Willson Contreras steps into the shoes of Yadier Molina as the team’s new catcher. Contreras’ throwing and blocking stats are typically top-notch but he’s historically a below-average pitch framer.
Cubs – The Cubs seemed to prioritize defense in their offseason maneuvers. The team has the potential to be great up-the-middle, as new acquisitions Tucker Barnhart, Dansby Swanson, and Cody Bellinger all come with solid defensive pedigrees and Nico Hoerner’s move from shortstop to second base should be seamless.
Diamondbacks – The Diamondbacks will start perhaps the fastest outfield in the game with Corbin Carroll in left field, Alek Thomas in center, and Jake McCarthy in right (all three rank Top-50 in 90-foot speed). If the Diamondbacks are going to contend for a playoff spot, they’re going to need these three to turn a lot of potential extra-base hits into outs.
Dodgers – 53% of ground balls and short line drives versus the Dodgers last season were hit against full infield shifts (those with three defenders on the pull side), the highest rate in MLB. In fact, the Dodgers led the majors in how often they full shifted in each of the last four seasons. They’ll have an adjustment to make to baseball’s new rules.
Giants – For much of last season, the Giants defense was hard to watch. The team finished last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. But if they can play some combo of Mike Yastrzemski, Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, and Bryce Johnson in the outfield, their outfield defense should be much improved from the -47 Runs Saved that it combined for last season.
Marlins – Can Jazz Chisholm make the transition from middle infield to center field without it being too costly defensively? We love Chisholm the athlete, but we’re a little skeptical based on past history of others trying to make the move (which we wrote about).
Mets – As good as the Mets were last season, they had a defensive weakness. They ranked 26th in turning groundballs and bunts into outs. Francisco Lindor has said he doesn’t like shifts. He had -11 Runs Saved in them last season. He’ll get a chance to play straight-up a lot more in 2023.
Nationals – The Nationals set a 20-year MLB low for Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop last season (-34). But they looked a lot better once they put C.J. Abrams there and moved Luis Garcia to second base. They’ll get a chance to grow together for a full season in 2023.
Padres – Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to find a spot somewhere and for now that looks like it will be right field. We know from Tatis’ history at shortstop that he has great arm strength but has a hard time throwing accurately. The Padres and their fans will find out how Tatis acclimates to his new spot together.
Phillies – Only three teams finished worse in Defensive Runs Saved by their shortstops than the Phillies did last season. They signed Trea Turner for $300 million for his bat and his speed, but watch how his glove should help too. The last two seasons, he’s played exactly average defense at shortstop, which would be a considerable step up for the Phillies.
Pirates – Oneil Cruz can get outs that other shortstops can’t get because of his arm strength (per Statcast, his throws average nearly 94 MPH – no other shortstop exceeds 90). He just needs to limit his mistakes. On a per-inning basis, he made a lot (4.3 Defensive Misplays & Errors per 100 innings, the 6th-highest rate at the position).
Reds – With Aristides Aquino now playing in Japan, the Reds are lacking for interesting defensive players, as the ones to watch are in the minors (top prospects Elly De La Cruz and Cam Collier). For now, the attempted bounceback of second baseman Jonathan India (-14 Runs Saved last season) serves as one notable story.
Rockies – Top prospect Ezequiel Tovar will be the starting shortstop. The position was a problematic one for the Rockies last season (-12 Runs Saved), but the future looks bright. Tovar played close to average shortstop in the minors per our data and Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen gives Tovar a 60 future fielding grade on the 20-80 scouting scale.