As the Hot Stove League burns itself out and we near pitchers and catchers reporting, it’s clear that some teams are making wishcasts about their rosters. Spring training might dispel how unrealistic expectations are for some winter lineup designs and defensive alignments. But right here, right now and entirely on paper, it’s clear there are certain risks on defense that a few teams are willing to take.
We’ll see whether these teams decide to really take those risks once the games begin to count, or whether they’ll lose patience early in the season. So far, these risks fall into a few broad categories:
Let’s see if this DH can handle an outfield corner: The Phillies’ decision to sign Delmon Young and return him to regular outfield play ought to make them the instant winner in this category. Young made just 20 outfield starts for the Tigers last year when the DH slot was available (and just 29 outfield starts total), "good" for minus-7 runs according to Total Zone on Baseball-Reference.com. Spin that forward, and that prorates to minus-38 runs on defense in 1,200 innings if Young had been a regular in the outfield. That’s bad, but it’s also fairly consistent with Young’s career, which has seen him put up full seasons of minus-10 and minus-22 in seasons when he was younger and lighter afoot.
Working from that small 2012 sample, you might wonder, could a full-season outfielder really cost his team 40 runs over a season, or almost the equivalent of four wins? Those of you who remember Dave Kingman or Dante Bichette can put your hands back down; I’m sure it seemed that bad, but it really wasn’t. How bad could this get for the Phillies?
Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, the single worst season for an outfielder with 100 or more games played was Matt Kemp in 2010 (minus-37 in the defensive component of WAR); for you few Fonzie fans, Bichette’s 1999 season was next-worst at minus-34. That’s the most damage done in center and left; the worst ever for a regular right fielder was the Rockies’ Brad Hawpe in 2008, at minus-28. For the sake of comparison, if we switch over to Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus data for last year, nobody was as low as minus-20 in 2012.
Even if you’re unwilling to concede that Kemp or Bichette or Hawpe produced the single worst seasons ever for a regular outfielder at their positions, the broad suggestion is that the most damage a bad defender in the outfield might do is somewhere around 30 runs. That seems reasonable, especially in today’s high-strikeout era with fewer balls in play than ever before.
Does that theoretical ceiling for how much damage Young might do cheer Phillies fans up any? Probably not. However, the one funny thing is that back in 2007 when Young was playing right field for the Rays, he was useful, netting eight or nine runs of value on his arm alone (using Total Zone and Plus/Minus), and +5 overall. Maybe Young will accept the challenge of wearing a glove regularly and reclaim that bit of distant promise; the guy is just 27 years old, after all. I just wouldn’t place any bets.
For a dishonorable mention, the Red Sox signed Jonny Gomes to play a whole lot of left field, even though Gomes has been reliably terrible with the Rays, Reds and Athletics, generally bouncing around -20 in Total Zone and usually in the red in Plus/Minus. As consistently bad as Gomes has been, will playing in front of the Green Monster make matters worse? Or will the Red Sox do him the favor of finding him a platoon partner who can also pick him up on defense, considering Gomes has slugged less than .400 against right-handed pitching over the past three years?
We need a center fielder and a leadoff man; can you please be both? The Reds and the Cubs head into 2013 hoping to get good-enough fielding in center from the guys they’ll be batting leadoff: Shin-Soo Choo for Cincinnati, and David DeJesus in Wrigleyville. DeJesus’ numbers in the field weren’t great while playing center for the Cubs last year (minus-4 in a partial season in Plus/Minus), consistent with a generally negative trend over his career. But with a poor arm for right while providing a lot less power than you expect from a corner outfielder, he’s been an odd fit for a few years now.
That’s still miles ahead of Choo’s experience as a center fielder, though. His last start in center was in 2009, for all of one game; the last time Choo spent any serious time in center field was back in 2002 in the Low-A Midwest League as a 19-year-old. Reds GM Walt Jocketty made the expected polite noises about the prospect of playing Choo in center regularly. But Jocketty wound up sounding an awful lot like former Cubs GM Jim Hendry did while talking wishfully before the 2007 season about Alfonso Soriano as his team’s new possible center fielder after the Cubs had signed Soriano to his ginormous deal.
To make matters worse for the Reds, Choo’s defensive numbers cratered to a career-worst minus-12 in Plus/Minus and minus-15 in Total Zone last season, a big change after bouncing around adequacy over his career. Assuming there’s no underlying problem, you might have expected Choo to come back to adequacy as a right fielder, but putting him in center will be sporadically ugly, inviting plenty of late-game substitutions if Dusty Baker elects to get aggressive on that point. Considering the huge boost the Reds should get on offense (perhaps netting as much as five wins with Choo leading off instead of Zack Cozart), we’ll see if Dusty can really live with the in-game lineup card challenge and the odd extra triple.
The Cubs experimented with DeJesus in the leadoff/center field role in 2012, giving him 36 starts in center when they weren’t despairing over the feeble contributions of first Marlon Byrd, then Tony Campana and finally the unreadiness of Brett Jackson. At least initially, they might open with DeJesus leading off and playing center, but signing lukewarm bodies like Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston to play right field should not present Jackson with an insurmountable challenge from reclaiming a job, pushing DeJesus back to right field at some point.
This shortstop can handle the transition from the Japanese leagues. Confronted by a weak market for shortstops this winter, the A’s decided to expand their options, reaching for an extra-market solution by signing Japan’s three-time Gold Glove winner Hiroyuki Nakajima. Seems creative enough, except does anybody remember how well three-time Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Gold Glover winner Tsuyoshi Nishioka handled the move from the NPB’s artificial surfaces for the Twins? He was a thorough disaster, washing out faster than the Mississippi in March. How about Kazuo Matsui, a four-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan? Again, he promptly flopped at short for the Mets, although he wound up an adequate placeholder at second base for a few years.
In the case of both Nishioka and Matsui, we were assured that this was the shortstop who could handle the transition, and both times those predictions turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Maybe the third time is the charm, but Nakajima’s arrival isn’t accompanied by any plugs for his fielding prowess. How about his contributions at the plate? Clay Davenport’s translations of his hitting performances in Japan suggest he’s a guy who will OPS around .700 -- right around last year’s average major league shortstop (.688), so there’s no big payoff to expect there either. Oakland’s challenge of repeating as AL West champion isn’t going to get any easier with at least three infield positions in doubt.
Maybe he just has to catch to hit: The Mariners’ decision to trade John Jaso puts Jesus Montero on the spot as the club’s likely regular catcher. This comes after Montero failed to hit well enough as a rookie to be their DH in 2012, producing an awful .226/.265/.309 when he was DH, against the .310/.343/.498 he delivered when he was catching.
Given that Montero is just 23, you don’t want to get too upset with him. Nevertheless, his failure last season came on the heels of years of touts that Montero’s best position was hitter, accompanied by stacks of indictments from scouts regarding his ability to make it as a catcher at any level, going all the way back to his arrival stateside as a Venezuelan teen. His problems behind the plate are legion: He’s bulky for a backstop and stiff as a receiver. He also struggles to contain the running game because of a long, slow throwing motion and poor footwork, producing a 21 percent career caught-stealing rate in the minors and 17 percent in his big-league career so far.
The Mariners know all of this, and manager Eric Wedge was understandably being protective of his player when he asserted that he -- perhaps drawing on his days as a lead-gloved big-league backstop -- has no doubt about Montero’s ability as a receiver. Unfortunately, numbers like Plus/Minus suggest that Montero’s 2012 performance stretched across a full season would have tied him with Rod Barajas for an MLB-worst minus-12 Defensive Runs Saved behind the plate. Various metrics evaluating receiving skill suggest that, barring any improvement, Montero will be about as bad at blocking pitches as offense-first backstops like Carlos Santana and A.J. Pierzynski -- among the worst. (But still better than Colorado's Wilin Rosario, who has the remarkable ability to treat baseballs the way a toreador treats bulls. Ole!)
We’ll see how much damage Montero can do, splitting time with the recently signed Kelly Shoppach, but it’s worth noting that despite all of the ground-breaking analysis regarding a catcher's impact on the running game and blocking pitches, the Mariners have consistently employed some pretty weak catchers in recent years: Kenji Johjima, Rob Johnson and Miguel Olivo. Montero’s numbers in limited playing time were bad as well, but you can’t help but wonder if this is one area where the Mariners have simply elected to punt on the value of contemporary analysis.
Oops, we’ll do that again: The Rockies’ fascination with Chris Nelson is one of those things that can happen to any organization when evaluating one of its own prospects. But can you really blame them? Nelson was a toolsy high school shortstop they picked with the ninth overall selection in the 2004 draft, and expectations go with the territory.
Once it turned out that Nelson couldn’t play short (not just because somebody named Troy Tulowitzki was atop the depth chart), figuring out what Nelson's best position is has defied the organization’s best efforts. They drifted into employing him as their most-regular third baseman in 2012, and for their trouble got one of the most spectacularly awful defensive seasons at the hot corner in baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Nelson’s 2012 season afield, at minus-22 in Defensive Runs in WAR, was seventh worst among third basemen with more than 100 games played.
That really took some doing, since Nelson only managed 377 plate appearances. The only other non-batting title qualifier to do worse was Ryan Braun in 2007, and the only player to do almost as badly in as little playing time at third was ex-catcher Johnny Bench in 1982. It was Bench's next-to-last season, and his only year as a near-regular third baseman.
Playing Nelson isn’t the worst tragedy for the Rockies, but their lack of a ready alternative might be. Because guess who finished with the second-worst tally of Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2012? Jordan Pacheco with minus-13, in even less playing time than Nelson. And guess which two guys are at the top of the Rockies’ depth chart heading into camp in 2013? If those two combined to hit like Harmon Killebrew in Coors Field, that would be one thing, but they don’t.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.