Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Rays infield defense

A major goal of the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2007 season was upgrading the defense, mainly in the infield. The 2B was pretty solid with B.J. Upton the Opening Day starter and used 5 other players to start. At 3B, we were surprised with the range and quickness of the Japanese signing Akinori Iwamura. Then we were surprised and excited again for emergence of the big bat of Carlos Pena, who was pretty slick with the glove as well. The major hole was at most the important position, shortstop.

There were 5 different players that played at the shortstop position. Three of them were career minor leaguers: Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson, and Jorge Velandia. The other two were prospects, a former shortstop that now plays the corners of the infield and outfield Joel Guzman, and Ben Zobrist who main position was shortstop until last season. The main tool that these guys lacked was range and quick feet. The Rays front office knew that in order for this team to go anywhere, they need a shortstop that can play some solid defense.

During the past off season the Rays made a six player trade with the Minnesota Twins that brought in the best shortstop in Rays franchise history. Jason Bartlett was an excellent defensive shortstop at Minnesota, which has a pretty fast infield with the artificial turf, which was a perfect fit at the Trop. Bartlett will be the anchor for the defense that will help the pitchers and lead the Rays to the World Series. Carlos Pena came back and improved his already great defense to win a Gold Glove. Eager for his bat, Rays top prospect Evan Longoria brought it and came with a pleasant surprise and brought his slick glove and strong arm. This forced the Rays to move Akinori to second, which is probably his natural position. Quick at turning two and his quick feet was perfect at position that requires more range. This infield improved greatly from the 2007 season to the 2008 season. Using UZR, which is an ultimate zone rating that which is a combination of the errors and plays made in comparison with the rest of the league. The improvement can be seen from the past two seasons.

Position 2007 UZR 2008 UZR
1B -0.2 6.3
2B -7.4 4.3
3B -7.0 17.3
SS -11.9 -2.5

There were improvements in each range category, especially at third base, which replaced the stone feet of 2007 with guys willing to dive three feet to even make an attempt a play. The backups weren't to bad either, with Willy Aybar starting at every position at least twice and posted a positive UZR of at least 1.1 at each position.

This infield has to be one of the best defensive infields in the Majors, not only because of their range, but solid play. I will go over the outfield this weekend.

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