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Mike’s Hardball Talk: How the team can improve their defense in 2017

Bad defense was a huge reason why the Diamondbacks struggled in 2016. Which areas do they need to look for improvements in order to at least field a competent defense in 2017.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest issues that led to the disappointing 2016 season was defense. In 2015, the Diamondbacks boasted the best defense in baseball anchored by two of the best defensive outfielders in baseball as well as a very reliable infield. The Diamondbacks were unable to keep that level of defense as trades and injuries did a number to the Diamondbacks starting lineup.

Catcher

The Diamondbacks should be looking for someone who can provide a defensive upgrade to Welington Castillo. Castillo has been a decent player whose bat has mostly overcome his average defensive output in throwing out base stealers and blocking pitchers, but is well below average in game-calling and pitch-framing. Those are the two traits that will separate a good catcher from an average catcher. The Diamondbacks should consider shopping Castillo in the offseason, especially to an American League club where his bat could help them as a DH. When I say shop, I don’t mean trade unless the return is too much to pass up. At the minimum the deal would have to include a MLB ready piece and a catching prospect at is at least through Class A for me to sign off.

Obviously trading Castillo would be a polarizing move because as a catcher he brings a league average bat, which is hard to find. That’s why the team shouldn’t be in a rush to deal him, but could get a nice return for him. Looking at the free agent pool, Wilson Ramos is the only catcher that’s under the age of 30. However, the cost of signing Ramos ($12.5M AAV plus possibly a first round pick) is too rich for the Diamondbacks, so that likely would leave Matt Wieters, AJ Ellis, Carlos Ruiz, and Kurt Suzuki as the top options. However, only Ellis has provided more value than Castillo in terms of potential runs above average in framing, and Ramos is the only player whose bat could outperform Castillo’s over the next three years so there aren’t any realistic FA options. Chris Herrmann is one of the lowest rated players on that list and Oscar Hernandez’s bat has struggled in AA this year. If the Diamondbacks still think they can contend despite the obvious telling them otherwise, then moving Castillo is not a good idea although he could be an interesting piece at the deadline should the team struggle.

Infield

The biggest issue with the Diamondbacks infield starts at the shortstop position. The first part to fixing that problem is making sure Nick Ahmed is healthy. While Ahmed isn’t going to post an eye-popping batting line and may struggle to even post a .300 OBP over his career, he just needs to be a replacement level bat in order to justify his spot in the starting lineup. In his 224 games as the starting SS for the Diamondbacks, Ahmed has been worth 4.4 dWAR. Over that same time he’s been worth -0.9 oWAR, although he posted a 0.3 oWAR in 2015. If Ahmed can post a 70 OPS+/wRC+ at the major league level, he’s a 2.5 WAR player which is more than acceptable. Ahmed routinely makes the spectacular play look routine and rarely makes errors on routine plays. Having him back and batting just well enough should be a boost to the pitching staff as more ground balls will turn into outs.

The next issue is Jake Lamb at 3B. The issue isn’t physical, it is mental and probably poor coaching. Matt Williams may be a 4x Gold Glover at 3B, but under his coaching Lamb’s defense went from 0.9 dWAR to -1.1 and his error count jumped from 7 in 95 games to 19 in 116 games. The defense was better when Matt Williams was managing the Nationals, so he needs to go along with Mike Butcher, but the pitching will be addressed on a different day. Orlando Hudson is coaching with the Northwest League affiliate Hillsboro Hops, so there one option.

Paul Goldschmidt and Jean Segura should be mainstays on the right side of the infield. Segura rates as slightly below average at 2B in DRS and UZR, but it’s also Segura’s first season playing 2B at the major league level. Segura has looked competent on the field and doesn’t need to be a plus defender to justify his place in the lineup as he’s been the team’s most consistent hitter for the season. Paul Goldschmidt’s defense has already started to gradually decline a bit, but overall is still an above average defender with his ability to dig out errant throws and start double plays. Goldschmidt himself may be starting a gradual decline at the plate as well, but between now and 2019, it will be barely noticeable. In terms of personnel, the infield defense should be fine in 2017 they just need to replace the guy coaching them.

Outfield

This area is the one that needs the most improvement overall. It didn’t help that AJ Pollock and David Peralta spent more time on the disabled list than on the active roster in 2016, but their replacements weren’t very good. In left field, it was a revolving door of Brandon Drury and Rickie Weeks. Both are infielders by trade, so it’s not surprising that the defense there was terrible. As a short term fix, I wouldn’t mind the Diamondbacks moving Chris Herrmann to the outfield on a full time basis as he’s easily an upgrade over Drury and Weeks offensively and defensively. In addition they have some guys in AAA that are interesting if not spectacular in Zach Borenstein and Socrates Brito (Brito profiles more as a RF).

Yasmany Tomas in right field, is another story. Tomas is about to become the 10th player since 2005 to hit 25 or more home runs yet be worth less than a full win above replacement. To put that into further context, Tomas has been worth 0.9 oWAR and -1.6 dWAR. The problem is that Tomas’ only value offensively comes from the long ball. When he’s not hitting home runs, his poor plate disicipline and limited defensive range steal from his bat. The NL West features a lot of spacious ballparks, with Chase Field having gaps that go 413 feet to right-center, 2015 proved that athletic outfielders such as Ender Inciarte are more valuable to the team than sluggish outfielders whose only discernible skill is home run power. While I’m not sure if the Front Office is willing to move Tomas after investing $68.5M on him, it’s pretty clear after 231 games this isn’t going to work.

Center field in 2017 shouldn’t be too big an issue. AJ Pollock is the undisputed starter there and when healthy is one of the best in the league. The elbow injury certainly saved some wear and tear on those legs, so he should still be one of the top defenders in the game in 2017. His outfield defense may start to decline over time, as he’ll be entering his Age 29 season. The team has an interesting option to back him up in Socrates Brito, although I’d much rather see him in RF than CF long term. Picking up a backup center fielder has to be a priority in the offseason.