Many observers of the Red Sox this offseason have pegged them as a team on the hunt for defense. This is not an outrageous claim—last year the Red Sox ranked 16th in the league defensively by UZR, with notable deficiencies at 3rd (second worst in the league), center field (worst in the league), and left field (6th worst in the league). Between the 3 main starters at these positions, the Red Sox gave up over 40 runs more than they would have by inserting replacement-level defenders at the position.
So far, though, one has to question just how well Theo and co. are doing at achieving their goals. The only major signing of the postseason so far has been Marco Scutaro. Talk all you want about consistency or stability at the position, but last year the revolving door of shortstops did combine to post a slightly positive UZR—better than Marco Scutaro has put up in 2 of his past 3 years.
Theo's most compelling move on this front has yet to even happen yet. By shipping Mike Lowell and his awful defense to Texas, the Sox are almost assuring themselves an improvement at 3rd base. If, as many expect, they were to sign Adrian Beltre, the improvement would be astronomical. Exchanging a whole year of Lowell at 3rd for a whole year of Beltre should be worth a net gain of over 20 defensive runs. Of course, the wisdom of signing Beltre lies largely in his offense, and how much they can avoid the Scott Boras overpay. But that's a story for another article.
The real question has to be the outfield. If rumors are to be believed, then Theo would be perfectly content to go into 2010 fielding the same starters as he did in 2009. Can a team that claims to be focused on defense really accept two fielders who aren't just not good, but in fact at the bottom of the barrel?
Now, left field in Fenway is always going to be something of an anomaly. If you're going to sacrifice defense for offense anywhere, it may as well be somewhere where the only fly ball going over the defenders head are either bouncing off the wall or going for 4 bases. This isn't to say that Jason Bay is a victim of the Monster—he was no great fielder in his last season-and-a-half in Pittsburgh either—just that any defensive considerations in left have to take a backseat to offense. No, the main concern is in center field.
For all the world, Jacoby Ellsbury looks like he's a defensive star. His diving grabs make regular appearances on top-10 lists, he has speed enough to cover the large territory in center, and he's not prone to careless drops or tragic misplays. And yet, advanced defensive metrics will tell you that he is in fact the single worst center fielder in the majors. Observing the young speedster in action will reveal that the reason behind this—as has been discussed so many times before—is that he gets bad breaks on balls, often having to completely reverse direction after the ball is in the air, costing him valuable time and wasting much of his speed and glove.
Perhaps Theo and the front office expect Ellsbury to improve his reads next year. Maybe they think he was just off in 2009, and that he'll be back strong in 2010. But if not, what are they doing? It's puzzling why the Sox would claim to focus on defense, and then ignore their single biggest defensive problem. Especially with viable options out there. The Detroit Tigers actually crafted a seemingly perfect solution for the Sox, offering them a 1-for-1 deal: Ellsbury for Curtis Granderson, who would have been a huge defensive improvement with similar offensive production (or superior if he rebounds, as his low BABIP would predict). Even now, Mike Cameron is an available free agent. A switch from Ellsbury to Cameron last year would have been worth more than 20 runs! And with two center field prospects in Reddick and Kalish projected to be ready within the next 2 years, Cameron's age would not be an issue. And, if the Granderson offer is any indication, Ellsbury still has plenty of trade value depending on the GM and their adherence to the new statistics.
I expect I'll get plenty of disagreement on this. Whether from the anti-UZR crowd, the steal-obsessed, or the legions of young girls who have proposed marriage to Jacoby—even if only by means of cardboard sign. But this is how our front office works. It puts importance on the stats that reflect poorly on Ellsbury, and consider things like steals to be relatively unimportant. Maybe they know something we don't, but if not, then their silence on this front is both very odd, and very worrying.