Bible in hand, preaching importance of defense

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franklin-gutierrez-091102.jpgAnyone who saw the results of the “Hank Aaron Award” yesterday knows to take the results of any award voting with a grain of salt, particularly if fans are involved. (No offense to the masses, but when Derek Jeter beats out Joe Mauer for a hitting award, something is wrong.)

Some awards, though, are worth giving a closer look. Witness the Fielding Bible Awards, which released their winners on Monday.

What the honor lacks in name recognition, it more than makes up for in heavyweight brainpower, with a voting panel that includes a mix of sabermetric guys and sharp writers, from Bill James and John Dewan (author of The Fielding Bible) to Joe Posnanski, Peter Gammons and Rob Neyer.

It’s not a popularity contest, so no, Jeter didn’t win as the best defensive shortstop (although in fairness, he has been good this year).

You can see the list of winners here.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this year’s group is the presence of three Seattle Mariners — shortstop Jack Wilson, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (pictured) and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki. The only other team with more than one player was the Cardinals (first baseman Albert Pujols, catcher Yadier Molina).

In his first season as Seattle GM, Jack Zduriencik placed a heavy emphasis on improving the team’s defense, acquiring Gutierrez from Cleveland in the trade that sent J.J. Putz to the Mets, and at midseason replacing the tubby and disinterested Yuniesky Betancourt with Wilson at shortstop.

A look at UZR ratings from 2009 show Gutierrez ranked first in all of baseball. Wilson was seventh and Ichiro was 17th. Third baseman Adrian Beltre was eighth overall in UZR, though the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman (third) was even better, winning the Fielding Bible Award.

It all added up to the Mariners being the best defensive team in baseball in 2009 (compared to 20th in 2008), which no doubt played a big role in their improving from 61-101 in 2008 to 85-77 this season.

So will emphasis on defense be the next big trend in baseball? Or is it already happening? A run prevented is just as good as a run scored, right?

In a story that is at least tangentially related, free agent pitcher Jarrod Washburn says the Mariners are near the top of his list for 2010, which makes sense. After all, with that outfield defense behind him at Safeco Field, Washburn was putting together the finest season of his career before the trade to Detroit. Washburn is clearly a guy who can — and should — appreciate some fancy glovework.

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UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.