Teams making sneaky upgrades
Four significant improvements that flew under the hot stove radar
There are more than a few situations like that -- Texas' outfield, the Angels' rotation, etc. -- but anyone who has been even casually following baseball this winter knows about them. What about the quieter upgrades, the ones that maybe weren't so obvious but could still lead to nice gains for their teams in 2014? Today, we shine a spotlight there.
New York Mets: Outfield defense
For most of the first third of 2013, the corner outfielders in New York were Lucas Duda in left and Marlon Byrd in right, flanking a rotating combination of Rick Ankiel, Collin Cowgill, Jordany Valdespin and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. Defensively, it was a disaster.
While Byrd was somewhat above average in right before being traded, Duda played left like the first baseman he is, putting up a shocking minus-42 defensive runs saved (DRS) in parts of four seasons for the Mets, including minus-11 in just 58 games in 2013. Duda was eventually replaced by Eric Young, but even he was only slightly better, with minus-7 DRS for the season. (Obviously, single-year defensive stats are more guidelines than anything concrete, though these pass the sniff test.)
Things turned around when Juan Lagares took over the bulk of time in center, since even in a partial season he proved himself to be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. And now that Lagares is going to be flanked by Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets should head into 2014 with one of the better defensive trios in baseball.
For years, Young roamed center for Arizona and was very good at it, putting up top-three Fielding Bible Awards finishes in 2010 and '11 while coming in second in DRS at the position in both years. Granderson was obviously signed for his bat, but he has years of center field experience as well, putting up a total of 27 DRS in his time there.
At this point in their careers, neither Young (right field) nor Granderson (left field) should be expected to be what they were at their peak in the field, but the Mets didn't sign them to play center, and any steps they may have lost will be less noticeable in the corners. With Lagares in the middle -- as long as he hits, which is no guarantee -- the Mets have three center field-quality outfielders, a huge improvement over last year's troubled group in a big home field.
Oakland Athletics: Bench
In the grand scheme of things, Oakland signing 36-year-old utility infielder Nick Punto for a mere $3 million guaranteed barely registered a blip on the baseball radar. When Billy Beane later swapped young outfielder Michael Choice to Texas for outfielder Craig Gentry (along with minor prospects on both sides), it was mainly notable only within the confines of the AL West.
Yet these are exactly the kind of moves that keep the A's in the hunt every year, because for the price of a minimal financial outlay and a decent-but-hardly-elite outfield prospect, Beane greatly improved his team's depth and flexibility.
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A pitch clock was among the new pace-of-play procedures tested in the Arizona Fall League.