Best, worst free agents on defense
Teams should consider how well a free agent handles the glove as well as the bat
When it comes time for free agency, most people tend to focus on offense. Production at the plate is the easiest thing to measure, and it typically has been valued more highly on the open market. In other words, the great hitters get the big bucks.
But if you just limit yourself to offensive analysis, you're getting a limited picture of a player's value. Take Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, for example. They're the two biggest names on the free-agent market, and they both play first base. While you can argue that Fielder's offensive production could end up rivaling Pujols' over the life of their next contracts, there is no denying that Pujols is a far better defender and baserunner, and that's probably not going to change.
At Baseball Info Solutions we have a metric called total runs that sums each player's contributions on offense, defense (including an adjustment for the number of innings played and the relative difficulty of the position) and the basepaths.
Over the past six years, Pujols has outproduced Fielder at the plate, 787 runs to 706. The gap widens significantly when we consider their defensive abilities. We incorporate eight aspects of defensive play in our defensive runs saved metric (DRS), including a first baseman's ability to field ground balls and bunts. Fielder's minus-48 runs saved over the last six years make him one of weakest defenders at his position. Pujols, on the other hand, ranks as the game's top defensive first basemen with 76 runs saved since 2006. That's a difference of almost 20 runs per season, which according to the sabermetric rule of thumb that 10 runs equates to a win means that Pujols was worth two more wins than Fielder on defense alone.
The point is, a player's defense can make a huge difference and is one reason why Pujols might be undervalued, at least when compared to Fielder. Now, let's take a look at a few more players whose defense should greatly increase their free-agent value, as well as some guys whose defense should make buyers beware.
1. Alex Gonzalez, SS: While his offensive numbers are abysmal, his 31 DRS over the past two seasons make him one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. With several ground ball pitchers on their staff, the Braves should make a strong push to re-sign the defensive whiz. The free-agent market is crowded with shortstops, and he could end up being a bargain.
To see who are the best and worst free agents on defense, become an ESPN Insider.
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Offseason Buyer's Guide
RankingsNov. 3: Law: Top 50 free agents | Tracker
Nov. 4: Bowden: Projected value rankings
ReactionJan. 25: Bowden: How Detroit landed Prince
Jan. 24: Law: Fielder helps now, not later
Jan. 14: Bowden: Grading Yankees-M's deal
Jan. 13: Law: Pineda-Montero deal a win-win
Jan. 11: Law: Madson a steal for Reds
Jan. 6: Law: Cubs win Cashner-Rizzo deal
Dec. 31: Law: Quentin a mediocre fit in S.D
Buyer's GuideNov. 12: Buyers Guide: Catchers
Nov. 11: Buyers Guide: Relief Pitchers
Nov. 10: Buyers Guide: Starting Pitchers
Nov. 9: Buyers Guide: Third basemen
Nov. 8: Buyers Guide: Outfielders
Nov. 7: Buyers Guide: Middle infielders
Nov. 4: Buyers Guide: First basemen/DH
FeaturesFeb. 9: Perry: A case for the Nats
Feb. 7: Szymborski: Ellsbury to fall off
Feb. 6: Cameron: The cost of moving to third
Feb. 3: Meyers: Poor drafts doom Cubs, Mets
Feb. 2: Bowden: How to rebuild the Orioles
Feb. 1: Goldstein: How good is Cespedes?
Jan. 30: Szymborski: Projecting Angels, Tigers
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• Law: 2007 top 50 rankings
• Law: 2006 top 40 rankings