John Tomase

Improved defense offers Red Sox quickest path back to respectability

Boston has a path to being a much better fielding club in 2024.

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No Negativity Week continues, as we take a break from bashing the Red Sox to highlight ways they might surprise us. On Tuesday, we examined five young players with breakout potential. Today we'll focus on an area of potential improvement: the defense.

For a club operating on small-market principles the previous three years, it's comical how dismissively the Red Sox treated their defense.

Whereas little engines that could like the Rays traditionally have compensated for a lack of firepower by making sure they catch everything, the 2023 Red Sox will go down as one of the worst fielding clubs in team history.

By Statcast's outs above average, they ranked dead last in baseball by a wide margin, at minus-50. Compare that to the league-leading Brewers (plus-41), who have overcome a relative lack of resources to reach the playoffs in five of the last six years. The World Series matchup of Diamondbacks vs. Rangers, it should be noted, pitted the Nos. 2 and 3 teams on the list, respectively.

The Red Sox knew they had work to do, but they were somewhat constricted by the roster. Third baseman Rafael Devers has led the American League in errors for six straight years, a record at his position. He's not going anywhere. Likewise, first baseman Triston Casas was surprisingly subpar there last year, though he's young enough to improve. Trading right fielder Alex Verdugo, the club's lone Gold Glove finalist, wouldn't seem to help the situation.

Defensive improvement needn't happen at every position, though, just the most important ones. And in that regard, the Red Sox have a path to becoming a much better fielding club in 2024.

The most obvious place to start is shortstop, where Trevor Story is now more than a year removed from elbow surgery. He recorded eight outs above average in just 43 games, which was good for eighth in baseball.

What Story lacks in arm strength he more than compensates for via quickness, range, accuracy, and instincts, and the Red Sox will benefit tremendously from having him man the position on a nightly basis.

Next is center field, where youngster Ceddanne Rafaela has taken camp by storm with three homers and a .902 OPS.

While a case can be made for a starting outfield of Jarren Duran in center flanked by two-time Gold Glover Tyler O'Neill in left and the strong-armed Wilyer Abreu in right (with defensive butcher Masataka Yoshida DHing), there's little doubt the team's best defensive alignment puts the exciting Rafaela in center, where scouts have long predicted he could challenge for a Gold Glove.

An injury to Vaughn Grissom leaves second base as a potential trouble spot, especially given Enmanuel Valdez's struggles there as a rookie, but the Red Sox should benefit from upgrades at short, in center, and in left.

Chairman Tom Werner told NESN that a front office member suggested even average defense last year would've accounted for an additional nine or 10 wins. That's highly dubious, but it's safe to say a better defensive team could've finished at least .500. Using the basic sabermetric math of 10 runs equaling one win, the difference between the Red Sox costing themselves 20 runs in the field and the Rays saving 25 (per Baseball Info Solutions) is five wins. That's significant, especially when you're trying to decide whether to buy or sell at the trade deadline.

Given their other issues, improved defense alone probably won't make the Red Sox playoff contenders. But it might sneak them out of last place, and that's called progress.

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