The Diamond: 2008 All-Defensive Team
With Sunday's 17-14 win, Eli Manning and the Giants struck another blow for New York sports fans in their ongoing battle with their New England rivals.
In less than a week, pitchers and catchers report for spring training and talk will continue over the most heated of battles in the rivalry.
While the Mets trumped both their cross-town rivals and the neighbors to the north, the Sox-Yanks storyline figures to be dominant in the media for yet another MLB season.
Much to the surprise of fans from the Northeastern United States, there is a wide array of franchises across the league who made the offseason moves to put the tools in place to contend in this year's fall classic.
From the Tigers' acquisitions of Gold-Glove shortstop Edgar Renteria to go along with young stud third baseman Miguel Cabrera and flamethrower Dontrelle Willis, to the progression of young teams like the Rockies, Phillies and Padres, the talent pool appears to be spread as even as it has been in years and should provide compelling stories throughout the season.
While it does not take years of expertise for a front-office staff to set their desires on the proven stars like Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, or the big stick that youngsters Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder possess, it takes a deeper look to determine a player's intangibles and ability to produce numbers away from the plate.
Today, we take a look at each position, judging the top performers on the defensive side of the spectrum.
Catcher: Kenji Johjima - Seattle Mariners
Buried in the Upper Northwest, the first two years of Japanese-import Kenji Johjima's career, while shadowed, have been impressive and consistent. While carrying a .289 average, Johjima averaged 16 HR and 69 RBI while playing in the pitcher's park that is Safeco Field. In order to appreciate Kenji's contributions to the Mariners, one must take a deeper look at his efforts behind the plate. In 1100-plus innings behind the plate, Johjima committed just two errors, ranking him first among everyday catchers. More impressive, Kenji threw out 40 of 86 potential base stealers in 2007 for a 46.5% rate ranking him third in the big in success rate.
Runners Up: Yadier Molina - Cardinals, Joe Mauer - Twins
First Base: Todd Helton - Colorado Rockies
After years of excelling in the Mile High City, Todd Helton was finally cast into the national spotlight amidst the Rockies' storybook run to the 2007 World Series. While his days of batting titles, 40 home runs and 100-plus RBI seasons are far in his rearview mirror, Todd continues to place himself among the top defensive stalwarts at the first base position. After committing only 58 errors in his 10-year career, Helton achieved new benchmarks in the field with just two errors in over 1500 chances for a staggering .999 fielding percentage.
Runners Up: Sean Casey - Red Sox, Kevin Youkilis - Red Sox
Second Base: Placido Polanco - Detroit Tigers
Since the Tigers' improbable run to the 2006 World Series, the former Phillie, Placido Polanco's slap style of hitting has provided a solid buffer between leadoff man Curtis Granderson and the potent heart of the Tiger order. Quiet and consistent at the plate, Polanco offers the same type of steadiness up the middle of the infield. As the Tigers bring in new sluggers and new arms since falling short in the Series, one thing has stayed consistent, Polanco has not committed an error in over a year. At the age of 32, Polanco's range may have diminished compared to younger second basemen like Ian Kinsler or Jose Lopez, but as long as a zero remains in the E column, it will be difficult to take Placido off this throne.
Runners Up: Mark Ellis - Athletics, Tadahito Iguchi - Padres
Third Base: Scott Rolen - Toronto Blue Jays
After years of controversy with Manager Tony LaRussa, Rolen finally talked his way out of St. Louis. Entering his 11th year in the league, Rolen remains the gold standard at the hot corner. At 32, Rolen still has the reaction and quickness to get to more balls than most young names at the position, and his arm on the long throw to first ranks him among the fewest errors from the position each year.
With just 10 errors in the 2007 season, Rolen achieved a .969 fielding percentage, his best since 2004. He figures to bring all of the same veteran tools north of the border in 2008
Runners Up: Ryan Zimmerman - Nationals, Mike Lowell - Red Sox
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki - Colorado Rockies
Batting .284 and slugging 105 RBIs en route to a runner-up finish to the Brewers' Ryan Braun in Rookie of the Year voting, I would say I am one of the few yet to jump on the Tulowitzki bandwagon. However, the numbers don't lie. Tulowitzki dominated every statistical category at the tender age of 22. In 2007, he committed just 11 errors, ranking him second only to Omar Vizquel among everyday shortstops. The comparison to Vizquel seems fitting as Tulowitzki's gaudy numbers (led the league in fielding percentage while getting to over 100 more balls than any other shortstop) immediately put him in a the same class above the rest that Vizquel found himself in with the Cleveland Indians.
Runners Up: Vizquel - Giants, Jack Wilson - Pirates
Left Field: Alfonso Soriano - Chicago Cubs
Despite starting his career with the New York Yankees at second base, the well-documented struggles between Soriano and management concerning his shift to the outfield seem to have produced excellent results.
Aside from his impressive numbers at the plate, Soriano emerged in his second year in the outfield committing just six errors for a .978 fielding percentage. While that ranks him below several other players at the position, the number that jumps out is Soriano's 19 outfield assists in the 2007 season (six more than second-ranked Jason Bay's 13 despite missing 40 games.) Still learning in the outfield Soriano figures to improve defensively in 2008.
Runners Up: Carl Crawford - Rays, Eric Byrnes - Diamondbacks
Center Field: Curtis Granderson - Detroit Tigers
With proven stars at the position like Andrew Jones, and young studs making highlight-reel plays every night like Aaron Rowand's famed broken-nose catch, no star has shined brighter in center than Tigers' youngster Curtis Granderson.
In 2007 alone, Granderson time and time again produced mind-boggling plays, saving runs and making top-10 lists like clockwork, none bigger than his robbery of Wily Mo Pena. Granderson's improvement made blue-chip prospect Cameron Maybin expendable in the Cabrera-Willis trade, as he figures to be a mainstay in Detroit's outfield for years to come.
Runners Up: Ichiro Suzuki - Mariners, Aaron Rowand - Phillies
Right Field: Jeff Francoeur - Atlanta Braves
While playing more innings in right than any of this counterparts in the 2007 season, Franceour accumulated just five errors on his way to a .986 fielding percentage.
Francouer's above-average speed allows him greater range than most bulky right fielders, while his 19 outfield assists led the Major Leagues for the season. With his performance in the field and at the plate, Francoeur has established himself as an above-average everyday player for the foreseeable future
Runners Up: Austin Kearns - Reds, Shane Victorino - Phillies
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