There is a reason why the Rays make it further than just about anyone thinks they will. When analysts look at the teams, they often look at offense and pitching. Defense rarely gets considered, and it should. The Rays' position players made their pitchers considerably better. So, a staff that doesn't look dominant suddenly becomes dominant.
Furthermore, they didn't have a single Gold Glove performer. Instead, they had a number of solid performers that added together to give them the best fielding team in baseball. The funny thing is that it really wasn't even particularly close.
DER: .724 (1st)
RA: 614 (6th)
FLD%: .988 (1st)
Baseball Reference: +36 runs (3rd)
Fangraphs: +53.7 runs (2nd)
Fielding Bible: +77 runs (1st)
Baseball Prospectus: +15.2 runs (7th)
Composite Runs: +45.5 runs
In an earlier piece, I described the weathering process. It is a process that geologists talk about in great length. Essentially, over time, weather conditions (wind, rain) combine to break rock down into sediment. The Rays use the same method in their fielding. None of their fielders bowl you over as tremendous, but all of them are at least solid.
When you add it all up, you come away impressed. So, like with weathering, when you look at the total result, you come away impressed. The cold, hard reality is that this is the same feeling you have when looking at all of their phases of play. Andrew Friedman understands that depth is the way to get through the long and grueling regular season.
It's a hard choice in Tampa Bay, but the nod goes to Evan Longoria. Longoria is the closest thing the Rays have to a Gold Glove performer. Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton are excellent choices as well, but Longoria gets the nod because he is consistently among the best defenders at third base.
Matt Joyce is an unfortunate choice here as well. He doesn't register as a bad fielder, but on the best fielding team in baseball you have to find someone. He registered as below average on a team with very good fielders, so he has to be the choice.
There are constant rumors of deals to shake payroll, and this year, B.J. Upton's name keeps coming up. If Upton moves, then Desmond Jennings will shift to center and the Rays will have a hole in left again. Sam Fuld filled in capably last season, but he hardly seems like a full time solution in left field.
Andrew Friedman won my general manager battle because he is able to make changes on the fly. He should be able to do it again. It's hard to stay on top in any competition, but the Rays should be among the favorites to be the fielding champion again in 2012.