The teams projected to dominate defensively this year

February 29th, 2024

When we think about projecting ahead to the upcoming season, we usually think team win/loss records, or what individual pitchers and hitters may do. But defense is an important part of those projections too, even if it’s a little harder to model than pitching or hitting. After all: How can you estimate what a team might do for the upcoming season if you don’t include how it might catch the ball, especially in a post-shift world?

Fortunately for us, the best projections do exactly that. To find out, we’ll use the ZiPS projections for 2024 combined with FanGraphs’ manually curated depth charts, which provide an estimated playing time at each position and positionally adjust for difficulty, which is to say that it’s more valuable to be a good shortstop than it is to be a good first baseman or left fielder. Finally, we’ll take the proportion of a player’s time expected to be at DH and remove it from the projections, because while that might matter for a player’s overall value, it doesn’t do us much good when we’re only looking at fielding.

That gives us this top 10. Spoiler alert: Last year’s World Series teams each rated in the top three defensively, and they’re both projected to be in the top five again. Defense, it turns out, really does matter.

1. Guardians (+47 proj. defensive runs)

Unsurprisingly, the pitching-and-contact team that tries to get by without adequate power looks like it's going to be quite strong on defense – in no small part due to second baseman Andrés Giménez, who rated as the best defensive middle infielder in the American League last year, and outfielders Steven Kwan and Myles Straw, who have been among the best defenders on the grass over the last two seasons. Returning catcher Austin Hedges is elite defensively, even if the bat lags way behind, and young backstop Bo Naylor looks like he’ll be solid as well. There may even be some untapped upside, depending on how the shortstop competition plays out.

But the Guardians didn’t rate quite so well last year, coming in eighth in terms of turning batted balls into outs and 13th overall, including catchers. It’s not hard to explain why, and it has to do with players who aren’t part of the picture in 2024. Infielder Amed Rosario, first baseman Josh Bell, outfielder Oscar Gonzalez and catcher Mike Zunino all rated poorly at their positions defensively, which hurt the team’s overall rating. Only Gonzalez lasted the season in the organization, and he was lost on waivers to the Yankees in December. Having strong defenders is always a good idea, but giving less playing time to weak fielders works, too.

2. Cubs (+35)

Yes, this includes Cody Bellinger, and that helps. But he’s not the best or even second-best fielder on this club, not considering the elite middle-infield duo of shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner. (Each won a Gold Glove Award last year.) Those two give the Cubs the best defensive middle infield by a considerable margin, to the point that they’re two of the top five projected defenders for 2024. Good defense is more valuable at up-the-middle spots than it is at a corner, so having tremendous fielders there boosts the Cubs quite a bit, even if there’s a bit of a top-heavy feel to this defensive roster, with Seiya Suzuki, Christopher Morel and Patrick Wisdom usually not rating well.

This could move in either direction, however, depending on how some position battles shake out. Third base is something of a three-way competition between Wisdom, Morel and Nick Madrigal, who rated very well at the hot corner last year. At first base, Michael Busch is expected to get the first opportunity – and he’s far better regarded for his bat than his glove – but if Bellinger is required to step in there, it would likely open up center field time for young Pete Crow-Armstrong, who carried a reputation for tremendous defense through the Minors. The Cubs should be good on defense; the question is if they'll be great.

3. D-backs (+28)

Arizona has four outstanding defenders in first baseman Christian Walker (the best fielding first baseman around, even if he doesn’t have the reputation for it), young catcher Gabriel Moreno, center fielder Alek Thomas and corner outfielder Corbin Carroll, who makes up for his below-average throwing arm with excellent speed and range. New third baseman Eugenio Suárez is also coming off a strong defensive year with Seattle, so you can see why the core here is considered strong. Moreno, in particular, stands out in the projections as an elite blocker and thrower.

The question here – aside from how much outfield playing time Joc Pederson gets, as he’s a below-average fielder who should primarily be a DH – is about the middle infield. Second baseman Ketel Marte is adequate but not plus, while shortstop Geraldo Perdomo had inconsistent metrics in his first full season, though he’s well thought-of. If Perdomo can’t hit enough to keep the job, then top prospect Jordan Lawlar might step in, and he’s projected to play strong defense as well.

4. Rangers (+27, tie)

Any discussion of the fielding for the defending champs has to begin with catcher Jonah Heim, a Gold Glove winner who rated as one of the most elite defensive backstops in the game. He’s expected to do so again, as is Marcus Semien, who once again was rated as one of the best second basemen in the Majors, and center fielder Leody Taveras. What to watch for here is the progression of Texas’ younger players, as third baseman Josh Jung improved with the glove throughout his rookie season, and Evan Carter’s brief debut promised a strong glove over a full year. Fellow rookie Wyatt Langford isn’t quite as well-regarded with the glove, but he should be able to capably man a corner spot without being a detriment. In right, Adolis García’s speed and range have slipped a little, but he may have the deadliest throwing arm in the AL.

Where Texas really shines, however, is in its relative lack of weak spots. First baseman Nathaniel Lowe went from a liability to a Gold Glove winner last year, and shortstop Corey Seager is good enough to stay there, which is more of a compliment than it sounds. It’s possible that the only below-average fielder is backup catcher Andrew Knizner, and if that’s the only issue, then Texas is in good shape.

4. Rockies (+27, tie)

Colorado is a little more of a boom-or-bust team, in that it has some absolute superstars with the glove, but some weak spots as well. Two second-year players, outfielder Brenton Doyle and shortstop Ezequiel Tovar, are projected as two of the top 15 defenders in baseball in 2024 – though Doyle will have to hit considerably more to allow his glove to stick in the Majors all season – while veteran Ryan McMahon is well-regarded. Throw in backup catcher Jacob Stallings, who had long been a strong defender before a 2023 downturn, and the possibility that the strong-armed Nolan Jones improves his ability to collect the ball in his second year, and there’s a core of a very good defensive team here.

The only reason that they’re not higher is that absolutely no one here is average, meaning if they’re not great, they’re poor. The veteran duo of Kris Bryant and Charlie Blackmon each do not project well with the glove, though it’s likely that Blackmon is a DH more than he is an outfielder, while catcher Elias Díaz gives back much of his hitting value with his defense. This is a good defense that could be an excellent one, if some of the leaky spots were tightened.

6. Yankees (+24)

So, so much of this comes from the potential return to form of Jose Trevino, who won the 2022 AL Platinum Glove before missing much of 2023 due to injury. If he’s available and healthy, he’s the single most impactful defender on the team, though the addition of outfielder Trent Grisham from San Diego helps as well – depending on how much playing time he gets as a backup. The defensive metrics were somewhat mixed on Anthony Volpe’s rookie season, though he should be solid at minimum and possibly quite good. While Gleyber Torres’ reputation isn’t great from his poor days as a shortstop, he’s been a competent enough second baseman.

It helps, too, that DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge aren’t laggards with the glove, because Alex Verdugo is an average-to-below outfielder, and Juan Soto is considerably less than that. Not, of course, that the Yankees acquired Soto for his glove, but every inning he – or Verdugo, or even Judge – isn’t in the field is an inning that the far superior Grisham can be.

7. Blue Jays (+23)

It’s fair to point out that this hasn’t exactly been an exciting offseason for the Jays. Yet while the lineup may not be as strong as you’d like, the defense is, even without the still-unsigned Matt Chapman in the picture at third base. It’s just strong in a different way from the teams above, because it’s less about across-the-board depth and more about a few top-level fielders.

It helps, for example, to have re-signed Kevin Kiermaier, one of the greatest defensive outfielders to ever play the game, and Daulton Varsho has been the best-rated defensive outfielder over the last two seasons. Meanwhile, catcher Alejandro Kirk is probably a little underrated behind the dish, and newl signed Isiah Kiner-Falefa has rated very well at third base, which he may play a lot of if Chapman doesn’t return. That Big Four helps make up for the fact that Bo Bichette is more of a bat-first shortstop, and that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a below-average defender at first base. The key here might be right fielder George Springer, who is still projected as a plus fielder, despite the fact that at 34 years old, a speed decline is apparent.

8. Twins (+18)

Consider this one to have wide error bars, because there’s so much uncertainty in this projection. Catcher Christian Vázquez has long been considered to be an excellent backstop, but he clearly became second fiddle to Ryan Jeffers as 2023 progressed. Byron Buxton is one of the preeminent defensive outfielders of his generation, but he wasn’t healthy enough to play defense last year, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much he’ll get out there in 2024. Max Kepler, at least, is a reliably good defender, and one might hope that a healthier Carlos Correa would post defensive metrics more akin to his good years in Houston and not his just-OK years in Minnesota. A full year of Royce Lewis, if he’s healthy enough to do it, might help at third base, but that’s another huge if. There are so many ifs here.

9. White Sox (+17)

This is easily our favorite projection, because Chicago was straight up bad with the glove last year – ranked last in MLB, in fact – to the point that new GM Chris Getz said he was having difficulty convincing free-agent pitchers to sign with the team for fear of playing in front of that defense. We figured he’d improve the gloves, and he has, but we thought it might be “poor, but better.” Instead, it might actually be good?

If it is, it’s because the returning Luis Robert Jr. is an excellent defender, and new middle infielders Nicky Lopez and Paul DeJong always play strong defense, even if the bats might lag. Max Stassi didn’t play in 2023 for personal reasons, but he had for years been an excellent framer. There are still weak spots here – notably Andrew Benintendi in left and Andrew Vaughn at first – but as we said above, up-the-middle fielding is more valuable than corner fielding. Less time in the field given to Oscar Colás and Gavin Sheets should help, and veterans who had seen better days than they showed in 2023 like Tim Anderson and Yasmani Grandal have departed. It's a different roster now.

The White Sox don’t have to be, and won’t be, baseball’s best defensive team. They might be the most improved, though.

10. Orioles (+16)

For all of Baltimore’s success last year, its defense didn’t rate as notably strong, coming in 21st. So why the expected improvement this year? It’s partially due to the departure of veteran Adam Frazier, who did not rate well, but it’s also because the projection has seven different Orioles fielders as being above average, which basically means catcher Adley Rutschman, outfielder Cedric Mullins and all of those young non-first base infielders. There’s not really a true fielding star here, not in the same way that clubs above them have an elite outlier, but there’s a good deal of defensive depth all around the diamond.

Interesting other teams ...

Where are the Braves, who have a pair of elite defenders in catcher Sean Murphy and Michael Harris II? Eleventh, or still good, but not higher in part because Ronald Acuña Jr.’s defense lags via the metrics (as explained further here, with a chance for improvement) and newcomer Jarred Kelenic was below average in his time with Seattle. They’re tied with the Mets, who have the still-elite Francisco Lindor and newcomer Harrison Bader, but also have a lot of questions in right field and third base, as well as a below-average defender at first base.

Did the Red Sox and Reds, who each talked about improving bottom-five defenses, manage to do so? A little, for Boston (tied for 21st) and perhaps not really at all for Cincinnati (27th). Meanwhile, what caused the Royals (28th) to drop so far after last year’s strong showing? In part, that’s the projections being unsure how much to trust Bobby Witt Jr.’s turnaround from poor to strong (we’re quite bullish on him), and in part, that’s because of the expectation that more playing time goes to weaker fielders like Nelson Velázquez, Hunter Renfroe and MJ Melendez as compared to last year, while at 34, Salvador Perez’s numbers no longer match his reputation. We think Kansas City will be better than this, but it's something to watch.

The Phillies coming in at just 13th may not seem impressive, but it is: It’s a continuation of their improvement from late last season, and would be a step up after they finished 23rd and 25th over the last two years. The A's (29th) and Angels (30th) bring up the rear, at least by the projections -- which might be good news for hitters on the three other AL West clubs.