Over the weekend at FanFest, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones made his thoughts known about the state of the club's outfield defense. Although he may have made some waves with the bluntness of his comments, he's also just about 100 percent correct about the defensive quality of an outfield that in addition to Jones looks to feature some combination of Mark Trumbo, Hyun Soo Kim, Seth Smith and Joey Rickard -- none considered a strong fielder.
"It's going to be hard," Jones said. "These guys aren't necessarily known for their defense. We don't have a strikeout pitching staff, so our defense is used quite a bit. You see how our infield defense is unbelievable. We're still competitive in the outfield, but we just need to get a little bit more athletic out there, in my point of view. I've been out there for a while. I've seen the changes. Those are just a little bit of my ideas."
Jones later added that he was "not saying that Trumbo and Smith aren't athletic, they're very good athletes, but they're not top-of-the-line defensive players first," and it would be difficult to argue with any of that. Trumbo was brought back because he led baseball with 47 homers last season, and Smith is one of the best platoon hitters in the game. They have their strengths, but defense isn't atop the list.
Regardless of how closely Jones looks at contemporary defensive data, the numbers back up his opinion. In 2016, Baltimore's outfield, with Nolan Reimold instead of Smith, ranked last in Defensive Runs Saved (-51 runs) and last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-37). Though those are admittedly imperfect metrics, they back up the eye test, and it's hard to talk around being last in both.
So if everyone agrees the O's should improve their outfield defense, what can they do at this late date in the offseason?
Improve their defensive positioning
This is right from Dan Duquette, executive vice president of baseball operations, who said, "I think there's some things that we can do to make our outfield defense better [without adding players]," and changing positioning can be part of that.
We know that in 2016, the Cubs movedWilliam Fowler deeper to great effect; we know the Pirates brought Andrew McCutchen in shallower, and it backfired. This doesn't simply mean "deeper is better," as all situations are different, though since Jones is notoriously a shallow center fielder, that's where the mind immediately goes.
That said, Jones wasn't hurt by balls going over his head nearly as much as you might think. There's not an obvious danger spot in the data that stands out so much as there is a clear lack of range and speed from the fielders involved. Still, Orioles fans are often griping about the team's supposed preference to position corner outfielders in the power alleys rather than near the lines.
We don't have a perfect way to quantify that -- yet. But we can do a quick cherry-pick of a comparison by looking at the positioning of 2016's two best outfield defenses -- Boston and Kansas City -- and it does seem clear that with corner outfielders pinched in and Jones shallow, O's outfielders are starting from different places than those on the other two clubs. Only five teams allowed more hits to the extreme part of left field down the line (defined as more than 30 degrees, where 45 is the line) in 2016.
Gif: Outfield start positions for Royals, Red Sox, Orioles
Add a capable defender
"I don't necessarily buy that idea," Jones said in response to the idea of changing positioning, adding, "I would say just get more athletic guys."
Fair enough. A good outfielder, preferably a righty who can play more than one spot, would not only add skill, but could push Trumbo, a first baseman miscast as an outfielder, into a time share at first base/designated hitter with Chris Davis. (Yes, that would push young hitters Christian Walker and Trey Mancini back to Triple-A. No, it's not a problem; neither one managed even an .800 OPS in the Minors last year. The same goes for righty Rickard, below average on both sides of the ball in the bigs before getting injured, and unknown Rule 5 Draft picks Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander.)
The O's have reportedly kept in contact with free agent Michael Bourn, who was acquired late last season, but as a 34-year-old lefty bat who is a below-average hitter, he's not an ideal fit.
One interesting free-agent option would have been Desmond Jennings, though he's reportedly going to sgn with the Reds. That might mean that the best free-agent option left is Franklin Gutierrez, who was once arguably the game's best defensive center fielder, now reinvented as a slugging righty backup in the corners, albeit no longer the defender he once was.
If you're looking at trades, you'd have to buy high on Adam Duvall (34 homers, +14 DRS), who's basically a better-fielding version of Trumbo; see about such decent-fielding righty hitters as Scott Van Slyke, Matthew Szczur or Tommy Pham; or try to grab a light-hitting good glove, perhaps Juan Lagares or Jake Marisnick. All seem less likely than signing a free agent or sticking with Rickard.
Move Jones to a corner
We'll admit that this isn't going to happen for Opening Day, in part because the Orioles don't have a better option in center field right now. Yet although Jones was correct in his assessment of his teammates, he himself was ranked 28th in DRS among 32 center fielders who had played 500 innings, and 29th in UZR/150. Although those metrics aren't infallible, Jones also posted his lowest slugging percentage since 2008 and stole only two bases after years of being a lock for double digits. If not conclusive, the numbers are least add circumstantial evidence to the idea that he's no longer one of the better defenders in the game.
If the Pirates can discuss moving McCutchen to a corner, so can the O's regarding Jones. It won't happen now. It probably won't happen during the season. But outfield defense is a group effort in Baltimore. Bringing back Trumbo didn't do much to fix the issue. At some point soon, something's going to have to change.