In diagnosing the issues with the 2009 Twins, many people often point to the pitching staff. That's reasonable; the Twins ranked fourth-to-last in the American League with a 4.50 team ERA -- that includes an ugly 4.84 ERA for the starters. Given how promising the team's young rotation looked a year ago, this nearly across-the-board regression is obviously a rather large disappointment that shrouds this group's future in doubt. But, it is important to note that Twins' pitchers are not totally to blame for the drop-off in run prevention. These guys were not generally getting a lot of help from their defense.
The Twins ranked third-to-last in the majors in team UZR during the 2009 season -- only the abysmal Royals and Mets rated worse. The defensive metric -- widely considered to be one of the most accurate -- suggests that the Twins' defense cost them more than 36 runs over the course of the season. The Twins had been below-average defensively in 2008 as well, but that negative figure is more than double the mark from the previous season. The reasons for the plummet? There are plenty of culprits. Carlos Gomez played in center field less; Denard Span played there more. Jason Kubel started playing the outfield more often. Orlando Cabrera was a regular at shortstop for two months. Joe Crede couldn't stay in the lineup consistently. Alexi Casilla had a terrible year defensively.
The Twins have a long-standing reputation as being a strong defensive club, mainly because they don't commit many errors. But they haven't always lived up to that reputation, and they certainly didn't this year. If he wants to get better results from his pitching staff next year, Bill Smith would be wise to keep team defense in mind as he reconfigures his roster. Fortunately, strong defenders tend to be undervalued assets in free agency as well as in trades.
When the Mariners traded away J.J. Putz and a pair of other players in a blockbuster three-way deal last winter, few people viewed Franklin Gutierrez as the gaudy centerpiece of a hefty return package that also included Aaron Heilman, Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, Jason Vargas, Maikel Cleto and Ezequiel Carrera. However, Gutierrez was quietly one of the league's most valuable overall players this season, playing absolutely stellar defense in center field (20.9 UZR) while posting a solid 764 OPS with 18 homers, 75 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Gutierrez was no small part of the reason the Mariners led the majors in UZR, which itself was no small part of the reason they led the AL in team ERA.
It's tough to find players like Gutierrez who can be quality contributors on both sides, but certainly those are the guys Smith should be focused on getting into his lineup. At the very least, though, he should make sure the defense that lines up on Opening Day next season is one that the Twins' starters can count on to make plays behind them.