MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Catch of the day now a staple of White Sox diet

Hahn's offseason plan to improve defense is evident in early going

Catch of the day now a staple of White Sox diet

CHICAGO -- Want a little fix that can make your team a lot better?

Then don't add a corner outfielder. Take your center fielder and move him to a corner-outfield spot, importing a defensive upgrade to take over in center.

It's what the Giants are doing this year, with Angel Pagan moving to left field to accommodate Denard Span. The White Sox made that move as well, and early returns show they're a better team with Austin Jackson in center and Adam Eaton moving to right. Avisail Garcia, challenged defensively, is freed up to serve as the primary designated hitter.

The White Sox are playing better defensively, and that's a good thing. They haven't seen the offensive improvement they projected, yet they're off to a promising start. They're scored four runs or fewer in 10 of their first 13 games, but they were 5-5 in those games.

"We're playing a lot better,'' Eaton said. "You can tell it every night. Having Austin Jackson in center is nice. I take all my cues off him. It's the same way for us with Jimmy [Rollins] in the infield. He's a guy who has been there and done that, won the World Series and a lot of awards. It's nice to have him and all the newcomers.''

Eaton's sliding catch

Daniel Murphy tempted the White Sox last offseason. So did a lot of other available hitters, and it was no wonder why.

They knew they had to fix the lineup that was the least productive in the American League. But for general manager Rick Hahn, it wasn't as simple as importing the best hitters he could find.

Scoring more runs was only one thing that the White Sox needed to do. They also needed to catch the ball better, as they ranked 28th in the Majors in defensive efficiency last season. Improved fielding would make the runs they scored matter more often.

Rollins' falling catch

Early returns say Hahn has significantly improved the White Sox defense. With Todd Frazier at third base, Rollins at shortstop and Brett Lawrie at second base, the Sox went into games on Tuesday night ranked sixth in the Major Leagues in defensive efficiency, according to the Baseball Prospectus rankings.

Hahn eliminated Murphy from consideration because of his shortcomings in the field for the Mets. He wanted two-way players who can hit and field their position, and he's convinced he has them in place.

With the exception of the trade for Frazier, none of the moves captured headlines. It is fitting then that Frazier is the player who has been showing up in the defensive highlights.

Frazier's diving stop

But a look at the defensive runs saved of individual players shows that it's the outfield shift that is playing the biggest role in the team's play in the field.

Eaton, who was playing through a shoulder injury that required surgery after the season, generated a -14.0 DRS figure on FanGraphs last season, ranking 21st among 23 center-field qualifiers. Garcia was 16th out of 18 in right field at -11.

Cabrera makes catch falling down

This season, Eaton has generated a +6 DRS figure in the first two weeks of the season, leading right fielders. That has offset Jackson's -4, which the Sox expect to improve as he gets comfortable at U.S. Cellular Field.

Manager Robin Ventura believes Eaton is playing right field like a natural.

"I think he's better over there,'' Ventura said. "It seems like he gets better jumps on balls. He seems more comfortable. He's been great over there. That helps. Having Austin in center and Adam in right is a nice little combination. Adam has handled it well.''

Eaton says he's moved around in the outfield his entire life, the result of being left-handed and too short to play first base. He had played the outfield corners as much as center in the Minors with the D-backs, but he was put in center when he hit his way to the big leagues in 2012.

Eaton spent much of Spring Training as a designated hitter, allowing his left shoulder to heal. It has been strong in the early going. Both Eaton and White Sox left fielders rank in the top 10 among AL outfielders in the FanGraphs' metric rating outfield arms (which is led by the Indians' Rajai Davis).

Melky Cabrera, who has lost some weight since last season, is playing a strong left field. He's first in the AL in UZR/150 (41.4) and third with +2 DRS.

This is not the first time that the White Sox have improved under Ventura using this formula.

When Ventura replaced Ozzie Guillen in 2012, the Sox jumped from 29th to 11th in defensive efficiency. He and his then-bench coach, Mark Parent, increased the amount of infield practice and paid attention to details like defensive positioning. But they did something else, too.

They moved Alex Rios, the primary center fielder the previous season, to right field and played Alejandro De Aza in center. They also replaced a worn-out Juan Pierre with 23-year-old Dayan Viciedo in left field.

Guess what happened? Rios, who had generated -9 DRS as a center fielder in '11, was +7 in right field. De Aza and Viciedo were upgrades, if not Gold Glovers.

Ultimately, none of this was enough to make up for the lack of homegrown hitters.

But that team led the AL Central by three games on Sept. 18. Ventura would love to get a second chance to let Chris Sale and Jose Quintana write a different ending.

Fixing the defense is a nice step toward getting there.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.