"There are so many variables that come into play with defense -- that's why it's the most subjective part of the game to evaluate," one American League manager said. "And with all the significant player movement this year, it's harder than ever to project who's going to be good and who's not."
It's different gems for different appraisers when it comes to defense. Some insiders attach higher value to speed and range than to making all the routine plays, while others say sound defenses are fundamentally superior based on the comfort they provide pitchers -- and managers.
"I'll take the guy who makes the routine play every time over the guy who makes the spectacular play and then kicks the easy one," one American League coach said. "For me, fielding percentage is the best way to judge a defense."
By that line of reasoning, the reigning National League-champion Rockies would have to rank at the top of the heap. The Rocks established an all-time record for fielding percentage at .98925 in 2007, eclipsing by a thread -- .00016 -- the standard set in '06 by the Red Sox.
On the other glove hand, if you favor "The Fielding Bible," authored by John Dewan, you can't be too crazy about the Rockies or the team from Boston that swept them in the World Series.
Neither the Rocks nor the Sox made the top half of defensive teams in 2007, according to the Bible's computer data. Colorado came in 17th, three spots ahead of Boston.
The Blue Jays, Mets, Braves, Royals and Diamondbacks were one through five, according to Dewan's calculations. But major personnel changes figure to impact the Jays and Braves.
Among those who have changed addresses are seven-time Gold Glove outfielder Torii Hunter, whose absence hurts the Twins while significantly enhancing the Angels outfield. Gary Matthews Jr. moves to either side of Hunter, giving manager Mike Sciosica two quality center fielders in the same outfield.
Shipping Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox for Jon Garland, the Angels are rolling the dice that athletic Erick Aybar and steady Maicer Izturis can combine to ease the loss.
The White Sox, meanwhile, could jump dramatically with Cabrera and a healthy Joe Crede on the left side of the infield. They were 28th in the Fielding Bible, with only the Marlins and Devil Rays behind them.
Another Gold Glover changing residence is Aaron Rowand. The Phillies' loss is the Giants' sure-handed gain.
Consulting with a variety of insiders, MLB.com produced the five premier defensive units heading into 2008. Keep in mind, this list, like the standings in the National League West, could change from day to day hinging on how reconfigured units mesh and how many key injuries surface.
1. New York Mets: Johan Santana, whose glove is a matching accessory to his golden arm, will enjoy watching his new teammates pick it. Jose Reyes is the game's premier defensive infielder in the view of advance scouts participating in MLB.com's survey, and his partner on the left side, Gold Glover David Wright, also is first-rate. Ryan Church enhances an outfield that features Gold Glover Carlos Beltran and arguably the game's best all-purpose sub in Endy Chavez. There are no serious chinks in manager Willie Randolph's defensive armor.
2. Toronto Blue Jays: If former Cardinals David Eckstein and Scott Rolen are close to prime form on the left side of the infield, this once again is a superb unit. It is highlighted by an outfield, anchored by Vernon Wells in center, that could be the game's finest threesome. Aaron Hill challenges Orlando Hudson as the top second baseman in the sport.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks Superior up the middle -- Hudson is all-universe, Stephen Drew is solid at shortstop, center fielder Chris Young erases doubles and triples, and Chris Snyder is emerging as one of the NL's respected receivers. With madcap Eric Byrnes flying around in left and gifted Justin Upton in right, and with Jeff Salazar serving as Arizona's answer to Endy Chavez, the outfield is right there with Toronto's.
4. Colorado Rockies What we have here is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Troy Tulowitzki already might be the game's best shortstop, and Todd Helton is always Gold Glove-caliber at first. But when you get past those two, you have to search for an elite defender. What the Rockies do is catch the ball and throw it to the right base, with incredible efficiency. There is merit in this, even if they don't dazzle you with stabs in gaps or diving stops in the hole -- other than the big kid at shortstop, Tulo, who is as good as it gets.
5. Kansas City Royals They don't get much attention, but these guys can put on a leather display as sizzling as any. The left side of the infield -- Alex Gordon and Tony Pena -- is superior, and so is Ross Gload at first. Jose Guillen adds a spectacular arm in right, moving assists magnet Mark Teahen to left in a solid outfield, and the catching (John Buck and Miguel Olivo) is above standard.
Please understand that it is difficult to exclude the Mariners, with magical Ichiro Suzuki in center and Yuniesky Betancourt at short, and the Angels, with Hunter and Matthews and the vastly underrated Casey Kotchman at first. The Red Sox, like the Rockies, just don't beat themselves. The Indians, led by Gold Glove center fielder Grady Sizemore, have quality up the middle, and the Tigers could reach top-five level if their four new parts (Edgar Renteria at short, Miguel Cabrera at third, Jacque Jones in left field and Carlos Guillen at first) blend into a compatible unit.
The Dodgers have a top-five outfield with Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre and Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp, and catcher Russell Martin is the new catching standard. The two Pennsylvania outfits have high-caliber infields. The Giants have other issues, but the leather also is smooth -- and that will not change with Rowand joining ageless Omar Vizquel and Co.
Defense might not win championships, but it certainly helps. While home runs dominate the highlight shows, the game offers nothing more appealing than a game-changing catch in a gap or a perfectly turned double play.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less