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Hunter Pence and the Astros Outfield Defense

Don't know if you noticed, but Hunter Pence was a close second to Ichiro in the third annual Fielding Bible Awards, which were announced Monday. It was a nice finish for Pence, who has worked hard to turn himself into a very capable right fielder. Since Michael Bourn also finished in the top five in center field, it gives the Astros two premier defenders patrolling the vast expanses at MMP.

Still, that leaves one very big hole in left. Here is a snapshot of the most interesting section of votes to me, the left fielders. Note that Carlos Lee got three votes from his mother, his agent and his horse. If you look at the top vote-getters, though, something very interesting stands out. The winner, Carl Crawford, spent the majority of his minor league games in center field. David DeJesus, Nyjer Morgan, Lance Nix, Juan Pierre and Chris Dickerson all played the majority of their games in center field. Why does this matter? Well, I'll tell you after the jump...

So, everyone knows Carlos Lee isn't the best fielder. He looks slow, sometimes takes bad angles and can look disinterested at times. However, it's interesting to note that Lee had his highest total of outfield assists since 2004 last season with nine. The problem with Lee isn't his instincts or his arm, it's his range.

There's a reason so many former center fielders topped the Fielding Bible list, and I would say it's the same reason why people decry Derek Jeter as a Gold Glove shortstop, even though he may make fewer errors than a Troy Tulowitzki. Center fielders just have more range than your average left fielder. They're (generally) faster and have experience taking better breaks on the ball. Ideally, they have a decent arm, but that's not really necessary. This all plays very well in left field, a position where teams are wont to dump guys who can't play at first. Is hitting really more important than outfield defense, though?

Way back in September, I saw a couple of posts from Joe Posnanski on his blog that got me thinking about this. This first one brought up the idea of team's thinking completely outside the box about things, like making the best defense possible, regardless of how they hit. Would the runs you save equal the runs you give up? This follow-up post talks about whether there SHOULD be a separate Gold Glove for left fielders. Is it an important enough position to reward the best fielder there, or is it a hotbed of guys who couldn't hack it somewhere else?

I saved both of these posts, because it immediately made me think of the Astros minor league teams. For instance, the Express would routinely trot out an outfield with one of the best fielders in the minors, Yordanny Ramirez, and two players who have been center fielders in the past (Brian Bogusevic and Reggie Abercrombie). The same went for Corpus, where Collin DeLome, Josh Flores and Mitch Einertson all shared the outfield together (before Flores got hurt again) and all had played center at times in the past. Add to that another talented outfield in Lancaster of J.B. Shuck, Jon Gaston and T.J. Steele who could all play center. That's nine athletic players the Astros can and did move around all three outfield spots this season. Is the organization's philosophy changing? I think it has under Ed Wade and Bobby Heck.

It seems that the Astros will have more than enough players to fill the hole once Lee departs for greener pastures (in however many years that will take). Will it make them better as a team? Certainly Brian Bogusevic isn't the hitter Lee is, but he has a little pop, some speed on the bases and has a great arm in the outfield. Same goes for Collin DeLome, who's maybe not as athletic as Bogey, but definitely has more home-run potential. Either of these guys could start next season and probably be an upgrade over the sure-and-steady bat of Lee.

Whether this philosophy will work is another story, but for now, it looks like the Astros could have a potentially Gold Glove-caliber outfield in a couple of years. Now, if we can just do something about that infield...