Nats defense is offensive no more

Nats defense is offensive no more
January 31, 2011, 3:51 pm
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Monday, January 31, 2011, 10:50 a.m.

By Mark ZuckermanCSNwashington.com

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It's been a recurring problem for five years now, one that has persisted through two managerial changes, one GM switch and plenty of roster turnover.

At last, though, the Washington Nationals believe they have overcome the defensive woes that have hampered them practically since they arrived in town.

A calculated attempt this winter to rid themselves of poor-fielding players in exchange for some more known for slick glove work leaves the Nationals with a group club officials believe could be their best defensive team since 2005.

During that inaugural season in the District, the Nationals committed only 92 errors (eighth-best in baseball) while posting a .985 fielding percentage that was only one point behind the sport's best. Since then, they've been abysmal in the field, never ranking better than 24th in errors while ranking last or second-to-last four times.

Advanced metrics such as Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures a player's ability (or inability) to reach balls hit into his general vicinity, suggest the Nationals have been better in the field than the traditional stats say. But even in that department, they've typically ranked in the bottom half of the league over the last five years.

So while overhauling his roster this winter, general manager Mike Rizzo made a point to attempt to upgrade defensively anywhere he could.

Adam Dunn, one of the best sluggers in the game but also one of the poorest defensive first basemen around, was allowed to walk away as a free agent and sign with the Chicago White Sox for four years and 56 million. In his place, the Nationals signed Adam LaRoche, whose .995 fielding percentage ranks fifth among all qualifying first basemen since 2004.

Josh Willingham, who had developed into a reliable (though hardly spectacular) left fielder, was traded to the Oakland Athletics. Jayson Werth, whose 16.9 UZR over the last three seasons ranks fourth among all qualifying right fielders, was targeted as the Nationals' top offseason acquisition and landed a mammoth 126 million contract. That signing allows the Nationals to move Roger Bernadina to left field (his best position, team officials believe).

Danny Espinosa, who dazzled defensively during his September call-up, will be the everyday second baseman unless he does something to lose the job. Club officials believe the rookie (who played mostly shortstop in the minors) could already be among the best second basemen in baseball.

The Nationals are equally as excited about Wilson Ramos, who figures to split catching duties with veteran Ivan Rodriguez to start the season. Ramos, who posted big offensive numbers in Venezuela this winter, has one of the sport's stronger arms, leading team execs to believe he can rank among the best catchers in baseball with a caught-stealing rate near 50 percent.

Ryan Zimmerman remains among the best third basemen in the game. Ian Desmond led the majors with 34 errors as a rookie, but the Nationals believe that number will diminish greatly in his second full season, helped in part by LaRoche's ability to scoop up bad throws. And Nyjer Morgan, despite some shaky play early last season, remains one of the better center fielders in the sport.

Put that all together, and the Nationals believe they have transformed themselves from one of baseball's worst defensive squads to one of its best. That, the club hopes, will help offset a pitching staff sorely lacking a No. 1 starter while Stephen Strasburg recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Improved defense alone may not be enough to catapult them into contention. But cleaner play in the field should help prevent more runs from scoring, keep the Nationals in more games and perhaps produce a few more wins in 2011.

Mark Zuckerman covers the Nationals full-time for CSNwashington.com. He also blogs about the team at natsinsider.com.