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Washington Nationals bet better defense will pad their win total in 2011

"This new way of doing things should show results," he said this week. "Sabermetrically, we're about equal in run production. But our run prevention should be way up."

Every Rizzo move interlocks with his others. Even adding Ankiel gives the Nats a fourth man that played at least some center field last year. (Not to be a skeptic, but who's going to catch the 151 gopher balls that landed in the seats last season?)

LaRoche, in Rizzo's mind, adds three dimensions to defense. He averages just six errors a year, compared with Dunn's 13 last year. In an almost identical number of innings at first base, he had 29 more assists than Dunn, perhaps a rough guess at how many more groundballs he might reach. The wild left side of the Nats' infield had a gruesome 57 errors last year. The whole Yankees team had just 69; the Reds and Padres just 72! How many crazy throws can LaRoche save? How many will his calming influence prevent?

It's hard to quantify the impact of improved defense. But it's not impossible to guess. The Nats went from 143 errors in '09 to 127 in '10. The major league average is 101. This year's team, with its new talent and no "Dunn missed it" excuses, should not be worse than average. In fact, that's a low hurdle. In his 25 games at second base in September, Espinoza fielded 1.000. He may be the biggest hidden upgrade of all.

Just an MLB-average number of unearned runs would save the Nats 27 runs from last year. Since every nine runs you save is worth a win (trust me), that's worth three wins.

Is the team's improved range worth another three wins? More than that? Ah, that's where the debate starts to rage, whether you're a general manager or a fan. And it's where I stop pontificating and expect to get far more pleasure by just observing.

Is team-wide defensive synergy a reality or a myth? What is the value of a fundamentally sound club that takes pride in almost never making a mistake? In other words, what is the value of a team that is the opposite of the slipshod Nats of recent years?

Some will say that the Nats won't really be worthy of their attention until 2012, when, presumably, Stephen Strasburg returns, Bryce Harper may reach the majors and, perhaps, the Lerners will be more successful at spending their offseason money.

But this season could be fascinating, too. I didn't say would. Just could. If these Nats can play .500 baseball with, at best, an average offense, a nice bullpen and a rotation picked from Livan Hernandez, Zimmermann, John Lannan, Marquis, Yunesky Maya and Ross Detwiler, then I'll join the Religion of Defense. My baseball belief system will shift. No more Doubting Thomas.

I just hope the neighbors don't mind a 10-foot tall shrine to a glove.

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