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

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 12:19 AM

Pitchers and catchers report five weeks from Monday. Nationals, don't forget your gloves.

Baseball is about to see the equivalent of a laboratory study of the value of defense. If gifted glove men are as valuable as General Manager Mike Rizzo thinks, the Nats might be one of the game's surprise teams in '11. The sport seldom sees a club so vastly improved. Rizzo has expelled every defender except Ryan Zimmerman from the hideous bunch he inherited.

Before you scoff, consider that last season, when Rizzo had only started his project to improve the Nats' run prevention, the team allowed 132 fewer runs. Just 28 teams have matched that since 1995. And such improvement usually coincides with big leaps in the standings. The Nats won "only" 10 more games because they scored 55 fewer runs.

However, if defense is aesthetically pleasing but the least important element of the sport - as most have believed until recent years - then the Nats may be a graceful Web-gem collection of 90-game losers next season.

The Nats' opening day lineup will probably have three burners across the outfield: Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth. An infield with Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche should be one of the game's rangiest. Ivan Rodriguez, once the best catchers in history, is still excellent. The bench, with Rick Ankiel, catcher Wilson Ramos and Alberto Gonzalez, can pick it, too.

Stat geeks, cross your fingers. If these Nats bomb out, if their less-than-mediocre rotation isn't helped significantly by a defense that has good-to-exceptional defenders at every position, then start incinerating your ultimate zone ratings.

The Nats better hope that the case for the defense wins the day, because the offseason jury returned its verdict Friday.

A franchise that stunned the sport with a $126 million signing of Werth, then wanted to back it up with the addition of one or two "top-of-the-rotation" starting pitchers, now has to face bad news: The door closed on its last chance to add an elite starter as the Cubs overwhelmed the Rays on Friday with a five-for-one trade for Matt Garza.

The playoff-hungry Cubs included their '10 minor league pitcher and player of the year as well as catching and shortstop prospects. It would've been like the Nats giving up pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, Espinosa, catcher Derek Norris and Bernadina. No way.

The Nats are now boxed in. After trying to spend big offseason money, and creating huge Werth obligations out to '17, they are apparently going to end up with a reduced payroll in '11. Now they'll probably add a utility infielder and perhaps a higher quality reliever than they'd previously intended. They have the cash. Feel free to hope for a trade for a Fausto Carmona (13-14, career ERA 4.43). But he's just another Jason Marquis.

The Nats will never again be charged with penury, but they've made little obvious progress this winter: free agents Werth and LaRoche in, but Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham out. That amounts to little change in offense; statistically, Werth is Dunn and LaRoche is Willingham. The Nats' good bullpen and poor rotation are basically the same. The bench may end up slightly better.

If you look primarily at hitting and pitching, as fans have for generations, then a 72-90 mark in '11 might be about right. That's the record that the Nats' run differential in 2010 would have predicted. However, that's not how Rizzo views it.

"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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