Defensively speaking, where do Nats rank in NL East?

Defense is the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball statistics, never garnering the respect it deserves. Chicks dig the longball, people oooh and ahhh over Web Gems on ESPN, but what about the workaholic day-to-day types who turn hard-hit ground balls and fly balls to the gaps into outs, the first baseman whose steady glovework saves his infielders from errors and the catcher whose ability to block pitches in the dirt prevents runners from advancing or scoring?

The little things, unfortunately, don't always show up in the statistical recapitulations. They are obscured behind homers and RBIs, hits and runs, strikeouts and saves. But defense has just as much to do with why a team wins or loses as any metrics, simple or advanced.

Over at ESPN.com's Sweet Spot, David Schoenfield has a team-by-team look at defenses in the National League that's worth a read as you figure out how to properly celebrate the arrival of 2014 and then head home before playing dodge-a-drunk on the highways.

Before delving into Schoenfield's recap, I'd have said that the Nationals pretty much hold their own defensively in the NL. Last year's first-half defensive issues aside, I think the Nats have a good core of strong defenders, particularly with Adam LaRoche at first base, Ian Desmond at shortstop, Denard Span in center field and Bryce Harper in left field.

Mind you, there's room for improvement. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has to prove his surgically repaired shoulder is fully recovered, and took steps in that process during the final third of last season. Wilson Ramos has improved behind the plate and does a better job at blocking balls; he doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but he did catch 29 percent of attempted base thieves in 2013. Ramos just has to stay healthy. And Harper is everything a manager could want in an outfielder: young, strong, quick, good instincts. He just has to avoid crashing into walls, and age and experience should cure him of that.

Given that Anthony Rendon is still learning the footwork and intricacies of second base, there's room for improvement up the middle, which is the hallmark of playoff-caliber teams. But with Ramos, Desmond, Span and a bunch of pitchers who can field their positions well, the Nationals are, well, well-positioned. And don't discount the addition of a former Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth as a fourth outfielder.

Schoenfield points to the addition of right-hander Doug Fister via trade as a possible boon for the Nats. Fister's .964 career fielding percentage is nothing fancy, but he's a groundball machine and should benefit from savvy glovework he didn't have behind him in Detroit, with converted first baseman Miguel Cabrera manning third and not-exactly-mobile Prince Fielder at first putting too much range pressure on second baseman Omar Infante and shorstop Jhonny Peralta.

Given the improved defense he'll work with and the move from the American League to the National League (where there's one less hitter and a usually weak-hitting pitcher to work around), Schoenfield even counts Fister as an early NL Cy Young Award candidate.

But what about the rest of the NL East? How does the division compare to the Nationals?

The Braves will rue letting Brian McCann walk as a free agent, because neither Evan Gattis nor Gerald Laird can match his defense and leadership. The Phillies are old and getting older - Ryan Howard has no range left, assuming he returns from injury, and infieldmates Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are heading in the same direction. The Marlins added two corner infielders - first baseman Garrett Jones from the Pirates and third baseman Casey McGehee - and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia who are no better than average, and probably a little worse. The Mets could have three center fielders patrolling the outfield, which will help their flyball pitchers, but lots of question marks elsewhere.

All in all, the Nationals didn't lose anyone on defense and have potentially healthy Zimmerman and Harper ready to contribute at pre-2013 levels. If Ramos and Rendon continue to improve, they could be the class of the NL East with the gloves.

Where do you rank the Nationals in their division, and what player will make the biggest breakthrough defensively?

Note: From all of us at MASNsports.com, it's been a great 2013. We've enjoyed keeping you apprised of all things Nationals, and hope bigger and better things lie ahead in the new year. A joyous and prosperous 2014 to all, with our thanks for reading and contributing to our little corner of cyberspace.

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