Changes in a new year

Well, hey there, folks. I got back from my trip to Europe just in time to ring in 2014 in style, and we’ve now got a brand new calendar to kick off with less than six weeks separating us from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training.

It’ll be here before we know it, I’m sure.

Hope everyone had a great holiday season as well as a happy and safe New Years. Thanks to Byron Kerr and Pete Kerzel for picking up the slack for me while I was on my trip, which was fantastic. I had a blast, but after 10 jam-packed days of travel, I’m excited to be home.

Now that 2013 is behind us and 2014 has begun, I figured I’d pick out a few areas that the Nationals should hope to improve this year. Baseball new year’s resolutions, if you will. (But not new year’s revolutions. Those are far different.)

Here are a few things that Matt Williams should hope for in 2014:

1. A higher team on-base percentage

You look at the overall team-by-team numbers from 2013, and you see that the Nationals ranked 18th in the majors with a .313 on-base percentage. Not good, certainly, but not awful. You look back to the game-by-game numbers, however, and you see just how bad of a job the Nats did at reaching base through the first two thirds of the season. Entering their game against the Phillies on Aug. 9, game No. 115 on the schedule, the Nats had a .299 on-base percentage. That obviously was the major factor in the team averaging just 3.67 runs per game during that span.

They proceeded to post a .343 OBP the rest of the way, putting themselves back on the fringe of the postseason chase and saving themselves from truly embarrassing season-long numbers. But Williams has to hope that he sees much more grind-it-out at-bats, more walks, more baserunners than Davey Johnson saw through the first four-plus months of the 2013 season.

2. Better offensive efficiency

Getting more runners on base obviously factors into the number of runs scored, but even when the Nats put guys on the bags in 2013, they had trouble getting them in. The Nats scored three or fewer runs in a whopping 85 games last season and went 18-67 in those games. They score two or fewer in 65 games and won just eight of those contests.

The Nats seemingly had trouble adjusting their approach with runners on third and less than two outs. They seemingly didn’t focus on moving runners over or taking a ball the other way with a guy in scoring position. That needs to change in 2014.

3. Improved defensive numbers

Teams can certainly make the playoffs if they have a subpar defensive unit. The Dodgers, for example, had a .982 fielding percentage in 2013, same as the Nationals, won the National League West and made it to the National League Championship Series. But such poor defensive numbers put pressure on your offense and pitching staff, and the Nationals would rather not go through those issues again this year.

They ranked 24th in fielding percentage in 2013, made a whopping 107 errors (tied for seventh-most in the majors) and threw out just 17.4 percent of attempted base-stealers, last among the 30 big league teams. The good news here is that the Nats improved defensively as the season went on, and Williams has talked about wanting to see the Nats carry that defensive play into 2014.

4. The 2012 Adam LaRoche

In 2012, LaRoche posted a .853 OPS, slugged a career-high 33 home runs, finished sixth in the NL MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. In 2013, LaRoche posted a .735 OPS, hit 20 homers, had trouble getting his average a good bit above the Mendoza line and saw his defensive play drop. Simply put, the Nats have to hope that LaRoche gets a handle on his weight loss issues and gets back to the guy they know he can be.

5. Good health with Harper and Werth

When healthy, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth both showed they can be stellar middle-of-the-order forces. Harper hit .344/.430/.720 with nine homers in 26 games before running into the wall in Atlanta on April 30 and Werth hit .351/.442/.574 over the final two months of the season. Dynamite numbers from both. But between them, Harper and Werth missed 77 games in 2013. Harper wasn’t the same guy after twice running into walls, and Werth missed a chunk of time dealing with a lingering hamstring issue.

The Nats added Nate McLouth as their fourth outfielder this offseason, and Williams says he plans to play McLouth a good bit, giving Harper and Werth a rest and allowing them to stay fresh through the course of the season. Werth will turn 35 in May, however, and Harper’s all-out playing style can lead to various bumps and bruises. The Nats have to hope those two can stay healthy and in the lineup, because while McLouth is a nice guy to have on your roster, he’s not Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth.

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