How can the Nationals fix the top of their order in 2011?

If there was one issue that short-circuited the Nationals’ offense in 2010 - and threatens to bite them again in 2011 - it’s the inability of their top two hitters to get on base. Their leadoff hitters posted a .300 OBP in 2010, while their No. 2 hitters weren’t much better at .326.

We talked about this a little bit last week with Nyjer Morgan, who the Nationals badly need to rebound in 2011 after his .253/.319/.314 year in 2010. But the reality is, even if he does have a better year, the Nationals could still have on-base problems near the top of their lineup.

At the moment, they’ve probably got three legitimate candidates to hit second in their lineup: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina. The guess here is that Desmond will get the first crack at the job. He hit .326 in 46 games in the No. 2 spot last year, and posted a .359 on-base percentage in that time.

But if the Nationals learned anything from Morgan, it’s how unreliable a quarter of a season can be as a predictor of future results. If Desmond is hitting second all year, it stands to reason he’ll take a step forward, simply from seeing better pitches with Ryan Zimmerman hitting behind him. But he’ll also see all of his pitches from that spot, meaning pitchers will have more time to figure him out. And Desmond led all major league shortstops with a 20.8% strikeout rate, a figure he’d have to reduce drastically if he’s hitting in front of Zimmerman. His role would be much more about getting on base than driving in runs, and that would require Desmond to be more patient.

Bernadina or Espinosa could hit second, too, but both project to have more power than Desmond, and the Nationals will need them to fortify the back of their lineup. And neither is likely to draw many walks. Bernadina struck out almost three times as often as he walked last year, while Espinosa fanned twice as often as he walked in the minors, before laying 30 Ks against nine walks in 28 major league games last year.

With Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche effectively set to hit third, fourth and fifth, in some order, the Nationals are left hoping someone can turn into a catalyst behind Morgan at the top of the order. Desmond swung at 33.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year, which led pitchers to make him chase (they only threw in the strike zone to him 46.2 percent of the time). Those numbers should come down as he learns the strike zone. But if that process is slow, the Nationals could be in trouble - especially if Morgan struggles again.

In any case, the Nationals don’t appear to have a clear fix for one of their biggest offensive problems from last year. Like with their pitching rotation, they’ll largely be counting on the improvement to come from players who were on their 2010 roster.