Pitching and defense improved, but Nationals still need more bats

Now that we’re past the first few days of the offseason, we’re going to spend a little time this week taking a look back at the 2011 season - where the Nationals improved, and where their plan to build the team still needs some work.

There was plenty of talk last offseason about how the Nationals were going to get better through run prevention - by fortifying their pitching staff and putting a defense behind their starters that could swallow up most of the balls put in play. And the numbers would clearly show the Nationals were better defensively in 2011 than they were in 2010. But it’s worth asking whether the course correction failed to solve - or won’t be able to solve - another problem.

The 2010 Nationals were an anemic defensive ballclub, making 127 errors to lead the National League for the third year in a row. By trading Josh Willingham and letting Adam Dunn walk in free agency, general manager Mike Rizzo sacrificed two of his biggest power threats to design a more athletic team. He added Adam LaRoche at first base, signed Rick Ankiel to get some playing time in the outfield and spent $126 million on Jayson Werth, who’d played solid defense in Philadelphia in addition to putting up dynamic power numbers. Danny Espinosa also took over for a rotating cast of aging veterans at second base, and Ian Desmond improved defensively after a rocky first year at shortstop.

In the end, the net result on defense was far better than what the Nationals had in 2010. They cut their error total by 23, and raised their Defensive Efficiency rating - Baseball Prospectus’ refreshingly simple metric of how many balls in play a defense turns into outs - by 100 points, jumping from 20th to 12th in baseball.

But for all the talk about defense, it’s possible the Nationals will start an outfield at some point next year of Michael Morse, Werth and Bryce Harper. That’s so toolsy, it looks like Jim Bowden would have built it. And the thing that would put all three of those outfielders in the lineup is the thing the Nationals still need to fix the most: their offense.

They scored 12 fewer runs in 2011 than they did in 2010, struggling even more at the top of the lineup than they did last year. Their leadoff hitters got on base at an anemic .285 clip, and as much as it looked like Nyjer Morgan had worn out his welcome in Washington, the Nationals never really found a better alternative at the top of their lineup.

In many cases, the Nationals are putting better two-way players on the field than they have in the past; Espinosa led the team in Wins Above Replacement, hitting 21 homers while showing great athleticism at second base, and Wilson Ramos showed the potential to be a solid defensive catcher in addition to a lineup mainstay. But the outfield is the most interesting thing to look at here, because in some ways, the Nationals have dialed back the rangy look they were shooting for at the beginning of this year.

Morse probably won’t be any better than an average defensive player in left, but he’ll be in the lineup because his bat is too good to keep out of it. There’s a chance he’ll end up back at first base at some point - particularly if LaRoche can’t come back from surgery or the Nationals add a true center fielder and need to break a logjam when Harper arrives. The lesson the Nationals ultimately learned in 2011 is that no matter how good their defense is, they’ll need to acquire more legitimate run producers to get better.

They got to 80 wins this year largely because their pitching-and-defense approach worked. To get better, they’ll have to click in all three phases of the game, and as Morse demonstrated, a good glove is only valuable if it’s paired with a big enough bat to secure a lead.