If the Nationals field the Opening Day lineup on March 31 that most would expect on January 7 -- Ivan Rodriguez, Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Roger Bernadina, Nyjer Morgan and Jayson Werth -- it's questionable they'll be any better offensively than they were last year.
What should be fairly clear, though, is that they'll be better defensively.
The main focus of general manager Mike Rizzo and manager JIm Riggleman's philosophy has been to improve the athleticism and defensive acumen of a team that has either held or tied for the National League lead in errors the last three years. The hope was that a sturdier infield would dress up a mediocre pitch-to-contact staff, while a more athletic outfield would turn a few hits into outs. The moves they've made so far have all been with that end in mind, and in the three spots where things will look different this year, the Nationals should improve.
The Nationals' group of right fielders last year had a total Ultimate Zone Rating of 8.1 runs below replacement. Werth's UZR in right field last year was 2.9 runs below replacement, and his UZR in 2009 was 7.4 runs above replacement. If he has the same year he did in 2010, the Nationals will be 5.2 runs better.
Washington finally settled on a Bernadina-Michael Morse platoon in right field last year, and those two will move over to left, where the Nationals believe Bernadina can be better defensively than he was in right. The Nationals' left fielders had a -1.1 UZR last year, with Josh Willingham getting most of the time there. But in the 318 innings he played there, Bernadina had a 3.1 UZR. Projected over 150 games, he was 13.3 runs above replacement. Even if he ends up six runs above replacement, that should be enough for a net improvement, in spite of whatever dropoff the Nationals take from Morse, who was a -6.6 in right field last year and should be better suited for left.
Rick Ankiel, who should get a fair amount of time in the outfield this year, had a -0.5 UZR last year. That's fortunate for us, because while his role isn't quite determined yet, his defensive effect, based on last year, should be negligible. That makes for happy analysts.
And at first base, the switch from Adam Dunn to LaRoche should lead to a net gain defensively, too. Dunn had a -3.3 UZR last year; LaRoche's was 5.2. That's a 7.9 run improvement.
All told, if everything happens the same way it did last year, the Nationals would be 18.2 runs better defensively than they were last year. Now, there are myriad variables that come into this -- not the least of which is Morse and Bernadina switching positions -- but it's a rough idea of where they stand defensively.
That, of course begs the question: What are the Nationals sacrificing offensively to get the defensive improvement? We'll get into that in a later blog post.