Can Nats expect improved defense this season?

We’ve spent much of the winter discussing the Nationals’ offensive strengths and weaknesses, asking if the changes they’ve made will make a positive difference this season. We looked at the pitching staff and wondered where the improvement will come from in 2024.

But what about the Nats’ defense? Should it be improved from last season? Could it be worse? It’s about time we tackled that subject as we move within a week of the start of spring training.

For those who don’t remember, the Nationals were not a good defensive team in 2023. They were 26th in the majors (tied with the Phillies) with minus-30 Defensive Runs Saved. They were charged with 90 errors, ranking in the bottom half of the league. Their “Defensive Efficiency” – the percentage of balls in play they converted into outs – was 68.2 percent, ranked 24th. Their catchers threw out only 14 basestealers, tied for second-fewest in the majors.

Which isn’t to say everything was bad in the field.

CJ Abrams made major strides at shortstop, and by season’s end he was both making all the routine plays as well as a number of non-routine plays, looking every bit like a keeper there.

Lane Thomas recorded 18 outfield assists, second-most in the majors and second-most in club history, trailing only Alfonso Soriano’s record 22 assists in 2006.

Dominic Smith and Jeimer Candelario were rock solid at the corner infield positions, with Candelario scooping up everything hit to him at third base and Smith bailing out his teammates by picking countless throws that weren’t perfectly on target.

Smith and Candelario, alas, are gone. In their place, for the moment, are Joey Meneses and Nick Senzel. Each faces a tall task to replicate his predecessor’s defensive prowess.

Meneses isn’t exactly known for his glove, and nobody’s going to confuse him for Smith in the field. But he’s not a butcher, either, at least not in the limited amount of time we’ve seen him. In 19 games at first base last season, he had zero DRS and was charged with zero errors. He was credited with nine assists, three of those on throws to second base.

Meneses may not be as good a first baseman as Smith, but he’s better than Josh Bell.

Senzel bounced around the field throughout his career in Cincinnati, perhaps to his detriment. He played 303 games in the outfield, 267 of those in center field, and struggled to the tune of minus-26 DRS. He played only 62 games at third base, his natural and preferred position, and has minus-1 DRS.

The Nats believe Senzel will benefit from staying in one spot all season, and he sounded downright giddy at the opportunity to play third base every day after he signed in December.

The 2024 outfield should be fascinating to watch throughout the season, because the names and faces are likely to change along the way. The Opening Day alignment figures to feature Thomas in right field, Victor Robles in center and Joey Gallo in left. If that comes to fruition, the Nationals will have an above-average arm at all three positions.

Gallo, for those who don’t know, is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner who threw out 14 runners in 2021 with the Rangers. In 581 career MLB games as an outfielder, he has 42 DRS.

Thomas, as we know, has a hose in right field. And he has improved on tracking down fly balls at the wall, previously a trouble spot for him.

The real question is Robles, who will be returning from a back injury that seemed to hinder him in center field when he played last season. If he’s healthy again – and if new outfield coach Gerardo Parra does a better job positioning him and his teammates – he has the potential to rediscover his former Gold Glove-caliber ability.

If Robles doesn’t come through, it could be only a matter of time before one of the organization’s top prospects supplants him. Both Dylan Crews and James Wood are considered quality defensive center fielders who can also play the corner positions. It’ll be fascinating to see who ends up where in the field, and how they ultimately perform at the highest level.

Then there’s the catching position, a source of much consternation last season. Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams had all kinds of trouble throwing out runners, a product both of the pitching staff’s slow deliveries to the plate as well as their own throwing mechanics. Ruiz also struggled at pitch framing and blocking.

The young catcher knew and acknowledged all this and insisted it would be his top priority over the winter. Catching instructor Henry Blanco had his work cut out for him during the offseason, and it will continue into spring training. Ruiz may have more value as a hitter, but he won’t survive long as a big-league catcher if he can’t hold his own behind the plate.

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