How can Nats improve defensively in 2023?

Davey Martinez knew what he was getting into during the 2022 season, his fifth as manager of the Nationals. In the first full year of the Nats’ rebuild, he wouldn’t have the most talented roster in the major leagues and they wouldn’t win a lot of games. But he at least expected his players to give their best efforts and make fundamental plays every night.

The effort was always there. The same cannot be said about the fundamentals.

It was a roster filled with inexperienced players and journeyman veterans during a season in which development was the focus. Still, it seemed like the Nationals too often had difficulty with even the most basic plays, especially on defense and on the basepaths. Common signs of a rebuilding team.

The Nationals finished the season with a -39 defensive rating and -47 defensive runs saved as a team, both second-worst in the majors per FanGraphs. However, they did fare slightly better in ultimate zone rating, another widely used defensive metric, at -8.8, which ranked 21st in the majors.

So how can the Nats improve defensively in 2023? Aside from the obvious solutions of practicing in spring training, making routine plays, acquiring better defenders to fill out the roster and perhaps even pitching better, they could benefit simply by players playing in their proper positions for the majority of the season.

The most obvious example would be Luis García at second base and CJ Abrams at shortstop.

In the early part of the season, the Nationals were getting poor production at shortstop, one of the most important positions on the field. The combination of Ehire Adrianza, Alcides Escobar, Lucius Fox and Dee Strange-Gordon was not getting the job done.

García got the call from Triple-A Rochester on June 1 after Escobar landed on the 10-day injured list with a right hamstring strain. Up until that point, García had been mostly a second baseman in the major leagues. But the Nationals were hoping the 22-year-old would play shortstop every day for the long term.

His bat immediately played at the major league level. But that was never the question. The focus was on his glove and if he could be the Nats’ solution at short. In 59 games at shortstop, García posted a -7 defensive rating, -17 DRS and -6.6 UZR. He worked hard at it and showed flashes, but the end results started to prove he may be better suited at second base, where he mostly played during his first two major league stints in 2020 and 2021.

After Abrams was acquired in the blockbuster trade with the Padres and recalled to make his Nationals debut, there was no doubt who would be playing where: Abrams would take over at shortstop and García would slide over to second base.

The results were instantly better, with Abrams showing off his athletic ability and range at short and García seemingly more comfortable at second. In 43 games at shortstop, Abrams had a -3.3 defensive rating, -4 DRS and -0.3 UZR.

On the surface, those still aren’t great defensive metrics. But they’re infinitely better than García’s. Meanwhile in 33 games at second base, García had a 0.4 defensive rating, 4 DRS and 0.7 UZR, a substantial difference across the board.

Also in the infield, having Joey Meneses play first base instead of the outfield was an improvement. Meneses moved around a lot during his 10-year minor league career, playing first base base, third base and the corner outfield spots. He found his home at first this season, playing a majority of his games there for both Rochester and the Nationals.

But when Meneses was first recalled to help fill the roster spots left by Juan Soto and Josh Bell, he started in right field. The Nats got their replacement first baseman in Luke Voit while Nelson Cruz continued to be their designated hitter. They were maybe even still holding out hope Riley Adams could play some first base.

When Meneses got the chance to play first base more regularly, he put up better defensive metrics there (-2.2 defensive rating, -3 DRS, 0.6 UZR) than in right field (-3.9 defensive rating, -6 DRS, -3.2 UZR). And he showed he was better in the position on a daily basis than Voit.

Moving to the outfield, having Lane Thomas play as the everyday right fielder might be beneficial for him and Victor Robles, as the two split time in center for the first part of the season.

By the metrics we’ve been using so far, Thomas was in fact slightly better in his 56 games at center field than he was in his 73 games in left or 43 games in right. But the most stark difference in his defensive numbers was in his arm rating in right field, which was a 2.7 per FanGraphs. His arm ratings in center and left were -0.2 and -1.9, respectively.

Martinez mentioned late in the season that Thomas’ arm seemed to play better in right field, which was why the 27-year-old was playing there more often. The manager also mentioned multiple times throughout the season that he wanted to see Thomas get better going back toward the wall, and said in the season’s last couple of weeks that the outfielder seemed more comfortable playing off the right field wall.

With Thomas playing more consistently in right field, Robles could re-take everyday duties in center, where he led the team with 12 DRS and a 4.8 UZR. But defense hasn’t been the problem for Robles. It’s his bat that has kept him out of the lineup more often than not.

Those are just some examples of having players play certain positions throughout the season for the Nationals to improve defensively in 2023.

But keep in mind another factor: rule changes coming next year. Defensive shifts will be eliminated, with two infielders on either side of the second base standing with both feet on the dirt when the pitcher is on the rubber. Defenders with a lot of range, like Abrams, should still fare well. Defenders who have trouble going side to side, like García, might struggle. And then right fielders, like Thomas, will have to be good at going back and coming in on balls with no infielders allowed in shallow right field against left-handed hitters.

Overall, are any of these defensive numbers good? Aside from Robles, no. But small improvements here and there at certain spots could help the Nationals improve defensively next year.

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