Looking for a theme in Nats coaching staff changes

It’s not uncommon for a veteran manager to make changes to his coaching staff. It is somewhat uncommon, though, for a veteran manager to make changes to his coaching staff after he was just given his own contract extension near the end of a season most consider to have been more successful than the previous one.

When word got out last month the Nationals weren’t bringing back four of the eight coaches from Davey Martinez’s staff for next season, it raised at least a few eyebrows. But it also felt appropriate to withhold judgment until those positions were filled, at which point everyone could better understand what was intended all along.

Well, now we know what the full 2024 staff will look like. Out is longtime bench coach Tim Bogar, replaced by former White Sox bench coach (and interim manager) Miguel Cairo. Out is third base coach Gary DiSarcina, replaced from within by run prevention coordinator Ricky Gutierrez. Out is first base coach Eric Young Jr., replaced from within by fan favorite and briefly special assistant to the general manager Gerardo Parra. And out is longtime assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler, replaced by former White Sox assistant hitting coach and big league third baseman Chris Johnson.

Two in-house replacements. Two outside additions. Two with prior big league coaching experience. Two with no prior big league coaching experience. Two former infielders replaced by two former infielders. One former outfielder replaced by a former outfielder.

And what conclusions, if any, can we draw from all this? Martinez hasn’t publicly spoken about the changes yet. Mike Rizzo declined to comment Wednesday about the coaching moves because they hadn’t been officially announced yet, but in referencing the overhaul of his scouting and player development departments he told reporters at the GM meetings in Arizona: “I think change is good. I think that we needed a refresh to a lot of parts of our baseball operations department, and we did. We’ve never been afraid to make moves … We brought in a lot of good people, and I think there’s going to be a different look, and I think it’s going to be really effective.”

We’ll have to wait for a later date – hopefully no later than next month’s Winter Meetings in Nashville – to hear what Rizzo and Martinez have to say specifically about the coaching changes. But from the outside, it does appear several of the moves were made with one particular objective in mind: Improve defensive play.

The Nationals were not a good defensive team this season; they finished tied with the Phillies for 26th in the majors with minus-30 Defensive Runs Saved. And that actually represented improvement from 2022, when they ranked 29th with minus-47 DRS.

Was the poor defense a product of poor coaching or just poor defensive players? Ultimately, it comes down to the players. There’s only so much you can do with a guy who isn’t good with the glove.

But you can do something to make players better in the field, and it feels like these changes are something of an acknowledgment on the Nationals’ part of that.

DiSarcina and Bogar were responsible for coaching the team’s infielders the last two seasons. It was notable that the Nats then added Gutierrez (who was working in player development) to the major league staff late in spring training to the newly created position of run prevention coordinator. Gutierrez’s task: Work specifically with CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia. Garcia started strong but faded late at second base. Abrams had an awful Opening Day with three errors, then really developed throughout the season as an above-average shortstop.

Gutierrez was given much of the credit for Abrams’ development, so it isn’t surprising he now appears to be the guy entirely in charge of infield defense, with DiSarcina and Bogar out.

Young, meanwhile, was responsible for coaching the outfielders, and that group had a miserable season outside of Lane Thomas’ 22 assists. Deep positioning, especially in center field, was notably responsible for a number of seemingly catchable balls that fell in. There were a number of miscommunications between multiple outfielders on fly balls to the gaps, as well.

So, enter Parra, a two-time Gold Glove outfielder who will now be in charge of improving this group (and eventually top prospects like Dylan Crews and James Wood when they reach the majors). Yes, Parra’s personality and the energy he’ll bring to the clubhouse and the dugout will be talked about a lot. But his hiring is about more than that. He needs to actually coach, as well, and it appears he’ll be tasked with quite a lot (including baserunning).

The change in bench coaches is a little less straightforward. Bogar had been on Martinez’s staff since the latter was hired in 2018, initially as first base coach and then as bench coach for the last four seasons. He was, by all accounts, popular with players and Martinez himself.

In Cairo, though, the Nationals get another guy with major league coaching experience and more, having filled in as White Sox manager in 2022 when Tony La Russa was on medical leave. The former big league infielder was a teammate of Martinez’s in the late ’90s in Tampa Bay, and Martinez has often spoken highly of him. So perhaps there’s a personal connection there that will pay off.

What real difference will any of these changes make? It’s never possible to know with coaches in baseball. If the team gets better, is it because the players got better or the coaches made them better? It’s the eternal chicken-or-egg question.

But keep a particular eye on the Nationals in the field in 2024. If they play a cleaner brand of baseball, turning more batted balls into outs, making fewer defensive mistakes, at least some of the credit is likely to go to the new members of Martinez’s staff who it seems were added specifically to help in this critical area.

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