The intimidating rotation that lifted the Washington Nationals to a championship in 2019 is mostly intact, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, et al. Right fielder Juan Soto is a popular pick to win his league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Washington also added the thump of Kyle Schwarber, who seems to be clicking well with Nats’ hitting coach Kevin Long, and Josh Bell, who has been destroying baseballs this spring.
But as rival evaluators weigh the Washington strengths, there is a refrain about the team’s problem area.
“That defense is going to be awful,” said an NL official, who noted that the Nationals do have some ability to pitch around the fielding liabilities because of the pitching staff’s strikeout capability.
As Washington manager Dave Martinez acknowledged the other day, however, the Nationals have to at least improve on defense.
“We did struggle on defense,” Martinez said. “We looked at a lot of different things this winter, about positioning. We talked a lot over the winter about how we were going to structure spring training, to work with guys.”
“We definitely need to get better. Our division is not going to be easy. We need to get 27 quick outs. We talk about it all the time — we can’t give these teams 28, 29, 30 outs. If that happens, some of these lineups are dangerous. We have to make sure we limit our mistakes.”
Last year, the Nationals scored a minus-11 in outs above average (OAA), 25th in the majors, as Sarah Langs noted. Center fielder Victor Robles is regarded as a good center fielder and was a plus-3 in OAA, and yet the team’s outfield as a whole posted a minus-2 — and now they’ve added Schwarber, who has been one of the worst-rated outfielders in baseball since 2016. Similarly, Bell has scored some of the lowest defensive metrics among first baseman.
Players can adapt and improve. There may be no better example of that than in the Nationals’ own division. The Mets’ Pete Alonso improved defensively, going from being regarded as nearly unplayable to now being seen as at least average. Bell has worked hard this spring, on his footwork. He is 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds and has been working on staying low.
“I’m watching Josh Bell doing things and learning things that he didn’t know before,” said Martinez. “He loves working on it with [infield coach Tim] Bogar, working with Ryan Zimmerman.”
It’s an area of concern for a team that expects to contend. Here are some other trouble spots among clubs who expect to play in October.