Without an Up-the-Middle Defensive Upgrade, Nationals Will Still Lose

Farid RushdiAnalyst IDecember 29, 2009

VIERA, FL - MARCH 2:  Infielder Ian Desmond #74 of the Washington Nationals fields against the New York Mets during MLB Spring Training action on March 2, 2005 at the Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida. The Washington Nationals defeated the Mets 5-3. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

There are many ways to build a championship baseball club. Some teams, like the Atlanta Braves, would rather have outstanding pitching with just enough offense to win a lot of 3-2 games.

Others, like the Boston Red Sox, create their own “Murderer’s Row” and outslug the opposition 12-10.

But regardless of a team’s philosophy, there is one thing that all championship teams must have: outstanding up-the-middle defense.

Teams can get away with a “Dr. Strangeglove” at first or in left, but without solid defenders behind the plate, at second base and short, and in center field, it is nearly impossible to win enough close games to end the season in first place.

A perfect example of the importance of up-the-middle defense was the Baltimore Orioles of 1969. They won 109 games and ran away with the American League Eastern crown.

Most attributed their success to their outstanding starting pitching that included Miguel Cuellar (23-11, 2.38), Dave McNally (20-7, 3.22), Jim Palmer (16-7, 2.34), and Tom Phoebus (16-4, 2.34).

Certainly, this was an outstanding rotation, but part of the reason they were outstanding was the Orioles' middle defense.

Catcher Elrod Hendricks made just one error all season and led starting catchers with a .998 fielding percentage, throwing out a league-leading 51 percent of all base runners.

Hendricks should have won the Gold Glove Award but Detroit’s Bill Freehan (seven errors, threw out just 32 percent of base runners) had won the last five and earned the 1969 Gold Glove almost by default.

Second baseman Davey Johnson (now in the Nationals’ front office) did win a Gold Glove with a .987 fielding mark, a full 12 percent higher than the league average.

Shortstop Mark Belanger also won a Gold Glove, as his .978 fielding percentage was 10 points higher than the league average.

And centerfielder Paul Blair made just five errors and played flawless defense as he won a Gold Glove Award as well.

Hendricks, Johnson, Belanger and Blair combined for 28 errors in 1969. The Nationals up-the-middle defenders made 60.

The Nationals could trot out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana, and their statistics would nosedive playing in front of last season’s defense.

To be sure, some of the parts are already in place. Lastings Milledge, a defensive liability in center, was sent packing in favor of Nyjer Morgan, who is a great defender.

Morgan’s “rtot/yr,” or the number of runs he saves over the course of a season when compared to an average fielder, is 30.1, a full eight runs better than the Gold Glove winning Blair.

His range factor—how much ground he covers—is 3.02, very favorable when compared to the league average of 1.91 and Blair’s 2.78.

Carlos Beltran, who has won eight Gold Gloves, has a “rtot/yr” of just 22.5 and a range factor of 2.81.

Yeah, Morgan is that good.

And catcher is set with “Pudge” Rodriguez’ 13 Gold Gloves and the proven potential of Jesus Flores. Flores’ range factor is above the league average and his 42% caught stealing mark is just two points behind Rodriguez’ career mark of 44%.

For the foreseeable future, catcher and center field are team strengths. The problem is at second and short.

Cristian Guzman was once a solid fielder but time—and perhaps a lack of desire—have taken their toll. In his last three years with Minnesota, Guzman averaged just 10 errors and a .984 fielding percentage, 10 points above the league average.

Last season, Guzman committed 20 errors and his .962 fielding percentage was 12 points below the league average. He had 90 fewer assists and 30 fewer double plays. His range factor dropped from 4.65 to 4.33.

The Nationals want to give Ian Desmond every opportunity to become the team’s everyday shortstop in 2010.

Desmond has averaged more than 30 errors per season since becoming part of the Nationals’ minor league system in 2004, but he has shown tremendous potential in the field.

After making several spectacular plays in an early 2005 Spring Training game, then-General Manager Jim Bowden said the 19-year-old reminded him of Derek Jeter. The next day, he booted two ground balls in one inning.

But minor league stats aren’t always a good indicator of future performance. Bad infields, poor lighting and questionable official scorers can skew the truth.

Four-time Gold Glove winning shortstop Derek Jeter committed 56 errors in 1993 and averaged 26 miscues in his six seasons in the minors.

In 17 games at short last September, Desmond committed four errors and had a poor .952 fielding percentage, 23 points below the league average. However, he also had a range factor of 5.28 (league average was 4.28, Derek Jeter’s was 3.90).

Time will tell if Desmond—like Derek Jeter—outgrows those bone-head errors. If he does, he could become one of the flashiest gloves at short in the National League.

Offensively, he looks very good. His 2009 stats—if expanded out to a full 530 at-bat season—would be .280-26-78.

I would feel better if the Nationals would sign someone like Khalil Greene to a one-year contract to back up Desmond or take over at short if he fails, but I don’t think Desmond has anything else to prove in the minor leagues.

The Nationals have absolutely no one to play second base. The company line—or so it goes—is that Cristian Guzman will become the team’s everyday second baseman with Ian Desmond taking over at short.

All that will do is move his 20 errors about 50 feet closer to the first base bag. Most of his errors came by booting ground balls, not throwing them. The only reason the Nationals would do this would be to find someplace to hide his $8 million salary for 2010.

Last season, Gold Glove winning second baseman Orlando Hudson and the Washington Nationals had reached some kind of preliminary agreement but he either failed his physical or it turned up something that scared the team.

All he did was sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hit .283 and win another Gold Glove.

Back channels indicate the Nationals remain interested in Hudson, though it’s not clear how badly they still want him. A couple of sources have said he would be willing to talk to Washington again.

If Ian Desmond matures defensively, and if Orlando Hudson gives the Nationals a second chance, the team would have that up-the-middle defense that can lead them into the playoffs. It would make the pitching staff better, and those players all have solid bats.

If the Nationals can sign Orlando Hudson, the team’s up-the-middle defensive overhaul would be complete and another piece of the puzzle will be in place. Better pitching, and better defense, wins games.

It’s hard to say how much better the Nationals would be, but it’s certain that those head-shaking, forehead-slapping, shoe-thrown-at-the-TV losses from the last few seasons would become a rarity.

And that’s something we’d all love to see. Or rather, we’d all love not to see.


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