AP NEWS

Nationals’ weaknesses up the middle last season are this year’s strengths

February 25, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. What is truly stunning this spring for the Washington Nationals is to step back and realize how bad last year’s team was. It’s actually remarkable that they were able to finish second in the National League East with 82 wins.

Last spring, they had their starting second baseman and their starting center fielder Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton running around the fields on West Palm Beach on one leg, still far from recovered from their respective surgeries. And, let’s face it, Murphy, while a hitting machine, was a defensive liability even on two legs.

Neither one ever truly fully recovered last season. Eaton managed to get into 95 games, and batted .301, but never saw center field. And with Michael Taylor probably their best defensive center fielder struggling offensively, they were forced to play Bryce Harper in center. He was a below average right fielder, and worse in center.

Murphy saw 36 games at second base last season, with 20 more at first base and designated hitter before being traded to the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 21. Wilmer Difo filled in at second for 112 games, but was an offensive liability. Howie Kendrick, a solid defensive infielder and .290-plus career hitter, wasn’t’ available, lost in May from a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon.

Then there was the Ted Lerner-Scott Boras albatross of catcher Matt Wieters, forced down the front office’s throat two years ago by the Lerner-Boras marriage and who remained an easy out in the lineup and a defensive weakness behind the plate.

In other words, the Nationals, as the old baseball clich goes, were a disaster up the middle.

Couple that with a lack of starting pitching depth made worse by injuries, and again, 82 wins seems like a miracle.

So you’ll have to excuse everyone in West Palm Beach if they are feeling good about their team this season. What were weaknesses last season are now strengths up the middle at catcher, second base and center field.

Highly touted five-tool outfield prospect Victor Robles in center field; Gold Glover Brian Dozier and a healthy Howie Kendrick at second; All-Star Yan Gomes and veteran Kurt Suzuki at catcher strong additions defensively up the middle, which in turn should help a pitching staff that will have added depth of free agent starters Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez.

“For me, it’s about the athleticism,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “Obviously Dozier is coming back from a little bit of knee issue, but he’s ready to go. I talked to him and if you know Dozier he’s got that little chip on his shoulder and he’s excited to be here and I think he just makes us better.

“Two catchers, little younger, very athletic,” Martinez said. “I watched Suzuki last year and the way he caught against us and what he did, I’ve always liked him. He calls a good game, is not afraid to speak up, and is a great clubhouse guy, and we have him and Yan Gomes, who was an All-Star. So having those guys and then you go to our center field, you have Victor Robles but don’t forget about Michael Taylor, who I think is one of the best center fielders in the game. And we’re going to work diligently with him just to move the ball, put the ball in play. With him and Victor in center field, think about it, that makes us really good out there.”

Wieters was gone, his two-year contract weight removed from the Nationals roster. So they needed to make a move at catcher. With Harper facing free agency, Robles was their long-awaited replacement and already penciled in at center field, with a healthy Eaton this coming season in right.

But general manager Mike Rizzo made an important decision to upgrade at second base with Dozier, who is coming off a down year for him 21 home runs, 72 RBI and a .215 average in 151 games with the Minnesota Twins and then, after being traded July 31 to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He dealt with a severe bone bruise in his right knee for much of the season.

Dozier says he is healthy now and ready to return to the form that made him an All-Star second baseman in 2015 and a Gold Glove winner in 2017. He is also a powerful force at the plate when healthy, with a career high 42 home runs in 2016.

He signed a one-year $9 million contract with Washington in January. “I love teams that are in on winning and that was one of the best motivating factors in choosing where to come,” Dozier said. “Whether it be longer term, shorter term all that stuff, it is what it is. But when I saw from afar what the Nationals were doing, especially in free agency, that’s very appealing to me. I love that.”

Rizzo will offer this statistic as the reason for the upgrade and the impact it will likely have on the field for the Nationals. Murphy started only one 4-6-3 double play in 38 games last season. He started only 19 double plays in 139 games in 2017.

When Dozier won his Gold Glove in 2017, he started 32 double plays in 152 games.

Kendrick, 35, who looks fully recovered from his ruptured Achilles’, will spell Dozier at second. He’s likely to also fill in at third and the outfield as well. His absence was felt throughout the Nationals clubhouse last season.

“My role on this team hasn’t changed,” Kendrick said. “I’m going to play everywhere like I did in previous couple years, and you know I look at it like that. The at-bats I get are the at-bats I get, I’m not here to complain about anything, I’m here to play baseball, try to help guys get better and try to win ball games.”

Kendrick got the start at second base in Washington’s first exhibition game Saturday night.

None of this a swift, flashy center fielder, a Gold Glove second baseman, two No. 1 catchers, a better pitching staff and a utility veteran with a strong bat and strong clubhouse leadership was available last season when the Nationals were battling for their postseason lives. They battled from positions of weakness that now seem to be strengths. That’s the foundation of a good baseball team: strong up the middle.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.