PItching, defense, speed and athleticism. Pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. Say it with me. Pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. Since D.C. GM Mike Rizzo first strung those words together during an interview in early November on Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio's Power Alley with hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy it's been the Nationals' mantra and the thinking behind every decision they've made:
"Our philosophy here has been clear since I've taken over. We believe and I believe wholeheartedly that championship teams are built on pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. We certainly recognize that offense plays a big part in it also, but I think that teams that pitch, starting pitching is the ultra-prize nowadays, picking the ball up, playing the game the right way...because defense never goes into slumps and offenses do, so I think you have to be consistent, pitch well, pick the ball up, have speed...especially in the National League as you guys both are well aware. It's a different game here with the pitcher hitting ninth in the National League it's certainly a pitching/defensive oriented league and that's been my philosophy, that's how our team was built in Arizona when we won the World Series in 2001 with Mark Grace at first base and have a few thumpers on the corners and that's how I think that our philosophy is going to be here."
Rizzo repeated the mantra later that night in a post-jersey-unveiling scrum with Nats beat reporters in explaining the philosophy behind the Nationals' offseason moves...
"Our philosophy is pitching, defense, speed and athleticism...so that's a philosophy that we've been working towards with our draft picks and our major league roster and we're going to continue to follow that philosophy throughout."
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote yesterday in an article entitled, "Washington Nationals bet better defense will pad their win total in 2011", that, "Baseball is about to see the equivalent of a laboratory study of the value of defense," with Rizzo having, "...expelled every defender except Ryan Zimmerman from the hideous bunch he inherited," in the name of improved run prevention:
"'This new way of doing things should show results," he said this week. 'Sabermetrically, we're about equal in run production. But our run prevention should be way up.'"
When the Washington Nationals added Jayson Werth, the D.C. GM described the 6'5'', 225lb outfielder as, "...a two-way player, a guy who excels offensively, defensively, baserunning and exhibits five tools." Danny Espinosa, who the WaPost's Mr. Boswell says, "may be the biggest hidden upgrade of all," was the "Best Defensive Infielder" on Baseball America's Aaron Fitt's '09 list of the Nats' Top 10 Prospects and on this year's list he's the top ranked infielder and labeled the "Best Defensive Infielder" again with the "Best Infield Arm." A middle infielder out of the "Shortstop Factory", aka Long Beach State University responsible for grooming the likes of the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, Bobby Crosby and Evan Longoria, Espinosa shifted to second when he debuted in the majors because Ian Desmond was already playing short for the Nats. And you know Rizzo likes Desmond...
In an early July Q&A with fans Rizzo conducted on his blog at MASNSports.com, the Nats' GM was asked why he continued to leave the error-prone Desmond, "who can't field or hit" at short instead of bringing someone up to replace him, and Mr. Rizzo stepped to his shortstop's defense:
"Mike Rizzo: "I thoroughly disagree with your assessment that Ian cannot hit or field. Ian Desmond is one of the brightest young shortstop prospects in the major leagues today, as exemplified by his major league ranking of second in UZR (range factor). In addition, with the exception of Troy Tulowitzki, Ian has successfully gotten more ground balls on defense than any shortstop in the majors, and his 34 RBIs ranks fourth on the Nationals team. Ian is one of the highest ranked rookie players for 2010."
Desmond at short, Espinosa at second, Gold Glove winning Ryan Zimmerman at third, and now Adam LaRoche, a strong defender at first who can play both sides of the ball as Rizzo's fond of saying and who MLB Network Analyst Larry Bowa said in a recent broadcast, " is going to solidify the infield," or, "[add] three dimensions" to the infield defense as the WaPost's Mr. Boswell writes, with less errors than Dunn, a more accurate arm and an ability to pick it that's sure to save some of Zim and Desi's errant throws (ed. note - "Which can't all be blamed on Dunn, to be clear.") When the Nationals traded Josh Willingham for a hard-throwing reliever and an (older) outfield prospect, they did so with the knowledge that the Nats' could put Roger Bernadina in left as part of an platoon with hard-hitting but defensively-challenged outfielder Mike Morse. In an article earlier this winter by the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell entitled, "Ownership, GM are finally on same page," the Nats' GM went so far as to say that, "Bernadina plays almost Barry Bonds defense," in left, and with Nyjer Morgan expected to return to form defensively and Werth an improvement over the rotating right fielders the Nats had last year, the Nationals' defense, in theory should be significantly stronger than last year's team.
The only thing the Nationals haven't improved is the pitching, but with a full year of Jordan Zimmermann, who's expected (or being counted on) to have a breakout year, an elbow-chip-free Jason Marquis, an improved Yunesky Maya who's pitched well in the DWL and expected to be a different pitcher than Nats fans saw last September, Livan Hernandez and John Lannan holding things down til Stephen Strasburg's return, and a strong bullpen that might still be on the one place the Nationals' willingness to spend could help before the Winter's over, the Nats' pitching (while a question mark) could potentially improve. Pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. Pitching, defense, speed and athleticism...just keep saying it...Pitching, defense speed and athleticism...