NASHVILLE — Though he acknowledges this is the best roster he’s been handed in four separate stints as a major-league manager, Dusty Baker does see aspects of the Nationals he’d like to improve.
Baker rattled off several needs Tuesday afternoon during his media session at the Winter Meetings: Left-handed pitching. Left-handed hitting. And speed, something the 66-year-old skipper feels has become overlooked around the sport.
“I think that’s the No. 1 thing that’s missing in the game: Speed,” Baker said. “You know, with the need for minorities, you can help yourself … you’ve got a better chance of getting some speed with Latin and African-Americans. I’m not being racist. That’s just how it is.”
The political incorrectness of Baker’s answer aside, the Nationals didn’t exactly burn things up on the bases this season. They finished with only 57 steals, second-to-last in the NL and 27th in the majors (though their 71.3 percent stolen-base rate ranked in the middle of the pack at 17th).
The issue extends beyond steals, though. The Nationals successfully took an extra base on singles or doubles this season 38 percent of the time, third-worst rate in the NL.
One of the organization’s key hires once Baker was on board was the return of Davey Lopes as first base coach, a position he held under Frank Robinson in 2006. Widely regarded as one of the sport’s best baserunning instructors, Lopes will be tasked with getting the most out of a Nationals roster that team officials boasts more speed than some may think.
“You look at the roster of the everyday position players, there’s a lot of guys that can run,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of guys capable of stealing bases. And I think we’ll see a little more-aggressive baserunning style, and as guys get comfortable at their positions, such as a Trea Turner, who can really fly. [Anthony] Rendon can run. Michael Taylor can run. [Wilmer] Difo. All those guys are capable of stealing a lot of bases. Including the MVP of the league, Bryce Harper.”
One other area of improvement Baker pointed out Tuesday was his new team’s defense, which struggled at times this season — the manager believes — because of several players being used in something other than their natural positions.
“I look at their infield defense, they had everybody on the infield out of position,” Baker said. “And that’s tough to do.”
Indeed, the Nationals often fielded a lineup with Yunel Escobar (a natural shortstop) at third base and Rendon (a natural third baseman) at second base, along with Ryan Zimmerman (first base), Jayson Werth (left field) and Harper (right field) manning positions they had not held on a full-time basis in a while, if ever.
“I think it affected our defense, for sure,” Rizzo said. “And defense affects pitching. I thought it had a direct effect on the rotation and the bullpen. When you’re a pitching-defense organization and you’ve got guys playing out of position for the first time, it was difficult to overcome that.”
The club expects to rectify that situation in 2016. Rendon will play third base. They aren’t saying where Escobar will play, but he’ll be used at only one position (if he’s not traded). Zimmerman, Harper and Werth will all have a full year of experience at their new positions.
Injuries, of course, played a significant role in some of the out-of-position moves this season. What, aside from trying to avoid those in the future, can the club do to address the situation?
“I think you avoid injuries,” Rizzo said. “Because you have players playing in positions that they’re supposed to play in. And it’s not a 9-1-1 to get a guy to play a position with a week’s notice in spring training. You know, Escobar learned two positions that he never played before in a crash course in two weeks of spring training. Having him play out of position, and then Anthony Rendon, and Zim being a first-time first baseman, Harp moving across the diamond to right field … certainly when you’re a pitching-defensive organization, it affected us.”
As for Baker’s other roster requests, the Nationals last week signed Oliver Perez to a 2-year, $7 million deal, giving them two lefties in their bullpen (Felipe Rivero will return after an impressive rookie campaign). The search for a left-handed hitter is ongoing, with Ben Zobrist the club’s primary target at these meetings but reportedly having narrowed his search down to the Mets and Cubs, with the Nationals “on the periphery,” according to FoxSports.com.