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Baker's wish list: Lefties, speed and better defense

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Baker's wish list: Lefties, speed and better defense

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.

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Back before all this mania, Miami, as putrid as its season would be, loomed as a factor.

Handling the Marlins would be key for any contender. It wasn’t a question of winning, but of how much winning would occur against one of the league’s worst teams.

Following Friday’s 6-4 win in a sparsely attended Marlins Park, the Nationals moved to 14-3 against Miami this season. They are 16 games over. 500 for the year. They are plus-11 against Miami alone.

Asdrúbal Cabrera homered again, Trea Turner hit two homers, and Daniel Hudson pitched two innings to earn the save. So, the Nationals, 84-68, hold a one-game lead for the top wild-card spot. Milwaukee won again, joining a long list of teams to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates since the post-All-Star-break portion of the schedule began. Pittsburgh may be the league’s worst team, at the moment, and the Brewers host it for two more this weekend.

Trouble is brewing for Chicago. It lost again to St. Louis -- this time a 2-1 mid-day defeat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have lost four in a row. They are three games behind the Nationals and two behind the Brewers. Their path to 90 wins, which may ultimately be the threshold for postseason entrance, is narrowing.

The Mets won their third consecutive game. They are hanging around, 3 ½ games behind the Brewers with nine remaining on the schedule. Their wild-card elimination number is six.

News for Philadelphia is more dire. The Phillies dropped to 78-74 Friday night following a 5-2 loss in Cleveland. They are now five behind Milwaukee. Their wild-card elimination number is a mere five. 

Which brings us to the more detailed math portion of this program. Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 96 percent

Brewers, 84 percent

Cubs, 15 percent

Mets, 5 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Coming up Saturday:

St. Louis at Chicago, 2:20 p.m., Hudson (16-7, 3.35 ERA) vs. Quintana (13-8, 4.37)

New York at Cincinnati, 4:10 p.m., Wheeler (11-7, 4.09) vs. DeSclafani (9-9, 3.93)

Washington at Miami, 6:10 p.m., Strasburg (17-6, 3.49) vs. Yamamoto (4-5, 4.87)

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 7:10 p.m., Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. Plesac (8-6, 3.64)

Pittsburgh at Milwaukee, 7:10 p.m., Marvel (0-2, 9.00) vs. Davies (10-7, 3.70)

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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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