WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- The Nationals are incorporating three new players to the middle of their defense this season, with Matt Wieters taking over at catcher, Trea Turner transitioning as the full-time shortstop and Adam Eaton coming in as the starting center fielder. The impact of those three players will largely make up just how good the Nats defense will be in 2017.
Defense is always a focal point for manager Dusty Baker. He bemoans teams that makes a lot of errors and believes that with tireless work any player or team can improve defensively. The Nationals made him happy in 2016 considering they made the second-fewest errors in all of baseball last season with 73 (Giants 72).
By most advanced statistical measures, however, the Nats were around or below the middle of the league defensively last year. They posted -15 defensive runs saved (19th in MLB), did not show spectacular range with an ultimate zone rating of -1.9 (17th in MLB) and their overall defensive runs above average -- which measures defensive value relative to league average -- -0.9 (14th in MLB), according to Fangraphs. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, is the only returning starter from last year's team who had a positive rating (1.1) for wins above replacement on defense.
So what kind of defense will this year's team be?
"I don't know. You can only project," Baker said. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I think our defense is going to be good."
Eaton was perhaps the best defensive right fielder in baseball last year, which included leading in difficult plays as tracked by Statcast™'s new metric catch probability, but he is a bit of a conundrum in center field. In 2014, he posted 11 defensive runs saved while playing center field with the White Sox but followed that up with -14 DRS in 2015, which prompted the move to right field. There were some other factors in 2015, mainly injuries and some positioning issues that may have led to Eaton's poor season, but the Nationals believe his excellent year in right and his very good year in 2014 means he will handle the position well.
Despite his issues as a pitch-framer -- he has not been an above average framer since 2011 -- Wieters is generally perceived as a strong defensive catcher. He threw out 35 percent of base-stealers last season and posted a 1.1 dWAR last season. Once he gains more familiarity with the pitching staff, which he says will be an ongoing process, he should also be an asset to help guide pitchers through games.
And then there is Turner, entering his first full season as an everyday shortstop. The Nationals expect there will be a learning curve, such as in the second inning of Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Astros where Turner charged in to field a grounder with a man on third, but after he decided he would not be able to throw the runner out at home did not set his feet and airmailed a throw to first base.
"Trea is not as experienced as Danny Espinosa, [who is now with the Angels] was, but I mean how else you gonna get it unless you play?" Baker said.
"We expect our defense, and we'll keep working on it. Defense is work. Anybody can get better on defense by putting in the work."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.