Pitching, defense key to Nats improving

Pitching, defense key to Nats improving

VIERA, Fla. -- If the Nationals want to have a record over .500 in 2010, they must improve their pitching and defense. Last year, they were one of the worst in both categories. The Nationals ranked 16th in the National League in pitching with a 5.00 ERA and 30th in the Majors in defense with 143 errors.

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No wonder Washington lost 103 games last year.

General manager Mike Rizzo tried his best to make sure the Nationals wouldn't lose 100 games for the third year in a row. On the pitching end, he signed free agents Jason Marquis and Matt Capps, while trading for Brian Bruney.

The Nationals also believe right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the first overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, will have an impact on the club before the season is over. He was clearly the team's best pitcher during Spring Training, allowing two runs in nine innings. But the club feels he has a lot to learn -- holding runners on base and fielding bunts -- before hitting the big show.

"Work still needs to be done," Rizzo said about the pitching staff. "We are starting to get into the five- and six-inning starts for these guys now. They have to show the consistency that third time around the lineup, but I'm optimistic. I like what I've seen with a lot of guys. As we narrow down who is going north with us, I feel optimistic about the staff and the bullpen."

Defensively, Rizzo added perennial Gold Glover Ivan Rodriguez to replace the often injured Jesus Flores behind the plate and Adam Kennedy to play second base instead of seven who patrolled the position last year.

Washington will also have center fielder Nyjer Morgan for a full season. Acquired last June from the Pirates, Morgan made an impact with the glove before breaking his hand in late August and missing the rest of the season.

The team is hoping that Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham can improve dramatically at first base and left field, respectively.

Washington Nationals
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Nyjer Morgan
2 SS Ian Desmond
3 3B Ryan Zimmerman
4 1B Adam Dunn
5 LF Josh Willingham
6 2B Adam Kennedy
7 C Ivan Rodriguez
8 RF Willie Harris
9 LHP John Lannan
Projected rotation
1 LHP John Lannan
2 RHP Jason Marquis
3 RHP Craig Stammen
4 RHP Livan Hernandez
5 LHP Scott Olsen
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Matt Capp
SU RHP Brian Bruney
SU RHP Tyler Clippard
MI RHP Sean Burnett
MI RHP Jason Bergmann
MI RHP Miguel Batista
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

Dunn, who played the corner-outfield positions and first base last year without much defensive success, is concentrating solely on first base but still needs to improve his foot and glove work at the position.

Willingham was the first to say he must improve his defense. He sometimes has problems tracking down balls that are hit over his head. So far, he hasn't had any problems tracking down fly balls this spring.

"We've worked hard on defense -- obviously, we made a couple of acquisitions," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who won his first Gold Glove Award last year. "During this camp, we put an emphasis on our defense. I think we all know we need to improve on that if we want to win. Like I said before, pitching and defense go hand in hand. It's pretty simple.

"Last year, there were some people who were playing out of position. It's not that they weren't trying. It's not easy to play defense, especially when you are not playing a position that is not really your position. This year, we have guys where they are supposed to be. They are professional, veteran guys who have been doing it for a long time."

Willingham recently said the team must make the routine plays to win.

"You have to be consistent," Willingham said. "I'm not going to be Nyjer Morgan in left field, but I have to make the routine plays, and I have to make all of [the plays]. As an outfielder, you have to throw the ball to the right base. When you have someone like Nyjer in center, it's not like I have to run 50 yards and catch the ball. I need to be able to make routine plays, and when you get a chance to make a great play, you make some of those."

The Nationals want to show improvement in pitching and defense the moment the season starts April 5 against the Phillies. However, they have one of the toughest schedules to start the season. Twenty-eight of their first 31 games are against teams that finished last season with a winning percentage over .500.

"It's always important to get off to a good start, but it's not the end of the world if we are not off to a hot start," manager Jim Riggleman said. "If we are 6-0, it's not a great start. If we are 0-6, it's not a bad start. Thirty-five games into it, we'll say, 'You know what, this is the start that we are off to -- the first 35-40 ballgames."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.