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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Jim Riggleman wants the top of the Nationals order on the offensive

By Adam Kilgore

While the Nationals focused their offseason roster overhaul on defense more than any other component, their offense must also improve for them to climb out of last place. They scored 655 runs last year, which ranked 25th in the majors. The solution, Manager Jim Riggleman said, is simple, and it has nothing to do with splashy free agent acquisition Jayson Werth: Hitters at the top of the lineup must get on base with greater frequency.

Last season, Nationals leadoff hitters posted a .300 on-base percentage, 29th in the majors and 29 points below league average. Their No. 2 batters combined for a .326 on-base percentage, 20th in the majors and eight points below league average.

The dearth of hits and walks from the top of the order created too many scenarios when Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals best player, walked to the plate with tumbleweeds rolling along the base paths. Zimmerman was one of 25 players who slugged .500 in at least 500 at-bats. He was one of five who produced those numbers and failed to reach 100 RBIs. Of those five players, Zimmerman's 85 RBIs tied him, coincidentally, with Jayson Werth for the fewest.

"Ryan Zimmerman has been such a consistent guy for us," Riggleman said. "It's a little deflating if he comes up to the plate and there's not some action going on there in front of him."

For now, the personnel at the top of the lineup figures to remain virtually steady. Riggleman has not finalized his lineup, but as of now, his most likely 1-2 order will be center fielder Nyjer Morgan and shortstop Ian Desmond. He also mentioned second baseman Danny Espinosa as a possibility for eight spot.

The Nationals are counting on Morgan to return to form at the leadoff spot. Prior to last season, he carried a .362 on-base percentage in 826 plate appearances. He sputtered to a .319 on-base percentage last year. They are also counting on Desmond to improve. In his rookie season, Desmond mustered a .308 on-base percentage, which ranked 68th out 74 qualifying National League players.

"If they can get can on base, I really feel good about our offense," Riggleman said. "If we're going to be that really good ball club that we strive to be, that on-base in the 1 and 2 spot has got to be moving toward that .350 range."

On-base percentage will be a key statistic to watch throughout the Nationals lineup. The Nationals' on-base percentage as a team last year was .318, which ranked 22nd in the major leagues and was seven points than the major league average. This offseason, the Nationals lost Adam Dunn (.356) and Josh Willingham (.389), two of their most proficient on-base hitters in 2010. They replaced those two, roughly, with Adam LaRoche (.320) and Jayson Werth (.388).

By Adam Kilgore  | February 15, 2011; 4:45 PM ET
 
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Next: History says Ian Desmond will cut down on errors in 2011

Comments

Cogent analysis. Remind us about this at the end of April one way or the other.

Posted by: Juliasdad | February 15, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT MORGAN AND DESMOND SET THE TABLE!!! without them getting on we play dr. longball and we're well on our way to another triple digit loss season. It will be up to Rick Eckstein get those two on the "ball".

Posted by: dargregmag | February 15, 2011 4:52 PM | Report abuse

>>For Nationals starters, its Livan Hernandez and the rest

And you guys are predicting how many wins??

Posted by: skins_fan_22 | February 15, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I think that the club is confident that Desmond will hit (maybe not field so well, but he should hit).

But, so much rides on Morgan for this club that I really wish they had a capable guy who could lead-off in the wings. Nyjer may get it together, he has talent and I love the energy, but he is just as likely to stink. He had his first shot at being an every day MLB player last year and he stunk it up in all facets of the game. Riggleman needs someone else to be ready to lead off; and there is really no one on the roster that has the skill set.

Is Scott Podsednik still out there looking for a contract?

Posted by: dfh21 | February 15, 2011 6:35 PM | Report abuse

dfh21,

I agree they need to have a plan B lineup if Morgan's unable to lead off. Sadly if plan A doesn't work, I think they need to be ready to completely reshuffle the order. I was saying last season that with Morgan stinking it up they should move him to the back of the order and put the Hammer up top. Its crazy ideas like that, where the team needs to be more open minded.

Posted by: alex35332 | February 15, 2011 6:54 PM | Report abuse

I certainly hope Morgan shows 09 form, because I also do not see a plan B for the leadoff man. Desmond's numbers were not great last year, but did he not improve at the end, about the time they moved him to the #2 hole? Or am I remembering that wrong? (such a thing has been known to happen...)

Posted by: NatsFly | February 15, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I am not a Yankees fan but I have a general baseball question about them? They lost Petite, who gave them around 12 wins last year. They didn't replace him. They've got 1 good starting pitcher and a good 8th inning reliever and a closer. That's it for the pitching. Why does everyone think they are going to be so good? If it's all about the pitching like I always say, they don't have much this season. And as for hitting, they are hardly murderers row anymore. Except for Cano, they've got a bunch of solid aging .270 hitters. Are they coasting on reputation more than anything going into this season?
If they don't buy some major parts during the season, they don't look like anything more than an average to maybe above average team.
Thoughts?

Posted by: skins_fan_22 | February 15, 2011 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Agree with skins on Yanks. The back end of their starters are so bad that the top six starters for the Nats would be the 4 and 5 for the Yanks easy. Red Sox run away with division. Yanks battle for 2nd.

Posted by: Crashdavis | February 15, 2011 9:53 PM | Report abuse

@SF22 & CrashD...absolutely correct, but I did hear something interesting. Assuming that Albert P does not reach contract agreement with the Redbirds by tomorrow, they might trade him. The Evil Empire (I) could include Texiera, and serious prospects (disclosure, here, I know nothing about Yankee minor leaguers).

If that sort of deal is made, it changes the whole picture, because Pujols elevates their lineup to another level.

Not saying it's a serious rumor, just that I had heard it. Oddly enough, with the nonsense going on with the Mets, the Yankees are almost flying under the radar.

Posted by: mikecatcher50 | February 15, 2011 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Riggleman is a fool if he starts Nyger at CF and lead off.

Posted by: onfirepsports | February 15, 2011 10:38 PM | Report abuse

re: Desmond

>"Biomechanically," Bott said

What's Bott got to do with it.

Posted by: Brue | February 15, 2011 10:46 PM | Report abuse

There are several plan b options for centerfield, but not very many for leading off. Probably the best lead off option is Hairston, but he is not a real high OBP guy either. Espinosa if his avg is high enough could pull a decent OBP. Neither Desmond or Bernadina are likely to prosper there. Morgan can probably be decent as a platoon leader, but Hairston may have to take the other side of that platoon.

Posted by: whatsaNATaU | February 15, 2011 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Natsfly, Desmond did indeed improve his OBA as the season progressed. For half the year, he was under 300. However, in the number two position he was consistently better most of the year.

Posted by: jcampbell1 | February 16, 2011 6:41 AM | Report abuse

This is a perfect example of why a lot of people believe that the Nationals, while strengthened in some ways, may ultimately not achieve a significantly better W-L record over last year.

When you say that one of the key reasons you lost a lot of ballgames is that your 1 and 2 guys didn't get on base enough, and you come back the next year with the same two guys, it's pretty tough to make a convincing case that you're going to do significantly better.

"The surest sign of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result."

Posted by: Meridian1 | February 16, 2011 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Adam, did you look at Desmond's splits comparing when he batted 2nd to when he batted 8th? He's a much better hitter when he is batting in front of Zimmerman. Sure, it's a relatively small sample size, but in 46 games batting 2nd, Desmond had a .326 AVG, a .359 OBP, a .489 SLG and a .848 OPS. Those are solid numbers for your #2 hitter.

Posted by: ericp331 | February 16, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

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