- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Frank Robinson didn’t have to think about the question long.

Is this the best defensive team he has managed?

“Looking at it,” Robinson said, “the eight players we could put out on the field right now if I had to make out a lineup, yeah, it is. … At each position, you have the potential for the guy to be a very good defensive player.”

There are few areas in which the Washington Nationals legitimately can claim to be among baseball’s elite. Nothing against Robinson’s lineup or starting rotation — both improved from a year ago, but neither inspires great fear in opponents.

The Nationals’ work with the glove, though, looks to be as solid as it gets. And barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, the starting eight doesn’t appear to have a weak defensive link in it.

“Oh, without a doubt,” said Jamey Carroll, who backs up three infield positions. “It’s a crucial part of the game, and everyone out there knows you win a lot of games with your defense. We’re going to be pretty exciting to watch this year.”

Last season’s Expos already were a solid, if not spectacular, defensive bunch. That team ranked seventh in the National League with a .984 fielding percentage and second in the league with 172 double plays.

To that group, though, new general manager Jim Bowden added three players known in large part for their defensive prowess: shortstop Cristian Guzman, third baseman Vinny Castilla and right fielder Jose Guillen.

All three have been masters with their gloves. Guzman committed the third-fewest errors (12) by regular American League shortstops in 2004, while Castilla had the best fielding percentage (.987) among all regular National League third basemen.

Guillen is the real standout of the bunch. Owner of one of the game’s best outfield arms, he gunned down nine baserunners last season while playing for the Anaheim Angels. Six years earlier, he had 16 outfield assists for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Though Guillen has yet to report to camp, his new teammates are salivating at the thought of watching him in action. Even the ones who used to be on the receiving ends of former Montreal Expos star Vladimir Guerrero’s rifles from right field.

“We know he’s got one of the best arms in the game, no doubt,” catcher Brian Schneider said of Guillen. “Runners trying to go from first to third, they won’t even think about it.”

Schneider should know a good arm when he sees it. The Nationals’ starting catcher has been the major leagues’ best at throwing out basestealers the last two seasons, gunning down 46.7 percent in 2003 and 47.8 percent in 2004.

Few around baseball know it, but Schneider is legitimately one of the game’s best.

“Being up in Montreal, he’s been very underrated,” Carroll said. “His name wasn’t out there, but I think this year will be a big breakthrough as far as getting noticed and getting the recognition he deserves. The guy’s a great catcher. The way he keeps guys from stealing, he changes a whole game. That’s huge.”

Ask Washington’s players who they most enjoy watching in the field and invariably they will name Brad Wilkerson, who may not possess the athletic gifts of some of his teammates but has shown an ability to play all three outfield positions and first base with aplomb.

A natural left fielder, Wilkerson was forced to make 78 starts at first base last season, as well as nine in right field and 16 in center field. Hardly the place you would expect to find a 6-foot, 206-pound slugger.

“You look at the guy, and at first glance you’re thinking: ‘He can be a center fielder?’” Schneider said. “But if you watch him, he can get a jump on the ball before the batter even hits it. It’s incredible. He utilizes his speed to the utmost. As good of a hitter as he is, I don’t think he’s given enough credit for the defense that he plays.”

The rest of Washington’s projected starting eight — first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Jose Vidro and center fielder Endy Chavez — don’t always dazzle on defense, but all are considered above-average fielders.

“I work on my defense a lot,” Johnson said. “I work on it just as much as hitting. As much as you can win the game with your bat, you can go and lose it on the defensive end.”

Over the course of a season, that makes a difference. There are “sabermetricians” who try to quantify the effect defense has on a club, using mathematical formulas to determine how many wins or losses a particular player contributes through his glove.

Robinson has never been big on math. He prefers to look at the big picture, and in his four decades in baseball, the Hall of Famer has come to accept one of sport’s oldest cliches: Defense wins championships.

“All I know is if you play good defense and you don’t give up extra outs and extra runs, you are in just about every ballgame you play,” Robinson said. “Are you going to win every ballgame? No. But you’re not going to give up eight, nine, 10 runs on a daily basis, so you’re going to have a lot of close ballgames. That’s what defense does for you.”

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