Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Josh Willingham's trade opens the door for Roger Bernadina to start in left field.
One of Rizzo's buzzwords this winter has been "athleticism." It's one of the primary traits he looks for in his players. And those who don't have it are getting shipped out in short order.
Adam Dunn didn't fit the mold, so he's now DH'ing on the South Side of Chicago. Josh Willingham didn't fit it either, so he's now the starting left fielder in the East Bay.
What remains is a Nationals roster that is much more to Rizzo's liking. Just about every member of the projected Opening Day lineup (aside from the empty space at first base and Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate) possesses "athleticism." They have good range in the field. They have the ability to lay out to catch a ball hit just on the cusp of their reach. They can advance from first to third with relative ease.
In Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina, the Nats have about as athletic a lineup as you're going to find in this sport. And this didn't happen by accident.
"If we made out a lineup tomorrow, just about everyone we'd put out there can play their position and run," manager Jim Riggleman said on Wednesday, before the Willingham trade went down. "Hitting is very tough. It's tough to hit, I don't care who you are. ... So when guys aren't hitting, you still have to find ways to win games. And you can do that with some athleticism that guys like Jayson and Ryan and Ian and Espinosa have."
There's a reason Rizzo and Riggleman have been touting Bernadina for months. He's an extremely gifted athlete who may be a bit unpolished as a major-league batter but who makes up for it with his prowess in the field and on the bases. That's why they aren't hesitating to hand the starting left field job to the 26-year-old, with some platoon help from Michael Morse likely.
And there's a reason Rizzo has stuck to his guns about the type of first baseman he's looking for. He didn't want Dunn, at least not for the kind of contract the big guy wound up getting from the White Sox. He wants a smooth-fielding, consistent-hitting player who can do more than one thing to help this team win.
Now, you can disagree with Rizzo's philosophy for assembling a winning club. It certainly flies in the face of many modern conventions that suggest offense (particularly the ability to get on base and hit for power) is far more valuable than defense. This guy doesn't have a degree from the Billy Beane and Theo Epstein School of Roster Building.
But you can't criticize Rizzo for staying true to his form. He knows what kind of team he's trying to assemble. And just about every move he's made since taking over as GM last year has adhered to that line of thinking.
The 2011 Nationals will be a significantly more athletic group than this year's squad. That's exactly how Mike Rizzo wanted it.