Maybe I’m not in tune with the management, but I am shocked at this latest development. Yesterday, the Nationals gave unconditional releases to Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, and Felipe Lopez. Let it be known that “The Nationals tried their best to trade Lopez, Lo Duca and Estrada before Thursday’s 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, but there weren’t any takers because they were having subpar seasons.” I criticized them for not making trades, was hoping that anything at all would come the Nats way for them, but if there was no interest, there was no interest. I’ll take the organization at its word on that.

On to the players. Lo Duca and Estrada surprised me less. They were considered stopgaps for Jesus Flores until he was ready to play in ’09. Instead, they weren’t healthy, and he’s played the majority of the games at catcher and is hitting a VERY impressive .282/.330/.455. An OPS+ of 105 puts him as the 9th best catcher in MLB with at least 225 PAs. And while there are some young guys ahead of him like Soto (25) and Martin (25), Flores (23) is the youngest on the list. Meanwhile, Lo Duca has been, for most of his career, a relatively empty .280 hitter. He gets some bonus points for putting the ball in play and not striking out much, but in general he never was that great. This year he has been awful, and there was no reason to play him over Flores. Additionally, on several occasions I mistook Estrada for Dmitri Young, he’s so out of shape. And I wish I was joking there, but really, he’s huge. I am not surprised they released either of these guys, but both of them, at the same time? I have no problems with this move at all, just wasn’t expecting it.

Felipe Lopez (derisively nicknamed FLop by many) on the other hand, really shocked me. I know most of us had given up on him, and with the trade for Bonifacio it was clear that the organization was done with him as well. But unconditional release? Really, I thought they’d let him play out the season. I have no problem moving on, I’d like to see the entire team under 30 at this point, just to continue moving towards the future.

I am assuming that none of the 3 released players would qualify as a type A or type B free agent. That would mean they are considered, over the last 2 seasons, top 40% of players at their position. If they did, then the Nats would get compensatory draft picks if they kept them until the end of the season. But looking at their numbers, I think they don’t qualify.

A Different Direction?

One thing that has occurred to me, after reading about 900 different takes on Bonifacio, is that he is a very good fielder. People doubt his ability to hit, but his fielding is considered excellent. Meanwhile, teams like the A’s and Angels have put together some quality teams without much hitting. Instead, they rely on pitching and DEFENSE. I have heard from many people that just as OBP was an undervalued statistic 10 years ago and Billy Beane (A’s GM) took advantage, the same can be said for Defense now. That is to say, the A’s are valuing and understanding an individual player’s D more than other teams, and are taking advantage. They have the lowest number of runs allowed in the AL despite having a relatively no-name pitching staff (the ballpark helps too). Meanwhile, everyone knows that the Angels are the best team in the league, not thanks to power bats, but pitching and defense.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Why not go all the way with defense? The majority of their young prospects, coming up to bring the franchise out of the cellar, are pitchers. 7 of their top 10, according to Baseball America, are pitchers. You have Balester, Jordan Zimmermann, Detwiler, McGeary, and Smoker. The pitching is the future! With a stellar young 2B coming up, and a 3B that has been called a “once in a generation” fielder in Zimmerman, why not go all out for a stellar fielding SS? A real glove man, whoever that may be, would make this the one of the best infields in the majors (assuming that Bonifacio is great). You’d be amazed how much better pitchers perform in front of a D like that. Not only do they get more outs on balls hit into play, it allows them to try to be less “fine” and just go out and pitch. Meanwhile, the Nats can still get offense from the OF, and if Kearns can hit, he is a great defender, too. And it’s not like you’re losing offense from your stellar fielding third baseman, who hit 24 HRs at the age of 22 last season. A great defensive infield would at least give fans SOMETHING to be proud of.

With all the roster moves, the Nats traded for young shortstop slash attorney general prospect Alberto Gonzalez. Gonzalez played for the Yankees early this year, wasn’t exactly hitting impressively in AAA, and is similar to Bonifacio in many ways, without the blazing speed. His bat is probably just not really starting caliber. But he is a GREAT fielder and on the few days that Bonifacio and Gonzalez are playing together (I’m assuming Guzman is going to continue to start most games), the pitchers may be very very happy. I don’t think they have the outfield and first base bats just yet to support a defense only combo at middle infield, but it could be a direction for them to head.

If the Nats are building a team based on pitching and defense, I believe they are closer to success now that they might be otherwise. Bonifacio may be far away from being a major league level hitter, and he may never truly get there, but as a defender, he should be ready to play right away. We’ll see this week, as they recalled Bonifacio, and took Dukes off the DL. Dukes is a key part to this as well, if they go the defensive infield route, someone in that outfield has to hit and hit well, he may be the guy who’s shoulders that responsibility falls upon.

By Charlie