MLB Preview: Washington Nationals

With baseball season fast approaching, it is time for TheWaiverWire’s inaugural Baseball Preview package. We will look at every division in baseball, starting in the American League and moving from East to West by division. Also, we each team by who will finish last to first. So, the first team you read about from each division is in the basement, and the last is who we determine to win the division.

National League East – 

Fourth Place – Wasington Nationals

Fifth Place – New York Mets (read season preview here)

Starting Line-up – 

Catcher: Wilson Ramos (24) – 113 games, .267/.334/.445 15HR 52RBI – 4th in National League Rookie of the Year Voting

First Base: Adam LaRoche (32) – 43 games, .172/.288/.258 3HR 15RBI

Second Base: Danny Espinosa (24) – 158 games, .236/.323/.414 21HR 66RBI – 6th in National League Rookie of the Year Voting

Shortstop: Ian Desmond (26) – 154 games, .253/.298/.358 8HR 49RBI

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman (27) – 101 games, .289/.355/.443 12HR 49RBI

Left Field: Michael Morse (30) – 146 games, .303/.360/.550 31HR 95RBI – 19th in National League MVP Voting

Center Field: Roger Bernadina (27) – 91 games, .243/.301/.362 7HR 27RBI

Right Field: Jayson Werth (32) – 150 games, .232/.330/.389 20HR 58RBI

The Good News…

You can make the argument that Ryan Zimmerman is the most complete third baseman in MLB

Ryan Zimmerman has reported to Spring Training fully healthy and locked up with a new contract extension. When healthy, there isn’t a better all-around third baseman in the National League than Zimmerman. He plays a Gold Glove defense, constantly making outstanding plays that are exhilarating for Nationals fans, and beyond frustrating for opposing teams. He has 25+ home run potential, along with the ability to comfortably hit in the .280-.310 range. He’s the exact player you want to build a franchise around, which is why the Nationals locked him up through the 2019 season. There would be no way to replace Zimmerman because he saves runs on defense while creating an enormous amount of runs offensively.

Michael Morse was once a top prospect that seemed to flame out and fail to reach his maximum potential with Seattle. The Nationals rescued him off the waiver wire a few years ago, and he’s truly blossomed into a valuable asset to the middle of this Nationals line-up. Morse began to show his strengths when he was given a chance to play at the end of the 2010 season, and he capitalized on his opportunities when given a starting opportunity. He doesn’t stand out in any one defensive position, and it is possible Morse will move to first base full time once wunder-kid Bryce Harper is Major League ready. Regardless, the Nationals have created a strong core to their middle of the line-up with the production they can expect from both Zim and Morse.

There was no better trade at the 2010 trade deadline than the Nationals move to send reliever Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for top catching prospect Wilson Ramos. It was highway robbery. Young catchers that can hit are rare to come by, and the Nationals have found themselves one of the top, young options throughout the Majors. In the off-season, Ramos was kidnapped by Venezuelan mobsters and was rescued in a commando-type fashion. I have no idea if that will play any sort of role in his 2012 season, but it was certainly an ordeal that I wouldn’t be able to truly understand.

The Bad News…

The Nationals gave Werth star money. Problem is, he doesn't play like a star.

Jayson Werth will never be able to live up to that massive, seven-year, $126 million contract. Its virtually impossible. I’m not saying Werth can’t turn it around after a rough 2011 season, but he wasn’t that kind of player even when he was making All-Star games in Philadelphia. In my opinion, the Nationals overvalued his assets. His numbers in Philadelphia made him look like a star, but he was the perfect compliment to the likes of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the middle of the Phillies line-up. There is nothing wrong with being a complimentary player. Especially one as talented as Werth. But, the Nationals have been hoping he’d become a star player. That’s just not who he is. However, if Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy for an entire season, Werth may become more comfortable in a more familiar role.

If the Nationals want to get over the hump, they need to do better than Roger Bernadina in center field. Now, I’m not saying Bernadina can’t be a Major League piece. He’s best suited as a fourth outfielder, and would be an above-average one on a lot of teams. But, he is by no means an everyday player. On possible option for the Nationals is that once Bryce Harper is ready, Jayson Werth could potentially slide over to center and allow Harper to play right. By doing that, though, would keep a struggling Adam LaRoche in the line-up, and Mike Morse in left, when he’s probably better off at first.

Its a tricky situation. The Nationals are hoping either Bernadina takes the next step in his career and becomes an everyday option (slim, but possible) or Adam LaRoche puts behind the health issues at age 32 and returns to his career averages that made him a viable option around the bag at first. This determination is important for the Nationals as a team to make that next step in their maturation. 

While we’re on the topic of maturation, at some point, Ian Desmond needs to become a more controlled player at shortstop. It was promising to see his errors dropped by 11 from 2010 to 2011, but he still committed 23 at a premium position. Unlike a player like Elvis Andrus, who makes errors by getting to balls other shortstops wouldn’t be able to, Desmond often botches what looks routine. A team would be able to live with his uncertain defense if Desmond was more rounded as a hitter. He will not draw many walks, as he only drew 35 in 639 plate appearances. His sub-.300 on-base percentage and lack of power make him a hard hitter to place in the line-up. With his speed, you’d want to him to hit towards the top, but his lack of patience makes that impossible. The Nationals want to hope he puts it all together, and sooner rather than later.

Starting Rotation – 

Ace: Stephen Strasburg, RHP (23) – 5 starts, 1-1, 1.50ERA, 24.0 IP, 24 Ks, 2 walks, 0.71 WHIP

#2: Gio Gonzalez, LHP (26) – 32 starts, 16-12, 3.12ERA, 202.0 IP, 197 Ks, 91 walks, 1.32 WHIP – 2011 All-Star (with Oakland Athletics)

#3: Jordan Zimmermann, RHP (25) – 26 starts, 8-11, 3.18ERA, 161.1 IP, 124 Ks, 31 walks, 1.15 WHIP

#4: Edwin Jackson, RHP (28) – 31 starts, 12-9, 3.79ERA, 199.2 IP, 148 Ks, 62 walks, 1.44 WHIP (split with Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals)

#5: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP (32) – 11 starts, 4-3, 4.04ERA, 62.1 IP, 25 Ks, 13 walks, 1.28 WHIP

The Good News…

Strasburg-mania!

The best news any team could have is a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg-mania hit huge in 2010 when the huge righty came up from the Minor Leagues and immediately struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his debut. It was one of those moments when, for some reason, you remember where you were when it happened. I can remember being impressed at first, then, by strikeout #10, just laughing constantly at how freaking good this guy was. His fastball tops triple-digits. His slider is devastating and hits low-90s. Oh, his change-up? 88. That’s a fastball for half the pitchers in the league (and Jamie Moyer back in 1989). Having Strasburg every fifth day is as close to a guaranteed win as any team can have. I just don’t know how anybody can hit his stuff.

The Nationals biggest move this off-season was acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the A’s. The lefty has put it all together the last two seasons, earning his first All-Star selection last season. With Gonzalez, you know that with the high strikeout totals comes a great deal of walks, as no starter gave up more free passes than Gonzalez last season. The walks keep his WHIP relatively high, but he actually is a better pitcher with runners on base. Which is good, since he puts a lot of runners on base. Its hard to predict how high walk totals will translate when switching from the American League to the National League. Usually, pitchers that go from the AL to the NL and get away from the designated hitter, their numbers improve. But, this may be the last season in which the DH isn’t as prominent in the NL, as we’re a year away from year-round inter-league play. But, Gonzo should be fine at the top of the Nats rotation. Walks or no walks.

Jordan Zimmermann is healthy, and he’s a potential ace. His talents are vastly underrated and largely go unseen pitching in the nation’s capital. Last year, two things worked against Zimmerman that kept him further under the radar. For one, run support was a major problem. Only twice last year did Zimmermann give up five runs in a start, and never gave up more than five. The second was stamina. By July, Zimmermann never made it out of the seventh inning, and he didn’t appear in a game after August. The Nationals offense profiles to be deeper this year now that they can add a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and, eventually, Bryce Harper, so the team’s other Zimmerman should be able to enjoy more success coming into this season.

The Bad News…

Once he hits 160 innings, he's done.

Stephen Strasburg will be working this year on an innings limit. The Nationals have already said he will max out at 160 innings, and that’s final. Once he hits 160, he will not throw another baseball in a game situation the rest of the year. That means if he hits 160 by mid-to-late August, he’s done. No September baseball for Stephen Strasburg. That means if the Nationals dream of making a post-season run, they’ll have to do it without their best asset. It is impossible to get too excited about the Nationals’ playoff changes when you know heading into the season that their best player won’t be around for the long haul. That’s the ultimate Good News, Bad News scenario.

Outside of Strasburg’s innings limit, there isn’t too much to be down about in this rotation. Health is an issue with any team, so why should it be any different for Washington? I like the addition of Edwin Jackson on a good, one-year deal. Chien-Ming Wang seems to be fully recovered from shoulder surgery and ready to go a full season. Once the ace for the New York Yankees, Wang is probably one of the best fifth starters in baseball. Sure, they don’t have Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee at the top of their rotation like division-rival Philadelphia does, but starters 1-through-5 are as good as any in this division. In the National League, pitching wins. That’s been proven year after year. The Nationals have built themselves a very strong starting five.

That is, until Stephen Strasburg hits inning 160.

Bench – 

UTIL Mark DeRosa (37) – 47 games, .279/.351/.302 0HR 12RBI (with San Francisco Giants)

C Jesus Flores (27) – 30 games, .209/.253/.314 1HR 2RBI

OF Rick Ankiel (32) – 122 games, .239/.296/.363 9HR 37RBI

IF Mark Teahen (30) – 78 games, .200/.273/.300 4HR 14RBI (split with Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays)

The Skinny…

The Nationals have a couple of spots left open on the end of their bench, which will be decided between the likes of Xavier Paul, Jason Michaels and Andres Blanco.

As for what is evident, there is a chance Rick Ankiel wins back the starting center field job he had last year in Washington from Roger Bernadina. But, I think if Ankiel plays everyday, his flaws get exposed too easily. He won’t hit for a high average, but plays a superior center field and, of course, has a strong arm from center field.

I like Mark DeRosa as an addition to this bench, as he has the ability to play just about any position on the diamond short of center field and shortstop. He will probably be the team’s super-sub, getting 400+ at bats playing a variety of positions. He isn’t far removed from being a productive everyday player, but injuries have limited him over the course of the last couple of years. Being able to come off the bench will certainly benefit his productivity and his health.

I no longer feel bad about the Mets not protecting Jesus Flores in the Rule 5 Draft a few years back. Flores is just now overcoming a career-threatening shoulder injury that held him out of baseball for a few years. Now, with Wilson Ramos in town, Flores will be limited to back-up duties. Should he be able to reestablish his value, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some team try and acquire him in a trade.

Bullpen – 

Closer: Drew Storen, RHP (24) – 73 games, 75.1 IP, 2.75ERA, 43 saves, 8.8 K/9, 20 walks, 1.02 WHIP

8th Innings Reliever: Tyler Clippard, RHP (27) – 72 games, 88.1 IP, 1.83ERA, 10.6 K/9, 26 walks, 0.84 WHIP – 2011 All-Star

Middle Reliever: Sean Burnett, LHP (29) – 69 games, 56.2 IP, 3.81ERA, 4 saves, 5.2 K/9, 21 walks, 1.32 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Brad Lidge, RHP (35) – 25 games, 19.1 IP, 1.40ERA, 1 save, 10.7 K/9, 13 walks, 1.50 WHIP (with Philadelphia Phillies)

Middle Reliever: Henry Rodriguez, RHP (25) – 59 games, 65.2 IP, 3.56ERA, 2 saves, 9.6 K/9, 45 walks, 1.51 WHIP

The Skinny…

Drew Storen is proving to be one of the best young closers in the Major Leagues. He posted a strong sophomore season, and with the other additions the Nationals have made to their starting rotation, there aren’t immediate plans to stretch out Storen into a starting pitcher, if ever. There were rumblings in the off-season that Storen may actually be on the trading block, with the Nationals wanting to maximize his high value now. But, for now, with eyes on competing in the National League East this season, there isn’t a better option at the end of games than Storen.

With Storen closing the door, games a much shorter with Tyler Clippard setting him up. His dominant 2011 season earned him All-Star recognition, which was well earned. As a Mets fan, I know there wasn’t any reliever in the division that immediately crushed my hopes of scoring a run in an inning like Clippard did. If the Nationals were in a pinch, they turned to Clippard, who put out the fire with ease. Furthermore, he can go multiple innings out of the ‘pen, harking back to old school relievers of baseball’s past. 

The Nationals took a low-risk, high-reward chance on Brad Lidge. Lidge has been battling confidence problems out of the bullpen ever since Albert Pujols made him a human tee in the playoffs, becoming the first player to send a ball into orbit. If Lidge can regain his form from his glory days, he will become a strong middle relief option. If he doesn’t, well, it was worth the risk at the end of the day.

Top 10 Prospects (courtesy of MLB.com)

#1: OF Bryce Harper (19) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

At 16, SI was calling Harper the LeBron James of baseball.

OK, I’ve kind of been beating around the bush with Harper, mentioning him twice, but never truly elaborating. Long story short, Harper is arguably the most hyped prospect in baseball since, uhm, Stephen Strasburg. The years of the Nationals playing terrible baseball have paid off, by getting back-to-back first overall picks and using them on Strasburg and Harper. Harper, who turned 19 in October, is a monster physically and has proven to be a masher. He slugged .501 as an 18-year old in his first season of Minor League baseball. The Nationals are giving him every opportunity to make this club out of Spring Training. The likeliest of scenarios, Harper will be given a six-week test run in AAA before the team brings him up for good. Unlike Strasburg, there isn’t any reason to hold back Harper. He is the best prospect in baseball, and will have a chance to prove that the hype is real in a very short time.

#2: 3B Anthony Rendon (21) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Rendon took a tumble in the first round of last year’s draft, falling to sixth overall. Wait, did I say tumble and falling to sixth? Well, Rendon was viewed as the second-best prospect in the draft, but teams were scared off by a shoulder injury. Nevertheless, the Nationals gobbled up the college bat. Though he’s unlikely to push Ryan Zimmerman out of Washington, a discussion of a position change is a long ways down the road. He’ll make his Minor League debut this season.

#3: RHP Alex Meyer (22) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Another first round pick in 2011, Meyer has the potential to move quickly through the Nationals system after spending two years at Kentucky. He has a high-90s fastball and a solid slider, but his third pitch , a change-up, needs development. Worst case scenario, with his two plus-pitches, he profiles as a dominant late-inning reliever. And, with command being an issue, there’s a chance that he will likely be a reliever in the long run.

#4: OF Michael Taylor (20) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Much of the Nationals near-ready Minor League talent was sent to the A’s for Gio Gonzalez, so Taylor profiles as the best remaining bat the team has to offer. He’s a very toolsy outfield that has the potential to hit for plus power, but is still a far ways away from the Majors, as he’ll jump to High-A ball in 2012.

#5: LHP Matt Purke (21) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Purke was a first round pick in the 2009 draft out of high school, but he decided to pitch in college at TCU. He was a dominating force when there, but injured his shoulder last year, which plummeted his stock from a first round pick to the third round. That didn’t stop the Nationals from taking a flier on the young lefty. Should his shoulder prove healthy, Purke has a chance to be an ace in a Major League rotation. However, it is always hard to get excited about young pitchers with a track record of injury.

#6: OF Eury Perez (21) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

Speed is the reason Perez makes the Nationals top 10 list. He’s swiped 109 bases over the last two years. He plays a strong defensive center field, but he has shown that he will not hit for much power, nor draw many walks. Regardless, since Perez can fly, he can turn singles into doubles and will steal bases at will. He does make a ton of contact, which is all he needs to do in order to get on base. But, he’s still a full year of development away from being Major League ready.

#7: OF Destin Hood (21) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

Hood has decent speed and raw power, and put together his best Minor League season last year playing alongside Eury Perez in High-A ball. He could be a complete right fielder at the next level. He has the ability to steal 15+ bases and draws a solid amount of walks, both tools that translate well from Minors to Majors. But, much like Perez, he’s a year of development away from being ready, and he has to prove that 2011 wasn’t a fluke.

#8: OF Brian Goodwin (21) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

A supplemental first round pick for the Nats last year, Goodwin was drafted on his five-tool make-up. The Nationals are going to allow him to play center field initially in his development, but it will be a test of time if he sticks in that position long-term.

#9: IF Steve Lombardozzi (23) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Lombardozzi is blocked at third by Zimmerman and at second by Danny Espinosa. He is defined as a hard-working grinder that makes the most out of his potential. While he may be a potential starter in the long run, I don’t believe he’ll find an opening at any position with the Nats. He will be called upon at the first sign of injury on the big league club, and Lombardozzi could easily stick as a potent bench option for manager Davey Johnson.

#10: LHP Sammy Solis (23) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

Solis is a solid pitching prospect, and it doesn’t hurt his stock that he throws from the left. But, he’s 23 and has never pitched above High-A because he seems to always be injured. There should be concern around Nationals camp if Solis can ever put together a full season in the Minors and be a Major League pitch. However, on paper, he’s still one of the best pitching options the Nationals have, and he’ll jump to AA this year.

 Give it to me straight, Greg…

The Nationals have built themselves a very solid foundation, but there are still some missing parts that will keep them towards the back of the National League East.

Stephen Strasburg working off a strict innings limit this season *must* temper expectations to a very high degree. I mean, if you’re a team looking to make a serious run at a post-season berth, you need your best players to be healthy and playing. That simple. It is almost a guarantee that by the early portion of September, Strasburg will be shut down and unavailable. How is anyone thinking that will help a late-season push?

Also, while the excitement building around Bryce Harper’s Major League debut, you never know how a player will react to the significant jump from the Minors to the Majors. While it is possible for him to become a star from day one, nobody can predict that. There is no scouting tool advanced enough to tell us exactly what a player is going to do once he’s on the biggest stage.

So, though its nice to have a healthy Ryan Zimmerman back in the rotation and the additions to the starting rotation allow the Nationals to run five deep, when you have two huge question marks along with a lack of a center fielder, expectations need to be kept in check. They’ll finish above-.500, but they aren’t going to the playoffs.

2012 Season Prediction – 82-80, 4th place in National League East.

3 thoughts on “MLB Preview: Washington Nationals

  1. I’m glad you’ve got the Nats at above .500. However, I do see that pitching rotation bringing it to 3rd. Not sure who falls in that situation, but if Wang can win 10 games (something the Nats always struggle with) they could be great.

    Sadly, the one recurring weakness is an awful lineup. Zimmerman is the only guy I see with a chance to eclipse .300. Morse will drop to .270’s, Werth will come up, Espinosa needs a little more patience, and they have no real leadoff hitter. Ian Desmond doesn’t convince me. I miss me some Nyjer Morgan

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