2014 MLB Season Preview: Washington Nationals

It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air. 

With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fair in 2014, division-by-division. 

National League East

Atlanta Braves / Miami Marlins / New York Mets / Philadelphia Phillies / Washington Nationals (86-76 last year)

Starting Line-Up

C: Wilson Ramos (26) – 78 games, .272/.307/.470, 16HR 59RBI, 29 runs, 9 doubles, 111 OPS+, 2.4 bWAR

1B: Adam LaRoche (34) – 152 games, .237/.332/.403, 20HR 62RBI, 70 runs, 19 doubles, 102 OPS+, 0.9 bWAR

2B: Anthony Rendon (23) – 98 games, .265/.329/.396, 7HR 35RBI, 40 runs, 23 doubles, 99 OPS+, 0.0 bWAR

3B: Ryan Zimmerman (29) – 147 games, .275/.344/.465, 26HR 79RBI, 84 runs, 26 doubles, 121 OPS+, 3.8 bWAR

SS: Ian Desmond (28) – 158 games, .280/.331/.453, 20HR 80RBI, 77 runs, 38 doubles, 21 stolen bases, 114 OPS+, 3.7 bWAR - Silver Slugger

LF: Bryce Harper (21) – 118 games, .274/.368/.486, 20HR 58RBI, 71 runs, 24 doubles, 11 stolen bases, 133 OPS+, 3.8 bWAR - All-Star

CF: Denard Span (30) – 153 games, .279/.327/.380, 4HR 47RBI, 75 runs, 28 doubles, 11 triples (led MLB), 20 stolen bases, 94 OPS+, 2.4 bWAR

RF: Jayson Werth (34) – 129 games, .318/.398/.532, 25HR 82RBI, 84 runs, 24 doubles, 10 stolen bases, 154 OPS+, 4.8 bWAR - 13th in NL MVP voting

bryce-harper-nationalsGood News:

Any line-up that includes 21-year old Bryce Harper is off to a mighty good start. In his first two seasons in the Majors, one of which was spent under the legal drinking age, Harper has already put together two seasons of 3.5 WAR or better. If not for some guy named Mike Trout, we’d be talking about Harper as the best all-around young talent the game has imported in quite some time. Harper is a strong defensive outfielder, but left field may be the weakest of his defensive positions. That’s not to say he’s a bad left fielder, just that his skills may be better used in center or right. Nevertheless, a full season from Harper should be something along the lines of 30 home runs, 40 doubles and 20 stolen bases. And again, he’s only 21-years old.

Harper is the dominating figure in the Nats every day line-up, but by no means is he the only star. Ian Desmond has begun to assert himself as arguably the best offensive shortstop in all of baseball. Washington had been waiting for his breakout campaign, and it finally came in 2012, but there were still hesitations if Desmond would be able to stay at that level. Desmond removed all those doubts, posting his second-consecutive 5.0 fWAR season. He’s always going to strike out more than fans would like, posting a career-high 22.1% strikeout rate in 2013, but he’s becoming more patient. His 6.6% walk rate is still rather low, but it did make a career-best figure for the young shortstop. More patience at the plate, along with 20/20 potential that could continue to grow as he enters his prime, and you have yourself the most complete offensive shortstop in the game today.

Outside of the two big stars in Harper and Desmond, there is plenty of depth throughout the line-up 1-through-8, and no clear weaknesses that the other four teams in the division have. We get a little distracted by how awkward Ryan Zimmerman looks throwing the ball from time to time thanks to his long list of shoulder injuries, which makes it easy to forget that as long as he’s in the line-up, he’s an offensive force that’ll post an OPS+ of 120 or better. Anthony Rendon is a significant offensive upgrade over Danny Espinosa over the course of a full season, and really started to get into a comfort zone towards the end of the 2013 season at the plate. Wilson Ramos is an underrated catcher all-around and comes into camp with a clean bill of health.

St Louis Cardinals v Washington NationalsBad News:

It’s not all hugs and rainbows for the Nationals line-up, but again, their warts are minimal in comparison to some of the other line-ups in the National League East. A healthy season from Ryan Zimmerman is like chasing the Great White Buffalo; he’s going to get hurt at some point and miss in the neighborhood of 20 games. At this point in his career, it’s expected. Jayson Werth will regress slightly back towards the mean after posting his first 4.0+ WAR season outside of Philadelphia, but he’ll probably only drop back to being a player worth around 3.0 WAR, very much above average. Denard Span is a speedster who doesn’t do a whole lot at the plate, but his glove more than makes up for any offensive shortcomings he may have, and he’ll still snagged about 25+ stolen bases.

Really the only areas of “concern” for the Nationals offense will be at first base with Adam LaRoche and what to reasonably expect from a full season of Anthony Rendon. I was against the LaRoche re-signing last year for the Nats, mostly because it was a contract that rewarded a player for having a career year on the wrong side of 30. LaRoche was great in 2012, posting a 3.4 fWAR while hitting .271/.332/.402 with 33 home runs. However, only two other times in his career did he post a WAR above 2.0, and we easily forgot that in 2011 his fWAR was an abysmal -0.3. The year before that, LaRoche was a 0.7 fWAR. So, his 0.6 figure from last year really isn’t all that surprising, and may be what a Nationals fan expects from their first baseman. LaRoche will strike out in more than 20% of his at bats, as he always has throughout his career. He’ll probably hit 20+ home runs, and he won’t play a good defensive first base. He’s a replacement level the Nationals are paying what they should be paying someone who is worth at least 2.0 WAR a year. It’s probably the one true blemish on Mike Rizzo’s Nationals resume right now.

As for Rendon, he was a replacement level player in his rookie year, but he’s hit at every level he’s played throughout his collegiate and Minor League career. As he gets more comfortable against Major League pitching, I’d expect his walk rate to jump back up from 7.9%, considering he was always 13% or better at every stop in the Minors. That’ll help him out offensively as he becomes more selective and doesn’t chase bad pitches. He was learning second base on the fly last year, and actually did a decent job at the position despite his lack of experience. The more comfortable he gets on the field, he won’t feel as pressured at the plate, and he should become an all-around better performer. If Anthony Rendon is your second-biggest concern in your starting line-up, you’re doing something right.

Bench 

IF Danny Espinosa (26) – 44 games, .158/.193/.272, 3HR 12RBI, 11 runs, 9 doubles, 27 OPS+, -0.7 bWAR

UTIL Jamey Carroll (40) – 73 games, .211/.267/.251, 0HR 11RBI, 26 runs, 9 doubles, 45 OPS+, -0.8 bWAR (with Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals)

OF Nate McLouth (32) – 146 games, .258/.329/.399, 12HR 36RBI, 76 runs, 31 doubles, 30 stolen bases, 96 OPS+, 1.6 bWAR (with Baltimore Orioles)

Jhonatan Solano (28) – 24 games, .146/.180/.188, 0HR 2RBI, 2 runs, 2 doubles, 2 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR

UTIL Tyler Moore (27) – 63 games, .222/.260/.347, 4HR 21RBI, 16 runs, 9 doubles, 66 OPS+, -0.9 bWAR

Danny EspinosaSkinny:

The Nationals have everything you would hope for in terms of depth on the bench. They have an outfielder that can player all three positions defensively and won’t be over-matched at the plate if someone else goes down with an injury in Nate McLouth. They have a middle infielder with pop that is actually a better shortstop than second baseman in Danny Espinosa. They have a veteran who has been around long enough to help mentor the young players, specifically Anthony Rendon, in Jamey Carroll. They have a power bat that can fill in at first and the corner outfielders, but more importantly pose as a threat in late-inning situations off the bench in Tyler Moore. And they have a back-up catcher. That’s literally everything you want from your bench.

While we’re talking about Danny Espinosa, I have a funny feeling he’s going to find himself traded at some point this season for a piece the Nationals need either in their bullpen or to replace an injured player. He’s absolutely better than he performed last year in what was an absolute train wreck of a campaign. This is still the same guy that was worth 3.0+ fWAR in 2011 and 2012, so the talent is clearly there. He’s a good defensive second baseman, but has always claimed to be more comfortable at short. However, the Nats have a better shortstop in Ian Desmond and are more inclined to give Anthony Rendon the at-bats at second. Espinosa is a starting middle infielder for a lot of teams in the Majors, and someone will get smart and try to buy low on him. When Espinosa gets traded, I can’t say for sure, but by August, I would anticipate him being on someone else’s roster.

Starting Rotation

Ace: Stephen Strasburg (25) – 30 starts, 8-9, 3.00 ERA, 183.0 IP, 9.4 K/9, 3.41 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP, 126 ERA+, 3.1 bWAR

#2: Gio Gonzalez (28) – 32 starts, 11-8, 3.36 ERA, 195.2 IP, 8.8 K/9, 2.53 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP, 113 ERA+, 3.0 bWAR

#3: Jordan Zimmermann (27) – 32 starts, 19-9, 3.25 ERA, 213.1 IP, 6.8 K/9, 4.03 K/BB, 1.09 WHIP, 116 ERA+, 3.7 bWAR - All-Star, 7th in NL Cy Young voting

#4: Doug Fister (30) – 32 starts, 14-9, 3.67 ERA, 208.2 IP, 6.9 K/9, 3.61 K/BB, 1.31 WHIP, 115 ERA+, 4.1 bWAR (with Detroit Tigers)

#5: Ross Detwiler (28) – 13 starts, 2-7, 4.04 ERA, 71.1 IP, 4.9 K/9, 2.79 K/BB, 1.49 WHIP, 94 ERA+, 0.1 bWAR

Jordan ZimmermannGood News:

You have got to be kidding me with this starting rotation. The Nationals fifth starter could be Tracy McGrady and it would still be the best top-to-bottom rotation in baseball. Any rotation that sports Doug Fister as its fourth-best starting option is a rotation that is drunk on talent.

Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez get all the headlines, and we’ll get to them as well, but the best starter in the Nationals rotation to me is Jordan Zimmermann, and it’s not all that close. You can almost set your clock to what Zimmermann is going to give you every fifth day. His highs aren’t as flashy as Strasburg’s or Gonzalez’s, but his lows are nowhere near theirs either. He will take the ball, go seven innings or more, give up two runs or less, keep his K/BB ratio at around 4:1, give you a quality start and put you in the perfect position to pick up a win. He is basically Matt Cain pre-2013, and he’s going to be the third starter in the Nationals rotation. In my mind, he is the most underrated and under-appreciated player in baseball today, or at least he and Ben Zobrist are fighting for that honor.

Back to Strasburg and Gonzalez, I mean it’s not like they’re bad pitchers. In fact, they’re two of the best in the National League. We know what a healthy Strasburg is. When he’s at his best, he’s unhittable. His fastball is plus-plus, his curveball is plus-plus and his change-up is plus-plus. There isn’t one pitch you can set up for, because they’re all capable of getting the best hitters in the game out. He strikes out more than a better an inning, he has command of all his pitches and keeps his walk numbers low. He was worth more than four wins in 2012, and had a “down” season last year, and was still worth more than three wins. Strasburg has the chance to become the best pitcher in baseball, and is more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery. If he doesn’t finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting at the end of the year, I’d be surprised.

As for Gonzalez, he’s a very good pitcher, but I don’t think reasonable baseball fans were expecting him to repeat his 2012 season last year. He was a 5.1 fWAR pitcher in 2012, but returned to his 3.0+ WAR level in 2013 that he established back in Oakland in 2010-11. His walk numbers will always be higher than you would want, but he makes up for it with his strong strikeout numbers and ability to get hitters to keep the ball on the ground. 2013 should be considered the norm for Gonzalez as opposed to 2012, but that norm is still borderline All-Star quality in comparison to his peers.

And then there’s the addition of Doug Fister. I mean, the Nationals didn’t need a pitcher at the caliber level of Fister when they were shopping for starting pitchers and hoping to replace Dan Haren this off-season. That didn’t stop them from adding Fister for pennies on the dollar. Over the last three years, Doug Fister has quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting fWARs of 5.2, 3.5 and 4.6 respectively, all while playing in the American League. Last year, his 3.67 ERA was actually inflated when you look at his FIP and xFIP, which both sat at 3.26 and 3.42 respectively. He’s making the transition from the American League to the National League, which usually improves a pitcher’s peripherals thanks to the lack of a DH and the ability to face opposing pitchers in the starting line-up (see: Gonzalez, Gio). Fister is at the peak of his prime right now, and could easily put together another 4.0+ WAR season as the fourth-best starter in the Nationals rotation. 

This has to be some sort of sick joke.

Bad News:

What, do you want me to pick apart Ross Detwiler and find some hidden flaws in his game? I’m not going to do that. He’s a perfectly fine fifth starter. Hell, the Nationals could have a revolving door of replacement level veterans and rookies occupy their fifth spot in the rotation, and their rotation will still rank out as the best in the Majors.

There is no bad news when the top four to your rotation is Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. It’s even better news when the pieces you gave up for Fister didn’t factor into your long-term thinking, and that Strasburg is team-controlled for the next few years, and that Zimmermann already agreed to an extension to cover his arbitration years.

If the rumors are true and Zimmermann won’t be in Washington past his current extension, that would be the bad news. But even that is two years away, and he could have a complete change of heart between now and then.

This rotation is filthy. With the exception of an unpredictable injury, there is no bad news here. It doesn’t exist. Ugh.

Bullpen

Closer: Rafael Soriano (34) – 68 games, 3-3, 3.11 ERA, 66.2 IP, 43 saves, 6.9 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP, 122 ERA+

Set-Up Man: Tyler Clippard (29) – 72 games, 6-3, 2.41 ERA, 71.0 IP, 33 holds, 9.3 K/9, 3.04 K/BB, 0.86 WHIP, 158 ERA+

MR: Drew Storen (26) – 68 games, 4-2, 4.52 ERA, 61.2 IP, 24 holds, 8.5 K/9, 3.05 K/BB, 1.36 WHIP, 84 ERA+

MR: Craig Stammen (30) – 55 games, 7-6, 2.76 ERA, 81.2 IP, 7 holds, 8.7 K/9, 2.93 K/BB, 1.29 WHIP, 138 ERA+

MR: Ryan Mattheus (30) – 37 games, 0-2, 6.37 ERA, 35.1 IP, 6 holds, 5.6 K/9, 1.47 K/BB, 1.90 WHIP, 60 ERA+

MR: Jerry Blevins (30) – 67 games, 5-0, 3.15 ERA, 60.0 IP, 4 holds, 7.8 K/9, 3.06 K/BB, 1.07 WHIP, 119 ERA+ (with Oakland A’s)

LR: Ross Ohlendorf (31) – 16 games, 4-1, 3.28 ERA, 60.1 IP, 1 hold, 6.7 K/9, 3.21 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP, 116 ERA+

121011110729-baseball-tyler-clippard-horizontal-gallerySkinny:

Much like the Nationals bench, there is a lot of what you would want from a bullpen here. You could make the case that it may behoove Washington to add a second lefty on top of Jerry Blevins, but it isn’t necessarily mandatory. Tyler Clippard has no problem getting hitters out from either side of the plate, and is honestly their best reliever. Washington is one of the few teams that actually follow the principle of using your best reliever in the highest-leverage situations instead of saving them for the possibility of a save at the end of the game. Clippard is the best reliever they have, so they choose to use him when they absolutely need to get an out. Why more teams don’t do that is beyond me.

Rafael Soriano is fine as a closer. He’ll give you plenty of heart attacks throughout the season and blow a save here and there, but any closer will do that. He’ll get his 40 saves and be done with it. Drew Storen has talent in there somewhere. I don’t know if he’s still shell-shocked from his meltdown in the 2012 playoffs, but there seems to be something there mentally blocking him from realizing his potential. 2014 may be his make-or-break season, in terms of what type of Major League future he will have, either with the Nationals or with someone else.

Top 10 Prospects (MLB.com)

1. OF Brian Goodwin

2. RHP Lucas Giolito

3. RHP A.J. Cole

4. OF Michael Taylor

5. RHP Nathan Karns

6. OF Eury Perez

7. LHP Matt Purke

8. 2B Jeff Kobernus

9. 3B Matthew Skole

10. LHP Sammy Solis

Skinny:

It’s not as if the Nationals need to have a loaded farm system in order to stay competitive in the National League East for years to come. They have significant building blocks in Harper, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Gonzalez that are all under 30, and Harper is barely old enough to drink.

In terms of what they do have, Brian Goodwin is a very good prospect any team would be happy to have in their system. He could be in the Majors as soon as this year should something happen to Denard Span or Jayson Werth, and has the makeup as a 15-homer, 25+ stolen base hitter. His strikeout totals have been a bit higher in the Minor Leagues than you’d like to see, but his high walk rate is encouraging, given his ability to be a game changer once on base.

Lucas Giolito may have been the best pitching prospect in the 2012 draft, but injury concerns with his throwing arm dropped him down to the Nationals at 16th. Giolito did have Tommy John surgery after the draft, so he didn’t make his professional debut until this fall. Now that he’s healthy, teams are remembering why he was in such demand in the first place. Washington will probably play it safe with his development, considering they drafted him right out of high school and he already has the injury history. But if Jordan Zimmermann does decide to leave the Capital in a few years, Giolito will be ready and waiting.

Outside of their big two, there are a few other prospects that could have a role on the Major League team in a few years. A.J. Cole, who the Nats traded to Oakland and decided to re-acquire last year, has the make-up of a middle-of-the-rotation arm (in a normal rotation), and could easily be the Nats fifth starter by mid-summer. Michael Taylor has immense speed and a good amount of pop, and could soon be on the same level of Brian Goodwin in terms of potential. Matt Purke is another guy the Nats took a chance on given his college success despite having some injury problems along the way, and he appears to be, at worst, a good lefty out of the ‘pen that’ll be ready in a few years.

Basically, the Nationals have a young core already in the Majors, and more prospects than their in-division rival in Philadelphia. Washington is poised to be very good for an extended period of time.

Season Projection:

The Nationals were supposed to be very good in 2013 and were the odds-on favorite to walk away with the division crown. However, they stumbled out of the gates and really struggled for the first two months of the year, digging themselves a hole they weren’t able to get out of when you consider the blazing start the Atlanta Braves also got off to. By the end of the season, the Nationals were the team nobody hunting a playoff spot wanted to face because they were the perfect spoilers.

Davey Johnson has retired, and the Nats have brought on Matt Williams to replace him. Their roster is mostly the same with the exception of Anthony Rendon’s promotion and the addition of Doug Fister to the rotation in place of Dan Haren. There is no reason to think that this team isn’t capable of winning 90+ games and once again being the team to beat in the National League East.

I truly believe two playoff teams will come out of the East this year, with the Braves being one as the Wild Card and the Nationals being the other as the division champ. It is hard to predict any team from making a 10+ win jump from year-to-year, but if any team was in the position to do so, it’s the Nationals. They under-performed in 2013, and they’re young enough to know that it can’t happen again. Their rotation is the best in the game and their line-up is solid from top-to-bottom.

I don’t think I’m being reckless when I think the Nationals will win 96 games in 2014 and capture the NL East title.

Projected W-L: 96-66, National League East champions