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Once again, Nats team to beat in NL East
The 2013 Nationals were built to win the World Series — then-manager Davey Johnson’s infamous boast, “World Series or bust,” became their de facto motto, and later their epitaph — which makes their flame-out all the more puzzling. Now, after getting younger in the manager’s office (with the hiring of Matt Williams to replace the retired Johnson), deeper in the rotation (a trade for Doug Fister that didn’t cost them any essential parts) and a year older and wiser across the board, it would be easy to sit back and say the 2014 Nationals appear on paper to be a championship-caliber squad. But we all know how that worked out for them last year.
The December trade that brought Fister from Detroit to Washington may go down as one of GM Mike Rizzo’s finest moments. While everyone expected the Nats to acquire a fifth starter to replace the departed Dan Haren, Rizzo went out and nabbed a No. 2 starter — although thanks to the Nationals’ enviable depth, Fister is more realistically a No. 4 in D.C. In any case, a front four of Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister (not necessarily in that order) is as good or better than any in the game. The fifth spot could be either Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan; most likely Roark, who was impressive in four of his five September starts in 2013. Lefthander Ross Detwiler moves to the bullpen.
What was expected to be a strength for the Nats in 2013, after the free-agent signing of closer Rafael Soriano, instead became a liability. Soriano was fine, but Drew Storen regressed all the way to Triple-A, and the lack of a reliable lefty specialist cost the Nationals in the first months of the season. For now, most of their top horses — Soriano, Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ross Ohlendorf — return to the pen in 2014, and a trade with Oakland brought them situational lefty Jerry Blevins. Detwiler will pitch out of the pen — at least to start the season — and could be extremely valuable. But Storen, who lost the closer’s job in 2012, remains a candidate to be traded, and a cynic might point out that Clippard’s declining strikeout rate (from 11.1 per nine innings in 2010 to 9.3 last season) portends trouble for their top eighth-inning man. In other words, as with all bullpens, the Nationals’ is a bit of a crapshoot. But there are many major league managers who would love to have a Storen-Clippard-Soriano trio in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Fourth-year second baseman Danny Espinosa was hit by the perfect storm of adversity in 2013 — a nagging shoulder injury, a precipitous drop in performance (.158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances) and the looming presence of a younger replacement (Anthony Rendon) — and fell all the way to Triple-A Syracuse, where he spent the rest of the season after his June demotion. Rendon, meantime, more than held his own, hitting .265/.329/.396 as a 23-year-old and validating his status as the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft. A natural third baseman, he also made a mostly flawless switch to the middle of the infield. It remains to be seen what Espinosa’s future with the Nats looks like, but the departure of utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi in the Fister trade makes that one possibility. As for shortstop, it is the most iron-clad position on the entire field for the Nationals, with veteran Ian Desmond coming off a second straight Silver Slugger award. The only question with him is how much it will cost the Nationals to extend him when the time comes.
At the beginning of 2013, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Adam LaRoche were two of the surest things on the Nats’ roster. By the end of the season folks were questioning if either would be back in 2014 — at least at their incumbent positions. Zimmerman’s problems throwing the ball across the diamond, at times, were bad enough that a move to first base appeared on the near horizon. And LaRoche, after a dazzling 2012 at the plate, dropped more than 100 points of OPS in 2013. But both showed enough improvement late in the season to restore some faith, at least for now, and they return in 2014 to their usual spots. Zimmerman remains a consistent .280/25-homer/90-RBI, middle-of-the-order bat, and when his throwing motion is smooth, one of the top glove men in the game at his position. And LaRoche is still just a year removed from a 33-homer, 100-RBI year. Given the salary commitments ($12 million for LaRoche, $14 million for Zimmerman), the Nationals can only hope they stay healthy and produce.
Center fielder Denard Span was the Nationals’ biggest acquisition of last offseason — a speedy center fielder, acquired in a trade with Minnesota, who was supposed to shore up the leadoff spot and allow Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to man the corners. Span, though, was a disappointment offensively, posting a .327 on-base percentage that was the worst of his career and was 30 points below his career average. By July, he had lost his everyday leadoff job and was often benched against lefties. Nonetheless, the entire Nationals’ outfield returns intact. With Span, the team must hope he gets on base at a higher clip. Washington signed free agent Nate McLouth away from Baltimore and he should push Span. And with Harper and Werth, the only hope is that they stay healthy. Harper, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year, put up impressive numbers last year for a 20-year-old (.274/.368/.486) but was never the same after running into the wall at Dodger Stadium in May. Werth, too, had a resurgent season that saw him post the highest OPS (.931) of his career, but he also missed 33 games due to a variety of injuries.
All that you need to know about Wilson Ramos’ impact on the Nationals is the fact that they went 48–29 when he was in the starting lineup last season, and 38–47 when he wasn’t. The problem is the number of games in the latter category. He missed most of 2012 following knee surgery and lost huge chunks of time in 2013 due to hamstring issues, with the Nationals relying on Kurt Suzuki in his place. But once Ramos returned for good, on July 4, the team’s fortunes began to change. He posted a .784 OPS the rest of the way, and the Nats got hot enough to make a run — which ultimately fell short — at the playoffs. If Ramos stays healthy all season in 2014, he will be among the best catchers in the game.
The Nationals had what they thought was a versatile, functional bench in 2013, except that almost everyone — Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, et al. — underperformed. All but Moore are gone now, and the Nationals seem prepared to go into 2014 with a bench anchored by right-handed corner types Moore and Scott Hairston, and the lefty hitting McLouth. There isn’t a strong utility infielder candidate, although Espinosa could wind up in that role if he doesn’t re-claim the second base job from Rendon. The backup catching duties will be handled by Jose Lobaton, who was acquired from Tampa Bay.
It was clear by the end of 2013 that the Nationals needed a fresh direction and a fresh voice in the manager’s office, and Rizzo tapped into his own past to make it happen, hiring the 48-year-old Williams — whom Rizzo had come to respect years ago when both were in the Diamondbacks organization — to replace the 70-year-old Johnson. Williams brings a fiery demeanor and an appreciation for sabermetrics to the job, but perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Williams hire was how firmly Rizzo controls the reins of the Nationals’ baseball operations after five years on the job.
The Nationals spent most of 2013 stagnating. In hindsight, much of the blame can be placed at the feet of Johnson, whose “World Series or bust” decree was an albatross in the clubhouse and who never managed to motivate his talented team. Fister was the shiniest addition to the Nats’ 2014 roster, but the biggest move may have been the hiring of Williams as manager. What the Nationals needed even more than innings pitched was a culture change, and if Williams’ approach works, 2014 may see the Nationals fulfill Johnson’s 2013 boast.
CF Denard Span (L)
He owns a career .351 OBP, but dropped to career-worst .327 in 2013.
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Third-round pick in 2004 is Nats’ final link to franchise’s Montreal days.
LF Bryce Harper (L)
Most important stat in 2014? Games played. If he’s on the field, he’ll produce.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Finished strong in 2013, with 11 of his 26 homers coming after Aug. 31.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
He was one of game’s best hitters in second half of 2013, but turns 35 in May.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Could find himself sitting against lefties if production doesn’t improve over 2013.
2B Anthony Rendon (R)
Only seven homers as rookie in 2013, but Nats believe he will develop more power.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
If he’s healthy, he’ll hit — but played only 103 games in 2012-13 combined.
OF Nate McLouth (L)
Free-agent signee plays all three outfield positions and is one of top baserunners in the game.
OF Scott Hairston (R)
Production slipped in 2013, but still only two years removed from 20-homer season for Mets.
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R)
Never got untracked in 2013, but was crucial part of Nats’ vaunted 2012 bench.
INF Danny Espinosa (S)
Nats still believe he’s an MLB-level starter, but lost his job ast second base to Rendon early last season.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Not much of a hitter, but Nats like his defense and intangibles behind the plate.
RH Stephen Strasburg
Pivotal year ahead: Nats want him to make leap to unquestioned ace, workhorse.
LH Gio Gonzalez
Gave up nearly twice as many homers in 2013 as year before, in similar number of innings.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
His 19–9, 3.25 season in 2013 announced his arrival as co-ace of Nationals’ staff.
RH Doug Fister
With no DH and a better defensive infield behind him, he should thrive in Washington.
RH Tanner Roark
Nats believe he's ready after posting a 0.913 WHIP in 53.2 innings last season.
RH Rafael Soriano (Closer)
Strikeouts per nine innings pitched fell from 9.2 in 2012 to 6.9 in 2013.
RH Tyler Clippard
Made 30 multiple-inning appearances in 2010, but only four the past two seasons combined.
RH Drew Storen
Midseason demotion to Triple-A was controversial, but he was better pitcher when he returned.
LH Jerry Blevins
Effectiveness against both lefties and righties means Nats will use for full inning on occasion.
LH Ross Detwiler
Has front-line stuff, but took step back in 2013 amid injuries, inconsistency.
RH Craig Stammen
Underappreciated piece, he has two straight years of sub-3.00 ERA and 80-plus innings pitched.
RH Ross Ohlendorf
Invaluable in 2013 as swing man, with seven starts (3–1, 3.52 ERA) and nine relief appearances.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jake Johansen, RHP
Having lost their first-round pick to the Yankees as compensation for the signing of Rafael Soriano, the Nationals had to wait until the 68th overall pick to make a selection in the June amateur draft. But their choice of Dallas Baptist University righthander Jake Johansen already looks like a coup. Johansen, a 6'6" flamethrower, signed within 24 hours of the draft and breezed through the short-season New York-Penn League, posting a 1.06 ERA in 10 starts while holding opposing batters to a .147 average — good enough that the Nationals decided to challenge him with a promotion to Low-A Hagerstown, where he struggled initially but also threw five scoreless innings in a playoff victory. With a fastball that tops out at 99 mph and a full arsenal of complementary pitches, he has a bright future — beginning, one suspects, with a return to Hagerstown in April and a possible move to High-A Potomac by midseason.
RHP Lucas Giolito (19)
The Nats’ top pick in 2012 returned from elbow surgery to post fine 2013, with 1.96 ERA combined in rookie ball/short-season A.
RHP A.J. Cole (22)
Traded to Oakland in Gio Gonzalez deal, reacquired in Michael Morse trade; could arrive in D.C. in 2014.
OF Brian Goodwin (23)
Good athlete, also has great strike-zone awareness; played 2013 at Double-A (.252/.355/.407).
1B/3B Matt Skole (24)
Freak elbow injury cost him nearly all of 2013, but returned to play in Arizona Fall League.
OF Steven Souza (24)
Big numbers at Double-A (.300/.396/.557), strong showing in Arizona Fall League have him poised for big leagues in 2014.
OF Michael Taylor (23)
Speedster repeated High-A in 2013 and hit .263/.340/.426 with 51 stolen bases in 58 attempts.
B eyond the Box Score
Balance of power It isn’t difficult to see where Bryce Harper must improve in 2014 if he is to progress from phenom to perennial MVP candidate, as his talent suggests he should. In 2013, he posted a .947 OPS against right-handed pitching, but just a .648 mark against lefties — a difference of nearly .300 points. He was actually better against lefties as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012, which suggests that the regression may have been a result of his nagging injuries.
Elbow issues Stephen Strasburg pitched through discomfort in his right elbow and forearm throughout much of 2013, according to agent Scott Boras, the result of bone chips that were removed over the winter. Strasburg still managed a fine season, posting a 3.00 ERA, but was plagued by chronic lack of run support in finishing with an 8–9 record.
On Board The Nationals decided to keep their coaching staff largely intact, including retaining bench coach Randy Knorr. This held the potential for an awkward situation, since Knorr also interviewed for the managing job that ultimately went to Matt Williams. In an effort to cut through the awkwardness, Knorr flew to Williams’ home in Phoenix in November and spent four days with him discussing baseball and watching Arizona Fall League games.
Werth the money At the 2013 All-Star break, Jayson Werth had posted numbers (.297/.363./.466) that were roughly in line with his career norms. The Nationals’ highest-paid player, Werth was nearly three years removed from the breakout 2010 season that earned him the seven-year $126 million contract. But then, Werth got hot and never cooled off. He hit .339/.432/.600 in the second half, winning NL Player of the Month for July and placing 13th in MVP voting.
Big Money The Nationals’ payroll has risen significantly, from around $68 million in 2011 to around $93 million in 2012 to around $118 million in 2013, and it is likely to rise again in 2014, given the contractual and arbitration-based raises of some of their core players, as well as the addition of Doug Fister. But the Nationals are also coming off a large attendance bump in 2013, and despite an ongoing dispute with the Orioles over right fees from their shared MASN deal, the Nationals will also receive higher fees in future years.