Bryce Harper. Image Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Team Previews: Washington Nationals


Washington Nationals

2013 Record: 86-76 (2nd Place)

2013 in Review

The Nationals were the trendy pick to win the 2013 World Series. After a breakthrough 2012 season that saw them capture an unexpected National League East crown, most people had them pegged as the next great team.

Perhaps those expectations proved to be a bit too much, as the Nats underachieved for most of the season, and couldn’t seem to beat the division rival Braves. The Nats made a late push, but it was too little, too late as far as a playoff berth was concerned.

The Nats’ chances were hurt by having outfielders Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper miss sizeable chunks of playing time. When healthy, both players were strong offensively and defensively, but the Nats need them to stay on the field.

Stephen Strasburg managed to pitch a complete season for the first time, and while he’s been a very good pitcher, he hasn’t quite lived up to the astronomical hype that once surrounded him. He was arguably the team’s third best starter behind Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. The team was hurt by a disappointing season from Dan Haren, and the fact that Ross Detweiler only made 13 starts.

All in all, it resulted in a season that – despite the team’s 86 wins being second highest in Washington Nationals’ history – was a disappointment.

2014 Preview

Offense

Ryan Zimmerman. Image Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals have a solid lineup from top to bottom. However, it isn’t clear if they have that one lineup-carrying middle of the order threat that most great offensive teams possess. The team hopes that Bryce Harper will be that player, and he arrived in camp noticeably bulked up. But he can only become that player if he stays on the field, and doesn’t injure himself running into walls.

The rest of the outfield could be a team strength, but that is far from a sure thing. Jayson Werth will never be worth the amount that the Nats are paying him, and he definitely isn’t the type of player that you want to base your lineup around. He gets on base and he hits some home runs, but he’s also missed a large portion of the last two seasons. At age 35, it will be interesting to see if he can reverse that trend.

Centerfield will be manned by Denard Span. The speedy lefty got off to a slow start after coming over from the Twins, but picked up his game in the second half. Considering that he doesn’t provide much power, Span will need to get on base at a better rate than  he did in 2013.

In the infield, the most prominent name is Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a solid player who never quite developed into a star. He’s usually good for about 20 home runs and a solid on-base percentage, but there is an ever-growing concern that Zimmerman’s offense is not enough to overcome his increasingly shaky defense.

It appears that Anthony Rendon will be the team’s second baseman, but unless he performs well, former second baseman Danny Espinosa may get another crack at it. Rendon impressed in his rookie season last year, and it is possible that he eventually shifts to third base, with Zimmerman moving to first.

Zimmerman may move to first because the incumbent there is Adam LaRoche. LaRoche had a career year in 2012, but dropped back to his more typical pedestrian numbers in 2013. The infield is rounded out by Ian Desmond who has won two consecutive Silver Slugger awards and should continue to provide above average offense from the shortstop position.

At catcher, if Wilson Ramos could stay healthy, he might become one of the league’s best offensive catchers. Thus far in his career that hasn’t happened, but he’s still young enough to put it all together.

The biggest name off the bench is Nate McLouth who provides a decent amount of pop from the left side of the plate. Scott Hairston and Espinosa are also projected to be decent backups.

Projected Lineup

  1. Denard Span – CF
  2. Ian Desmond – SS
  3. Jayson Werth – RF
  4. Ryan Zimmerman – 3B
  5. Bryce Harper – LF
  6. Adam LaRoche – 1B
  7. Wilson Ramos – C

Defense

Most of the Nationals are strong defenders. An outfield of Harper, Span, and Werth should save more than their share of runs over a season, and the team’s double play combination looks capable as well. The biggest defensive question mark is Zimmerman, but it appears that his days as a third baseman are numbered.

Pitching

Stephen Strasburg. Image Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals might have the best pitching rotation in baseball, and that’s even with Stephen Strasburg yet to live up to the hype. Most figured that Strasburg would have become one of the best pitchers in baseball by now, but several factors have prevented that from happening. Not that he’s been bad, but sometimes coming into the league with such high expectations can skew how a player is perceived. He’s still thought to be somewhat of an injury risk due to his delivery, and many Nats fans still hold their breaths every time he seems to be in any discomfort on the mound.

Zimmerman had a very good 2013 season, even if according to WAR, he wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2012. At age 28, he is firmly in his prime, and should continue to be a strong presence at the top of the rotation.

Gio Gonzalez wasn’t as good in 2013 as he had been in 2012 (He led the league in ERA that season). Yet, there are few teams that wouldn’t like to have him at the top of their rotation. I know the Phillies certainly regret trading him away in exchange for Freddy Garcia.

The Nats acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers in the offseason, and he could be one of the best fourth starters in baseball…if he’s healthy. He’ll start the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. It looks like Tanner Roark will fill the spot for now. Roark impressed the team in 2013, going 7-1 as both a starter and reliever.

The fifth spot will go to Taylor Jordan. The youngster made a cameo appearance in 2013, and while they might not know quite what to expect out of him, they are publicly confident that he’ll at least be able to hold his own until Fister returns.

With two youngsters at the end of the rotation, the Nats may have to rely on their bullpen early on in the season. Closer Rafael Soriano is capable enough, although there are concerns that his strikeout rate dropped last year. Was that a fluke, or a sign that he’s in decline?

If Soriano falters, closing duties may return to Tyler Clippard. While it seems like Clippard has been around for a long time, he’s only 29 years old, and should still be an excellent setup option. Other relievers include Craig Stammen and Drew Storen. Storen was once thought to be the team’s closer of the future, but a shaky 2013 season left his future very much in doubt.

Projected Rotation

  1. Jordan Zimmermann
  2. Gio Gonzalez
  3. Stephen Strasburg
  4. Tanner Roark
  5. Taylor Jordan

Closer: Rafael Soriano

 Best Case Scenario

Harper and Strasburg live up to their reps, the Nationals rotation is as good as advertised, and they win the World Series

Worst Case Scenario

Harper finds that the added bulk is more of a detriment than an aid, Werth begins to decline sharply, and the other hitters aren’t able to compensate, leaving the Nationals with a merely average lineup. With Fister out for a while, the two youngsters in the rotation struggle in his place. As a result, the Nats finish just out of the playoffs.

Prediction

Despite the Braves being the defending champions, the Nationals clearly appear to be the most talented team in the division. They’ve got their own share of question marks, but probably less than any of their competitors in the East.

Projection: First place

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