Washington Nationals: 25 Most Important Players for 2014

Will GroomsCorrespondent IJanuary 29, 2014

Washington Nationals: 25 Most Important Players for 2014

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    Coming off their second-best season in franchise history, the Washington Nationals are poised for another successful season.

    Washington, with key additions such as Doug Fister and Nate McLouth, is in position to make a run at its second NL East crown in three years. 

    With months to go before Stephen Strasburg offers the first pitch at Citi Field to open the 2014 season against the New York Mets, many questions still remain for the Nats. That being said, there's no doubt that a solid framework is in place.

    This list will rank the 25 most important players for the Nationals in 2014. The parameters for entry to this list include first, and most importantly, value added as well as individual ability, leadership, the degree to which the individual has proved himself and the potential for improvement. 

    Stats gathered via Baseball-Reference.com.

No. 25: Tyler Moore

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    Tyler Moore will enter his third season with the Nationals as a solid utility player but likely as nothing more. 

    The former 16th-round pick experienced career lows across the board in most major plate statistics in 2013. He batted just .222 and struck out 58 times in 167 plate appearances. 

    Further, the late-season addition of Scott Hairston and offseason acquisition of Nate McLouth make Moore all the more expendable. His versatility will give him a role, as he will receive spot starts on Adam LaRoche's days off at first base, but that figures to be all.

    Moore showed potential in 2012. He's still young, but the clock is ticking. There will be a decent amount of pressure on him to produce early. 

No. 24: Jhonatan Solano

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    Between getting kidnapped in Venezuela and suffering a torn ACL, Wilson Ramos has had his share of struggles over the past two years.

    In 2012, Jhonatan Solano was part of a carousel of young catchers that performed well in Ramos' stead, registering a career-high .315 batting average while hitting two home runs and knocking in six runs over the course of 37 plate appearances. However, the 2013 arrival of Kurt Suzuki did not bode well for the young catcher.

    Behind Ramos and Suzuki, Solano hit safely just seven times in 50 plate appearances. With Suzuki gone now, Solano is likely to assume the role of Ramos' backup, which will ensure more plate appearances than Solano has seen thus far in his career. 

    He is an excellent defensive catcher, holding a career fielding percentage of .994 and only allowing two past balls in as many seasons. If the Colombian catcher can put it together both in the field and at the plate, he'll be a dangerous asset for the Nats to have coming off the bench. 

No. 23: Zach Walters

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    Zach Walters figures to fill the role that Steve Lombardozzi Jr. left behind when he departed as part of the trade to acquire Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers

    The Nationals are excited for what Walters has to offer and for good reason. The former ninth-round pick made his way through just about every level of minor league baseball before finally landing in Triple-A Syracuse at the conclusion of the 2012 season. 

    In 2013 with the Chiefs, he batted .253 with 29 home runs and 77 RBI before vacating as part of the Washington Nationals' September call-ups.

    With the Nats, he recorded three hits in eight plate appearances, including an RBI triple.

    The University of San Diego product is young and athletic and is capable of playing good defense and hitting for power. He also provides much-needed depth at the shortstop spot behind Ian Desmond. 

No. 22: Ross Ohlendorf

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    Ross Ohlendorf will likely fill the role of being a long reliever for the Nats in 2014. With 83 career starts, the 31-year old right-handed pitcher likely has more long-inning experience than any pitcher on Washington's roster.

    That being said, either Tanner Roark or Ross Detwiler will likely occupy that role. With Craig Stammen also capable of providing productive long-inning relief, Ohlendorf could quickly find himself at the end of the bench. Competition is good and important, and the team can't have too many quality arms.

No. 21: Craig Stammen

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    Craig Stammen will enter his sixth year with the Nationals, tying him for the spot of fourth-most tenured player on the club behind Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler and Tyler Clippard.

    Stammen's 2013 campaign was a good one. The once-starting pitcher who now fulfills multiple roles from long relief to finishing games, posted a 2.76 ERA and struck out 79 batters in 81.2 innings. 

    He is versatile and reliable. However, the emergence of Tanner Roark in 2013 will mean that Washington will likely have a very talented long reliever in the form of either Roark or Ross Detwiler, provided the Nats start five pitchers. 

No. 20: Ryan Mattheus

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    Ryan Mattheus had an excellent 2012 followed by a not-so-excellent 2013. The 30-year-old's career-worst 6.37 ERA in 2013, though bloated, reflects his least efficient season to date.

    The Nationals, however, are still relatively slim when it comes to quality late-inning relief, and if Mattheus is able to return to his 2012 form that struck out 41 batters and posted a 5-3 record, the versatile pitcher will be invaluable to Washington in 2014.

No. 19: Drew Storen

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    Drew Storen has had an interesting journey over the past three years. His 43-save 2011 season gave way to a 2012 season in which the former first-round pick posted a career-best 2.37 ERA before being obliterated in Game 5 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.

    Washington's 2012 elimination in the playoffs resulted from a blown save where Storen walked two batters and gave up three hits, which led to four runs. A two-run lead quickly turned into a two-run deficit that the Nats didn't recover from.

    For whatever reason, that loss has stuck with Storen and perhaps played a part in affecting his game in 2013. Last year, the former Stanford pitcher recorded a 4.52 ERA on 65 hits and allowed 31 runs—all career worsts.

    With Washington unable to acquire Grant Balfour via free agency and hoping not to pay Rafael Soriano his $14 million option that would vest if he finished 62 games or more in 2014, according to The Washington Post, Storen may be asked to fill the closer's role once again.

No. 18: Anthony Rendon

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    Anthony Rendon met, if not exceeded, the high expectations that were set for him in 2013.

    After struggling to make the longer throw at third base and shortstop by posting fielding percentages of .868 and .846, respectively, he finally found his niche at second base.

    The Rice product performed well at his new home defensively and was efficient at the plate, hitting seven home runs and registering 35 RBI while batting .265.

    The ceiling is high for the 23-year-old who only figures to get better in the coming years.

No. 17: Nate McLouth

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    The 2013-14 offseason addition of Nate McLouth supplies much-needed depth to Washington's outfield.

    The 13-year veteran effectively replaces Roger Bernadina as the team's go-to reserve outfielder, and figures to surpass him in production.

    In 2013, Bernadina batted just .187 and drove in just five runs. McLouth has a significantly greater deal of experience as a starter, and in 2013, the nine-year veteran batted .258 with 12 home runs and 36 RBI.

    The supplement of McLouth adds even more fire power to an offense that's sure to be much improved in 2014. 

No. 16: Danny Espinosa

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    2013 was by far the worst season of Danny Espinosa's short career. The second baseman played in just 44 games before being sent down to Triple-A Syracuse in the wake of a career-low .171 batting average to start the season.

    He insists, however, that his injured wrist was actually broken, as per The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, which led to his struggles at the plate.

    Whether he starts or provides depth behind Rendon at second base, Espinosa's presence is important. He's a proven veteran who has played and produced in big games. 

No. 15: Ross Detwiler

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    After a productive 2012 that saw Ross Detwiler start 27 games, win 10 games for the first time in his career and post a career-high 105 strikeouts, the southpaw took a small step back in 2013.

    The 27-year-old fireballer won just two games in 13 starts, his lowest total since 2010, while posting a mediocre 4.04 ERA. 

    Detwiler is experienced and capable of quality starts, despite what his numbers last year show. Whether it be as the No. 5 starter or as a left-handed long reliever, he will be an integral part of the team. 

No. 14: Rafael Soriano

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    Despite recording 43 saves in 2013, Rafael Soriano blew six save chances that came at crucial points in the season.

    Nevertheless, the 34-year-old closer was efficient and has been reliable for five different MLB teams throughout his career. 

    The former All-Star figures to fill a lesser role in 2014, however, as a result of his $15 million option that will vest if he finishes 62 or more games. 

    Unfortunately, the Nationals' hard push at the acquisition of Grant Balfour came up empty, and Washington has few closing options beyond Soriano. Clippard and Storen have the ability, but there are few players who can fill the roles they'd leave behind.

No. 13: Tanner Roark

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    Tanner Roark exploded onto the scene in 2013. The 26-year-old rookie struck out 40 batters in 53.2 innings and posted a superb 1.51 ERA. 

    Going forward, it's unclear what his role will be, but the former 25th-round pick proved he can be just as effective as a starter as he was as a long reliever.

    Roark was a delightful surprise in the late going for the Nats last season and should be even better in 2014.

No. 12: Tyler Clippard

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    Tyler Clippard is coming off another great season and has the ability to fill multiple roles, including being the eighth inning setup man or the closer.

    In 2013, he posted a respectable sub-four ERA for the fifth consecutive season as a reliever. 

    The seven-year veteran has had issues with control throughout his career but threw just two wild pitches in 2013 after throwing five in 2012. 

    The 28-year-old is the Nationals' second-most tenured player and is well-respected by his teammates. His absence would leave a huge hole in the Nationals' ability to send out quality eighth-inning relief.

No. 11: Wilson Ramos

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    Wilson Ramos found his groove in 2013 following an ACL tear that sidelined him for much of the 2012 season. 

    The Venezuelan catcher batted .272 in 2013, hitting 16 home runs and registering 59 RBI—both career highs.

    Ramos did have his moments of weakness last season, allowing a career-high five past balls as a likely result of his newly repaired ACL. With another offseason to increase the knee's strength, however, expect him to have a breakout season in 2014. 

No. 10: Denard Span

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    Denard Span is a solid defensive outfielder, and fans like his offensive game as well. Most Nationals fans can expect to see a good amount of extra-base hits and 20 or more stolen bases, both due to his speed.

    However, Washington didn't get exactly what it had hoped for from its leadoff hitter, at least at first. 

    In fact, Span was relatively inefficient offensively until he ripped off a 29-game hitting streak in the season's late going, which set a franchise record in the process and brought his batting average up to a respectable .279.

    He finished last season strong, giving fans hope for the future. The former Minnesota Twins' athleticism and defensive ability are unmatched, which makes him an important player for the Nationals moving forward. 

No. 9: Adam LaRoche

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    The 2011 acquisition of Adam LaRoche disgruntled a portion of the Nationals fanbase that was faithful to the power-hitting fan favorite Adam Dunn, who preceded LaRoche's tenure at first base for Washington. 

    Nevertheless, LaRoche has proved to be a valuable asset. Winning NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards during his first year in the nation's capital, he has displayed his worth in the field and at the plate.

    At 34 years old, he clocks in as the Nats' third oldest player, and he brings the experience that comes with being a savvy veteran.

    His ability to pick balls out of the dirt at first base, however, sets him apart. Between Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder troubles and Rendon getting acquainted to a brand-new position at second base, the 10-year veteran was forced to bail out his teammates time and again on infield ground balls.

    Despite the defensive infield inconsistency, LaRoche was still able to post an impressive fielding percentage of .991 in 2013.  

No. 8: Jordan Zimmermann

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    Coming into 2013, Jordan Zimmermann had recorded just one complete game and no shutouts in his first four seasons. In Year 5, the former second-round pick tossed two shutouts and four complete games, along with winning a career-high 19 games, being a Cy Young candidate and earning a selection to his first All-Star Game.

    From a torn ligament and subsequent Tommy John surgery in late 2009, his success hasn't come easy, but the now 27-year-old is quietly sneaking into the conversation about the team's best starting pitcher.

    Zimmerman's strikeout numbers have improved every year he's been a pro, climaxing with 161 fans in 2013. He shows no signs of slowing down as the Nats' No. 3 starting pitcher. 

No. 7: Gio Gonzalez

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    Not many Washington fans were expecting Gio Gonzalez to be a 20-game winner, a Cy Young candidate and an All-Star when he arrived, but the former Oakland Athletics pitcher continues to blow fans away, as well as batters.

    The combination of his pitching repertoire and the fact that he's a southpaw makes him a hot commodity and a valuable asset. 

    The 28-year-old has fanned 399 batters in two years with the Nats and is only getting better. Gonzalez will look to build on his impressive numbers and continue to be one of Washington's best pitchers in 2014.

No. 6: Stephen Strasburg

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    Like Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg has come a long way from his 2010 Tommy John surgery. From the relentless pressure that accompanied being a No. 1 overall pick to a difficult surgery and recovery to a controversial 2012 late-season shutdown, he has handled every hardship that's come his way with grace and humility.

    As a full-time starter, he posted an 8-9 record in 2013, which was not the least bit reflective of his body of work. Washington's ace pitcher received an average run support of just 3.47.

    Strasburg also struck out 9.39 batters per nine innings—fourth in the National League—and posted a very respectable 3.00 ERA.

    Another important stride that he made was to display his longevity by pitching his first career complete-game shutout in August 2013 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

    With a clean bill of health, an offense that figures to improve and further removal from the injuries that once hindered him, Strasburg is poised to have perhaps the best season of his career.

No. 5: Ian Desmond

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    Ian Desmond is coming off arguably the best season of his MLB career. Winning the National League's Sliver Slugger award for the second consecutive season, he topped career highs in both doubles and RBI with 38 and 80, respectively.

    The 28-year-old has also improved defensively every year. In 2010, he posted a .947 fielding percentage, followed by .966 in 2011, .970 in 2012 and .971 in 2013. 

    Entering his sixth year with the Nats, the Sarasota, Fla. native is a proven talent who is a good leader and has been with the team for some time now.

No. 4: Bryce Harper

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    Bryce Harper is no doubt a fan favorite among the Washington faithful. The 21-year-old center fielder has proved himself again and again in the field, on the basepath and at the plate.

    The only true five-tool player on this team, Harper even improved last year, as evident by the fact that he had 100 fewer plate appearances in his sophomore season, and yet his doubles, home runs and RBI numbers were virtually the same from Year 1 to Year 2.

    The former No. 1 overall pick has arguably the highest ceiling of any player on the team and may already be the most talented.

No. 3: Doug Fister

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    Doug Fister may not be the best starting pitcher on the roster, but he's perhaps the most important.

    Washington had high hopes in 2012 and 2013 for its No. 4 spot in the starting rotation but ended up disappointed in Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren—who went one year and done with the Nats and collected nearly $24 million in the process.

    Fister has more playoff experience than any pitcher on the roster and is coming off a season in which he struck out a career-high 159 batters.

    His play at the bottom half of the starting pitching rotation has the ability to make or break the Nationals' season.

No. 2: Ryan Zimmerman

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    Ryan Zimmerman's 2013 campaign wasn't his finest. The main knock on the third baseman was his inability to complete plays on routine ground balls. This was primarily due to lingering shoulder pain that stemmed from arthroscopic surgery following the 2012 season, which was temporarily kept at bay by cortisone injections.

    He explained the rationale for his erratic play on the corner, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:

    Physically, I couldn’t tell because nothing hurt. Mentally, I knew something was happening. I felt like I was a lot more consistent of a player. I’d go through times where I was fine, and I’d go through times where I was absolutely horrible.

    The former first-round pick posted a career-low .945 fielding percentage. At the plate, his .275 batting average, despite being a career low, was good enough to place him fifth on the team in that category.

    For all the adversity he went through, he still managed to lead the Nationals with 26 home runs and 84 runs scored. 

    Zimmerman is the only player who has seen all that Washington has to offer, from its five dead-last division finishes in nine years to its climactic NL East Championship in 2012. Nobody knows this organization better, and it's difficult to make an argument for any player being more important...although we will.

No. 1: Jayson Werth

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    From the fans grumbling about his massive $126 million contract to injuries and inconsistent performance in 2011 and 2012, Jayson Werth has taken his lumps since his arrival in Washington. But when push comes to shove, the Nationals cannot afford to lose him. He is the most indispensable player on the roster.

    In 2013, he led the Nationals in runs scored and runs batted in, as well as achieving a career-high .318 batting average.

    He is a fan favorite, a presence at the plate and a solid fielder. The 34-year-old right fielder provides an unparalleled level of leadership by not only being the Nationals' oldest player but by being the team's only member to have won a World Series. That attribute sets the former All-Star apart from his closely finishing teammate at third base. 

    Werth has become a household name, and with four years remaining on his contract, it's not out of the question that he will play his final days in a Washington uniform.