One year after sky-high expectations filtered through Viera, Fla., the Washington Nationals will arrive back this month better suited to achieve greatness and capture a championship.
After a disappointing 86-76 campaign last season, the Nationals are a year older, more mature, stronger in the rotation and led by a new manager. That combination could be good enough to ensure a postseason berth and deep run through October.
In 2011, the Nationals had potential. In 2012, they had swagger, talent and drive. In 2013, they underachieved, seemingly in a haze from the minute the exhibition season started. This year, the talent on the roster, leadership in the dugout and prescient moves by a smart, aggressive front office are poised to deliver on big expectations.
Of course, doubt will exist until this franchise wins its first postseason series since moving to Washington.
As the team trickles into Space Coast Stadium, here's a spring training preview for the 2014 Washington Nationals.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
When Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish broke the story of the Nationals trading for Detroit Tigers starter Doug Fister, two storylines emerged: An 18-year-old scooping the national media on a major deal and the Nationals adding one of the best pitchers in the sport to an already stacked rotation.
In Washington, the latter subplot is important.
Any rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez is very good, but adding Fister to the mix makes it the best group in all of baseball.
Credit Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo for pulling the trigger, shipping "nothing," as Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote, for a pitcher that owns a 2.07 career postseason ERA and is 10th in WAR among starting pitchers over the last three years.
Although the trio of Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi is far from nothing, the Nationals virtually stole an excellent pitcher to add to their already tremendous starting rotation.
With a stacked roster, few moves were needed outside of adding an impact lefty in the bullpen and reserve outfielder for the bench. Through separate moves for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins and outfielder Nate McLouth, both needs were met by the Nationals' front office.
Blevins, acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics, has held opposing lefties to a .636 OPS during his seven-year career. In a division that is home to left-handed sluggers like Freddie Freeman, Curtis Granderson, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Blevins will have a major role in Washington's bullpen.
McLouth, 32, stole 42 bases and played excellent defense during his two-year stint in Baltimore. If Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth stay healthy all season, McLouth can serve as a capable pinch runner and defensive replacement. If an injury occurs to a starter, he can play every day.
Currently, a blank space appears when searching for "Projected Disabled List" on the Nationals' projected roster.
That's a relief for a team that battled a myriad of injury issues last season. A quick look at the 2013 Nationals serves as a cautionary tale for health. Bryce Harper (3.8 bWAR) and Jayson Werth (4.8 bWAR), both missed 30-plus games due to injuries. Yet, they were still two of the three most valuable position players on the roster.
For this team to reach its potential, full years will be needed from projected starters.
During spring, keep an eye on daily reports surrounding Harper and left-handed starter Ross Detwiler.
After dealing with knee issues last season, Harper is healthy and bigger heading into the 2014 season. As Peter Gammons of Gammons Daily articulated, he needs to stop running into walls and focus on playing 160 games. If that occurs, his star will rise to amazing heights.
Detwiler, part of a competition for a rotation spot, is healthy and ready to get an early start this spring. In 2012, the lefty started 27 games for a postseason-bound team. Last year, due to back and oblique issues, he was limited to 13 mostly ineffective outings. The 27-year-old recently told reporters that he had a normal offseason, per James Wagner of The Washington Post.
“After instructs, I proved my health to everybody and to myself,” Detwiler said. “And then had a normal offseason. Starting throwing a little sooner this year with all the time off. I feel like I’m ready to go already and am itching to get back out there.”
There's a new sheriff in town.
Matt Williams, the former All-Star third baseman, has graduated from Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach to new manager of the Washington Nationals. The first-year manager may lack experience, but don't expect that to hold him back as camp opens.
In fact, his preparation for the early days on the job is remarkably thorough. According to James Wagner of The Washington Post, Williams has virtually every minute of spring training planned out for his club.
That philosophy, far different than the laid back manager he's replacing, Davey Johnson, could be a great thing for a club that didn't find its traction until late in the 2013 season. The Nationals need to prepare to play well in April. Under Williams' plan, they'll be more than ready.
Furthermore, the new skipper is looking for any edge he can give his team, especially on defense. He explains the strengths of his roster in this video, but that's just the start. By hiring Mark Weidemaier as a "defensive coordination advance coach," Williams is showing a commitment to limiting runs any way he can.
"I believe that's very important," Williams said of having someone focus on defensive positioning and alignment, per Andrew Simon of MLB.com. "I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game."
Along with Williams and Weidemaier, the 2013 staff has been retained, with one addition: Matt LeCroy has left his job as Double-A Harrisburg manager to join the Nationals as a bullpen coach.
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
3. Bryce Harper, LF
4. Jayson Werth, RF
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Anthony Rendon or Danny Espinosa, 2B
Tyler Moore, IF/OF
Jhonatan Solano, C
Scott Hairston, OF
Nate McLouth, OF
In this group, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman generate the majority of the headlines. Considering their talent and impact on the franchise, that's totally understandable. If they hit, the Nationals will score plenty of runs this summer.
Yet, two other star-level hitters—Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond—are very important to this Nationals attack. In fact, if Werth and Desmond both stay healthy for 150 games in the same season, something that hasn't happened since 2011, Washington can make the jump from 15th in runs scored to top five in baseball.
Werth, after battling leg issues early last season, posted a 1.006 OPS from June 8 through the end of the season. Entering his age-34 season, the former big-ticket free-agent signing is on the cusp of making the Nationals look smart for paying him $126 million after the 2010 season.
Somehow, Ian Desmond still isn't a household name. If he continues to hit and rakes in October, that should change soon. Over the last four years, no shortstop in baseball has more extra-base hits (202) than Desmond. Anyone who can trump Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes and Jhonny Peralta over a four-year span deserves some attention.
Projected starting rotation:
1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP
2. Gio Gonzalez, LHP
3. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP
4. Doug Fister, RHP
5. Ross Detwiler, LHP, Tanner Roark, RHP or Taylor Jordan, RHP
The Nationals have a chance to boast one of the best rotations in the history of baseball. No folks, that's not hyperbole. It's a fact based on the talent, ability and track records of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.
Consider this: At different points of their respective careers, all four of the Nationals' big-name starters have had seasons in which their ERA+ was 120 or better. If the quartet can all duplicate that type of success in 2014, they'll be in rare company.
Since 1901, only three rotations have accomplished that feat. For the sake of this argument, let's eliminate the 1904 Boston Americans and 1909 Philadelphia Athletics from the conversation. That leaves just one group: The 1997 Atlanta Braves.
If the Nationals' top four starters pitch to their capabilities, they'll join Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle among the annals of best rotations ever.
CL: Rafael Soriano, RHP
SU: Tyler Clippard, RHP
SU: Drew Storen, RHP
MID: Craig Stammen, RHP
MID: Ryan Mattheus, RHP
MID: Jerry Blevins, LHP
LR: Ross Ohlendorf, RHP
Last season, the Nationals boasted a bullpen with three former closers—Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Coupled with their excellent performance in 2012 (3.23 ERA, seventh in MLB), it was hard to be anything but optimistic about this group.
Although they weren't bad, the Nationals clearly regressed. By slipping to 17th in MLB in bullpen ERA (3.56), the Nationals watched a strong unit become average.
In response, the Nationals, well, didn't do much. Instead of spending free-agent dollars on proven relievers like Grant Balfour or Joaquin Benoit, the team traded for the useful Jerry Blevins and is hoping Drew Storen can regain the form that made him a top closer years ago.
After returning from a stint in Triple-A, Storen pitched well from mid-August through the end of the season, allowing only three runs in nearly 20 innings of work. If he can harness that form this spring, the Nationals bullpen could profile as a strength once again.
For a team with World Series aspirations, it won't be easy for prospects to emerge as serious contributors. However, look for three to make headlines during spring training: A.J. Cole, Matt Skole and Brian Goodwin.
All three have been invited as nonroster invitees to Nationals camp, per the official team website.
Cole, in his second stint with the organization after being re-acquired in last winter's trade of Mike Morse, had a strong season in 2013, including an invitation to the Futures Game in July. The 22-year-old starter is the fourth-best prospect in Washington's farm system, per MLB Depth Charts.
After missing nearly all of 2013 with an elbow injury, Matt Skole, the best power-hitting prospect in the organization, per Mark Zuckerman of CSN Washington, is back in camp for the second straight spring. During his time in the minors, the 24-year-old has posted a .510 slugging percentage.
Brian Goodwin is the only outfielder currently listed among the Nationals' nonroster invitees. With Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth and Tyler Moore all capable of playing the outfield, the Nationals aren't in need of a reserve right now. But don't let that dissuade you from keeping an eye on Goodwin.
For this 23-year-old prospect, speed is worth the price of admission. If Goodwin can improve his hitting ability and walk rate, his stolen base numbers are sure to rise, per MLB.com's Bernie Pleskoff. As the top-ranked prospect in the organization, many eyes will be locked on to Goodwin's development this spring.
Since arriving in the big leagues, Stephen Strasbug and Bryce Harper have been two of the most prolific young players in the sport.
In 2014, they are poised to shed "young" from that label.
Breakout players can be under the radar. In this case, they are a pair of dynamic talents on the cusp of superstardom.
Let's start with Harper.
When a player begins his career in the fashion that Harper has over the last two years, the sky is the limit for future production and dominance. In the history of the sport, only two batters—Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro—hit more home runs than the 42 that Harper has slugged through his age-20 season. Phenoms like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson all started their careers with less power production at the same age.
We're still years away from Harper's prime, but health, added strength and opposite-field power can lift him to unheard-of heights as early as this coming season.
For Strasburg, it may be hard for him to ever truly top his opening act in Major League Baseball. When baseball's best pitching prospect strikes out 14 batters in his first outing, impressing fans becomes a hard feat to accomplish.
However, if you look closely, a consistent and dominant ace is about to emerge for the Nationals.
Over the last two years, 20 starting pitchers have matched or exceeded Strasburg's 48.1 percent ground-ball rate. Of that group, only one—Felix Hernandez—has posted a K/9 mark of at least 9.0 during that same time frame. The ability to keep the ball on the ground and strikeout a batter per inning is a recipe for dominance. By the way, Strasburg's K/9 rate since 2012 trumps Hernandez's (10.2-9.6).
If the Nationals can count on Strasburg for his first 200-inning season, a legitimate competitor to Clayton Kershaw will emerge in the National League Cy Young race.
Second Base Battle: Anthony Rendon versus Danny Espinosa
As my fellow B/R MLB Lead Writer Jason Martinez explained here, Rendon is the favorite to keep this job and emerge as an excellent player for the Nationals. However, don't count out the 26-year-old Espinosa from having a big spring and pushing Rendon for his old starting position.
Luckily for these two talented players, the loser isn't headed back to Triple-A for more apprenticeship and at-bats. For a Nationals team in search of division title, depth and bench play will be vital. The loser of the second base war, likely Espinosa, will become a weapon off the bench for Matt Williams.
No. 5 Starter Battle: Ross Detwiler, LHP versus Tanner Roark, RHP versus Taylor Jordan, RHP
If healthy, the job belongs to Detwiler. During the 2012 season, the southpaw was a big part of Washington's success and trip to October. His stuff, despite not leading to many strikeouts, is nasty and complements the top starters in Washington's rotation.
Roark and Jordan can each steal the job, but it's unlikely that either will be with the team in April unless an injury hits the rotation or Detwiler has a setback in his return from a difficult 2013 season.
What is your biggest concern about the Washington Nationals as spring training begins?
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