A Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Washington Nationals at Spring Training
As the arrival of the 2014 MLB season approaches, expectations couldn't be any higher for the Washington Nationals. Combining for 184 wins over the past two seasons, the 2012 National League East champions have made minor moves to shore up weak spots in both their pitching rotation and batting lineup.
With a week and change of spring training in the books, the Nats have gotten a good look at many of their newly acquired players, such as Doug Fister and Nate McLouth.
Washington has also been delighted with what it's seen from young prospects like Matt Skole.
With just a week separating Washington from the New York Mets, its first spring training opponent, here's a breakdown of what can be expected from each position going forward based on last season's performance, moving on from injuries or any other early spring training developments.
Likely starters, excluding pitchers, are placed at the top of each slide's position group. Projections are aimed for opening day 2014. If a likely starter receives 99%, then that player will more than likely start barring something catastrophic and unforeseen.
In terms of starting pitching, the Nationals' 2014 vision is reasonably similar to that of last year. 2013 All-Star Jordan Zimmermann will return, likely in the third spot of the rotation, with Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg above him.
As reported by Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's Dan Kolko, Strasburg's main focus for the spring is improving when it comes to holding runners. In 2013, the former No. 1 overall pick allowed 71 total runs resulting from 205 baserunners—an output of .35 runs per runner, the worst of Strasburg's career.
Nothing newsworthy has come of Gonzalez's first week of spring training. The former 20-game winner figures to continue his dominance, coming off of his fourth consecutive season with double-digit wins.
The most intriguing starting pitcher has been Doug Fister. The former Detroit Tiger has impressed his Washington counterparts with his breaking ball thus far, particularly second baseman Anthony Rendon.
"He was throwing it from the sky and it's running at your ankles," Rendon said. "He was good. He's phenomenal. He's tall and lanky, but he's fluid with it. He knows what he's doing. He's just so composed out there and the ball just (dives) the last five-to-eight feet."
The 30-year-old hopes to mend the ever-dynamic fourth spot in the Nationals' pitching rotation, which has been less than ideal over the past couple of years.
Between 2012's and 2013's No. 4 starter, Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren posted losing records and each recorded an ERA over 4.00.
The fifth spot in Washington's pitching rotation is up for grabs. No front-runner has been indicated, but the candidates likely include Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan.
Detwiler, the only southpaw of the three, posted an abysmal 2-7 record as a starter in 2013, but was hampered by injuries. Jordan started nine games in his rookie season, posting a 1-3 record, and Roark shined in his first-year campaign, recording a 1.51 ERA to go with a 7-1 record.
Likely handling close to full-time closing duty will once again be Rafael Soriano. The 34-year-old closer recorded 43 saves for Washington in 66.2 innings pitched in 2013. The Dominican Republic native also has a $14 million option that will vest if he finishes 62 games or more this year, as reported by Aaron Gleeman of NBC Sports.
Likely not of concern, setup man Tyler Clippard missed a decent amount of time in spring training's first week nursing a minor back issue, as reported by MASN's Dan Kolko.
Similarly, Ryan Mattheus has also been sidelined with a chest injury early on, but it's thought to not be serious.
Christian Garcia has been the most newsworthy Nationals reliever through week two of spring training. Garcia missed large stretches of the 2013 season due to injuries and made multiple trips to and from the disabled list.
The 28-year-old Miami, Fla. native showed flashes of brilliance in his brief 2012 stint, striking out 15 batters in 12.2 innings and posting a 2.13 ERA. While the serving size is small, manager Matt Williams and his staff are excited about what the former third-round pick has to offer coming off of injury. Garcia is optimistic about his return.
"Every time I get hurt, I know I'm going to come back," Garcia said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that I won't come back, because I won't let myself not come back. It was, I guess, reassuring that I was able to get out there and be able to do it for a month straight without getting hurt. So that was fun, knowing I could get out there and not get hurt."
Likely Starter: Wilson Ramos 95%
Potential Starter: Jose Lobaton 5%
With Wilson Ramos healthy, the 26-year-old catcher figures to handle the majority of the catching responsibilities in 2014.
The former Minnesota Twin was a spark plug offensively for Washington in 2013, blasting 16 home runs and recording 59 RBI in just 78 games.
Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon will return in similar roles to last season, likely receiving spot starts and filling the role of reserve catchers.
While the other three catchers are pretty firmly in place, most eyes around Nationals camp have hovered around the newly acquired Jose Lobaton.
Filling the spot of the vacated Kurt Suzuki, Lobaton batted .249 and drove in 32 runs with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. While these numbers aren't stellar, they're a display of consistent improvement throughout the course of his short career.
Lobaton posted career highs in every major statistical batting category in 2013, including doubles, triples, RBI and home runs. Further, he acknowledges his shortcomings at the plate and his ambition to improve, as reported by MASN's Dan Kolko.
"Hitting. That was the key last year," Lobaton said. "Defensively, I think I can do better and better. Hitting was my, you could say, my negative thing in baseball. Last year, I was doing better. I was swinging different, and just little things I was able to do in the game, everything changed. Now I feel good with that."
Lobaton provides postseason experience and bolsters a competitive pool of Washington catchers.
Likely Starter: Adam LaRoche: 99%
Long-Shot: Tyler Moore 1%
Returning at first base for his fourth season in Washington will be Adam LaRoche. Aside from growing a considerably thick beard, Jayson Werth is clean physically. The surgically removed bone chip that bothered the 11th-year big leaguer, reported by the Washington Post's James Wagner, has been rectified and is good to go.
LaRoche gave his full health report to MASN's Dan Kolko.
I didn't notice it until Arizona, the last series. I think I missed the last two games. I just did something swinging. Apparently there was a bone chip that was floating in there and probably had been there awhile and then just got lodged in a spot where it was hitting a nerve and wouldn't come out. So they ended up going in and taking two or three out. So far, so good. It gets a little sore from time to time, especially now that I'm throwing a little more. It was frustrating, because going into the offseason I was really planning to put some weight back on and get stronger, and then that was a setback. But it is what it is. I feel good now.
Tyler Moore will likely serve as a solid utility player that will see action at first base.
The most intriguing first base development, however, is Ryan Zimmerman's introduction to life at the opposite corner of the diamond.
Zimmerman recorded a .945 fielding percentage in 2013, his worst production since becoming a full-time starter. A long time coming, the nine-year veteran's absorption into first base is already beginning. Zimmerman was often scrutinized for his odd throwing motion resulting from 2012 shoulder surgery, as reported by the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore.
Williams weighed in on Zimmerman's outlook for 2014.
"He's going to be playing third base 99 percent of the time," Williams said. "But we want to make sure that he's comfortable over there. That happens in early work. That happens in extra work. He's told me he's more than willing to do that and excited about doing that."
Likely Starter: Anthony Rendon 65%
Potential Starter: Danny Espinosa 35%
Second base is likely the biggest mystery for the Nationals at this point. The incumbent, Anthony Rendon, is coming off of a fairly impressive rookie season in which the youngster made the move from third base to second base and responded nicely.
The former first-round pick posted a respectable .976 fielding percentage at his new position versus .868 at his old one. The Arlington, Texas native also drove in 35 runs while batting .265 on the season.
Nevertheless, Williams suggests that the position is up for grabs. As reported by MASN's Dan Kolko, Williams referred to second base as "an open competition with no favorite at this point."
Rendon's challenger, Danny Espinosa, lost favor with retired manager Davey Johnson after a rough start to 2013. The switch-hitter was subsequently moved around between farm teams and finished the 2013 season with a career-low .158 batting average.
Likely Starter: Ryan Zimmerman 99%
Long-Shot: Matt Skole 1%
The longest-tenured Washington player, Ryan Zimmerman returns once again for his 10th season at third base for the Nationals. The former All-Star didn't have the best 2013, striking out a career-high 133 times. All in all, the savvy veteran was reliable at the plate, driving in 79 runs and leading the Nationals with 26 home runs.
With Zimmerman's work beginning at first base and his eventual move not far over the horizon, the Nationals have set their sights on exciting young prospect Matt Skole.
Back from a torn Ulnar collateral ligament in 2013, reported by MASN's Dan Kolko, Skole is ready to put the injury in his past and improve as a player.
I've put (the injury) behind me completely. I go out there on the field and I don't even think about it. I don't think about the surgery, I don't think about what happened last year. That's over. Everything that happened then, I got through it, I rehabbed and I got better. Now I'm ready to go. I'm 100 percent. And it's just nice to be out there running around and just playing with everybody again.
Williams has likened Skole's opposite-field power to that of five-time All-Star Jim Thome, per Kolko.
Likely Starter: Ian Desmond 99%
Long-Shot: Danny Espinosa 1%
Manning shortstop will again be Ian Desmond, back for his sixth season. Desmond excelled in 2013, recording a .280 batting average and a career-high 80 runs batted in
Joining Desmond to add depth will likely be Danny Espinosa. Still competing for the starting job at second base, Espinosa gives the Nationals the opportunity to gain depth at shortstop, a thin position in recent years.
Williams commented on his plan for Espinosa getting work at both second base and shortstop, according to MASN's Dan Kolko.
He's been playing both positions. And I envision him doing that. Depending on how his spring goes, but I envision him being able to play short. He's very good over there and as we talk about it and as we think about it, if there is a situation where Ian needs a day or he's going to be out for four or five days. You know, he gets hit with a ball or whatever it is, you need somebody that can step in and play that position and play it effectively. So he'll work both places. But today he was at short mostly and he'll flip-flop back and forth. But he's a guy that can certainly play it at a very high caliber so we want to make sure that he gets his work there as well.
Fielding continues to be Espinosa's premium, regardless of where he lines up on the diamond. He's fond of what the game offers him at shortstop, per Kolko.
I love it. I love taking my ground balls at short. It's a fun place to take ground balls because the plays are more challenging. You get to move your feet a little more. You work around balls to a different angle. I love being over there and taking ground balls. I really enjoy it.
Time will reveal Espinosa's fate in terms of positioning. Regardless of where he ends up, he's another quality fielding option, and that's never a bad thing.
Likely Starter (Left to Right): Bryce Harper 99%, Denard Span 99%, Jayson Werth 99%
Long-Shot: Tyler Moore, Nate McLouth 1%
From left to right, Washington's outfielding duties will continue to be handled by Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth.
Year one of the Span era got off to a rocky start. It wasn't until the former Minnesota Twin ripped off a franchise-record 29-game hitting streak that he really hit his stride. 2013 also marked the second time in five years that Span led his league in triples, this time with 11 (American League leader with 10 in 2009).
Harper is back and healthy, free from a knee injury that hindered his late-season efforts and resulted in offseason surgery in 2013, as first reported by the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore.
Coming off of a season in which the former first-round pick drove in 58 runs in just 118 games, Harper feels good about his prognosis moving forward—according to MASN's Dan Kolko.
"I feel good. I have no problem with it at all, no soreness," Harper said. "It doesn't hurt at all. I feel good swinging and running. I'm doing cuts and things like that. I feel fine. My mobility is good. I feel like my strength is there, too. I feel very good."
Werth led the Nationals with 82 runs batted in in 2013. The former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder also achieved a career-high .318 batting average and remains the only player on the roster to have won a World Series, providing valuable experience and veteran leadership.
Beyond the Nationals core outfielding starters, the Dec. 6, 2013 signing of Nate McLouth—as reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports—adds another quality bat and much-needed outfield depth.
With 3,575 plate appearances, McLouth has stepped to the dish more times than any outfielder on the roster besides Werth. Further, the nine-year veteran is versatile and capable of playing all three outfield spots.
While it won't be an easy adjustment for the former Baltimore Oriole to go from being an everyday player to one that comes off the bench, McLouth is embracing his new role and is excited to become an effective pinch hitter.
When you see those situations that may present themselves later in the game to where you'll be involved, you're ready. That's, I think, the hardest thing to do in baseball, to be a good pinch-hitter. The key is, you get one at-bat but you can't think of it like that. You can't put all your eggs in one basket and think I've only got one chance. Because then if you don't come through, you're crushed. You feel like you wasted the game. You really just have to treat it like any at-bat. Sometimes you're going to be successful, sometimes you're not.
McLouth batted .258 and hit 12 home runs in 2013. With his experience and ability, Washington may very well end up with four starting outfielders. Either way, if anyone needs a rest, they'll certainly get one.
Stats acquired via Baseball Reference.