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Washington Nationals: 2011 Preview and Prediction Extravaganza

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Washington Nationals: 2011 Preview and Prediction Extravaganza
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After an up-and-down winter and an encouraging spring, the Washington Nationals start their 2011 campaign Thursday with a matinee matchup with the Atlanta Braves.

While every Nationals fan is salivating over what 2012 and 2013 may bring, 2011 will be an interesting and important year for the organization going forward. Let this season forever be known as "The Foundation."

For now, Nats fans will have to do without Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and just be happy that they have the opportunity to watch a competitive team, day in and day out—something Nats fans haven't been able to do since 2005.

Will the team approach 80 wins? Who knows? But the fact that we can even discuss that possibility has to put a smile on the face of every Nationals fan.

Let's get to the preview.

 

ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS

If I were to sum up the Nationals offseason in a tweet, it would look something like this:

Werth got paid, Donkey and Hammer are gone, whiffed on an ace, and like when he tries to steal bases, Nyjer is OUT #2012orBUST

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Is it 2012 yet?

But really the Nationals had their most active offseason since they moved to Washington in 2005, and for the first time since the move the Nationals actually seem to have a plan in place.

Aside from center field, a position that has troubled the Nats since day one, the Nationals have a player at every position that we know will be there next season as well. Gone are the days of Vinny Castilla and Odalis Perez.

 

KEY ADDITIONS and GRADES

Jayson Werth: A-, would have been an A+ if not for the fact that the Nationals paid $25 million more than anyone else would have. 

Adam LaRoche: A, The guy hit 25 home runs and knocked in 100 RBI last year. He is certainly an upgrade over Adam Dunn defensively, and he is not much of a downgrade offensively. He may be the most underrated signing of the offseason—especially at $6 million per year.

Rick Ankiel: C-, Rick Ankiel is a good left-handed bat off the bench, but he is not a starting center fielder, especially for a team with a defense-first philosophy. The Nats like his strong arm, but what good is an arm if you can't get to the balls?

Jerry Hairston Jr.: C, Good addition to the bench, but if he gets more than 300 at-bats, the Nats are in trouble.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
LaRoche will be a hit in DC

Laynce Nix: B, Getting Nix, who played a lot for the division-winning Reds last year, on a minor league deal was a great move. Nix can hit a ton, and being a lefty, he adds to the dynamism of the bench.

Tom Gorzelanny: C+, Mike Rizzo didn't have to give up much for Gorzelanny, but getting the lefty from the Cubs was not a great consolation prize after failing to land an ace. Having said that, he does add depth to the starting rotation, but here's hoping that Ross Detwiller supplants him by year's end.

 

KEY SUBTRACTION and GRADES

Adam Dunn: B-, In letting Dunn walk, the Nationals gave up a ton of power and on-base ability. But the Nationals are going the defensive route these days, and Dunn did not fit into the plans. It was a tough move, but it had to be done.

Josh Willingham: D, This move looks even worse after the Nyjer Morgan trade. If the Nationals would have been more decisive and gotten rid of Morgan sooner, they could have kept Willingham in left, put Werth in center, and placed Morse in right. Is that defensive trio any worse than the current one?

Jason Bergman: A, Can you believe that this guy was starting the season in the starting rotation a couple of years ago? Just goes to show how far the Nationals have come in Mike Rizzo's short time as GM.

How do you feel about the Nyjer Morgan trade?

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Adam Kennedy: B+, A huge disappointment in 2010. We knew he was limited with the stick, but he was a sieve at second base.

Nyjer Morgan: C-, Morgan is a better player than his 2010 statistics suggest and this deal would have been better if it happened in November, when the Nats would have been able to go after a legitimate center fielder and not been stuck with Ankiel.

 

ROSTER

Lineup:

1. SS Ian Desmond, 2010: .269/.308/.392, 10 HR, 65 RBI, 17 SB, 59 R

2. RF Jayson Werth, 2010: .296/.388/.532, 27 HR, 85 RBI, 13 SB, 106 R

3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman, 2010: .307/.388/.510, 25 HR, 85 RBI, 4 SB, 85 R

4. 1B Adam LaRoche, 2010: .261/.320/.468, 25 HR, 100 RBI, 75 R

5. LF Mike Morse, 2010: .289/.352/.519, 15 HR, 41 RBI, 36 R

6. CF Rick Ankiel, 2010: .232/.321/.389, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 3 SB, 31 R

Who should lead off?

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7. C Ivan Rodriguez, 2010: .266/.294/.347, 4 HR, 49 RBI, 2 SB, 32 R

8. SS Danny Espinosa, 2010: .214/.277/.447 6 HR, 15 RBI, 16 R

9. Pitcher

Grade: B, If Ankiel can return to his 2008 form, this could be a pretty formidable lineup. There's no one with huge power, but by committee the Nats will hit a lot of home runs—maybe double-digit outputs at each position. The key is whether or not Morse can keep hitting when the games actually count.

For now, Werth is batting second, which I like but don't see lasting. By the end of the year, I see Espinosa hitting lead off with Desmond sliding down to second, where he hit .326 last year.

 

Bench:

INF Alex Cora, L, 2010: .210/.266/.278, 0 HR, 20 RBI, 4 SB, 14 R

OF Jerry Hairston Jr., R, 2010: .244/.299/.353 10 HR, 50 RBI, 9 SB, 53 R

OF Laynce Nix, L, 2010: .291/.350/.455, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 16 R

OF Matt Stairs, L, 2010: .232/.306/.475, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 2 SB, 14 R

Who should close?

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C Wilson Ramos, R, 2010: .278/.305/.405, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 22 R

Grade: C+, By far the best bench the Nationals have ever had, but it may be a little too left-handed. You can't pinch-hit your back-up catcher, so Hairston is the only right-handed option. Cora is a great glove off the bench, and Nix and Stairs provide the power. Ramos may be starting by year's end.

 

Rotation:

1. Livan Hernandez, RHP

2. John Lannan, RHP

3. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

4. Jason Marquis, RHP

5. Tom Gorzelanny, LHP

Grade: C, No way Livo is putting up a 3.66 ERA again. Lannan should be good for an ERA in the high 3s/low 4s. Zimmermann could be really good, but the Nats will shut him down after 150 innings—if he can get there. Marquis should be a lot better, but who knows how much better and he'll be gone by August. Gorzelanny is a decent fifth starter, but he may be in and out of the rotation as the season progresses.

How much is Zimmerman worth?

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Bullpen:

Closer(s): Drew Storen, RHP and Sean Burnett, LHP

SU: Tyler Clippard, RHP

MRPs: Todd Coffey, RHP, Doug Slaten, LHP, Brian Broderick, RHP

LRP: Chad Gaudin, RHP

Grade: B+, Jim Riggleman relied heavily on the 'pen in 2010, and it came through almost every time. Once again, the bullpen should be a strength. The Nats will use the infamous closer-by-committee approach with Storen and Burnett, but by the end of the year, one of these guys will emerge as the lone closer. Storen had an up-and-down spring, while Burnett picked up where he left off in 2010. If Clippard can do the same, the Nats should be able to win a lot of those one-run games that are so vital if the team is going to approach .500. 

 

5 STORY LINES TO WATCH

 

1. Ryan Zimmerman's Contract Extension

Zimmerman is set to become a free agent in 2013, and some baseball insiders say if he gets to that point, he will command as much as $300 million. The Nationals need to sign him as soon as possible if they want to avoid such a high price tag or Zim pulling a LeBron and taking his talents elsewhere. Zimmerman has already stated that if a deal is not done by next year, he'll probably just wait it out until free agency.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Jordan Zimmermann

 

2. Jim Riggleman's Contract

In 2010, Riggleman enters the final guaranteed year of his contract; the Nationals have the option whether or not to retain him for 2011. If the Nationals continue to improve, they will likely take that option. If not, the Nats will probably look elsewhere.

 

3. The Young Guns

The 2010 Nationals roster is full of young, developing talent; their performance this season will dictate how the team will approach next year's offseason. Are Desmond and Espinosa the answer up the middle? Can Zimmermann be a number two starter behind Strasburg? Does Storen have what it takes to close? Is Ramos as good as advertised? Can Ross Detwiller finally stick in the majors?

We're about to find out.

 

4. Is Werth Worth It?

A lot of pressure comes with signing a $126 million contract. It will be interesting to see how Werth handles the pressure of being the guy after years of living in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley's shadow for years. At least he'll have Zimmerman to help shoulder the load.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Zimmerman, 26, is just entering his prime

 

5. Jason Marquis, Trade Bait

With only a year left on his contract, Marquis' chances of remaining on the Nationals' roster by August range between slim and none. Hopefully, Marquis pitches well enough for the Nationals to get something in return for the $15 million they shelled out for him last winter.

 

5 RANDOM PREDICTIONS

 

1. Ryan Zimmerman Will Finish in the Top 5 of MVP Voting

Zimmerman has never had an on-base guy in front of him until now. If the lead-off guy can also get on base, Zimmerman should get a lot of RBI opportunities. With LaRoche and Morse behind him, pitchers cannot pitch around him, so he'll get a lot of balls he can drive. And Zimmerman is 26, which is the age when most players hit their prime.

In 142 games last year, Zim hit 25 homers and drove in 85; this year he'll hit over 30 bombs and drive in around 120. That type of production plus his gold glove defense has to put him in the running for NL MVP.

Who will win the NL East

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2. Ian Desmond Will Spend Time in the Minors at One Point This Season

Ian Desmond is not a lead-off man. He does not get on base enough, and he strikes out too much. He'll struggle in that role, which will carry over when he is eventually moved. He'll find his groove in the minors and come back a better player though—hitting second behind Espinosa, that is.

 

3. Ross Detwiller Will Start at Least 15 Games

I don't trust anyone in the Nationals rotation to be there all year. Ross Detwiller is a major-leaguer, and he will prove it when he gets his chance.

 

4. Mike Morse Will Hit More Home Runs Than Jayson Werth

This is not a knock on Werth; he'll hit his 30. I just see Morse having a Jose Bautista-esque break-out year. No, he won't hit 54 home runs, but he'll hit close to 35 if he gets enough at-bats. I would have tabbed Morse for more, but I don't see him getting enough pitches to hit with Ankiel as his protection.

 

5. Jordan Zimmermann Will Lead the Team in Wins, ERA and Ks

I'm not exactly confident in the staff, so this isn't saying much. I see JZ winning around 13 games with around a 3.75 ERA with about 130 Ks. His velocity is back around 94 MPH, and his slider is as strong as ever. Once he can master his curve and add in the change he has been working on this spring, he'll be untouchable. But that is most likely a year away; for now, we'll have to settle for good.

 

NL EAST PREDICTIONS

 

1. Philadelphia Phillies (92-70)

There's almost 70 wins between their starters alone. They're getting a little older, but they can still hit. Ryan Howard will have a bounce back power year, and they'll weather the storm with the Chase Utley injury and win another divisional title.

 

2. Atlanta Braves (89-73)

Young and talented. If Chipper and Heyward can stay healthy, this team can challenge the Phils for first place. The addition of Uggla will make them the best offense in the league. Losing Bobby Cox will hurt, but Freddy Gonzales is good enough to get them back to the playoffs.

 

3. Washington Nationals (76-86)

The Nats will see a modest improvement—just enough for Riggleman to keep his job. 2012 will be the year this team takes the big step towards contending. In 2011, the rotation is just too mediocre; they have a lot of arms but, aside from Zimmermann, none of them really wow you.

 

4. Florida Marlins (74-88)

As usual, the Marlins lost one of their better players this offseason, and they'll be relying too heavily on young talent. They added Javier Vasquez, but that's about it. I see them taking a step back in 2011 but, like the Nats, they'll be better in a year.

 

5. New York Mets (69-93)

The Mets did absolutely nothing in the offseason, and their pitching staff isn't getting any younger. Jose Reyes will be gone by August, as will the Mets' playoff hopes.

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