Team Preview: Washington Nationals

Last summer, Stephen Strasburg put the Nationals into the spotlight every time he took the hill, bringing attention to a franchise that has been forgettable since their move to Washington D.C. Strasburg’s injury took away their star attraction, however, so Mike Rizzo decided to make a big splash this winter in order to try and retain his franchises newfound relevancy. Will it work? Let’s start by evaluating the team’s everyday players.

The Starting Line-Up

1. Nyjer Morgan*, CF
2. Ian Desmond, SS
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5. Adam LaRoche*, 1B
6. Rick Ankiel*/Mike Morse, LF
7. Ivan Rodriguez, C
8. Danny Espinosa, 2B

Werth essentially replaces Adam Dunn in the line-up, and should give the Nationals similar offensive production while substantially upgrading the defense as well. When paired with Zimmerman, Washington now has two of the better all-around players in the game, but there are legitimate questions about their supporting cast.

The Nationals brought LaRoche in to add some power from the left side, but he’s the definition of an average player. While he’s an alright piece to have around, it’s tough to contend when that kind of guy is your third best position player. The middle infield tandem of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa both have enough talent to potentially be above average regulars down the road, but neither are likely to hit that mark this year. Rick Ankiel and Ivan Rodriguez are essentially veteran stopgaps who will likely keep the job warm until the Nationals decide that a more talented youngster – Roger Bernadina and Wilson Ramos respectively – is ready for the gig. And last but not least, there’s Tony Plush out there in center field.

Morgan is the wild card here. He has shown the physical abilities to be an impact player, with top shelf speed and enough contact skills to make the slap-it-on-the-ground skillset work. However, Morgan was unable to turn his natural talents into actual production last year, and his game regressed across the board. Nowhere were the problems more apparent than in the field and on the bases, where Morgan took circular routes to the ball and got thrown out stealing far too often. A significant drop in his BABIP also reduced his ability to get on base, and the year ended up being a total flop for Morgan.

If Morgan can rebound and provide legitimate value in center field again, the offense could actually be decent and the defense might be among the top few in the league. If his struggles from last year carry over, however, the team will be searching for a new center fielder by the summer, and Werth and Zimmerman won’t have too many baserunners to drive in. Morgan is going to be the straw the stirs the drink for this year’s Nationals offense, which is probably not the situation they would choose if they had their druthers.

The Pitching Staff

RHP Livan Hernandez
RHP Jason Marquis
LHP John Lannan
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
LHP Tom Gorzelanny

CL Drew Storen
RHP Tyler Clippard
LHP Sean Burnett
RHP Craig Stammen
LHP Doug Slaten
RHP Henry Rodriguez
RHP Collin Balester

This is one of those odd rotations where the back-end starters might actually be better than the front. While Hernandez was a useful innings eater for Washington last year, it is fair to wonder when he will run out of magic pixi dust – his 4.76 xFIP wasn’t exactly the mark of a guy you want to be handing the ball to on Opening Day. Marquis is a bit of a wild card coming off elbow surgery, but he was durable and effective prior to the 2010 season, and if healthy, he should be a reasonable innings eater. Lannan is also a pitch-to-contact guy who doesn’t throw enough strikes to make it work that well, so the Nationals top three starters are all guys you’d rather have in the #5 spot.

However, with Zimmermann and Gorzelanny, there is legitimate upside. Zimmermann was the team’s best pitching prospect before Strasburg stole the show, and now that he’s working his way back from his own arm problems, he’s looking to regain the form that he showed in 2009, when he was one of the game’s most exciting young pitchers. His late success last year should inspire some confidence, and on a per-innings pitched basis, he’ll likely be the team’s best starter this year. The question is just how many innings the Nationals will ask Zimmermann to give them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if caution ruled the day in his situation.

I wrote about Gorzelanny when Washington picked him up, but for those not interested in clicking the link, he’s a difficult puzzle to figure out. If he can improve his strike-throwing capabilities while sustaining his strikeout rates from his tenure in Chicago, the Nationals might really have something. However, you could say that about nearly every pitcher in baseball – most of them could be great if they could keep all their good traits will losing their bad ones. The upside is interesting for a back-end starter, but he comes with quite a bit of uncertainty.

The bullpen is full of mostly nondescript relievers, but keep an eye on Stammen – his strikeout rate was much higher in relief than when he was working as a starter, and if they shift him to the bullpen on a full-time basis, he might put up some surprising numbers. Consider him the most super of all super sleepers for 2011.

The Key Player

While the variability in projecting either Nyjer Morgan or Tom Gorzelanny make them appear to be a natural pick for this spot, I have to go with Jayson Werth. Mike Rizzo made it clear that they signed him not just because he’s a good player, but because he’s trying to put the franchise on the map. If their new $126 million man fails to live up to expectations, this team is going to have a hard time finishing at .500, and they’ll end up as just another runner-up with a huge contract on the books that no one wants. If Werth flops, his presence could actually detract from the excitement surrounding Strasburg’s eventual return and the expected arrival of Bryce Harper at some point in the future.

The Nationals bet big on Werth in an effort to stay decent while waiting for their franchise pitcher and potentially franchise outfielder. If he maintains his +5 win level and keeps the team in relative contention into mid-summer, the organization should be able to have some legitimacy in selling a better future. There is value in building up the fan base and positioning the team to take the next step in 2012 or 2013, which appears to be the path that Rizzo is hoping for – but that plan relies on Werth continuing to play well into his mid-30s. If he pulls a Vernon Wells, then the future suddenly doesn’t look so bright.

At some point during his contract, Werth will no longer be able to justify the money he’s getting paid. The Nationals need that point to be somewhere in 2015 or beyond, and how he performs in 2011 will tell us quite a bit about how well he’ll be able to hold up over the length of the deal. Given that the Nationals have invested such a large percentage of their payroll in a player on the wrong side of 30, that makes Werth the Natinals key player not just this year, but probably for each of the next several seasons.

The Conclusion

It would take an army of minor miracles for the Nationals to contend this year, but they’ve invested in not being horrible this year, and if enough things go right, .500 is a legitimate goal. More importantly, however, is the development of guys like Desmond, Espinosa, and Zimmermann – if they can all take legitimate steps forward, than the 2012 Nationals team could be really interesting. This year, it’s all about being decent enough to get fans to keep caring, even without the Strasburg Sideshow around to draw interest.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

33 Responses to “Team Preview: Washington Nationals”

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  1. keegs says:

    Dave, you forgot to mention the Nationals signing Albert Pujols next offseason.

    Please correct this mistake and then re-post, thanks.

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  2. hamandcheese says:

    A few of the guys in the bullpen are worth a few sentence beyond Stammen. Clippard and Sean Burnett were both very good last year.

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    • Will says:

      Agreed. Craig Stammen is arguably the least interesting pitcher in the bullpen.

      Both Clippard and Burnett were in the top 20 best relievers (based on WAR) last year. Not often do you get almost 3 wins above replacement from two relievers on the same team.

      Also, Clippard is amazingly just barely 26 years old. That alone deserves some mention.

      Rodriguez and Balester are both flame throwers who can regularly hit the upper 90s (Rodriguez is known to frequently exceed 100 MPH), and they’re both only 24.

      Finally, don’t forget recently-promoted Drew Storen, who put together a pretty good season considering he was only drafted in 2009. He’s also only 23.

      All in all, the bullpen could be the most interesting aspect of the team. There’s tremendous upside there, a lot of youth, and loads of depth. The Nats also have vets like Todd Coffey and Chad Gaudin too in case one of the youngsters falters.

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      • Dana says:

        Yes, the bullpen was historically bad, just a couple of years ago,
        and now it is their strength.

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  3. Telo says:

    Seriously, whoever started the whole asterisk/symbol idea for the handedness of hitters must’ve been drunk. R. L. S. How is a symbol that we have to reference in an article a week ago, easier than 1 letter that anyone who has ever watched a baseball game can deduce immediately? The idea of substitutions/symbols is that it somehow makes your life easier. This is retarded.

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    • Telo says:

      I blame Jack Moore. Looks like he started the revolution of abandoning the english language and 100 years of baseball notation custom, for some random symbols no one has reference to. Bravo.

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    • ToddM says:

      …and, if you’re going to use this ridiculous notation, at least get the hands right. Danny Espinosa is a switch hitter, not a righty.

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    • Shane says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I didn’t realize the * meant handedness, I kept looking for a footnote.

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    • ofMontreal says:

      But once you get over that gigantic hump, life is easy.

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      • joser says:

        Until you forget, and have to look it up again. Seriously, I think I’d had to re-learn this every season.

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  4. willlinn says:

    I am excited for 2012 being a tremendous year for the NL east as a whole

    The Phillies will still have at least lee halladay and Hamels, we can expect them to be at least contenders.

    The Braves will be experiencing sophomore seasons of Minor and Freeman, it will be Heyward’s third, Hanson will prob be close to as good as he gets in 2012… I think they will be heavy favorites in 2012

    The Mets will be interesting, I really don’t know what to predict. They always have a high payroll, and if they can avoid injuries and they go out and get some stars, I dunno? in theory they should have it pulled together by 2012.

    The Marlins will be in their new stadium, and as usual, they will probably be at least fringe competitors.

    And back to the Nationals, who really could be good… with Strasburg back in action, Harper maybe coming in that summer or the beginning of the season, Werth, Zimmerman, it’s almost certain they will be over .500 and it’s reasonable to believe they could put it all together and be at least fringe contenders in 2012.

    in 2012, i think there is a good chance every team in the NL east is over 500 for the season. Assuming the Mets get an ace, and they will be due, there will be a superstar ace on every team in Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson (and Julio Teheran), Strasburg, Lee, Halladay… in all honesty, that shits on AL east pitching, and is far beyond any division

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  5. Brendan says:

    Basic article on the Nats. I imagine Dave Cameron had to write something here on this team and lacked heart. (Sorry but its true) Truthfully, the other comments above are correct, Stammen has not proven to be of any value and actually seemed to pitch almost as bad as when he was a starter. I would suggest removing the word “stammen” from the article and replacing “Balester” who did everything said in the article, was a decently rated prospect, and showed significant upside in the relief role at the end of the season after failing to show much as a starter.

    Nyjer Morgan was a good player in 2009 and will show us what he is worth in 2011, though i believe many Nats fans will be happy with Bernadina in CF with Morse playing LF. Their development and growth will be a more interesting story for the Nats in 2011. My guess is Morgan is on the outs and will lose the job by opening day. It will just be a blip on the screen.

    But Dave’s assessment of their pitching is spot on. Though I think the interesting candidates are Wang and Maya, both unknown quantities at this point, as well as Detwiler.

    Harper, 2/2, 2 doubles, and 2 RBI’s today.

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    • Brendan says:

      Additionally, I think their key player actually is Ian Desmond. They’ll be looking for growth defensively and more consistency offensively. If Desmond improves on both ends then there will be greater hopes for this team in the future. If he struggles in the field there may be some talk about switching Espinosa to SS by July (though nothing has been said ever to confirm that theory). But considering how bad he was last year, a league avg. job next year could make a big difference.

      Offensively, I think fans will be looking for Desmond to start showing some signs on whether he is a top of the order candidate/table setter in the future.

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    • BIP says:

      -1 for using the phrases “Nats fans will be happy” and “Morse playing LF” in the same sentence.

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      • Neil says:

        This Nats fan would definitely be glad to see Morse get a chance to play every day. He came up as a SS and played mediocre to passable defense at 1B and corner OF last year while putting up a .374 wOBA; his career wOBA is .354 in 658 PAs.

        If Nyjer Morgan doesn’t play himself off the team, it might make the most sense to option Bernadina to AAA and start the year with a Morse/Ankiel platoon, even though Morse hits righties almost as well as lefties.

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      • Brendan says:

        And this one would be too. There is something to be said for removing a completely chaotic clubhouse presence from your ball club. And that, at the time being, defines Nyjer Morgan.

        If Nyjer doesn’t play well, he’ll just be taking opportunities from guys like Morse and Bernadina who have shown that they deserve a shot to play more regularly. Their only hindrance is that Rizzo is defining his team as a defense 1st squad, which greatly hinders Morse and hinders Bernadina in only that he is < Morgan defensively.

        And in response to BIP, I only will understand that argument if he is a Nats fan and hates Morse?

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      • DCN says:

        As a Nats fan, I don’t see how you can hate Morse. He hit better than everyone except Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham, and two of them are now gone. He wasn’t great in the outfield but he’s no Adam Dunn. He’s gonna be a lock to walk and hit for power, and that’s not counting a potential breakout when he sees pitches more regularly. There’s always the possibility that he’s got a hole in his swing, might get exposed, something like that, but with nobody else particularly compelling (Ankiel is on the decline, Bernadina has a long way to go before he’s legit), I’d really like to give him a chance to show what he could do as a starter.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Would not shock me to see Espinosa hit 20 or more homers this season. I expect average to above defense as well. In fact, this maybe the best all round defensive team the Nats have fielded since the first half of 2005. Personally, I think this team has a fair shot at .500, but not much above. I also think it is the best team on paper the Nats have fielded since becoming the Nats, so I am beside myself waiting for 2012 and 2013.

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  6. fly eli says:

    (I feel really white asking this). So, I even looked on urban dictionary and it didn’t tell me- what’s a gentleman’s name? Exactly. Besides being a kickass name like Tony Plush. Wow, the interweb’s really letting me down.

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  7. Vladman1327 says:

    I thought it was pretty common knowledge, – especially considering the research that I’m sure Mr. Cameron put into this article – but the left field spot is going to be a platoon of Bernadina and Morse. Ankiel does not have a shot. Unless, of course, Morgan is cut by the end of Spring Training, in which case Bernadina would likely take over CF duties full time.

    I don’t think Stammen is gonig to be as amazing as Cameron makes him sound, but I definitely agree with the notion of him being a serviceable relief pitcher. He did pitch significantly better in the bullpen than when starting. Even when he was starting, he was subject to the classical baseball thinking of Jim Riggleman and was banned due to a high ERA. In all likelihood, he was much better than some of the arms that took the hill last year, like Atilano, and a bunch of the ones in the organization that, for whatever reason, are higher on the depth chart of starters, like Chico, Mock, and Martin.

    Otherwise, I can’t take any issue with what was written. Being a full-time Nationals fan, though painful, I guess I have a better insight as to who will be playing left field and other such position battles. Speaking of, apparently the front office has been very impressed with Brian Broderick (Rule 5 draft pick from the Cardinals). I could see him making the team over Stammen.

    Lastly (because I keep remembering things), I highly doubt Storen will start the year as the closer. That’s probably a good thing for multiple reasons. I could see Burnett taking care of ninth inning duties. And, as mentioned above in some comments, I would not describe Burnett and Clippard as “nondescript.” They have both pitched very well over the past two seasons.

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  8. philosofool says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Nyjer Moragan isn’t really a big wild card. He’s 31. We should regress players’s defense a lot, which means despite Morgan’s nice surface results, you can’t really expect him to be more than a +5 runs CF, which is basically offset by a -5 runs bat. His speed does not turn into value on the base paths, so I don’t really care if he’s fast; speed, like a hammer, is only good if you can do something with it. He’s an average player, about the same guy that Adam LaRoche is, but with a different, and currently more fashionable, skill set.

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    • Brad Johnson says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I definitely agree, perhaps I think more highly of Bernadina than DC does, but I fully expect Morgan to find himself in another uniform by this time in April with a combination of Werth, Ankiel, and Bernadina sharing CF duties until a best choice emerges.

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  9. Brad Johnson says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    The Nats have two interesting starting pitchers currently on the outside looking in – Ross Detwiler and Yunesky Maya. Chien Ming Wang is also hanging around somewhere. It’s going to be a very interesting rotation to figure out after watching the Nats schlep a random group of castoffs onto the hill the past few years.

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  10. Matt Defalco says:

    I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed, appreciated, and enjoyed the (presumably) intentional misspelling Natinals.

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  11. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Dave, this was weaker than most of your other work. The Nats might just have one of the best and deepest Bullpens in baseball. I suggest you look at them more closely. The defense is going to be well above average this season after several years of being among the worst, so I am expecting significant improvement in their run prevention. This should show up mostly in the team ERA. Starters will go a bit longer, so the bullpen should get even better than last season. Lastly, the Nats should get better offense out of SS, 2b, RF, maybe CF and maybe C (Ramos, Norris, Flores), while likely worse offense out of LF and 1B. Overall this means they should score a little bit more often.
    I agree with the .500 call. That is fairly likely baring bad injuries. But, not much more.

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  12. mockcarr says:

    Burnett could be an excellent closer, but I doubt Riggleman would be the one to employ him that way. A good scenerio would be Slaten as the matchup LOOGY, and the loser of the 5th starter contest between Detwiler and Gorzelanny being the middle innings longman lefty. I think Maya will be in AAA because he has options. That may cost Storen a spot too, because they’re concerned about his fastball command and he may find himself there because of rule 5 guys or pitchers out of options that they don’t want to lose.

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