The Nationals Outfield: Is this the Year?

Every member of the Washington Nationals outfield faces some crucial questions this season. Can Bryce Harper put up MVP-caliber production? Will Jayson Werth continue to defy Father Time? Can Denard Span return to 2009 form in possibly the final year of his deal? All three players have substantial fantasy upside, and the benefit of playing on what should be one of the better teams in baseball this season. While Harper and Werth should still be effective fantasy assets even if they fail to live up to expectations, they could ruin fantasy teams based on how high they are being selected. Span comes with less risk, but the potential for great reward. The real question is, how likely is it that these players actually reach their lofty upsides?

Right field

It’s really a shame Jayson Werth didn’t pick up more MVP votes last season. On a Nationals teams full of offensive disappointments, he was the one player who exceeded expectations. Werth was particularly effective over the second half, posting a ridiculous .339/.432/.600 slash line over 273 plate appearances. The biggest reason for the second half surge was a change in Werth’s batting stance. Werth discovered he had been holding his hands too low. After the adjustment, he hit .365 the rest of the year.

There are two major questions about Werth’s ability to replicate his success. He’ll be 35 years old this season, which is typically an age where most players see their numbers fall off significantly. While Werth is known as a hard-worker, and takes great care of his body, it’s hard to get past his age. On top of that, Werth has had some issues staying healthy the past two years. He was limited to just 81 games in 2012, and played 129 in 2013. Prior to the past two seasons, he had three straight years with at least 150 games played, so it’s tough to know if his injuries were poor luck, or a sign he’s getting older. Werth is capable of putting up solid numbers again, but there’s plenty of risk here. He’s a great selection at the right price, but he’s not the type of guy fantasy owners should reach for.

Center field

Like Werth, Denard Span was another player who exploded over the second half. After struggling through the first half of the season, Span hit .302/.337/.413 over 272 plate appearances late in the year. The reason for his improvement was new Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu. Schu helped Span make an adjustment with his hands and shoulder, which wound up leading to a 29 game hitting streak. Even with that improvement, Span’s on-base percentage left something to be desired. Span complained last season that pitchers were going right at him, making it hard for him to take more pitches. As a result, he started being more aggressive at the plate in order to make pitchers pay. While he’s capable of posting a decent walk rate, it’s unclear whether he’ll get back to posting a .350 on-base percentage.

Nate McLouth might be overqualified for a fourth outfielder spot. Or, at least, he probably should get more playing time than he’s likely to receive with the Nationals. If McLouth could hit lefties, he would be a fantastic platoon partner for Span. Alas, that’s not the case. McLouth won’t hit for a high average, but can contribute plenty of steals, and occasional power. He’s probably not the type of player you want to depend on in a full-time role, but you could get by for a week or two going with him.

Left field

Bryce Harper enters 2014 healthy, and “as big as a house.” Harper’s reckless play led to a hip and knee injury, both of which seemed to bother the outfielder for most of the season. While hitting .274/.368/.486 wouldn’t be considered a disappointment for any other 20-year-old, Harper owners were probably slightly upset he didn’t completely explode with an MVP-caliber season. The good thing is, Harper was able to post those numbers while dealing with injuries that required offseason surgery. At age-21, the sky really is the limit for the young outfielder. Keep in mind, he was hitting .303/.400/.622 in 140 plate appearances before colliding with the wall in mid-May. A small sample, yes, but a sign at what he’s capable of if healthy. The biggest issue he faces is making an adjustment against left-handed pitchers. Harper hit just .214 against them last year. He hit 240 against lefties during his rookie season, so there’s room for improvement. Given his pedigree, it seems foolish to think he won’t figure out a way to eventually mash against same-handed hitting.

Scott Hairston would be the ideal platoon-mate for Span, but he no longer plays center. Hairston’s main asset at this point is his power against lefties. He’s not even a high average hitter against them, hitting just .214 last season. Still, it’s enough to get him occasional work. While the team will likely give Harper every opportunity in the world to figure out left-handed hitters, Hairston could see starts if the team starts to get concerned about Harper’s progress, or lack thereof, once the season is underway. As it currently stands, Hairston isn’t looking at a ton of playing time.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


20 Responses to “The Nationals Outfield: Is this the Year?”

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  1. David says:

    It wasn’t reckless play that led to Harper’s injury, it was a lack of spacial awareness. It’s not like he intentionally went into the wall trying to make the play. He clearly didn’t realize where he was or where the wall was.

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    • stuck in a slump says:

      I think that the assessment made by Chris is still valid, not checking your surroundings while trying to field a ball could be considered reckless. Maybe other players might have missed the ball because they were overly cautious, but Harper was hurt because he was being reckless by not paying attention.

      Having watched the Nationals faithfully over the past few seasons, I can tell you that Harper is definitely reckless and cocky on the field, which is part of the reason why he’s so exciting to watch.

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      • David says:

        I watch the Nationals too and I still disagree with the reckless characterization. To me, that’s a narrative that doesn’t bear itself out in reality. It did at first. His rookie year. But in 2013, I didn’t see much reckless play at all. To me, crashing into the wall was just his lack of outfield experience manifesting itself. RF is the position of the OF he’s played the least. He took a bizarre angle to the ball to begin with and clearly didn’t realize where he was.

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      • stuck in a slump says:

        Last year he seemed to calm down on the base paths, but when playing OF or corner IF positions, you have to be aware of your surroundings or you’ll wind up hurt. Not taking the time to check to see where the walls are when fielding a ball can lead to the team having a bigger issue than a run or two scoring, which is exactly what happened last year. Then, on top of that, he rushed himself back too soon and never had the chance to fully recover.

        He’s gutsy, and it makes him amazing to watch and a lot of fun to talk about, but he’s also reckless because when a ball is hit at him he goes full bore. If he wasn’t experienced enough there, then he should have been checking his surroundings instead of winging it.

        There’s no shame in fielding a ball off the wall instead of colliding with it to make a catch. One is cautious play, the other is reckless. Risking your season for the sake of one play seems to me to be the definition of recklessness in sports, and if I remember right, Harper has said that he intends to tone it down a bit next year.

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      • David says:

        “There’s no shame in fielding a ball off the wall instead of colliding with it to make a catch. One is cautious play, the other is reckless”

        Sure, but again, I don’t think he was going into the wall with the purpose of making the catch. He was lost on the field. Should he have looked up? Yeah, probably. But it’s inexperience. Not recklessness. We’ll agree to disagree, I suppose.

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      • philosofool says:

        Are you sure that the reduced 2013 wrecklessness isn’t all post injury?

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  2. LHPSU says:

    Hairston could still platoon with Span, since Harper can move to center.

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    • Crash37 says:

      Harper can NOT play CF.

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      • David says:

        He was +8.3 in CF in 2012 He was -2.1 in the corners in 2013.

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      • stuck in a slump says:

        Yeah, but he whiffed on a bunch of balls hit to him in 2012. He looked like he was just a couple of steps behind where he should have been constantly. This is one instance where I have to disagree with the metrics.

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      • David says:

        He didn’t whiff on “a bunch” of balls hit to him in 2012. He whiffed on a few. You remember those few. I’m not arguing he’s a great CF, Span is clearly better and more smooth out there. But Harper can play CF and not hurt you. He had very good range.

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      • philosofool says:

        Salience bias.

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      • stuck in a slump says:

        I’m not saying he’s terrible, but that 8.3 def score in 2012 seems to be an aberration of sorts. That score made him a top 6 defender in CF that year, and last year he would have ranked 7th, just behind McCutchen and much better than Trout. Given his bat and even slightly below average defense in CF, Harper would be a solid play at the position.

        I just think that those numbers rank him as a near elite defender there in 2012, which is what his UZR/150 suggests in a sample of just over 700 innings. That puts him right behind Bourn and just barely ahead of Chris Young. Also, if you search by defense > CF > 700 inning min you’ll see that his Def score goes up to 11.6, which places him as a top 3 CF for the season.

        This is why I disagree with the numbers, not because he can’t hold his own there, I think he could be a slightly below average CF without a doubt, possibly marginally positive, especially when you consider his bat. However, the numbers claim that he was elite there in 2012, and that’s just not the case.

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  3. Cody says:

    Are the Nationals swapping Harper and Werth? Last year, Harper was in LF and Werth was in RF. I cannot find any news of a potential switch.

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    • Chris Cwik says:

      Nope. That was my mistake. Fixed it.

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      • Cody says:

        Bummer. I was hoping that you knew something the rest of the internet did not. The LF eligibility added for Werth would have been pretty sweet in my LF, CF, RF league.

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      • stuck in a slump says:

        Cody, the Nationals have hinted in the past that they’ll likely swap the two eventually, but it sounds like they’ll wait until Werth’s fielding has degraded quite a bit. Werth even made mention a while back during an interview that he knew that Harper would eventually take RF from him.

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  4. BrianY says:

    Not to champion Hairston, but last year’s performance against lefties seems to be anomalous.

    2013 – Average=.214 BABIP=.191

    Career (incl. 2013) – Average=.268 BABIP=.284

    Still not worldbeating, but with his slugging numbers, definitely respectable. Let’s just not mention performance against RHP.

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  5. Chocoman says:

    They should move Harper to first base.

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  6. Ryan Kelley says:

    “Take RF from him”

    Lol. As if RF is something to be “taken” from someone. In the NL this is where the field’s slowest-footed outfielder players, without quick enough feet or soft enough hands to man first or third. Werth is actually a better fit for the position that Harper, who’s capable of covering huge plots of land in a large left field.

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