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.

We hoped you liked reading Team Preview: Washington Nationals by Dave Cameron!

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

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