2011 pre-season preview: NL East – Washington Nationals

Washington Nationals (2010 record: 69-93)

The addition of free agent Jayson Werth speaks volumes about the Nationals’ growth in terms of the perception of the team as it continues its journey towards baseball relevance. The trade-off from Adam Dunn to Werth may or may not make an impact on the field in terms of wins and losses, but it makes a clear statement about the possibilities for the future.

Sadly for Nats fans, that future is not now.

The team improved by ten games last year, but it faces an uphill battle to hold onto those gains in the upcoming season. The club lost future ace Stephen Strasburg to a torn ulnar collateral nerve and consequent Tommy John surgery last August. He’ll miss most, if not all, of the 2011 season. On offense, Dunn and Adam Kennedy departed via free agency, and the front office traded OF Josh Willingham to Oakland. Considering all of these developments in their totality, the best case scenario for 2011 would be maintaining the ten-game imporvement achieved in 2010.

The team is very young and, under the best of circumstances, it is likely still at least a couple of years away from competing for a division title.

Notable additions: OF Rick Ankiel, 1B Adam LaRoche, LF Matt Stairs, RF Jayson Werth

Notable subtractions: 1B Adam Dunn, 2B Adam Kennedy, LHP Scott Olsen, RHP Joel Peralta, OF Josh Willingham

The offense:

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez

Infield: Adam LaRoche (1B), Danny Espinosa (2B), Ian Desmond (SS) and Ryan Zimmerman (3B)

Outfield: Roger Bernadina (LF), Nyger Morgan (CF) and Jayson Werth (RF)

The offense finished 14th (of 16) teams in the league in runs scored last year, and the plight of the lineup became more acute this winter when 1B Adam Dunn left for the cozy confines of US Cellular Field on the south side of Chicago… it was further exacerbated when Willingham was shipped to the Athletics.

The club will be largely dependent on holdover Zimmerman and newcomers Werth and LaRoche. Zimmerman won the Silver Slugger Award at third base in each of the last two years, but he had Dunn as his running buddy in the lineup. That responsibility now falls to Werth, who will face life outside Citizens Bank Park while trying to live up to the $126 million contract he received in free agency. The pundits are split on whether his power will translate seamlessly to a bigger stadium in the nation’s capitol. LaRoche has bounced from Pittsburgh to Boston to Atlanta to Phoenix (and now) to Washington over the last three seasons… but he has averaged a .269 BA and 25 HR in those three seasons.

The club’s fate will be largely dependent on the continued development of 24-year-old SS Ian Desmond and 23-year-old 2B Danny Espinosa to complement Zimmerman, Werth and LaRoche. They both offer a potential for a decent power / speed combination, but they’re young and nothing is assured. Desmond showed growth in the second half of last season, offering hope for 2011. Espinosa’s batting average in 2010 was bleak, but it will likely improve – as last year’s number was based on a dismal 27% hit rate.

Nyger Morgan went into last year having had a dynamic 2nd half in 2009, but some level of regression was expected as his success was based on an unsustainable 37% hit rate in ’09. He regressed. The question is where he goes from here. His game is speed, and he can’t use it unless he gets on base more consistently. He doesn’t walk nearly enough to be an effective leadoff man, so he’s got to figure out an identity and then embrace it. Many of the same comments apply to Bernadina, as well.

Ivan Rodriguez’ skills at the plate are increasingly marginal and he offers little in the way of production… that said, he doesn’t really hurt the club – per se – so he’ll likely retain the lion’s share of the playing time behind the plate.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Livan Hernandez, RHP Jordan Zimmerman, LHP John Lannan, LHP Tom Gorzelanny and RHP Jason Marquis

Closer: RHP Drew Storen

On the mound, with Strasburg lost for the year, it is essential the bevy of young pitching prospects they have started integrating at the big league level develops quickly in support of veteran Livan Hernandez.

Hernandez had a nice comeback campaign last year, posting a 3.66 ERA, but he’s just not a No. 1 pitcher any more. Zimmerman and Marquis are both returning from injuries and cannot really be counted on – yet the Nationals are counting on them to be productive in the No 2 and 3 slots in the rotation. Zimmerman looked good in his return from Tommy John surgery at the end of the year and is capable of becoming a consistent winner if healthy. He’ll be another year removed from his injury this season, so the front office is hopeful he will remain healthy and develop into a reliable No. 2 behind Strasburg.

Lannan struggled throughout the first half of last year and eventually earned himself a demotion to Double-A. When he returned he resembled the pitcher who showed so much promise in 2008 and 2009.

Marquis and Gorzelanny are back-end options in any major league rotation. Marquis is a ground ball pitcher who seems destined to pitch 180 innings, win 12-13 games, and post a 4.50 ERA with a 1.45 WHIP, plus or minus. Gorzelanny walks too many batters and, as a result, will always struggle to live up to the potential he occasionally flashes.

Storen should be ready to assume the closer’s mantle on a regular basis in 2011. He had a strong first half last year, followed by a rough second half… but the peripherals suggest his second half was largely a matter of bad luck (high hit rate, low strand rate). I expect he will have a solid campaign as Washington’s closer, and eventually develop into an excellent closer over the next couple of seasons.

Prediction for 2011: 5th place (70-92)

The absence of Dunn and Strasburg will no doubt hurt the on-field product, but their losses shouldn’t be catastrophic. Werth won’t replace Dunn’s offense, but the combination of Werth and LaRoche should replace the productivity of Dunn and Willingham. There is no replacement for Strasburg, but a healthy Zimmerman should mitigate the impact of his loss.

Desmond, Espinosa and Morgan: two of them will take a step forward this season and help the offense improve, if only marginally. Lannan will win a dozen games. The 2011 campaign won’t be what it could have been with Strasburg in the rotation, but it should provide an ever-improving foundation for the organization as it looks toward a future that includes Bryce Harper, Derek Norris, AJ Cole and others.


Top Five Prospects:

1. Bryce Harper, OF
2. Derek Norris, C
3. AJ Cole, RHP
4. Chris Marrero, 1B
5. Yunesky Maya, RHP

Sports Illustrated dubbed Harper, “Baseball’s Chosen One”, as a high school sophomore. You would think it would be hard for a kid to live up to THAT kind of hype, yet Harper continues to impress in spite of the weight of expectations he carries on his shoulders.

The former catcher earned his GED in 2009 in order to skip his junior and senior years in high school and enroll at a junior college. In his one year of juco ball (2010), he hit .443 while leading the nation with 31 HR. He won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top amateur player and was then the consensus No. 1 pick in last June’s First-Year Player Draft.

He agreed to a contract with the Nationals just before the August signing deadline and converted to the outfield in the instructional league. He hit .343 in winter ball (in the Arizona Fall League) and is ticketed for the minor leagues in 2011 (maybe Hi-A Potomac, to start).

He is the proverbial 5-tool player. There is no aspect of his game that needs improvement… just refinement. According to Baseball America, his power rates an “80″ on the scouts 20-80 scale. What most people don’t know is that his arm also rates an “80″ on the scoutiung scale. He stole 20 bases in 24 attempts in JuCo.

He will need to refine his approach at the plate and the mechanics of his swing in the minor leagues – improvements that will help him to hit for a higher batting average in the major leagues. He also needs work on his defense in right field, but it is a matter of gaining experience not acquiring skills. He is reputed to have an excellent work ethic, so the learning curve won’t be long or steep.

He is on the fast track to The Show, and to stardom.

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