Washington Nationals offseason preview: Can Werth provide Werth?

A bounce-back year from Jayson Werth would help the Washington Nationals go a long way. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

As a team, the Washington Nationals offense was deplorable in 2011. Their team on-base percentage was the fifth lowest in baseball, and their cumulative weighted-on-base average was ninth worst. There’s plenty of room to improve on that end. The good news is organic improvement is likely coming since more than half of Washington’s projected regulars are under 30.

Catcher: Wilson Ramos

2011 Salary: $415M
2012 Salary: $418M
2011 Stats .267 AVG, .334 OBP, .445 SLG, .332 wOBA

Ramos was acquired straight up for Matt Capps a few years ago. Hats off to GM Mike Rizzo for that one. Ramos was the second-best offensive player on the team last year and has a chance to make a few All-Star squads in the near future. His defense is good enough to stick behind the plate, which makes him much more valuable than he would be if his girth were to force him to first base. It will be interesting to see how pitchers make adjustments to Ramos since it looks like he can be beaten by above-average velocity. He’ll almost certainly play more than the 113 games he did in 2011. I hope he’s having a relaxing, uneventful offseason in his home country.

First Base: Adam LaRoche

2011 Salary: $7MM
2012 Salary: $8MM
2011 Stats: .172 AVG, .288 OBP, .258 SLG

LaRoche only played in 43 games last season thanks to a shoulder injury that required season-ending labrum surgery. He’s now 31-years-old, and while he still belongs on a major-league roster, it’s not beneficial for the Nats to keep him around much longer. Next season is the final year of LaRoche’s contract, making him a perfect candidate to be traded by next summer’s deadline. That would free up an opportunity for Chris Marrero, a middling prospect, to play in the majors so the Nats can see what they have there. The best-case scenario here is LaRoche comes out on fire in April and May, the Nats trade him for a young bullpen arm and reinvest the cash they save on LaRoche’s salary into another part of the club.

Second Base: Danny Espinosa

2011 Salary: $415M
2012 Salary: $418M
2011 Stats: .236 AVG, .323 OBP, .414 SLG, .325 wOBA

While Espinosa’s on base skills leave plenty to be desired, he’s a fine overall hitter. Nobody’s going to complain about 21 homers from a good middle infielder. A switch-hitter, Espinosa is better from right side, where he makes much harder contact. Look for managers to force him to hit left-handed late in games next season. The only marginally controversial thing I have to say about Espinosa is he belongs at shortstop. He’s just a better fielder than Ian Desmond. Espinosa’s 3.5 wins above replacement in 2011 was tops amongst Nationals regulars. Whispers about potential trades involving Espinosa have begun, though it’s hard to tell if those rumors have merit.

Shortstop: Ian Desmond

2011 Salary: $441M
2012 Salary: $450M
2011 Stats: .253 AVG, .298 OBP, .358 SLG

Desmond belongs on the bench. His glove is not good enough to make up for the anemic offensive numbers he posted in 2011. Despite a sub-.300 on-base percentage and below-average defense at shortstop, Desmond was still above replacement level, which is an indictment on the state of shortstop play in baseball right now. He’s best suited for a utility role. Hopefully, manager Davey Johnson will recognize this, move Espinosa over to short and give Steve Lombardozzi a shot at second base. I’m not a huge Lombardozzi fan, but he’s better than Desmond.

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman

2011 Salary: $9MM
2012 Salary: $12MM
2011 Stats: .289 AVG, .355 OBP, .443 SLG, .347 wOBA

Zimmerman, just 26 years old, is one of the best players in all of baseball when he’s healthy, but he had trouble staying on the field in 2011. Let’s hope it’s a fluky issue and not a harbinger of things to come for one of the best defensive third basemen I’ve ever seen. The Nationals will have a tough decision to make with Zimmerman when his contract is up after the 2013 season. Yes, he’s the face of the franchise, but a combination of continued injuries and the presence of Anthony Rendon could make his departure easier to swallow. Let’s hope Zim stays healthy and Rendon transitions to second base. In the meantime, Zimmerman is a sleeper candidate for NL MVP next year.

Left Field: Mike Morse

2011 Salary: $1MM
2012 Salary: $3.5-4MM through arbitration
2011 Stats: .303 AVG, .360 OBP, .550 SLG, .387 wOBA

Morse was really good in 2011 and was really good in limited time in 2010. It’s probably time to start believing in the guy, but I can’t help but have reservations about his ability to sustain his performance. For now, let’s just assume Morse is what his 2011 campaign says he is: a very good hitter who is terrible defensively. Someone of his size and agility is usually sequestered to first base, but that’d be a waste of Morse’s above-average arm. He’ll probably play a ton of left field in 2012 with the possibility of him moving to first base if LaRoche is moved and Chris Marrero falters. Even if Morse’s performance at the dish drops off a tad as opposing pitchers make adjustments, he’s a bargain in his second year of arbitration. He’ll hit free agency in 2014 when he’ll be 33 years old, and won’t be hard to part with.

Center Field: Yeonnis Cespedes

2012 Salary: TBD

The Nats have been shopping for a center fielder since last season when they were kicking the tires on B.J. Upton and Denard Span. Rick Ankiel is a free agent and Bryce Harper isn’t ready to come up just yet, so Washington will almost certainly venture outside of the organization to find someone to run down balls in center field. I had to stick Cespedes in this spot because he’s just too much fun to discuss. The 26-year-old Cuban defector has spent the past several years ripping through baseball in his own country and is about to be declared a free agent after establishing residency in the Dominican. He has above-average raw power, plus speed, can play a legitimate center field for now and has quite possibly the greatest scouting video in the history of human existence. If you haven’t seen it or read Baseball Prospectus writer, Kevin Goldstein’s write up on it, you can find it here.

While it is marginally speculative for me to slot “The Talent and The Power” as Washington’s center fielder for 2012, know that the Nationals have shown explicit interest in him, have a need at the position and have a big chunk of cash burning a hole in their pocket. His ceiling as a major league player is that of an above-average regular.

Right Field: Jayson Werth

2011 Salary: $10MM
2012 Salary: $13MM
2011 Stats: .232 AVG, .330 OBP, .389 SLG, .323 wOBA

The seven-year contract Werth signed last offseason was a disaster from the moment the ink on his signature dried, but nobody thought he’d be as bad as he was last year. He’ll likely bounce back a bit in 2012, but I doubt he approaches the 5 WAR he posted during his three-year peak in Philly. Only six more years to go, Nats fans!

Bench Fodder:

Steve Lombardozzi is a nice little utility player who might get a shot to play regularly thanks to Desmond’s ineptitude. Marrero is an interesting young hitter who has gotten a lot better defensively in the past year. He’ll be a nice bench bat at the very least, maybe an average regular at first base or in left field one day. Roger Bernadina is a fifth outfielder who played way too much in 2011. Look for much of Washington’s bench to be made up of one-year veteran deals.

A marathon piece on the Nationals farm system is coming next week.

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