Impact Player: 3B Ryan Zimmerman
Impact Pitcher: RHP Stephen Strasburg
Best Reliever: LHP Sean Burnett
Top Prospect: RF Bryce Harper
General Manager: Mike Rizzo
Manager: Jim Riggleman (102-135, .430)
LHP Tom Gorzelanny, RHP Henry Rodriguez, 1B Adam LaRoche, RF Jayson Werth, OF Rick Ankiel, UTIL Jerry Hairston Jr., RHP Todd Coffey,
1B Adam Dunn, 2B Adam Kennedy, LF Josh Willingham, C Wil Nieves, LHP Scott Olsen, RHP Miguel Batista, RHP Joel Peralta, RHP Tyler Walker
OVER-INFLATED EGO DISCLAIMER: I just want to say how effing accurate I was in these previews last year. I was within a win or two most of the time, and I don’t get paid to do this shit. Again, I was dead-on with the Nationals last season.
For a while, the Nationals were the center of the baseball universe when Stephen Strasburg was called up and began dominating the National League. He struck out 17 Pirates in his debut in what was one of the most memorable moments of the 2010 season. It all came crashing down when in August, he visibly tweaked his elbow and it was announced he’d miss at least a year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The fact that I still named him the impact pitcher on this team even though he won’t pitch until at least August if at all, gives you an indicator of the lack of talent on this roster.
The Nationals let free agent first baseman Adam Dunn sign with the White Sox and are replacing his bat with outfielder Jayson Werth who was signed to probably the most ridiculous free agent contract in baseball this offseason (7-years/$126-million, the cursed contract of Vernon Wells and Barry Zito). Werth has been a very good player the past few seasons in Philadelphia but 32-year-old late bloomers don’t generally have long primes; that contract is practically doomed to failure.
The Nationals have a bright future with Strasburg and last year’s number one overall pick Bryce Harper in the fold, but they will struggle through a couple more bad seasons before competing.
With Strasburg out, the Nationals will likely go with Livan Hernandez as their opening day starter. The 36-year-old Hernandez has pitched more innings than any other pitcher since 1998 and last year had a vintage throw-back campaign posting his best numbers since the early part of the last decade. Don’t expect a repeat especially since before last season, he had not posted a FIP lower than 4.44 since 2004. The Nationals are in trouble if they’re relying on him to come anywhere near his 2010 performance.
Jason Marquis had an injury-plagued first season in Washington posting only two wins, a 6.60 ERA and a 5.65 FIP in 13 starts. He’s never been a particularly reliable starter having never posted a FIP below 4.10 in his entire career, but when he’s healthy, he can be a back-end innings-eater. Unfortunately, the Nationals need him to pitch like a solid number-two to be successful and that is never going to happen.
Jordan Zimmerman has the most potential of any starter in the organization outside of Strasburg. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in the middle of 2009, he was limited to only a few major-league starts in 2010. He appeared healthy and will look to get back on track in 2011. If he performs to his potential, he’ll be the best starter on this staff to being the year.
The remainder of the rotation is up for grabs with left-handers John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny being the frontrunners to grab spots. Lannan was once the organization’s best pitcher but injuries and inconsistencies in 2010 set him back. Even in his two good years of 2008 and 2009, Lannan posted high FIPs and will probably never see that kind of success again. Gorzelanny was a breakout pitcher in 2007 with the Pirates and has since been a barely capable arm. His FIPs in the last two seasons suggest that he may have been unlucky with the Cubs and perhaps he can produce a decent season with Washington. A sinus infection and walking pneumonia are currently holding him up this spring.
Other viable rotation candidates include bullpen hopefuls Collin Balestar and Craig Stammen, as well as Ross Detwiler, Cuban defector Yunesky Maya and non-roster invites Luis Atilano, Matt Chico, Shairon Martis, and Chad Gaudin. Chien-Ming Wang is also an intriguing option. Wang hasn’t pitched since the middle of 2009 due to shoulder problems and is still attempting his comeback.
In his rookie season, Drew Storen was so impressive that the team traded Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins at the deadline in order to make him their closer. Overall, he had a 3.58 ERA and 3.26 FIP to go along with five late-season saves. Storen could be this year’s breakout closer.
Outside of their young stopper, the Nats have a very good lefty-righty setup duo. The lefty, Sean Burnett, was one of the best relievers in the NL in 2010 posting a 2.14 ERA and 2.73 FIP, while righty Tyler Clippard ended up with a league-high 19 decisions out of the bullpen (11 of them wins) and had a very good 3.07 ERA and 3.18 FIP. His 11.08 K/9 ratio was his most impressive peripheral.
Veteran lefty Doug Slaten was solid last season and will be back again along with right-hander Henry Rodriguez who came over from the Athletics in the Josh Willingham trade along with outfielder Corey Brown. Rodriguez put up above-average peripherals in 27.2 major league innings with Oakland last season.
Balestar was converted to a reliever last season and was dominant at the major-league level. His 12.00 K/9 ratio will probably come back down to earth, but he could still be a solid reliever if the team doesn’t convert him back to starting. Stammen is also in the mix if he doesn’t end up starting. He made 19 starts with the big-club last season.
Other bullpen hopefuls include Garrett Mock, Atahualpa Severino, veteran Todd Coffey and non-roster guys like Joe Bisenius, Chico, Gaudin, J.D. Martin, and Tim Wood.
Ivan Rodriguez will one day find his plaque enshrined in Cooperstown (providing steroid allegations don’t keep him out), but he’s on his way out as a major-league regular at the age of 39. Last season he had an underwhelming .266/.294/.347 slash line and was just a 1.0 WAR player. The Nationals start the year with him as their starting catcher again but it may not last long.
The reason it may not last long is 23-year-old Wilson Ramos who was acquired for Capps from Minnesota last year. That deal may end up looking very good on GM Mike Rizzo someday since most people expect Ramos to be an above-average everyday catcher, which is a very rare commodity. There’s a good chance that by the end of the year he’ll be starting in Washington.
Jesus Flores missed all of last year with an injury and will now likely provide minor-league depth.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman gets overlooked a little because he plays on such a perennially bad team, but make no mistake, he’s become a superstar. Last season he finished with the highest WAR (7.2) among all major-league third baseman and was fourth overall behind only Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, and Albert Pujols. Not only was he a terrific offensive player, but he also posted a 13.9 UZR rating putting him among the elite defensive third baggers too.
At the other corner, the Nationals signed free agent Adam LaRoche to replace Dunn. LaRoche put up decent counting numbers in 2010 with the Diamondbacks, but was merely average overall. He’s a decent player, but he’s a stop-gap in Washington until something better comes along.
At shortstop, the Nats have Ian Desmond who looked okay on the surface, but didn’t really have a great season overall. He was a -8.8 UZR and 1.1 WAR player which means he’s a bad defending bench player on a good team. He’s probably best suited for an eventual move to second base defensively and he still has some ceiling to grow into at only 25-years-old.
At second base may be a dark-horse candidate for NL Rookie of the Year in Danny Espinosa. Espinosa struggled once he was called up to the big club, but put up solid minor-league numbers. Not only is he a solid defensive player, but he has a lot of power for a middle-infielder and could hit 15-20 homeruns someday.
Alberto Gonzalez is a very good defensive player at second, short, and third but will never hit. He’s a great option for late-game defensive replacements. Veteran Jerry Hairston Jr. was also brought in to be an extra infielder and occasional outfielder. He’s a better hitter than Gonzalez and could be used as a trade chip at the deadline.
Mike Morse can also play first base and occasionally can play the other infield positions since he came up through the Mariners organization as a shortstop.
Werth will play rightfield and will attempt to live up to his massive contract. He may get another year or two of productive play, but he’s a massive regression waiting to happen. If he was 27, the deal would be good, but at 32 his contract will be an almost immediate albatross. He has, however, averaged a 5.0 WAR over the last three years.
Roger Bernadina will move to leftfield with the acquisition of Werth and could be a candidate for a breakout year. He’s a toolsy player didn’t really get a chance to play every day until last season. Some of the numbers he put up in his minor-league career suggest he has a pretty high ceiling. At 27 and a full decade removed from being signed out of Curacao, Bernadina understandably has his detractors.
Ticking time bomb Nyjer Morgan will be given another chance to stick in centerfield. He may be nearly 31-years-old, but he still acts like a spoiled eight-year-old throwing public tantrums often. He’s one more major slip-up from being bounced out of the game. Even if he behaves himself, he still has to prove that he has the talent to be an everyday player.
With two of the three spots in the outfield at least partially in doubt, this could be the year Morse gets a full season’s worth of at-bats. Morse was a very good part-time player in 2010 and could be primed for a breakout if given the opportunity.
Bernadina can also play centerfield if Morgan flames out and former pitcher Rick Ankiel is now with the team as well. Ankiel’s ability to play all three positions will along with his inconsistent bat will most likely relegate him to a bench spot.
Laynce Nix and Matt Stairs are also in camp on minor-league deals and could crack the roster. The 43-year-old Stairs will more than likely retire if he doesn’t make the team as a pinch-hit specialist who can occasionally play the outfield.
The Nationals will not be able to replace Dunn and Strasburg and although they have some nice pieces in the Zimmermans (who are not related) and Storen, they seem destined for yet another last place finish. With some nice depth veterans kicking around like Hairston and Ankiel, they may not be much worse than last season and if Strasburg returns at the end of the year, they might salvage a small shred of credibility in the end.
Final Prediction: 68-94, 5th NL East