Playing Pepper 2014: Washington Nationals

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Washington Nationals
86-76, second in the NL East

This time last year, the Nats were riding high.  The young talent looked primed and ready, the road was clear and there was nothing but good times ahead.  Many (including this fairly weak prognosticator) had them at least in the World Series if not winning it all.

Instead, they are a cautionary tale for all those that seem to think the 2014 Cardinals can just walk into an October date with an AL team.

Expectations are on the rise again this year and it seems unlikely, if this club can stay healthy, that they’ll repeat 2013’s disappointment.  To that end, and for the final time this spring, we’ve rounded up the bloggers to give us their take on the squad.  Joining us today are:

  • Aaron from District on Deck.  Well, actually Aaron’s in management over at the FanSided blog network, but he used to write for DoD and I had to get him in here somewhere.  He’s on Twitter @AaronJSomers.
  • Dave from District Sports Page.  Dave’s the president of the Washington Chapter of the BBA and can be found on Twitter @NationalsDSP.
  • Matt at Matt’s Bats, another BBA member.  Follow him on Twitter @MattsBats.
  • JD over at Rational Pastime, a BBA member that fits in the General Chapter given its wide-ranging scope.  You’ll see him on Twitter @RationalPastime.

One more time, let’s go to the questions.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

DOD: A-. There weren’t many holes facing this team when the offseason began, but in one move the team created one of the top starting rotations in baseball right now with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, and Ross Detwiler. Nate McClouth is a nice piece to finish out a strong bench, but Jerry Blevins doesn’t truly solve the left-handed void in the bullpen well enough.

DSP: Solid B. The addition of Doug Fister (presuming health) was enough to merit a good grade, but they also added veteran outfielder Nate McLouth to strengthen the bench and mitigate the inevitable Jayson Werth trip to the disabled list or Bryce Harper crashing into an outfield wall. The cherry on top was picking up lefty Jerry Blevins, who’s useful against righties just as well, for the bullpen.

MB: I think the offseason was pretty good for the Nats. The acquisition of Doug Fister put the finishing touch on to the Nats’ rotation, Nate McLouth will bring some bench pop and a veteran outfielder, and Jerry Blevins is the quality LOOGy that the Nats were in desperate need for. They didn’t go after huge names like Cano or Tanaka, either or both of which could have basically made the Nats a lock for the postseason. The Fister deal gets an A for value because they only gave up a prospect and two minor players.

RP: I’d grade the Nationals’ offseason an A-. The Doug Fister trade was, in my opinion, one of the best moves of any team. I would have liked to see them pick up a relief pitching bargain to shore up the questionable middle relief role, but complaining about that would be nitpicking.

C70: What is the weak spot on this team?

DOD: Top shelf minor league depth. There’s talent in this team’s minor league system, but from the team’s top group of prospects only Brian Goodwin would appear to be close to being MLB-ready. Washington is built to not need this depth for some time, allowing the group to develop on a normal rather than expedited schedule, but if this team is hit hard with injuries there could be some concerns.

DSP: Facing left-handed pitching and getting on base. The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche‘s .198/.254/.313 and Denard Span‘s .223/.278/.261. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties. Overall, the team carried a .313 OBP, in the bottom third of the league and it could have been worse if not for a hot stretch the last five weeks of the season — as late as mid-August they were next-to-last in total baserunners and finished just 12th in the league. They have to be better setting the table to truly contend.

MB: The weak spot on the Nationals is the catching depth. Wilson Ramos is a great defender with some major pop at the plate. But the problems is that he has gone down with injuries frequently over the past few years. With Kurt Suzuki going back to Oakland, the Nationals don’t have a quality backup catcher. Inside the organization, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon are the best options. The Tampa Bay Post is claiming the Nationals will trade pitcher Nathan Karns for backup catcher Jose Lobaton of the Rays. I think Lobaton is a better backup than what the Nats have going now.

RP: The Nationals’ weakness is on the right side of the infield, but fans have reason to be optimistic. LaRoche had a down year, especially on balls in play, and we should expect him to rebound somewhat. Anthony Rendon will come into his own this year and finally give the Nationals some stability at the 4-spot.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

DOD: The last spot in the rotation. It should be Detwiler’s to lose and he’s likely the best candidate for it. It’s really the only place where there could be a real surprise with Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, and Nathan Karns potentially in the mix.

DSP: The Nats don’t really have any position battles. In name, they have two: second base and fifth starter. But in reality, there’s very little real competition. Anthony Rendon is the second baseman while they try to resurrect Danny Espinosa‘s career as a backup middle infielder after he nearly destroyed it playing through a torn labrum in his left shoulder then a broke right wrist last season. Espinosa ended up .158/.193/.272 in 167 big league plate appearances and was no better once relegated to AAA. He’s got 20-20 talent when healthy, but he never did have shoulder surgery, so who knows if he’ll ever get the power back. As for the rotation, the spot is up to Ross Detwiler to lose. The tall lefty has lost velocity on his fastball the past two seasons, so he might be switched to the pen sooner or later.

MB: The Nationals only have two battles: the fifth spot in the rotation and the starting second baseman job. I think the second baseman contest is the more intriguing. Anthony Rendon holds the starting job right now, with Danny Espinosa getting a fair chance to claim it back in Spring Training. Espinosa had a horrible year last year and was sent to the minors. It’s possible that it was due to shoulder and wrist injuries. If Espinosa is healthy, he can reclaim the spot that he played so well in the 2011 as a call-up.

RP: I had expected the battle for 2nd base to be the most intriguing, but Rendon cleared that up pretty quickly. Turns out, the battle was for the fifth spot in the rotation, which surprisingly went to Tanner Roark instead of Ross Detwiler.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

DOD: I don’t think we’ll see any Nationals rookies spend much time with the big league club. Things would need to go far off plan for this to happen. Goodwin is likely the most logical choice for that reason.

DSP: None. This is a veteran team that has more veterans stashed in AAA in case of injury. Zach Walters has an outside chance to contribute as a reserve infielder, but his swing is all-or-nothing, as his 29 homers and .286 OBP in AAA last season will attest. Perhaps as some point we might see lefty Sammy Solis or maybe even big righty A.J. Cole if the Nats suffer catastrophic injury in the rotation, but it will take that for a rookie to impact the squad this season.

MB: (Continuing an answer that lumped 3 and 4 together) Also in the running for the job is rookie Matt Skole, who had a great spring had last year. Also, Jeff Kobernus made a short stint in the MLB in 2013, and he played some time as a 2nd baseman. These guys are long shots to make the team out of Spring. Zach Walters did not get a lot of playing time as a September call-up, but he could be very good in minor league ball by the All-Star Break and make another call-up appearance for the Nationals. If Walters makes the team out of spring training, he could be DC’s secret pinch hitter. I have met him and he is a very nice guy and I’m rooting for him to make the team out of Spring because he promised me an invitation to BP if he does. Any of these guys would make a good bench utility man and an upgrade over last year’s bench. Kobernus has some speed too.

RP: This isn’t a year for rookies in the nation’s capital. There’s no obvious phenom coming up, and the rotation and lineup are very stable. If it’s going to be anyone, the breakout rookie will be Sammy Solis, a lefty hurler in AA coming off of Tommy John surgery. That said, I think it’s more likely that he spends the season in the minors than anyone remembers his name in October.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

DOD: 94-68. First place, by less than 5.0 games.

DSP: As I write this (March 14) I haven’t finalized my projections based on playing time, but the bar for this team is set around 91-92 wins. Best case scenario sees Harper bust out instead of incremental improvement, Werth’s normalization from last season isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production and not take another slide. They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East. Atlanta was crippled by injuries to its rotation and the rest of the division is either too old (Philly), not ready (Mets) or flat-out lacking in talent (Miami). Of course, worst-case scenario sees Werth on the D.L. for two months, Ryan Zimmerman can’t make the throw to first and has to move over there to keep his bat in the lineup and the pressure to win get to them again.

MB: With Doug Fister bolstering the rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, the gold gloves of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond in the infield, Tyler Clippard being an unstoppable force in the bullpen, the hitting talents of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Denard Span, and Matt Williams managing this strong team, the Nationals could possibly be 96-66 and be in 1st place of the National League East. I predict it will be close, with the Atlanta Braves going 93-69.

RP: Look for this year’s Nats to finish more like 2012 than 2013: 1st place, 93-69.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

DOD: Bryce Harper and Zimmermann.

DSP: The easy and page view-driven answer is Harper. Physically, he can do things on the field that no other player can. When he figures out lefties and learns a little self-preservation without hindering his hustle, he’s going to be a pleasure to watch day-in and day-out. But my favorite is Stephen Strasburg, and I think his maturation as a pitcher is going to continue this season. Will this be the 250 K, 200 IP Cy Young caliber season we’ve all been waiting for? It’s possible. He has two fastballs: a two-seam (92-94) that he tries to generate grounders with and a four-seam (96+) when he needs to blow someone away. His changeup is regarded as one of the best in the game already. And I love his curveball. He throws that at two different speeds as well and is just knee-buckling. He says he’s been working on a slider in spring training, but I imagine it’s the slurvier of his two curveballs that he’s refining to look more like a slider than a curve.

MB: I enjoy Denard Span’s play. This underrated defender had an error-free season in 2013 and should have a Gold Glove. His defense earned him the hashtag #SPANNING on Twitter for the incredible plays he makes look so easy. Span also had MLB’s longest hitting streak last year with 29 games. I’m hoping he repeats. I also like Ian Desmond. He is great with the fans and also is a remarkable hitter and defender. He’s a clubhouse leader for this team.

RP: Without question, it’s Denard Span. I have a soft spot for acrobatic, speedy outfielders. There’s no better feeling than watching a ball hit anywhere in his general vicinity and seeing him go all out for it–and catching it. Bryce Harper is a close second, much for the same reasons.

My thanks to all of these guys for their thoughts.  I expect the Nationals will play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder after that last-ditch stab at a wild card came up short last season.  We may have another Cardinals/Nationals battle in October!

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