Where Do They Go From Here?: The Washington Nationals in 2014

Washington Nationals LF Bryce Harper.Expectations. Pick a word to define the past two seasons in the nation’s capital, and there’s no doubt, expectations fits the bill. The Nationals were an intriguing young team in 2012. After years of collecting young talent, while being a perennial N.L. East bottom feeders, 2012 looked to be a season where the Nationals could make some waves. Break .500, sure? But win the division? Not a chance against the powerhouse Phillies and a Braves team that missed the playoffs the season before after a epic collapse concluding on the final day of the season. Yet, the young talent in Washington gelled, matching superb young pitching (team staff ERA+ of 119) with a mashing offense (2nd in the N.L. in HRs). Expectations exceeded.

Last season, the Nationals were the presumed N.L. East favorites. They stumbled early, losing 14 of their first 27 games, including being swept by the Braves in April. By the time the Nationals figured things out, it was August and the deficit was too much to overcome. Expectations failed.

The 2013 Nationals were hardly a poor team. They finished 10 games over .500. While they regressed both on the mound, mostly due to bullpen struggles and at the plate, largely due to the collapse of Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche, a young nucleus is still in place. 2014 won’t be a restart, but it will be a reset.

Strengths

Corner OF

That Bryce Harper is not Mike Trout is no indictment on his abilities. Harper’s been worth 8.3 wins through his age 19 and 20-year-old seasons. The only five players who have outperformed him through those ages are named Ott, Trout, Cobb, Rodriguez and Kaline. So, three Hall of Famers, one future Hall of Famer, and the best player in baseball. If you are known by the company you keep, then Harper can feel pretty good about where he stands. Perhaps most surprising is that his prodigious power is yet to round into total form, though his .212 ISO ranks ahead of players like Robinson Canó, Justin Upton, Adam Jones and Yoenis Cespedes and not far behind Jay Bruce. That’s as good of reason as any to believe the long balls are coming.

Harper isn’t the only exceptional corner OF in Washington. Mike Rizzo endured much criticism when the Nationals signed Werth to a 7-year, $125 million dollar contract. In year one, the naysayers looked right, as Werth struggled, posting a career worst .232/.330/.389 triple slash. Yet, he’s quietly turned back around into the player that excelled in Philadelphia. Werth’s 167 wRC+ in 2013 ranked 4th amongst all hitters. While he no longer flashes the speed of his early days, his on-base plus power combination is something that should continue to age well.

Up the Middle

Back-to-back 5.0-win seasons make Ian Desmond’s most valuable shortstop over the past two years. In his prime years, Desmond’s improved in every facet of the game, becoming a formidable offensive threat while drastically improving his range at SS, which many believed many render him a future 2B or CF. Desmond isn’t an MVP candidate but 20-HR power with solid on-base skills to pair with good defense is about as rare of a combination as you will find in MLB. Desmond enters arbitration for the first time in his career this off season and he’s due a big bump. The Nationals could opt to try and lock him into a long-term deal.

Heading into 2013, his expected counterpart was Danny Espinosa. Many estimated Espinosa’s athleticism and defensive prowess would eventually land him at SS, with Desmond shifting elsewhere. Yet, it was Desmond that emerged, while Espinosa finished the season in Triple A. His demotion paved the way for former no. 6 overall pick Anthony Rendon to emerge as the everyday 2B. Rendon’s .265/.329/.396 line and 99 OPS+ doesn’t inspire much confidence, but he’s only 23 years old. He plays exceptional defense and his bat projects to any position on the field. Rendon may be long for 3B with Zimmerman’s declining defense, but for 2013 he’ll be an obvious candidate for baseball’s most improved player, assuming his injury struggles are a thing of the past.

3B

What’s wrong with Ryan Zimmerman? Well, nothing, so to speak. Injuries have no doubt taken their toll on Zimmerman, but he’s still a productive offensive threat. The future is likely 1B for the former Gold Glover who has really struggled to field his position over the past two seasons. For that reason, it’s tempting to make him an unknown.

Yet, the offense is still simply too good to ignore. While Zimmerman’s not been the 6.0+ win player we saw in 2009 and 2010, and his bat has declined moderately, he’s still productive on a yearly basis. His strikeout rate rose again in 2013, which may be cause for concern, as is the fact that he misses 10-15 games a season. But a career .286/.352/.477 hitter with an OPS+ of 120 is hard to argue against.

Weaknesses

Bullpen

Yuck. I mean, major yuck. The Nationals spent big money on Rafael Soriano in hopes of solidifying their 8th/9th inning. Soriano pitched decently enough, but getting to him proved troublesome. Drew Storen, who once looked like one of the top young closers in baseball, regressed miserably. Tyler Clippard’s surface numbers look strong, but a semi-high walk rate, 3.04 BBs/9, and shaky peripherals may portend coming disaster. Henry Rodriguez’s wild tendencies finally found him on the street and no other arm really distinguished himself. Fernando Abad turned in 37.2 quality innings, though he’s struggled in earlier stints in the big show.

The Nationals feature an abundance of young, upside arms in their system, but there’s no doubt Mike Rizzo will need to be busy reconstructing a pen that struggled in 2013.

1B

Adam LaRoche got old. After an injury derailed his 2011, and first, campaign in Washington, LaRoche bounced back in a big way in 2012, posting a .271/.343/.510 triple slash and an OPS+ of 127, breaking 30 HRs for the first time since 2006. LaRoche’s strong season earned him a shiny new 3-year, $24 million dollar contract, with a 2015 option that could escalate it to 3 years for $37 million. Subsequently, LaRoche tanked. Always a high strikeout hitter, LaRoche’s power evaporated and his OPS+ dropped to barely above league average at just 102.

LaRoche will be the presumptive starter at 1B for the Nationals again in 2014, but how long can the Nationals afford to be patient? There’s long been talk of moving Ryan Zimmerman to 1B, but could that type of defensive shuffle work? Only if Danny Espinosa can majorly rebound or the Nationals acquire a 2B in the offseason.

Unknowns

Starting Rotation

Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann are about as exceptional of a young trio as you will find in baseball. All three ranked in the top 40 of ERA+ in 2013. All three ranked in the top 40 in fWAR for pitchers. All four are 28 or younger. Nationals fans should feel confident in their young trio both now and for the foreseeable future. But who gets the innings after that?

The Edwin Jackson experiment failed in 2012. The Dan Haren experiment failed in 2013. No other starter tossed even 100 innings. Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan look to be in-house solutions to those final two rotation spots, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Washington aggressively pursue another pitcher, perhaps even Ubaldo Jiménez. They have some young depth in the organization, but for a team that expects to contend, how confident do they feel entrusting the final two rotation spots to guys with a combined 103 innings pitched in their careers?

The Plan

The Nationals roster is mostly solidified. Outside of trying to determine when to transition Zimmerman to 1B, they are locked in at every other position, including C and CF, though not mentioned above. Their top three starters are playoff worthy already, while anticipating further improvement.

That said, Rizzo’s been known to surprise. Could the Nationals throw their hat in the Robinson Canó sweepstakes and expedite the shift of Ryan Zimmerman to first? I wouldn’t think so, but they weren’t anticipated to be in on Rafael Soriano, either. Could the Nationals throw money at former rival Brian McCann to provide some offensive beef to the catcher position? I’d consider that less likely than pursuing Canó. Offensively, I don’t see the Nationals making any substantial moves. Scott Hairston will be the team’s 4th OF. Steve Lombardozzi will be the team’s utility INF option. Tyler Moore will likely assume a bench bat role, if not push LaRoche for time at 1B, after a strong, but small sample sized, 2nd half. The fact is, there just aren’t many holes to address here.

I do, however, suspect the Nationals will be aggressive in the pitching market. Rizzo has already admitted they have “assets to acquire a player via the trade market.” Could they make a play for David Price or Max Scherzer? It would certainly take their staff to an elite level, perhaps baseball’s best.

More likely, in my opinion, is that Rizzo hits the free agency market to acquire a capable starting pitcher at a cheaper price. Ubaldo Jiménez is a name that could draw interest. Jiménez is 29, and other than a wretched 2012, he’s been, at the bare minimum, a 3-win pitcher. That would place him right in line with the season’s produced by Gonzalez, Strasburg and Zimmermann in 2013. But at what cost? MLBTR thinks he’ll get a deal similar to the one Edwin Jackson landed, and using the accepted $5 mil. per win metric, Jiménez would likely outperform that contract. But Lincecum’s deal could mean more money for Ubaldo. If you stray into the $65-$75 range over four years, you’re likely overpaying.

If not Jiménez, the Nationals could turn to Matt Garza or Ervin Santana. Santana thinks he’s worth $100 million, which is a laughable proposition for a guy who is five seasons removed from his best year and only one year removed from a negative WAR year. Not to mention, he’ll cost a compensation pick to sign as well. MLBTR predicts Garza to the Nationals, and Rizzo’s never shied away from players with injury history. Garza is a solid veteran, but not worth the $60 million price tag he’s projected to get.

The sleeper player here could be Masahiro Tanaka. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan expects a $75 million dollar price tag… just to negotiate with Tanaka. The Yankees are the presumed favorite, and whether or not the Nats decide to get in on the bidding will depend on their scouting report. The Nationals aren’t afraid to dip into the international market, though they’ve yet to go far East. Opinions on Tanaka are split, and ultimately I think Washington will want something more proven.

Ink a starter and the no. 5 role can be a competition between Roark and Jordan in the spring, with the other serving from the pen and in spot duty. No matter how much confidence the two youngsters inspire, signing an additional starter gives the Nationals flexibility in the rotation.

The pen desperately needs a lefty stopper. As strong as Fernando Abad pitched in 2013, the Nationals would be foolish to depend on him again. Jesse Crain, Scott Downs, or even Eric O’Flaherty could fit the bill. Even adding one good lefty could allow everyone in the pen to essentially move up a role, and go a long way to solidifying a major weakness from last season.

The last piece of the puzzle is the hiring of rookie manager Matt Williams. Rizzo’s apparently been enamored with Williams for a while, but hiring a manager with zero experience is quite the divergence from the elder statesman, Davey Johnson. We don’t know what Williams will be like, strategically or personality wise, but he’s shown at least some inkling of respect for advanced metrics. High expectations will follow Williams, because the Nationals are a team built to contend now and expected to win now.

Can the Nationals rebound in 2014? I think so. It bodes well that they didn’t fold their tents and collapse after struggling early in 2013. The young core in place is simply too good to anticipate them duplicating last season’s form. They’ll have to contend with a Braves team that shouldn’t be fading anytime soon and what will likely be another expensive re-make of the Phillies roster. Seizing the divisional crown isn’t out of the question, but the Nationals are certainly Wild Card contenders, so long they shore up their rotation and bullpen and Anthony Rendon progresses the way most scouts believe he can.