As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.
If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.
With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.
For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.
Here’s the schedule:
In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP: Some will look at his W-L record last year and decry Strasburg a bust. Au contraire. His ERA went down as his innings went up. His hit rate went down and his walk rate remained steady. He traded a few Ks for more ground balls (from 44% in ’12 to 52% in ’13), though he struck out just six fewer in 24 more innings, and his homer per fly ball rate stayed level. He’s the very definition of elite skills and getting better with age. This could be the season he puts it all together – dominance with patience, pitching not throwing, winning and leading a top-rate pitching staff. The only thing he needs now is to eclipse the 200 inning mark to finally establish him at the top of the hill, if you pardon the pun.
Gio Gonzalez, LHP: Gonzalez’ ’13 season wasn’t nearly as good as his breakout ’13, but so what? It’s not like he fell off a cliff. His ERA jumped 0.40, but that can largely be attributed to his home run rate popping back up to his career norm. It’s all about limited walks with Gonzalez, and he held the gains he made in ’13 when he came over to the N.L. He takes the ball every fifth day and has done the same job for the past three seasons. He’s as dependable an asset in the big leagues as there is in the game right now. It might not be upper-level, top-five-in-the-game elite production, but he’d be the staff ace on a LOT of big league teams.
Jordan Zimmermann, RHP: Zimmermann was the same pitcher last season as he’d been for the previous two, only this time he was the beneficiary of league average run production and his win total exploded to lead the N.L. and garner enough Cy Young votes to finish seventh. Zimmermann had a rough July (7.18 ERA in five starts) but bounced back to post a 3.36 ERA the rest of the way. His walk rate (1.7 per nine) is elite and there are more Ks there if he wants them. But he’s steadily excellent as he is. He is scheduled to hit free agency following the ’15 season (as is Desmond), and he’s going to be expensive to sign to a long-term deal, as he’s already stated in the media he won’t settle for a “hometown” discount.
Doug Fister, RHP: Acquired in December from the Tigers for INF Steve Lombardozzi and LHP Robbie Ray, Fister has toiled mostly in anonymity for most of his career, first in Seattle, then in Motown. But Fister’s main skills are hardly those of a second fiddle. Fister is a command and control specialist who generates a ton of ground balls, almost never gives up home runs (0.6 per nine) and possesses an elite K/BB ratio. Fister should thrive in front of a defense that, while not quite elite itself, is far and above what he’s been used to in Detroit. He’s the No. 4 in D.C. only by default.
Ross Detwiler, LHP: Detwiler will be given the first opportunity to claim the No. 5 starter spot in Spring Training. The Nats would love to have a second lefty in the rotation, but it all depends on if Detwiler, not young anymore at 27, can stay healthy and show the gains he made in ’12 were real. His K rate, which has never been all that good, plummeted last season to 4.9 per nine innings, even though his walk rate was down too. The hip injury of two years ago robbed him of several miles an hour off the fastball, and he dealt with back and neck problems all last season. It’s incredible the amount of injuries this guy has gone through, but none to his arm. A move to the pen might help with velocity and longevity.
Taylor Jordan, RHP: Jordan took everyone by surprise last season, called up for an emergency start or two and ended up sticking around for nine starts to a 3.66 ERA and 1.355 WHIP. He’s another ground ball specialist with good control and middling strikeout rates, so he has a limited ceiling. But he certainly had the look of a big leaguer last season.
Tanner Roark, RHP: Ready for a stat? Roark threw 141 sliders to right handed hitters last season. The number of hits he gave up on that pitch: 0. As in zero. Roark is already 27, so the former 25th round pick is making up for lost time, but in 14 games and five starts he went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 0.913 WHIP. That’s silly. He’s not going to repeat those numbers, obviously, but he’s stingy with free passes and keeps the ball on the ground. Noticing a pattern?
Ross Ohlendorf, RHP: Ohlendorf, he of the old-timey windup, resurrected his career last season. After consecutive years of ERAs over 7.50, Ohlendorf was probably on his last big league chance. He practically ditched his slider and relied on several different fastballs, changing speeds and locations enough to keep hitter honest most of the time. His “stuff” doesn’t compare to most of the arms the Nats have on staff, but he survived on the edges and got himself another shot this season. Is willing to work from rotation or pen and won’t be overwhelmed if the Nats have to plug him into any one of a variety of roles.
Sammy Solis, LHP: Solis, now 25, returned from Tommy John surgery to make 13 starts last season between the Gulf Coast league and Potomac. He was considered a fast riser with middle ceiling when drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, so Solis will need to show very quickly at Harrisburg to regain the luster of a mid-rotation starter. If not, look for the Nats to quickly convert him into a bullpen arm, a role that he could enjoy a long, healthy MLB career at. It’s all up to his K/9, which took a hit last year in the first year back after surgery.
A.J. Cole, RHP: Mike Rizzo loves A.J. Cole. He drafted him in the fourth round in 2010, traded him to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal, then traded back for him in the Michael Morse trade. Cole was okay at the start of the year in Potomac last season, but really took off upon his promotion to Harrisburg, where in seven starts he went 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 0.904 WHIP and 4.90 K/BB ratio. If Cole can get his breaking ball on par with his big, heavy fastball and MLB-average change, he could challenge for the rotation in 2015.
Matt Purke, LHP: Purke is still young, just 23. But he’s only made 21 starts in the past two seasons while dealing with the same impingement in his shoulder that cost him his last year at TCU and a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Purke’s issue is a lot like Detwiler, a cross-body action with his arm that generates a lot of torque, which in turn causes body parts to revolt and destruct. His fastball and changeup are both fringy right now and he needs innings to prove he’s still worth the effort, but it looks more and more like the Nats $4 million gamble on him in the third round of the 2011 draft will end up bust.
Chris Young, RHP: The 6’10” Young didn’t pitch in the Majors last season. Shoot, he hardly pitched at all, making just nine starts in the minors, including seven in Syracuse, where he went 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA and almost walked as many (3.9 per nine) as struck out (4.5 per nine). So why is he listed here? I’m not sure. The Nats invited him to Spring Training again and since he’s a MLB veteran I’m giving him all due respect by listing him here, but at 35, he’s done. He never had much of a fastball to begin with, relying on guile and his impressive frame, but I’ll be shocked if Young makes it through Spring Training.