September 19, 2014

Washington Nationals Minor League Team-by-Team Awards

As the regular season comes to a close for minor league, District Sports Page now takes a look around the Washington Nationals’ organization and reflects a year that was in minor league baseball. (NOTE: These are not “official” awards. They have been selected by the writer.) [Read more...]

Washington Nationals’ Lucas Giolito, Wilmer Difo Win End of Year Awards

On Thursday afternoon, the South Atlantic League announced its 2014 Annual All-Star Team, as well as league MVP, Most Outstanding Pitcher and Most Outstanding MLB Prospect. A pair of Hagerstown Suns, Lucas Giolito and Wilmer Difo, took home several of those awards. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Minor League and Prospect Report for August 3rd

Another week of minor league baseball is in the books. Here are some players making headlines inside the Washington Nationals’ organization. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Minor League and Prospect Report for July 20th

Another week of minor league baseball is in the books. Here are players around the Washington Nationals’ organization that are making headlines. For this week, we’ll go over players that participated in All-Star Games, among others. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Minor League and Prospect Report for Week of June 29th

Another week of minor league baseball is in the books. Here is a look around the Washington Nationals’ farm system at some players making headlines. [Read more...]

Two Washington Nationals Named to 2014 MLB Future’s Game at All-Star Weekend

On Tuesday, June 24, Major League Baseball announced the 50 players that will be participating in the 2014 MLB Future’s Game at All-Star Weekend. The Washington Nationals were fortunate enough to have two of their minor leaguers named to the game. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals’ Minor League and Prospect Report for Week Ending June 1st

As another week of minor league baseball comes to an end, here are some players in the Washington Nationals’ system that are making headlines. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals’ Minor League and Prospect Report for Week Ending May 11th

Syracuse Chiefs, AAA International League, 19-17

Brian Goodwin: The last time we checked in with Goodwin, his season wasn’t starting off as well as he might have hoped. Recently, however, he’s turned things around. He’s picked up seven hits in his last 10 games including a 2-for-4 effort on Sunday afternoon. In the same stretch, he’s 2-for-2 on stolen base attempts. It’s his first season at triple-A and it looks as though he’s getting used to things in Syracuse.

Michael Gonzalez: Formerly of the Nationals’ bullpen, Gonzalez has pitched well in five appearances out of the Chiefs’ bullpen. In 5.2 innings of work, he’s given up just three hits while striking out six and, most importantly, has yet to give a run.

Johnatan Solano: The former backup catcher for the Nationals, Solano is tearing it up at triple-A this year. He leads the team in average (.298) and homers (5). He’s picked up at least one hit in eight of the team’s last 10 games including two homers. On the year, he’s knocked in 19 RBI.

Harrisburg Senators, AA Eastern League, 11-23

Destin Hood: Hood began the year at Triple-A, but was moved down to Harrisburg after just 11 games. In 19 games with the Senators, he’s thrived. He’s averaging .329 with a double, homer and 5 RBI in Double-A ball. In his last 10 games, he’s got 10 hits including a 3-for-4 night on May 8. On the base paths, he’s a perfect 6-for-6 on stolen base attempts.

Matt Grace: Left-handed reliever Matt Grace has proven to be a solid arm out of the bullpen for the Senators. In 19.1 innings of work spanning 11 appearances, Grace has given up 17 hits and 5 runs (3 earned) all while striking out 17. The Nationals were hurting for left-handers in their big league bullpen, but they’ve got several good ones, like Grace, coming through the system.

Matt Skole: It’s been a couple weeks since we checked in with one of the brightest young stars in the Nationals’ system, but things haven’t gotten much better for Skole as the year’s progressed. He’s shown some spark at times, but his average still hovers at .189 and he hit his first homer of the season on Saturday. This is Skole’s first full year at Double-A, so hopefully he still working through some growing pains.

Potomac Nationals, High-Class A Carolina League, 19-14

Ronald Pena: Starting right-hander Ronald Pena is a pitcher on the rebound for the single-A P-Nats. After giving up 13 runs combined in his first three starts, he’s settled in as of late. In his most recent start on May 7, he lasted a season-long six innings and gave up just two runs on four hits. While Potomac lost the game, it’s encouraging to see some life in Pena’s stuff on the mound.

Brandon Miller: Statistically, it’s been an odd start to the month of May for outfielder Brandon Miller. While he’s batting just .146, he’s got a hit in six of the team’s 10 games this month. While he hasn’t gotten multiple hits in a game, his one hit is usually a productive swing. This month, Miller has hit a double, three homers and has eight RBI.

Cole Leonida: Catcher Cole Leonida is having a solid season. Averaging a start every 3-5 days, he’s making his moments in the spotlight count. In 12 games this year, Leonida is batting .270 with six doubles, two homers and five RBI. His OPS of .995 leads the team, as well.

Hagerstown Suns, Low-Class A South Atlantic League, 27-8

Lucas Giolito: Giolito has made the report before, but his most recent start on Sunday afternoon has earned him the right to be mentioned. In his seventh start of the season, Giolito threw six scoreless innings of a game that went just seven innings due to it being part of a double-header. In the start, he gave up just one hit, one walk and struck out seven. His ERA drops to 2.51, his opponents batting average drops to .186 and he’s now struck out 36 batters this season.

Craig Manuel: Catcher Craig Manuel is averaging a start every 3-4 days for the Suns and is doing well when he gets his opportunities. His average is hovering at .300 and has picked up a hit in all but one of his last 10 games. Currently, he’s on a five-game hitting streak after hitting a double on Sunday evening.

Jake Walsh: Closer Jake Walsh has been a reliable pitcher out of the bullpen for Hagerstown. In 15 innings spanning 10 games, he’s given up just three runs (two in one game) and seven hits. On top of that, he’s also struck out 16 batters. After pitching two scoreless innings on Sunday evening, the left-hander has dropped his season ERA to 1.80.

Washington Nationals’ Minor League and Prospect Report for Week Ending April 27

Syracuse Chiefs, AAA International League, 10-13

Brian Goodwin: In the Chiefs past 10 games, Goodwin has batted just .216. One of the fastest men in the clubs’ system, he’s stolen just two bags all season long. In the past 10 games, the 23-year old has 5 RBI, a triple and two doubles. This is his first season at triple-A, so it may take some time to adjust to the elevated level of play.

Ryan Mattheus: Once an important member of the Nationals’ bullpen, the right-handed Mattheus is off to a rough start in Syracuse. Through nine outings, he’s amassed a 5.40 ERA and opponents are hitting .275 against him.

Jhonatan Solano: If not for Sandy Leon, Solano would be the backup behind home plate. In triple-A, his season is off to a solid start. Through 54 at-bats spanning 15 games, Solano is hitting .333 with a .537 slugging percentage. He’s hit five doubles, two homers and 11 RBI.

Harrisburg Senators, AA Eastern League, 5-16

Destin Hood: In his second full season with the Senators, the outfielder leads the team with a .329 batting average. In the past 10 games, he’s collected at least one hit in six of them. On the season, Hood has stolen six bases, scored nine runs and has collected 5 RBI.

Matt Skole: Possibly the most powerful bat in the Nationals’ farm system, Skole is off to a rather slow start. In 74 at bats, he’s hitting .149 with a slugging percentage of .189. He has hit three doubles and 6 RBI, but is still waiting on his first long ball. Last year, an early season injury saw his season cut short; so it’s important to stay patient with him as he returns to action.

A.J. Cole: One of the brightest young arms in the system, Cole got off to good start, but has hit some tough times in recent outings. He started off 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA, but went 0-1 in his next two games and gave up 17 hits and five runs collectively.

Potomac Nationals, High-Class A Carolina League, 14-8

Tony Renda: Before a quad injury sent him to the disabled list on April 11, second baseman Tony Renda got off to quite a start for Potomac. He put together a slash line of .375/.400/.438 with two doubles and eight RBI. On the base paths, he found success stealing three bags and scoring eight runs.

Bryan Harper: Bryce’s older brother, Bryan Harper has been pitching well out of the bullpen for Potomac. In 9.1 innings of relief work, Harper has given up just one earned run while striking out seven. The left-hander has been rather versatile as he’s been a solid option for 1-2 innings of work.

Brian Dupra: Another young arm available out of the bullpen, right-hander Brian Dupra has been just as solid as Harper. Over 17 innings of long-relief spanning five games, he’s allowed just one run across the plate and opponents are batting just .177 against him. He’s struck out 23 while walking just one.

Hagerstown Suns, Low-Class A South Atlantic League, 18-5

Wilmer Difo: Difo has spent time bouncing around the lower ranks of the Nationals’ farm system, but he’s beginning to bear the fruits of that hard work. In 22 games this season with the Suns, he’s batting .313 with eight doubles, two triples and 17 RBI. On top of that, he’s stolen nine bases and has at least three hits in three of his last five games.

Lucas Giolito: The Nationals’ first round pick in 2012, Lucas Giolito is off to a solid start in his first full season of action (last year he missed due to Tommy John Surgery). In five starts, he’s 1-0 with a 2.95 ERA. He’s struck out 24 batters and opponents are hitting just .192 against him.

Drew Ward: Difo’s biggest competition for most valuable player through the early part of the season, Drew Ward is off to just as good a start, if not better. Through 61 at bats, Ward is batting .311 with a slugging percentage of .508. The third baseman has hit four doubles, a triple, two homers and 21 RBI. He’s currently on an eight game hitting streak, as well.

Washington Nationals 2014 “Natosphere” Preseason Survey

HAPPY OPENING DAY!

For the past several seasons, the DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association (DC-IBWA) has conducted a preseason survey, asking questions to key Washington Nationals issues and seeking predictions for season statistical leaders. You can find this year’s results here. Below is how our staff answered the tough questions.

1) Who will lead the Nats in home runs?

DAVE NICHOLS (Editor-in-Chief): Bryce Harper. Hopefully Harper stays healthy, lays off the breaking stuff, and is passable against lefties.

RYAN KELLEY (Prospects and scouting): Harper’s left-handed power is the best on a team with plenty of pop. In his early 20′s he’s put together a career .209 ISO during his first two MLB seasons, and there’s plenty more power to come. He also showed up to spring training with more muscle in his frame. If he stays healthy he could hit 30+ bombs, and even 40 wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to predict.

STUART WALLACE (Statistical analysis): Bryce Harper.

CHRIS GAROSI (Fantasy): Harper. A full healthy season sees him approach 30 homers.

ALYSSA WOLICE (Beat writer): It’s no secret that last season Jayson Werth edged Bryce Harper for D.C.’s home run crown with 25 total home runs. But the sophomore battled injuries for the greater portion of the year. And, his new stature makes evident the fact he’s had a productive offseason. Critics – or, pessimists, rather – say Harper’s weight gain could adversely affect his swing. But, I’m not buying it. If he can remain healthy, Harper will certainly lead the Nats in home runs – and, perhaps, he’ll even make a run for the 40-mark.

2) Who will lead the Nats in RBI?
DN:  Harper. If he hits fourth the bulk of the season he’ll have the best opportunity to lead the team in RBIs batting behind Rendon and Zimmerman. At least, in a perfect world that’s how it works out.
RK: Ryan Zimmerman. Lineup spot plays a direct part in determining totals. Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman are generally guys that stay closest to the middle of the lineup, and furthest from the leadoff spot. LaRoche will sit against some lefties this year though, and he looked punchless for much of last season.
Zimmerman has plenty of power and is a good hitter, but if Williams decides to spread his lefties out, there’s an outside shot Ryan could be pushed away from the RBI spots. He’s also a guy that will lose games to injuries every year. Harper has the most pop, but he’s young and he was owned by southpaws last year. So, I guess I’ll gamble and go with Ryan Zimmerman. He’s a good bet to be in the either the 3-hole, clean-up spot, or 5th spot in the lineup consistently and he’s a good balance of power, discipline and hitting ability–though his bat wrapping makes his swing very long.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Harper. If he keeps hitting fifth he’ll have plenty of opportunities to drive in Werth and Zim.
AW: Ian Desmond. Last season, the star shortstop knocked in 80 runs – just two shy of Jayson Werth. And, while Werth posted some of the best numbers of his career in 2013, Desmond has the advantage of relative youth. In fact, Desmond has batted in more runs year after year, and I would bank on that trend continuing, at least for 2014.
3) Who will lead the Nats in stolen bases?
DN: Denard Span. If spring training taught us anything, it’s that new skipper Matt Williams wants to be aggressive on the basepaths. I expect Span will be running a lot this season.
RK:  The Nats don’t have much speed. Supposedly, first-year skipper Matt Williams will run the team on the bases more aggressively than Davey did, but judging by the player he himself was — and the juiced-up era he learned to play MLB baseball in — it’s hard for me to envision the offense putting a lot of emphasis on stolen bases.
Harper, Span and Desmond have some speed, while McLouth is a heady baserunner, but none of them are truly plus runners. If I had to pick one, I guess I’d say Desmond, who is the best mix of aggression, veteran instincts and raw speed. His workload also means he’ll get plenty of chances. But if Eury Perez gets extensive playing time, that’ll be the guy.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Ian Desmond.
AW: Denard Span. Sure, Span had a less-than-stellar 2013 season. But if spring training can produce only one thing, it’s promise. And, Span gave plenty of reasons to hope for improvement this season. But of course, in order for Span to rack up the stolen base total for Washington, he’ll have to fine-tune his approach at the plate to avoid repeating last season’s .327 OBP.
4) Who will lead the staff in wins?
DN:  Stephen Strasburg. This is his year to put up 200+ innings and show he’s the workhorse of the staff he’s always said he wants to be. His stuff is downright nasty, he has a mean streak on the mound, and he’ll be working to a decent pair of catchers really for the first time in his career.
RK:  Jordan Zimmermann. I really like JZ, he’s an outstanding pitcher and one of the most underrated guys in baseball-even now that he’s gotten his money. His approach to pitching and demeanor are very similar to Mike Mussina, and statistically, he’s a similarly productive — and overlooked — player. He led the NL in wins last year with 19, and his 4.03 K/BB ratio was seventh in the league and tops among returning members of the staff. Considering he’s this talented, and he’ll get plenty of favorable match-ups in the middle of the rotation, JZ is the safe bet.
SW: Stephen Strasburg.
CG: Jordan Zimmermann.
AW: I’m finally going to write what I’ve been long hoping to write: I think this season will be Stephen Strasburg’s breakout year. Fans have every reason to believe he will emerge better than ever before, now that he’s had the bone chips in his elbow taken care of. Now that the birth of his daughter has provided Strasburg with a new perspective on life, I think he’ll approach each start with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Add to that, one can only hope Strasburg’s newly acquired slider will create even more frustrations for opposing batters. That’s not to say Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez won’t challenge Strasburg for most wins. But, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Strasburg could reach 20 wins this year, provided he remains healthy and garners the run support he lacked last season.
5) How many games will Ryan Zimmerman play first base?
DN:  25 or so. I think Zimmerman will get a handful of starts against lefties and get moved around a handful of times late in games when LaRoche gets pinch-hit for against LOOGYs. I think the Nats will resist the temptation of moving him over to first full-time until next year, but it’s coming. His throwing looked no better in spring training than it did for much of last season. It’s a shame that Zim and Espinosa both wrecked their careers (Zim defensively, Epsi offensively) playing through injury in 2012 in pursuit of a pennant.
RK:  10-15. It could certainly be more depending on how well LaRoche and Espinosa play against southpaws, but I don’t think the Nats will put him there too often so they can avoid raising discussion about him getting unseated there so early. Personally though, I don’t think Rendon plays like a long-term second basemen, and he looks much better at third. Espinosa’s value lays in the fact that he’s a middle infielder with plus defense and pop. So, it’s not a bad idea to get Zimmerman reps at first, especially because his third base defense has regressed to average, largely due to his throwing issues.
SW: 55.
CG: 45.
AW: I’ll give Zimmerman a dozen starts at first base, and 30 total games in which he makes an appearance on the right corner of the infield. I think it’s pretty clear the Nats are interested in having Zim switch corners, at least for curiosity’s sake. And, Matt Williams has already hinted that the star third baseman could be called upon to cover first in double-switch scenarios and the like – anything causing Adam LaRoche to be pulled from the game. Of course, if Zimmerman’s shoulder starts to show signs of wear and tear – or if Adam LaRoche misses significant playing time for any reason – that number could rise tremendously. But, assuming neither of those situations occur, I’d say Zimmerman makes an appearance covering first base a maximum of 30 games.
6) Who starts more games: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf?
DN:  Taylor Jordan. I think he’s got the better long-term package to succeed out of this group. But they’re all just a place-holders really until Giolito and Cole are ready. By then, though, one of those might be replacing Jordan Zimmermann, who it seems more and more likely that he’ll test the free agent waters.
RK:  Tanner Roark. Taylor Jordan is the best pitcher of the four, but he’s also the youngest and still isn’t that far removed from TJ surgery. Long-term Jordan is a more fundamental member of the rotation, but there isn’t enough need to push him now with options ahead of him. The organization really likes Roark, and though I have my doubts about his feel and the depth of his repertoire, he does have good command of a 94 mph fastball and has a very high floor. Ultimately, he still may be best suited for the bullpen, where he’d be very good in a Craig Stammen role or even as a closer.
SW: Jordan.
CG: Tanner Roark – He’s got more upper minor league experience. I think Jordan heads back to the minors once Fister is healthy.
AW: I’m going to take what we saw of Tanner Roark and run with it and say he earns the most starts with Washington of the four. That’s assuming he posts numbers that come even remotely close to his hard-to-believe 1.51 ERA and 7-1 record from last season. Do I think he’s going to post a sub-2.00 ERA again? Not at all. But, if he can maintain good movement on his sinker and approach the upcoming season with confidence, I think he’ll earn a bit of time in the rotation, particularly if Doug Fister struggles to return to good health.
7) Who will get more at bats for the Nats this season: Danny Espinosa or Jamey Carroll (Survey went out well before Carroll was released or Kevin Frandsen was added to roster)?
DN:  Obviously, the answer is Espinosa by default. But I’m very skeptical that Espinosa will contribute anything with the bat again this year. His two-homer game in spring training aside, he continued to look lousy at the plate in Florida despite cutting down his swing a bit. I just don’t think he has the power in his shoulder to generate MLB bat speed anymore.
RK:  Danny Espinosa. Carroll is insurance, at most. He didn’t look so “ageless” (what so many people refer to him as) last year when he hit .211/.267/.251, and he looked old this spring. The Nats want to see what they can get out of Espinosa, even in a bench role. And at the very least, they’ll showcase his skills enough to trade him at a better price when the market is hungrier.
SW: Espi (but this question is moot. He will get more ABs than Frandsen also).
CG: Danny Espinosa – I assume he’ll play at least one.
AW: The burning joke to make here would be to vote for Jamey Carroll, despite the Nationals’ recent decision to release the 40-year-old infielder. But, all burns aside, I think Danny Espinosa would have earned more at-bats, regardless. Call me an optimist but, I’d like to hope Espinosa has made enough improvements at the plate to make him a considerable option for the Nats’ reserves. I wouldn’t necessarily imply he might be a first- or second-choice in a pinch-hitting situation. But, injuries plague every team, and the optimist in me says that, should the opportunity for a second chance arise, Espinosa could deliver. After all, numbers aside, Espinosa has something to prove – perhaps more than any other player who could find himself on the Nationals’ bench this season.
8) Which minor leaguer are you most interested in keeping tabs on this season?
DN:  Hard not to say Giolito. Scouts are drooling all over the kid. Big fastball, two more plus offerings. Great makeup. This season will be his first full year after TJ surgery, so look for pitch counts and about 160 innings out of him. Next season, the training wheels come off.

RK:  Drew Ward. I really like Ward, and see him as a solid bet to be a Hank Blalock-type third baseman, and even if he moves to the outfield, his bat is good enough to be a slugging right fielder with plus on-base percentages like Geoff Jenkins or even J.D. Drew. But there’s considerable risk here, and his background is a throwback to when farm boys used to populate minor league circuits playing on hay-covered dust.

Ward played on a very rural circuit in high school, and while he looked good against stronger competition, he rarely had the chance to swing against high 80′s heat and advanced breaking pitches. His first taste of the pro’s was promising, as he hit .292/.402/.387 in the GCL. So, it’ll be interesting to see how he plays a level higher in 2014. If not for his playing on such a rural circuit, and him not graduating early, Ward would’ve likely been a top-20 draft pick this coming June.
SW: AJ Cole
CG: Zach Walters. He could be a very important piece if the Nats have to move Zimmerman to first base sooner than later.
AW: I’m most interested in seeing what becomes of RHP A.J. Cole this season. For starters, I’m interested to see how Cole works his way up the ranks after being reacquired by the Nats (he was dealt to the Oakland A’s in the Gio Gonzalez deal). I wouldn’t necessarily say Cole will be the Nats’ star prospect this season – that title could very well fall to Lucas Giolito, Matt Skole or Brian Goodwin. But, the Nats, no doubt, have seen something in Cole who, after struggling with the A’s High-A team in 2012, posted strong number fors the Nats’ Double-A Harrisburg. In seven starts last season, Cole recorded a 2.18 ERA and a 4-2 record with Harrisburg. And, if he can improve his curveball a bit, he could really garner some attention, wherever he finds himself in the Nats’ organization this season.
9) Who will reach majors first: Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito or Matt Purke?
DN:  Sammy Solis is the easy answer. He’ll be one of the first recalled if the Nats need a pitcher of any sort. Cole is next, with Giolito in close pursuit. Purke has a long way to go to prove he belongs in this discussion anymore.

RK:  Giolio’s age, recent recovery from elbow surgery and ceiling means he has no chance this year. Purke’s injury-laden resume and struggles this spring make him a long shot, even despite his contract, notoriety and left-handedness. So, that leaves Cole and Solis. Cole has more upside, with a premium heater, plus fastball command and nice athleticism, and he’s very polished for his age. He’s one of the top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in baseball in my opinion. Solis is older, craftier and more MLB-ready. He’s also left-handed, a skill that puts him right behind Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler on the team’s depth chart. So, either one of these guys.

I think Solis might get a shot in the ‘pen as soon as someone goes down with injury, so it’ll be him first. But if any of the team’s big name starters goes down for extended time, and if Jordan or Roark don’t live up to expectations, then the organization will be more than happy to start Cole’s arbitration clock early.
SW: AJ Cole.
CG: AJ Cole.
AW: I’m going to go with LHP Sammy Solis on this one, if only because Lucas Giolito will require a bit of time to earn his way up the ranks – and prove his ability to stay healthy. Giolito’s pitching repertoire is downright impressive – he boasts a nasty curveball and a top-notch changeup – but, he’s battled with his fair share of inactivity as the result of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.
10) How many all-stars will the Nats have? Whom?
DN: Two: Harper and Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann will have a tough time replicating his first half last season, just because it was so damn good. And I have a bit of worry about Gio this year.
RK:  Four. Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper are almost locks if they’re healthy. Not only are they elite-level players at their positions, but they’re fan-favorites and high fantasy picks. I know Desmond got snubbed last year, but there was enough hubbub about it that I don’t think the Washington area’s massive market will let that happen if the team lives up to expectations this year. Plus, Tulo and Hanley are both very injury prone.
Stephen Strasburg is a lock if he’s healthy (knock knock), so that’s 3, and it’s hard to believe that one of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard won’t make it. So that’s four, almost definitely. Wilson Ramos has star-level talent, and has produced when healthy — he just needs to stay healthy. And then Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth also have good chance, and it’s not like Storen, Fister and Rendon don’t have the chops. So I think it’ll be four, But, it could certainly be five, and six isn’t too crazy if the team wins and grabs the spotlight.
SW: 4 – Strasburg, Harper, Desmond, JZimmermann.
CG: Two — Bryce Harper and Tyler Clippard.
AW: Three: Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg
11) Total wins and what place in the division?
DN:  90 wins, first place. With all the injuries to Atlanta’s pitching staff, the Nats will win the division by default, and I believe the N.L. East is the worst division in baseball now due to the Braves plight. The Phillies are falling apart due to age, the Mets are a couple years away and the Marlins just have so very little big league talent right now, despite a couple of very good pitchers.

RK:  95 wins, 1st place. Matt Williams’ managerial resume is pretty light, so he’s a bit of a wildcard no matter what kind of player he was. With that said, I think the Nationals are the MLB’s best bet for first place.

Besides Atlanta, the Nats’ division is weak and their balanced roster is overflowing with All-Star talent. The team transformed into a winner in 2012, and while they had a sophomore slump in 2013, the franchise’s studs–Harper, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gio– are now entering their primes and their leaders–Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth–are hungrier than ever for a World Series.
After the front office neglected their need for left-handed pitching and power last year, they did a great job addressing it this offseason. Now, the club not only looks supremely talented, but supremely balanced. Rafael Soriano as the closer looks like the lone weak spot, but the team has enough bullpen talent between Clippard, Storen, Stammen and Detwiler that this issue isn’t troubling. Their run differential could approach a full run per game if they’re well managed, so they could bring home as many as 100 wins and be one of the most dominant teams since the ’98 Yankees. But, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The rotation is gifted but somewhat fragile and every big league season brings plenty of disappointment.
SW: 91-71; 1st
CG: 89 wins, first in N.L. East.
AW: With the Philadelphia Phillies all but defunct and the Atlanta Braves coping with serious injuries before the season’s first pitch, I say the Nationals absolutely have to win the NL East this season. I’ll give them 96 total wins to edge the Braves, who will likely enjoy a bit of a revival in the second half of the season.
Essay: What should be the single most important development for the Nats this season?
DN:  Ryan Zimmerman’s defense, in conjunction with Adam LaRoche’s offense. Ryan Zimmerman is the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could outlast all of Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper. His bat is better at third than it would be at first base, but if he can’t get his defense sorted out — and it’s more than just the throwing at this point — he’s going to have to be moved.
LaRoche is essentially a platoon player at this stage in his career. Granted, it’s the side of the platoon where he’ll see the bulk of at bats. He’s never been good at hitting lefties, but last year he was down-right atrocious. The Nats can’t afford that type of production from their first base position. LaRoche is still decent in the field, but not as great as people in this market seem to think. If LaRoche doesn’t show signs of bouncing back early in the year, it’s a bad sign and will force the Nats into shuffling things around.

RK:  Wilson Ramos and the team’s catching. Ramos has shown All-Star-level ability, with outstanding power for a catcher, a strong arm and the ability to keep the ball in front of him. Injuries have been his downfall, and it’s what forced Davey Johnson to give a rundown and weak-swinging Kurt Suzuki so many starts over the previous two years. In Ramos’ absence, Suzuki proved not only to hurt the team with his poor pitch-framing, but he didn’t make opposing base-stealers hesitate before going for second base–not one bit–and his 70 wRC+ during his time in Washington means he was horrific with the bat.

Ramos is being handed the reigns to one of the most gifted rotations the game has every seen–and certainly the most valuable. He too is young, and his job comes with plenty of pressure. Even with Jose Lobaton added to the team as both the back-up and injury insurance, the weight still falls heavily on Ramos’ shoulders. For this team to live up to it’s potential, he’ll have to catch 100 games this season and be a stud both in the box and behind the plate.
Can he frame pitches well enough to keep the pitch counts down for fragile guys like Strasburg, Gio and max-effort Tyler Clippard, whom all have exhausting mechanics? Can he get Jordan Zimmermann and Rafael Soriano strike calls while they live on the edges of the zone? After his ACL and hamstring injuries, can he still block the plate well enough to keep the staff’s young guns confident in their premium breaking stuff? And can he get out of his crouch quick enough to slow down base stealers despite a so-so career 27% CS%?
Ramos has a hefty amount of responsibility. He could step up the the plate and flourish, establishing himself as a star, or it could certainly be more disappointment for him. But the team really needs him to play his best. Because even if Lobaton is a solid game caller and receiver, he’s not a first-tier catcher like Ramos is. And after him, the organization has little beyond glove-only Sandy Leon and a few bullpen catchers.
SW: The most important development of the season for the Nats will be the maturation and continued development of Anthony Rendon, both at the plate and as a utility player. Possessing one of the more impressive and advanced hit tools for a player his age, continued seasoning from MLB plate appearances will further hone his contact rate, his understanding of the strike zone and how opposing pitchers will handle him, which will only improve his offensive stock. A full return to health after being a little banged up last season will also add to his performance.
However, the biggest piece of the puzzle for Rendon will be in the field, as he continues to learn how to play 2B at the major league level, while also retaining his above average skills at his natural position of 3B. Given the merry-go-round of players and their positions in the infield with Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa as well as Rendon all looking at new positions part-time or otherwise, it will be up to Rendon to provide a precociously steady influence at both second and third for the other two to have successful transitions. The hitting will always be there, but health and fielding from the young Texan will play an enormous role in the overall success of the bottom half of the batting order and the team’s defense.
AW: Saying the bench should be the Nationals’ single-most important development this season might not fire up fans. But, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be item No. 1 on the Nationals “must-fix” list. Washington boasted some of the league’s best pitching last season, and came up with absolutely no run support to swing the win-loss column in their favor. With the addition of Nate McLouth and the lingering hope that Danny Espinosa could show at least marginal improvement, one would hope Washington will perform better in clutch situations this year.
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