April 20, 2014

Nats second opening day comes with added enthusiasm

The Washington Nationals play the Atlanta Braves in the first of a three-game series Friday at 1:10 pm. Sounds clinical when it’s put in those terms. That could describe any series opening game at any point in the season.

But this series opener is also the home opener on the schedule — the first of 81 games in the regular season for the Nats to play with a homefield advantage. It’s also the first time for many in attendance — yours truly included — to see the Nats for the first time in person this calendar year. Unless you were fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to Viera for Spring Training, or shuffled up to New York to see the Mets series, you’re in the same boat.

This game would have been special – for fans, the players, the organization, the city – regardless of circumstances. But it comes on the heels of a three-game sweep of the division rival Mets. Most opening days come with as much uncertainty as excitement. But Friday’s home opener comes with added enthusiasm. We’ve already seen a lot of what the Nats could be this season in just three games

We’ve already seen Stephen Strasburg recover from a shaky start to strike out 10 in six innings. We’ve seen Gio Gonzalez dominate an undermanned Mets team — and smack a home run to boot.

Ryan Zimmerman’s second inning blast Thursday reminds us of just how important a player he is for the team, just as his throwing error Wednesday reminds us that his defense isn’t what it used to be, and may never be again.

Tanner Roark showed more of the promise in Thursday’s emergency start that he gave a glimpse of at the end of last season. Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa all had a promising opening series after last season’s disappointments. And Jayson Werth kept on hitting.

What we haven’t seen yet is Bryce Harper bust out with any noise yet. Manager Matt Williams indicated in his pregame press conference that Harper’s swing was a “tick off” so far. Asked to elaborate, Williams declined, saying he was not at liberty to talk about it. Cause for concern? Maybe, but worry? Not yet.

The Nats have won coming from behind late. They’ve dominated a game. And they’ve grinded a win out for a late-blooming prospect. We’ve seen a lot so far in just three games, and that makes the home opener that much more exciting for the home fans. This is a season of big possibilities. It’ll take six months to play out.

But we’ve already seen a lot.

Happy Opening Day everyone.

Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview: Five biggest issues to watch

Here we go again.

The Washington Nationals, despite not qualifying for the playoffs last season and spending the first three-quarters of the season in the bottom-three in the N.L. generating base runners, are preseason favorites in the N.L. East and a popular pick again for the World Series.

The Nats are a talented team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. With big paydays ahead for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann (with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper not too far behind), the time is now for the Nats to really start making noise on the national level.

Most of the prognosticators are ignoring all the warning signs and putting their reputations on the line for the Nats. Are they capable of making a long playoff run? Yes. But simply ignoring warning signs from last season and expecting another near-perfect run in the regular season like 2012 would be foolish.

GM Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason. 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.

Last week, Rizzo picked up UTL Kevin Frandsen off the waiver wire from the Phillies. This may prove to be a key addition to the bench as well.

But there are still plenty of question marks heading into the 2014 season. What are the top five issues Nats fans need to watch for? At the end of last season, I wrote a couple of columns on what went wrong in 2013. That’s a good place to start since many of the same issues still exist.

This might seem like I’m down on the Nats chances. Not so. 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’s overachieving isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production instead of sliding further.

They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East by default. 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 all of the below scenarios blowing up and derailing another promising season.

GETTING ON BASE

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.

But the starting roster is intact from last season, when the Nats needed a scorching hot final seven weeks to climb out of the cellar of run scoring and putting runners on base. That stretch coincided with Denard Span’s hot streak, so maybe Rizzo figures Span’s adjustment period to the N.L. is over and he’ll contribute a his career average .350 OBP at the top of the order all season long.

Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Hopefully, Anthony Rendon will eventually settle into the second spot in the order. In his rookie season (while learning a brand new position at the Major League level), Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 23 doubles. In his short minor league career, the now 23-year-old hit .269/.408/.531 and he’s always been lauded for his plate discipline.

If Rendon can handle the two-spot, it goes a long way in helping Matt Williams set the heart of the order and provide protection for the next bullet point.

HITTING AGAINST LEFTIES

The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Span’s .223/.278/.261, Bryce Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche’s .198/.254/.313. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties.

I have very little doubt Harper will figure it out. He’s a world class baseball talent and hitting against lefties is the last element from him absolutely exploding at the plate.

Span is still in the prime of his career and should bounce back closer to his career norms of .281/.358/.374 (including last season) against southpaws.

LaRoche is a completely different matter. He’s 34. He’s never been good against lefties to begin with (.244/.300/.430 career). In his career year of 2012 he only hit .268/.319/.506 vs. LHP. This is very much a player in steady decline and really should be relegated to platoon work at this stage in his career.

He’s still capable with the glove, but he’s overrated in this market with exactly how much value he brings defensively considering the stone hands the organization ran out there before him at the position. If LaRoche slides anymore from what he provided with the bat in ’13, it’ll be time to consider other options at the position (see below).

RYAN ZIMMERMAN’S SHOULDER

Ah yes. Here it is. I was speaking with DSP’s fantasy baseball contributor Chris Garosi the other day during an on-line draft, and he remarked that the most important Nats player this season is Zach Walters. His theory: Zimmerman’s shoulder (and defense in general) is so unreliable at this point that his move to first base is more imminent than anyone in D.C. wants to admit. With Danny Espinosa’s problems with the bat (more below), Walters could factor very big in D.C. mid-season.

While that might be gloom and doom, it’s probably not far off.

I’m not a doctor. But I have had my share of shoulder injuries. In fact, I had the same injury as Zim (tear of the Acromioclavicular joint). Mine was a complete tear. Obviously I don’t have access to Zim’s medical file, and he’s had it surgically repaired. But he spent most of last season still mired in the throwing problems and had a not-so-mysterious lack of power until late in the season. It’s entirely possible that it took that long for the joint to gain strength back.

Offensively, Zimmerman should be fine. His defense got better as the season went along, but we still saw some problems with his throwing in spring training. This situation bears close attention, as Zimmerman remains the most important National and the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could very well outlast Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper.

His bat is much more valuable at third than first base. But if he can’t provide the defense, he’s going to have to move. If that move is predicated by ineffectiveness by LaRoche, or Zimmerman’s throwing woes, it’ll come sooner than later, and perhaps even this season.

BACK OF THE BULLPEN

Do you have confidence in Rafael Soriano?

According to Fangraphs, Soriano has lost speed off his fastball the past four seasons in a row. He’s walking less, but striking out shockingly less, as hitters are making much more contact on him on pitches inside — and outside – of the strike zone. Outside the strike zone, baters went from 22.9 percent contact rate in ’12 to 29.6 percent in ’13. On strikes, the contact rate went from 60.8 percent to 63.9 percent. He’s given up 12 hits in five inning in Florida.

His hits per nine innings jumped an alarming 1.5 hits from ’12 to ’13 (with normal .296 BABiP) while his K/9 rate fell to 6.9. His line drive rate and fly ball rate are going up, his ground ball rate is going down.

All of this is dangerous territory and a recipe for unmitigated disaster. This is a pitcher whose skills are eroding very quickly.

As for options, of course Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen remain. Both have 40-save seasons to their credit. Clippard continues to defy logic with his repertoire of high fastballs and disappearing changeups from his awkward delivery.

Storen, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

Our Stuart Wallace took a look at Storen’s alarming rise in walk rate last week. Storen was fairly horrible the first couple months of last season, due to a large number of batted balls falling in and a higher walk rate (5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP before demotion). After his exile in Syracuse, he came back with a more streamlined, natural delivery, rather than the unusual and clumsy straight leg kick he used. He had better command, kept the ball down and was pretty much his old self.

But he’s been back to getting lit up this spring. All caveats on spring training stats, but he’s walked six in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up nine hits and six earned runs. How long a leash does he have this season?

HELP FROM THE BENCH?

Last season the Nats bench was horrific. There’s no other way to say it. .207/.264/.351. Those are pitcher’s batting numbers.

They picked up Nate McLouth as a free agent to be the primary left-handed bat on the bench. McLouth is a capable fielder at all three outfield spots, so if the Nats have an injury there they at least have an MLB-caliber replacement, something they didn’t have last season in Steve Lombardozzi.

But for everyone’s fawning over the 32-year-old, let’s remember: prior to his career renaissance last season with Baltimore, McLouth had been simply waived by Pittsburgh (twice) and Atlanta.  In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He’s never hit higher than .276 and is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter. He’s a capable backup, not more.

The other outfielder is Scott Hairston. Hairston is the right-handed hitting Yin to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” — signal the end is rapidly approaching for the once versatile and useful player.

It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Danny Espinosa “won” a utility job in spring training after hitting .226/.305/.415 in 59 plate appearances. Where to start with Espinosa?

The rotator cuff tear in 2012 that he never had surgically repaired? The broken wrist that he sustained in April only to be revealed/properly diagnosed in late May which allowed him to “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 167 PAs? The months of ineptitude in Triple-A (.216/.280/.286 in 75 games) after taking just two weeks off to let the wrist calm down?

Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads as his performance has fallen completely off the table as his injuries continued to mount. If Espinosa can return healthy — and that’s not a given — he can provide 20 homer power and speed with Gold Glove caliber defense. After spring training, and the waiver-wire pick-up of Kevin Frandsen, we’re still waiting to see him prove his health.

Frandsen can play all over the diamond and outfield, and he’s proven adept at pinch-hitting (which is a highly volatile “skill”), but he has no power and doesn’t run. He is the very definition of journeyman utility player.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview Part V: The Bullpen

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard pitched 8th inning and earned 10th hold against Baltimore Orioles, May 20, 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard in action of May 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

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:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

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.

THE BULLPEN

Rafael Soriano, RHP: The saves were there last year, the elite skills were not. Soriano’s ERA and WHIP were their highest in any season he’s been a team’s top closer. On top of that, his K rate went down precipitously as he transitioned from a pitcher with a slider out pitch to a fastball pitcher, one who’s lost velocity each of the past four seasons. He lowered his walk rate, which obviously is good, but his hit rate jumped. His ground ball rate has dropped the past three seasons as his line drive and fly ball rates have risen, more evidence of him abandoning anything but the fastball. If the walk rate goes back to his normal seasonal allowance, he could be in a world of trouble. As it is, the velocity and strikeout rate drops are a big warning sign for a 34-year-old pitcher who hates not closing.

Tyler Clippard, RHP: Clippard turned in another exceptional season for the Nats with a 2.41 ERA and ridiculous 0.859 WHIP. All was bolstered by an incredibly unsustainable 4.7 H/9 rate and .172 BABiP, which completely mirrored his 2011 All-Star campaign. Those types of numbers are just unheard of, so he’s unlikely to repeat them, but he’s a funky pitcher. He succeeds with high fastballs and a changeup that almost impossible to identify out of his unusual and, frankly, weird delivery. The strikeout and ground ball rates were down just a tick but not alarmingly so. Clippard should be just fine in his established role. The big thing to worry about him is the price tag. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $5.88 million contract and he isn’t a free agent until after 2016, so the price tags is just going to keep going up. That’s a lot for a non-closer reliever — albeit one of the best in the game.

Drew Storen, RHP: Oh boy. Where do we start? Storen was fairly terrible in the first half, pitching to a 5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP and outrageously high hit rate. The walks were fine, the Ks were fine, he was just simply unlucky as to balls finding their way into green space. He was sent to the minors on July 26 after wearing a the final inning of an 11-0 drubbing by the Mets on a day that he ran a 103 degree fever. When he came back Aug. 16, he was the same old Storen. Well, not really. He ditched the silly straight leg kick for a more conventional one that allowed him to have a more consistent delivery, but the results were more attributable to normalization. He held batters to a .200/.263/.214 line upon his return.

Jerry Blevins, LHP: Obtained from the A’s for Minor League Player of the Year Billy Burns, Blevins is more than a typical lefty specialist — he actually owned better numbers against righties than lefties last season. Overall, a 3.15 ERA and 1.067 WHIP were solid. He has a four-pitch repertoire and faced four or more batters in more than half of his appearance last season. Blevins won’t overwhelm with his fastball, and his K rates will keep him in a set up or LOOGY role, but he knows how to pitch. Has improved his walk rate each of the past three seasons.

Xavier Cedeno, LHP: Want the good news? Cedeno enjoyed his career year last season at age 26, earning a 1.50 ERA and 1.000 WHIP for the Nats. He struck out 9 per nine innings and walked just 1.5. Want the bad news? He also suffered his worst season as a big leaguer last year, as he allowed 11 runs (eight earned) in 6.1 innings for Houston before they cut him in April. Am I being dramatic? You betcha. But Cedeno’s numbers for the Nats came in just 6.0 over 11 games. Against lefties, Cedeno provided a .231/.333/.269 slash. Against righties, that jumped to .391/.517/.522. Granted, we’re talking 29 and 31 plate appearances here. Call me skeptical, but I just don’t see Cedeno coming anywhere near approaching his numbers for the Nats last season again. He’s not a kid, and nothing in his history indicates this was anything more than a couple of good appearances in a row against limited competition.

Craig Stammen, RHP: Stammen could start for half the teams in baseball. His stuff is that good. All his peripherals continue to go in the right direction and his traditional numbers are solid across the board. Is this a pitcher that has found his spot? Or are the Nats hiding a gem, either intentionally or not. Either way, Stammen has proven to be an absolutely invaluable arm in the long role that he’s occupied the past two season for the team. His walk rate dropped by 0.7 this year over last — if that holds, he should earn higher leverage late innings if Clippard gets too expensive.

Ryan Mattheus, RHP: On the other hand… Mattheus was unlucky, sure. His BABiP of .405 screams it. But look at the rest. Rising walk rate. K rate less than 6 per nine. Lost velocity on his sinker. Punching a locker, breaking his hand and being completely and utterly lost once he returned. The hit rate is going to stabilize somewhat, but how much is luck and how much is just erosion of skill? He’s 30, not a youngster that needs to figure things out. He needs to prove health and competence or there are plenty of arms that will push him out of a job.

Josh Roenicke, RHP: Roenicke is famous for being the son of former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke and also being Ian Desmond’s brother-in-law. Roenicke the pitcher, however, is mediocre at best. He was brought in as an NRI and will provide depth in Syracuse most likely. He walks way too many (5.2 per nine in 62 IP last season) without the high K rate (just 6.5/9) that allows you live with it.

Erik Davis, RHP: Davis made his MLB debut last season at age 26, compiling a 1-0 record, 3.12 ERA and 1.269 WHIP in 8.2 innings, striking out 12 while walking just one. This was after going 3-7 with 15 saves, 3.10 ERA and 1.433 WHIP in AAA, so small sample caveats abound. Davis was slated to compete for a role in this year’s pen, but was placed on the 60-day D.L. with an ”elbow strain” on the same day the Nats traded for Jose Lobaton. It’s quite possible he never throws a pitch to Lobaton.

Christian Garcia, RHP: “If only Garcia could stay healthy…” Any Nats fan that knows more than just Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg will cite Garcia as their secret weapon. He’s got the stuff, he knows how to pitch, and he’s still young enough (27) that he could impact the MLB roster. Unfortunately, that part of staying healthy just keeps eluding Garcia. He’s already had two Tommy John’s while he was property of the Yankees and last season he was limited to 13.1 innings in the minors after suffering a torn wrist tendon, which triggered shoulder soreness and hamstring injuries. He owns four quality MLB pitches, he just needs to get on a mound to show them off. Problem is, he can’t.

Manny Delcarmen, RHP: Delcarmen, 32, hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2010 with the Rockies. Why is he here? Well, he’s always had good stuff and has had several full seasons of downright goodness at the big league level. In 07-08 with the Red Sox he was a quality righty in their pen and some thought he had closer written all over him. Problem is, his walk rate was always high and got higher the older he got and his K rate plummeted after he hit 27. When he should have been in the peak of his career, he busted. Read into that however you want. Last year in AAA, he went 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.222 WHIP in 54 innings, so there might be something left. At the triple-A level, anyway.

Aaron Barrett, RHP: Barrett was drafted four times: by the Dodgers in the 44th round of the ’06 draft, by the Twins in the 20th round in ’08, by Texas in the 27th round in ’09 and finally by the Nats in the 9th round in 2010 after his eligibility ended for the University of Mississippi. Barrett, at age 25, dominated AA last year for Harrisburg, going 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA and 1.093 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9 and outrageous 12.3 K/9. In fact, in 149.2 IP in his minor league career, Barrett owns a 12.0 K/9 rate. He does this all with an average fastball, but a slider that Baseball America deemed best in the Nats’ system. At 6’4″, 215 he has a big league build. He needs to pitch against players his own age this year but his arm is definitely intriguing.

Clay Hensley, RHP: Hensley is a slight (5’11″, 190) righty that for the past few seasons has been able to fool enough batters to keep getting chances in the big leagues. But at 33 now, he’s running out of gas. Last season for San Francisco in 50.2 IP he walked 5.3 per nine and his ERA (4.62) showed it. Coupled with a 5.19 ERA for Florida in ’12, Hensley’s hanging on to the end of his rope.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part II: The Outfield

Jayson Werth high-fives Bryce Harper after gunning out Greg Dobbs in the ninth inning. - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Health and self-preservation are key for the Nats outfield this season. (Stock photo Sept. 2012, Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

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:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

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.

Josie’s on a vacation far away…

THE OUTFIELD

Jayson Werth, RF: Werth was a stealth candidate for MVP last season, and actually ended up 13th on the postseason award ballot. The .318/.398/.532 line he posted at age 34 had everything to do with that. Werth enjoyed one of his finest seasons in the bigs, despite missing 33 games due to injury, which has to be expected from the guy at this point in his career. There’s no way he’ll every live up to the immense contract he signed to come to D.C., but when he’s been in the lineup the past two seasons he’s outdone what could have reasonably been expected of him. How long does that production continue? His defense is already slipping greatly and he has four more seasons to his contract, so it becomes an important question as Werth enters the twilight of his solid career.

Denard Span, CF: Trivia: He’s the only player in Major League history by the name of Denard. Or Span. Anyway, Span rescued his season with a torrid seven weeks at the end of the season, which was along the lines of what GM Mike Rizzo expected when he traded pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for him. Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Bryce Harper, LF: Bam Bam put up a .274/.368/.486 line his sophomore season at the age of 20. That’s at once hard to comprehend and easy to overlook. He’s doing remarkable things at such an early age. Unfortunately, he’s his own worst enemy right now with his “balls to the wall” approach at defense. At some point, self-preservation has to take hold. No manager or coach wants to tell Harper to slow down, but he needs to stay on the field – and healthy – to fulfill his promise. After crashing into the wall at Dodgers Stadium in May, he played all season on a knee that required surgery at the conclusion of the season, under the radar while many weren’t paying attention to baseball. He needs to figure out lefties (.214/.327/.321/ in 158 PAs) and breaking balls, but the talent is there. He just needs to stay on the field.

Nate McLouth, OF: Last season was the first time since 2009 McLouth played more than 90 games at the Major League level. His resurgence for the Orioles is nothing short of astounding, considering the trajectory his career was taking. In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He rediscovered himself in Baltimore, hitting .26/.342/.435 and .258/.329/.399 the past two years. Now 32, McLouth will see plenty of at bats with the injury-prone Nats outfield and as a late inning pinch-hitter. By default, he becomes the leader of the Goon Squad.

Scott Hairston, Corner OF: Hairston is the right-handed hitting Ying to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” – signal the end is rapidly approaching the once versatile and useful player. It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Jeff Kobernus, Corner OF: Kobernus made his MLB debut last year at the age of 25, past prospect status. His tryout lasted 36 PAs and resulted in a .167/.306/.267 slash as he played all three outfield positions. Small sample caveats abound, as the converted second baseman held his own in Syracuse, hitting .318/.366/.388, all minor league career highs. You like to see a player whose numbers rise as he goes up the ladder. He’s had 40+ steals each of the past three seasons in the minors and folks love his work ethic. But there’s not a lot of room in the bigs for a right-handed hitting speedster without obvious elite skills and no pop, especially in the outfield.

Eury Perez, CF: Did you see the last sentence I wrote about Kobernus? It applies even more toward Perez. His stolen base numbers have plummeted as he’s risen through the ranks, from 64 to 51 to 23. He’s always made good contact, as his lifetime .305 average will attest to. But there’s no power, less willingness to walk, and he’s only an average defender despite his speed – though he has a decent arm. Perez is destined for pinch runner/Quad-A status.

Steven Souza, Corner OF: Souza was a third round pick in 2007 out of high school, so he’s been in the system for-e-ver, toiling first in anonymity, then infamously due to his PED suspension in 2010. But Souza has blossomed a little bit the past two seasons and put himself back on the radar of the big club. He has an interesting pop/speed combo (15 homers, 20 SBs in 323 PAs for Harrisburg in ’13) with good plate discipline (.396 OBP) and had a nice appearance in the Arizona Fall League in October. The 25-year-old could have a chance to impact the big roster yet.

Brian Goodwin, CF: Goodwin is the heir apparent to the center field position at Nats Park. The 34th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Goodwin has an impressive arsenal of tools. He possess elite plate discipline, something that might actually hurt his counting numbers in the minor leagues, as he simply won’t expand his strike zone for inferior pitchers. When he does swing, he has a nice blend of pop to go along with squaring up on the ball. Goodwin is a fine defender in center, though his arm isn’t the greatest, and he’s still learning to use his speed on the bases (just 19 of 30 last season). He struggled at the start of last season in Double-A, but picked up as the season went on. There’s plenty of time for the 23-year old as Span plays in his walk year this season (barring Nats picking up Span’s $9M option for ’15).

Michael Taylor, OF: Scouts have been drooling over Taylor’s athleticism since being drafted in the sixth round of the ’09 draft. Unfortunately for Taylor, he’s never really been able to translate all that athletic ability into production on the baseball field. He’s still young (23 in March), so he’s got time to “put it together”, but in over 1600 minor league at bats, Taylor owns a .249/.319/.399 slash. He repeated High-A last season and tore it up on the base paths (51 of 60 on steals) and his slash went up a little bit across the board. Double-A this year will tell the story of whether he’s a baseball player or athlete.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part I: The Infield

Ryan Zimmerman gets Matt Kemp out in top of 5th (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to first baseman Adam LaRoche) - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Ryan Zimmerman is a key component to Nats playoff hopes. (stock photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page, Sept. 2012)

 

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:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

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.

With no further adieu… [Read more...]

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Roundtable Part 2

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is finally upon us! With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The first half of our roundtable posted Friday.

Also, for your enjoyment, here are links to out position previews:

Left Wings
Right Wings
Centers
Defensemen
Goalies

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com.


5) Where will Brooks Laich spend the majority of his time this season (wing, center, second line, third line, infirmary, whatever)? [Read more...]

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview: The Goalies

Braden Holtby -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Braden Holtby -Practice April 27, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Braden Holtby – Holtby enters the season as the unquestioned No. 1 between the pipes for Adam Oates and newly appointed goalies coach Olie Kolzig. Holtby was strong last season and into the playoffs, starting every single game in the second season. His athletic, almost hyper-aggressive style works for him, as he can dominate for long stretches of time.

On occasion, however that aggressiveness can be a hindrance. He’s terrific passing the puck, but he has a tendency to overplay the puck, which gets him in trouble now and again, as we saw in the Rangers series. He occasionally has a problem with positioning that sometimes he can make up with his athleticism, and sometime he can’t. He’s got a strong glove, but his unorthodox style of reaching for pucks with his glove instead of letting them come to him can also cause trouble.

This is a big year for Holtby. It’s rumored that he’s on the short list of goalies being considered for the Canadian Olympic team, and there would be no higher honor for Holtby, short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, than making that team and leading his countrymen to Sochi. Lots of eyes will be on his every start, and not just those of Caps fans this season.

Michal Neuvirth during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Michal Neuvirth during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Michael Neuvirth – Neuvy has settled into his caddy role for Holtby, though he’s still young enough that he’d be considered many franchise’s future in the position. Neuvirth is technically sound, responsible and mild-mannered – everything that Holtby is not.

Unfortunately for him, every time Neuvirth has a chance to put his stamp on the position, something out of his control seems to get in the way. Usually, that’s been a nagging injury or a random spate of poor play. He has the talent to play in this league a long time, but perhaps he’s just not leading-man caliber.

Neuvirth continues to be the good soldier, there for the Caps when they need a back up to a veteran netminder (Theodore, Vokoun) or to be the goalie in waiting while the “next big thing” (Varlamov, Holtby) jumps past him on the depth chart.

Philipp Grubauer at Caps 2011 Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Philipp Grubauer at Caps 2011 Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Philipp Grubauer – The German native is the Caps current “next big thing” in goal. The Caps fourth round pick in the 2010 entry draft, Grubauer has extensive international experience, playing with the German national team in several tournaments, including the 2008 U18 Worlds, and the 2009 World Juniors. Grubauer was also a member of the 2010 Windsor Spitfires Memorial Cup Champion team.

Technically superior, Grubauer was named to the ECHL All-Rookie team with South Carolina in 2011-12. He split time in 2012-13 between Hershey and Reading, joining Hershey full-time after the NHL lockout ended.

Grubauer made his NHL debut in relief of Holtby on Feb. 27, stopping all 14 shots he faced in just over 25 minutes of play. He made his first start March 9, a 5-2 loss to the Islanders, stopping 40 of 45 shots.

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview: Defense

All week, District Sports Page has been previewing the 2013-14 Washington Capitals roster by position. Monday, Katie Brown looked at the left wingers, and Tuesday she previewed the pivots.

Today, here’s an in-depth look at the blueliners.

Karl Alzner - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner (24, 6’3″, 213, shoots left; 48 games 1-4-5, minus-6, 14 PIMs in 2012-13) – Like his then-partner John Carlson, “King Karl” got off to a slow start last season once the lockout lifted. It’s almost as if someone in the organization told the players there was no way in hell the season was going to happen and they all sat around playing Mario Brothers or something.

Political diatribes aside, Alzner recovered to do what he does best – play against every opponent’s top lines and keep goals out of his own net. He doesn’t shoot or score very often (though he was second on the Caps in shot attempts in the second round of the playoffs, but very few players are as dependable on defense than Alzner.

The only knock on Alzner is that despite decent size, he can get pushed around a bit along the walls, and not just by bigger players. Hopefully The King spent some time back in British Columbia in the weight room this summer.

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Carlson (23, 6’3″, 212, shoots right; 48 games, 6-16-22, +11, 18 PIMs) – Carlson had an interesting campaign last season. He started off considerably, um, rusty, after admittedly not skating much during the lockout. He seemed a step slow for the first 20 games of the season, as much as anyone on the Caps did during that horrendous stretch.

Head coach Adam Oates ended breaking the Carlson-Alzner duo up to try to spur better play from both. The more Carlson played and rounded into shape, the better he got and ended up in the top three in the league in blocked shots.

Still young, Carlson could be primed to have a breakout season. He’s gifted offensively and responsible on the back end. He will log plenty of minutes this season regardless who his partner is.

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine (33, 6’4″, 220, shoots left, 30 games, 3-3-6, +10, 34 PIMs) – Big John is the closest thing the Caps have to a true enforcer. He’s certainly the only player on the team, other than Ovechkin and until Tom Wilson is ready, that inspires any sort of a physical presence, especially guarding his own net.

But here’s the thing – Big John is slow, a poor skater to boot, and lacks any type of offensive skill or presence. He has a very heavy shot from the point, but can only get it off if the pass is soft or he’s left completely alone, which is usually the case as teams have no reason to fear Erskine making a play with the puck.

Oates, and presumably GM George McPhee, seem to love whatever positives Erskine brings to the blue line though. He should be candidate to sit every night, unless they’re playing Philly or Boston, but Erskine damn near earned top-4 minutes last season.

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green (27, 6’1″, 207, shoots right, 35 games, 12-14-26, minus-3, 20 PIMs) – Green led defensemen in goals last season. That really shouldn’t be a shocker. He also missed 13 games due to injury, which also shouldn’t shock anybody.

“Game Over” Green rediscovered his scoring touch last season and is certainly a boon to the team’s power play. He’s also made considerable strides in his own end. He’ll never be considered a shut-down defender, but he’s serviceable in his own end, where as a younger player he was a liability.

Oates’ offense not only encourages but darn near demands that defensemen get up in the play. Green doesn’t need much enticement to do so but he should be able to flourish in this system. With a full training camp, he should be ready to go out of the gate…as long as he can stay on the ice.

Jack Hillen - Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen – Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen (27, 5’10″, 190, shoots left, 23 games, 3-6-9, +9, 14 PIMs) – The stats love Jack Hillen. No the traditional ones so much, but his even strength Fenwick (differential in scoring chance opportunities) led all Caps defensemen last season. Hillen is a decent puck-moving defenseman, but his slight build and lack of upper body strength (his listed 190 lbs is more like 170, in my opinion) make him a liability defensively and injury risk pretty much any time he steps on the ice.

It’s not a sin to be a smallish defenseman. Hillen is pretty good at what he does for not much salary. He’s a pretty decent depth defenseman that can move the puck for you a little bit. And Oates used him primarily at even strength against weaker competition.

But as you’ll read below, I think the Caps have a much better option available to them that will eventually limit the amount of minutes, and ultimately, games Hillen will contribute to the Caps this season.

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek (23, 6’2″, 201, shoots right, 25 games, 1-6-7, minus-5, 8 PIMs) – Kundratek was an all-star in the AHL, going 16-15-31 in 49 games for Hershey in 12-13. He hardly looked overmatched with the big club either, and could be positioning himself for good minutes with the Caps this season.

Oates almost mandates that defensemen are paired with someone with an opposite shot, so this also may help Kundratek garner ice time. As a righty, he’s obviously seeded behind Green and Carlson, somewhere alongside Oleksy.

Considering Kundratek is a vastly superior offensive contributor over Oleksy, he might seem the apparent choice for the third paring at right-handed defense. Oleksy did an admirable job last season when pressed into duty. It will be interesting to watch if the league “catches up to him” this season. It may take an injury for Kundratek to crack the lineup, at least early in the season, but his overall game should overtake the overachieving Oleksy soon enough.

Steve Oleksy (27, 6’0″, 190, shoots right, 28 games, 1-8-9, +9, 33 PIMs) – Oleksy went 2-12-14 in 55 additional games for Hershey before being recalled due to heavy injury problems along the Caps backline in the middle of last season.

Oleksy is a hard worker and has persevered through a career that saw him playing independent hockey when most guys are in the middle of their NHL careers. He’s willing to mix it up, though he didn’t do much fighting with the big club, and he’s much more rugged physically than his actual stature might suggest.

What he can’t do is move the puck. He’s brutal offensively and he’s not a very good skater. He’s a typical “effort” guy, but his pedigree suggests that he’ll be overtaken on the depth chart by Kundratek very quickly. Still, a hard worker and good guy to have as a depth defenseman.

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitry Orlov (22, 6’0″, 210, shoots left, 5 games, 0-1-1, +5, 0 PIMs) – Orlov went 3-14-17 in 31 games in Hershey as he made his way back from concussion symptoms. Look, here’s the thing – I love Dmitry Orlov’s game.

Orlov could end up being the best two-way defenseman this team has. In 60 games his rookie season, Orlov went 3-16-19, +1 and exhibited terrific skating skills, a good idea of when – and when not – to jump into the play, and a little bit of snarl when the situation called or it. He also has tremendous timing on the old-fashioned hip check.

The thing that might hinder Kundratek, handedness, might play in Orlov’s favor. As a lefty, only Erskine and Hillen stand in his way to playing time. He should overtake both quickly to earn second pairing status and be well on his way to being a dependable two-way defender for the Caps for many years to come.

On the farm – Cam Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey, David Kolomatis

Washington Redskins 2013 Season Preview

The Washington Redskins ended a remarkable 2012 season on the most sour of notes. They won their final seven games, including a 31-28 victory over the future Super Bowl Champ Baltimore Ravens in Week 14, and captured the NFC East division title. But the ensuing playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks could not have gone any worse.

The Skins got up early, but on the play before Robert Griffin III threw to tight end Logan Paulsen to put them up two touchdowns, Griffin scrambled to the right sidelines, tried to plant to throw, and his right knee – originally injured Week 14 against the Ravens – buckled. Griffin stayed in the game but was obviously compromised.

The Seahawks came storming back, partly because of the Skins inability to move the football with a gimpy Griffin under center. Seattle took a 21-14 lead mid-way through the fourth quarter, and on the ensuing drive, Griffin mishandled a shotgun snap, planted his right leg to cover the ball, and, well, the memory of Griffin’s knee twisting while he collapsed in pain is burned into the memory of all Redskins fans.

The off-season drama surrounding the original injury, diagnosis, treatment, subsequent injury, decision to allow Griffin to play, and the possibility of a fractured relationship between player, coach and medical staff clouded Griffin’s recovery and rehab from surgery to repair his torn lateral collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament. It was an offseason filled with “he said/he said”, bad feelings and confusing interpretations of the same facts and details. The media called into question the integrity of the Redskins coaching and medical staff.

What should have been an offseason of feeling good about the progress the organization has made in the past few seasons under GM Bruce Allen and head coach Mike Shanahan turned into a daily soap opera of Griffin’s recovery, both physical and meta-physical, not only from local media but the national media as well.

Despite the injury problems last season, Griffin won several accolades during the year and once it was over. He was named 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was named to the Pro Bowl. His season (32,00 passing yards, 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, 815 rushing yards and seven rushing TDs) was obviously very special, as was the way the rookie handled himself with his teammates, coaches and media. He was a natural leader on the field and in the locker room.

How much will the injury and controversy affect Griffin in his sophomore campaign? Will Griffin still be “RGIII”? Does the quarterback and coach still trust each other? Those are the million dollar questions this season as the Redskins attempt to build off a successful 2012 season on the field.

QUARTERBACK

Griffin has been cleared to play by the team doctors and coaching staff. He’s participated in passing team drills and individual drills during training camp, but did not take a single snap during preseason, despite dressing for the games. Griffin has vowed to be smarter with regard to taking hits at the end of runs, using the sidelines or sliding better to his advantage to stay healthy.

Obviously, speed is a big part of his game, and that danger of him running – either on a designed play or off a broken one – is something that opposing defenses must game-plan for. Will his surgically repaired knee – his second major operation on his right knee – hold up for the entirely of the season? Will it allow Griffin to be “RGIII”? No one knows the answers to those questions…yet.

Kirk Cousins, last season’s revelation as a fourth round draft pick, will be the primary backup. Cousins led the Skins in that victory over Baltimore after Griffin was injured, and his progression as an NFL quarterback is limited only by the player ahead of him on the depth chart. Rex Grossman is back as the third quarterback and Pat White made the squad with an impressive preseason, but will be relegated to scout squad and clipboard holding unless dire circumstances present themselves.

RUNNING BACK

Alfred Morris was a sixth round pick in the 2012 draft out of Florida Atlantic University. Let that sink in for a moment as you consider Morris’ 2012 season: 1.613 yards rushing — a Redskins team record — at 4.8 yards per carry, 13 touchdowns, three-time NFL rookie of the week, NFC Offensive Player of Week 17, 2012 All-Rookie team and second team All-Pro. Pretty heady stuff from a guy most fans hadn’t heard of until late in preseason last year.

Roy Helu, Jr. and Evan Royster are the backup tailbacks. Helu will probably see plenty of time as the third down back. Darrel Young, in his fourth year out of Villanova, is a Pro Bowl caliber fullback.

WIDE RECEIVER

The Skins receiving corps is a mix of savvy veterans and young playmakers, led by Pierre Garcon. The 27-year-old wideout had an injury marred year last year (toe), but when he was on the field he was a valuable target for RGIII, evidenced by his 88-yard touchdown Week 1 against the Saints. Garcon caught 44 passes for 633 yards (14.4 ypc)  with four TDs in 10 games last year.

Josh Morgan starts on the other side. More of a possession receiver, Morgan had 48 catches for 510 yards with two TDs in ’12. Santana Moss became a red-zone specialist in Kyle Shanahan’s offense last season, recording eight touchdowns in his 41 catches for 573 years. Aldrick Robinson and Leonard Hankerson are exciting young players that are still trying to establish consistency in their games at the NFL level.

TIGHT END

One of the most popular players in Redskins history, Chris Cooley, has finally hung up his cleats. A prolific pass catcher, the affable Cooley is now part of the Redskins radio broadcast group. Fred Davis signed a one-year deal after not garnering much attention as a free agent over the offseason. Davis suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in mid-October against the Giants but is healthy to start the season. He can be an exciting playmaker but also has a problem disappearing at times.

Logan Paulsen caught 25 passes filling in for Davis last season, but is more of a run blacker than receiver. Jordan Reed, the team’s third round pick out of Florida, is a terrific athlete that was hampered by a slight knee injury in training camp.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Left tackle Trent Williams is the cream of the crop. The 6’5″, 330 veteran was a Pro Bowl selection last season, despite playing through nagging thigh and knee injuries. In addition to being a devastating run blocker, Williams allowed only three sacks in 2012.

Tyler Polumbus is huge (6’8″, 305) on the right side. Will Montgomery is the anchor of the line at center. He hasn’t missed a game since moving to center the past two season. Described as the team’s best run-blocker, Kory Lichtensteiger is the left guard, starting his second season out of two significant knee surgeries. Veteran Chris Chester is the right guard and hasn’t missed a snap in his two seasons in Washington.

KICKER

The Skins have played rotating kicker seemingly since Chip Lohmiller retired, but they have found a keeper in Kai Forbath. He made an NFL rookie record 17 consecutive field goals to start his career last season. He made 12 field goals longer than 40 yards in 2012.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defensive line is getting attention for who is missing as much as who remains. The Redskins lost Jarvis Jenkins, an emerging force on the front three, due to suspension for PEDs for the first four games of the season. That leaves Kedric Golston the starter at weak-side end. Golston is an eight-year man out of Georgia, but hasn’t started since 2010 and has been used more for depth the last couple of seasons. Chris Baker will also see plenty of time at that spot until Jenkins gets back into uniform.

Barry Cofeild is the nose tackle and anchor of the defensive line. He’s a rare entity that he plays the pass as well as the run from the middle of the line. He broke a bone in his hand during the preseason, but is not expected to miss any time as he’ll play with his hand in a cast until it’s healed. Stephen Bowen will play the other end. He’s been reliable for the Skins the past two seasons, but his numbers took a severe dip from 2011 to 2012, going from six sacks to just one.

LINEBACKERS

The linebacking corps is the real strength of Jim Haslett’s defensive unit. Four-time Pro Bowler London Fletcher is back for his 17th season in the middle. He has not missed a game in that time, through he played through concussion symptoms, a sprained ankle and hamstring issues last season. Despite those problems, he recorded 139 tackles, three sacks and a personal-best five interceptions.

Brian Orakpo returns from a torn pectoral muscle (his second such injury in two seasons). He’ll play the rushing linebacker and the Skins hope he can return to his rookie form when he recorded 11 sacks. Ryan Kerrigan is becoming a play-maker at the other outside spot. He’s made 16 sacks the past two seasons and has a knack for making interceptions on swing passes and taking them for touchdowns. Perry Riley is the unsung hero at the other middle linebacker position, recording 129 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks last season. The fourth-year man out of LSU is the heir apparent to Fletcher as the team’s leader on defense if the elder statesman ever decides he’s had enough.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The defensive backfield was the most overhauled unit on the field for the Redskins. Ranked 30th in the league in pass defense last season, the team spent three of their draft picks to bolster the secondary in the past year’s draft. Baccari Rambo, the sixth round pick, is slated to start at free safety. The 6’0″, 211 Georgia product was known as a ball hawk and big hitter in college, but he also has a penchant for going for the big play and getting burned. Free safety is a tough place to throw a rookie into, but the coaching staff like the way he progressed during camp.

At strong safety, the Skins hope they finally see some return on the investment they made in Brandon Meriweather. The veteran safety is skilled, but played in just one game last season due to a series of knee injuries. This season isn’t looking promising to start either, as he’s struggled with groin and knee issues in the preseason and is questionable for the opener. Reed Doughty returns as insurance should Meriweather be unfit.

The Skins released CB DeAngelo Hall before free agency but brought him back later in the offseason. Hall had an up-and-down season in 2012, including the bizarre ejection in the Pittsburgh game. He has a knack for getting his hands on the ball and doing good things with it after, but also has a knack for the strange and sometimes erratic play. Josh Wilson, seven-year man out of Maryland, is steady at the other corner. That’s it. Not spectacular. Not terrible. Steady.

The team also brought in rookie David Amerson from N.C. State in the second round of the draft. He had a huge sophomore year (11 picks), but saw his draft stock drop due to an inconsistent play as a junior. He will play a lot and eventually move Wilson into a full-time nickel back. Eventually may even be opening night against the Eagles.

PUNTER

Sav Rocca, the 39-year-old Australia native, returns for his eighth season in the league. He averaged a career-best 43.9 yards per punt last season an is steady as they come at the position.

RETURNERS

Chris Thompson, a fifth round pick in the past year’s draft out of Florida State, is going to get the first shot as the return specialist. Listed at 5’8″, 187, Thompson is too small to withstand the rigors of playing running back on a full-time basis in the NFL. But his speed and vision could be an asset as a return specialist and change-of-pace back.

D.C. UNITED 2013 SEASON PREVIEW: DCU hopes to build on 2012 playoff run

Injuries, a snowstorm, schedule changes, suspensions – D.C. United faced it all in the 2012 Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup playoffs. In the end, United eliminated the arch-rival New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but fell to the Houston Dynamo, 4-2 on aggregate, one step short of hosting the MLS Cup final.

For a club that has won four MLS Cups, but none since 2004, that taste of glory is the starting point for a 2013 season in which much may be expected, but many questions remain. United got an early shot against its playoff nemesis from last year, Houston, in Saturday night’s season opener. But D.C. fell, 2-0. United failed to put a shot on goal (statistically anyway, Chris Pontius hit the crossbar with a free kick).

Part of the offensive struggle can be attributed to the suspension of star midfielder Dwayne De Rosario. The Canadian international (who missed time due to a knee injury last season suffered while playing for Canada) was suspended two games by MLS just before the season opener for an incident in a preseason match against the Philadelphia Union. De Rosario, the 2011 MLS Most Valuable Player, is eligible to return to action March 16 when United visits the Red Bulls – the team that traded De Rosario to United in 2011.

De Rosario’s creativity and offense was certainly missed Saturday night, but the loss also served as a lesson that United must be potent throughout the lineup rather than relying on one player. Gone from last year’s attacking corps are Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi, as well as Andy Najar, who had developed as a promising outside defender to complement his offensive skills. Najar was sold to Belgian club Anderlecht prior to the 2013 season.

But with a focus on who is still here, let’s take a quick position-by-position look at D.C. United in 2013.

FORWARD: Lionard Pajoy, acquired from Philadelphia during the 2012 season (for Danny Cruz, the victim of De Rosario’s alleged preseason headbutt), started alone at forward Saturday, but United didn’t get enough ball possession to get Pajoy into the game. If Pajoy was on the ball in the attacking zone, he usually didn’t get enough support from teammates to make a play. New United midfielder John Thorrington joined Pontius and DeLeon in the attacking midfield, but as is typical in early-season game, the links between midfielders and the lone forward either weren’t there, or decisions weren’t made fast enough to take advantage of numerical edges in the attack. Having De Rosario back will certainly help that.

Newly-acquired Carlos Ruiz, long a thorn in the side of United and its fans, didn’t get off the subs’ bench Saturday after not playing in MLS in 2012. Ruiz, a Guatemalan international, has played for four other MLS clubs previously, scoring 88 goals and winning the MVP award in 2002. Now 33, Ruiz will need to score goals for United to succeed, and for the fans to potentially soften their opinion of the acquisition.

Casey Townsend, 23, is the only other forward listed on United’s roster over the age of 20. He was acquired in an offseason trade with Chivas USA.

MIDFIELD: The engine room will be run by De Rosario upon his return, but he should have plenty of help. A healthy Pontius, who can play up front as needed, is vital for United. Pontius is dangerous taking free kicks, can work on the ball in traffic to find space for shots/passes, and has an excellent shot. Perry Kitchen’s performance as a defensive midfielder will be critical, and development should be expected after starting 62 league matches the past two seasons. Veteran Marcelo Saragosa, 31, will be counted on for depth and played 83 minutes as a starter in the loss at Houston, as head coach Ben Olsen employed a 4-5-1 formation.

Out wide, Nick DeLeon will try to improve on a tremendous rookie season. DeLeon scored 6 goals in the regular season, then netted a memorable late goal (one of two playoff strikes) at Red Bull Arena to give United a 1-0 win at New York that allowed D.C. to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Englishman Lewis Neal, 31, provided valuable minutes last season as a reserve, though he was not available for selection Saturday night.

DEFENSE: The quartet of Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, Chris Korb, and Daniel Woolard started in the back Saturday night, though Woolard lasted only 45 minutes before being replaced by James Riley. All four starters are aged 25-28, and could be regarded as in their prime. Jakovic has received call-ups (with De Rosario) to the Canadian National Team. Robbie Russell, 33, is the veteran of United’s backline.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the defense is consistency. If United can keep a regular starting lineup such that communication and positioning improves through players being used to working off each other, the defense can improve. United conceded 43 goals last season, tied with San Jose for third-most among 2012 playoff clubs. With forward depth being less than last year, United must reduce the goals conceded to remain a playoff contender in 2013.

GOALKEEPER: Speaking of stopping goals, United will rely on 22-year-old starter Bill Hamid. Hamid, who started Saturday’s loss at Houston, is a talented shot-stopper, who now must perfect the arts of distribution, organizing defenders, and controlling his area to continue improving. Hamid won 13 games last season with eight shutouts. He also picked up his first bit of international experience with the United States National Team in the MLS offseason.

Backup goalkeeper Joe Willis earned notoriety last year for his performance in the second game of the Eastern Conference semifinal at New York. Called in cold after Hamid was sent off, Willis stopped Kenny Cooper’s penalty kick to leave the match scoreless until DeLeon scored the goal that allowed United to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Willis, 24, was 4-4-3 last season in goal for United.

LOOKING AHEAD: At first glance, repeating last year’s 53-goal haul is a longshot for United. De Rosario and Pontius must stay healthy all season. That said the team defense must improve for United to again contend and be around late in the playoffs.

Replicating last season’s 58 points (17-10-7) is a tough ask, and it took 53 to make the playoffs out of the East last season. Saturday’s loss aside, the East isn’t so deep that United shouldn’t expect to compete.  Remember, United haven’t lost a league match (including playoffs) at RFK Stadium since last season’s home opener vs. Sporting Kansas City. United is 12-0-6 in 18 matches since that defeat on March 10, 2012. Similar home dominance this season would keep D.C. in the race.

We’ll know more about this group’s ability away from home once De Rosario returns and Ruiz is fit for selection, when the team has its creativity back and Olsen has the freedom to craft a more threatening attacking lineup.

Follow Ed Morgans on Twitter:  @edmorgans

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