June 23, 2017

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.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. We’ll see how that Walters’ prognostication works out.

    And I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Span improving. True, he has a career OBP of .351. However, that average is propped up by his fabulous first two seasons (OBPs of .387 and .392 respectively). He’s averaged .332 over his last four seasons – a number that isn’t elite and will hold the Nats lineup back.

    I agree that they are the favorites to the win the NL East based more on the Braves’ injuries than their own progress.

    – Chris

    • Dave Nichols says:

      I didn’t figure you’d mind me including our conversation on Walters in this.

      • Of course not. I certainly believe that they are going to need depth in the infield at some point. Whether it’s the resurrection of Danny Espinosa or the arrival of Zach Walters.

        Frandsen is actually a solid signing as he can play solid D around the infield with an empty batting average.

    • Tired I am of hearing how Span’s BIG run at the end propelled the Nat’s drive. No one mentions Zimmerman’s elite capable bat hitting 11 home runs in just 26 games. Span? Span? NO, the linkage corresponds perfectly with Zimmerman’s improvement at the plate along, finally, with competent defense at third base. It also helped to get Roark in the mix both out of the pen and starting and Haren finally pitching competently at the end.

      Zimmerman needs to move to first base to get 600 healthy at bats from what looks-to-be an elite hitter when healthy. There is no one else in the Nat’s lineup where stats seem to back that claim. Without Zimmerman’s bat there is no end of the season surge in 2013.

      Walter’s OBP in the minors is alarming. They guy took Davey’s advice and promptly became Danny Espinosa when he was healthy. Lots of strikeouts, a dearth of walks, but home runs and some doubles and triples; lots of improvement required in Syracuse this season even if he did lead AAA in home runs this past season. His fielding is also decidedly a work in progress. Its night-and-day between Espinosa at shortstop and Walters at this juncture.

      Span’s days as a 30 plus pseudo slap hitter are surely numbered. But Rizzo likes having the left-handed bat at lead-off just as with Nyjer. Must remind him of Steve Finley, his arm and glove? Taylor’s bat isn’t ready. Nor is Goodwin’s and he’s not the best CF. Souza isn’t really a CF. Perez is a backup. Kobernus is a UTL / second base. Does Harper get the job back? If it was still Davey the answer would be strongly in the affirmative. But this is Matt Williams. It’ll be McLouth who has shown to be very inconsistent.

      • Dave Nichols says:

        Thanks for the comment. Yes, Zim’s power streak came at the end of the season as well. That certainly played into the resurgence of the offense. But it helps if you have someone setting the table, which is what Span did.

        • Zimm hit 11 HRs in Sept/Oct of last year in 118 plate appearances. And he did that was a HR/FB rate of 34.4% – an unsustainable rate. His career rate is 13.6% though his last two seasons have been higher at 16.0% and 17.6%.

          I’d offer that Werth’s ridiculous second half (339/432/600) was a big part of what drove the Nats’ surge.

          Jayson Werth or Bryce Harper make better lead off options than Span. In fact, ZiPs projections over at Fangraphs have Span tied for the seventh-best OBP in 2014.

          http://www.fangraphs.com/projections.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&type=zips&team=24&players=0&sort=17,d

          • Dave Nichols says:

            I just don’t see how Williams would hit Werth or Harper leadoff. Werth has publicly disdained the idea and while Harper would relish it, I think they see him (rightly) as a “run producer”. Of course, if there’s no one on base ahead of him… but you see my point.

          • I’m sure Williams won’t do it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do (in a vacuum).

            I understand the need to stroke Werth’s ego and keep him happy.

          • In Werth’s age 35 year? After only really being health in one of the previous years (and that year was one of his worst career wise), his signing year?

            I suspect they are giving Werth plenty of rope to prove what he thinks about himself. That seems likely given the mindset of a manager who once was the man for his team. If he doesn’t produce he could also eventually end up on the bench in Hairston’s slot.

            IMO he’s on the hot seat after those public comments. Its put up or shut up time.

          • In Zim’s last completely healthy full years his ISO was over .200, .233 in 2009. I suspect he is capable of that again, he’s not even 30, if he can remain healthy. Werth is certainly NOT capable of that.

  2. Bernie Kagan says:

    I agree with everything you said except one thing. Why is RZimm’s bat much more valuable at 3rd than 1st? I love the idea of Zims move to 1st sooner than next year. I’m a big fan of Zach Walters. Bottom line is we need guys who can hit, and Walters does just that. I hope that switch happens by the break.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      First base is usually where 30-plus homer sluggers hang out, and Zim ain’t that guy. Never has been. His mid-20s power and what was once stellar defense was better suited to stay at third. If his shoulder prevents him from paying at normal depth to allow him to make those throws, then that part of the equation is nullified. We’ll see.

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