April 18, 2014

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.

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  1. [...] The Infield Tuesday: The Outfield Wednesday: The Catchers Thursday: The Rotation Friday: The [...]

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