October 24, 2014

World Series or Bust–Washington Nationals 2013 Roundtable Part IV: What concerns you the most?

With opening day right around the corner, each day until then District Sports Page’s Nats staff will take a look at one of the biggest issues concerning your 2013 Washington Nationals. We borrowed a quote for the title of the series from Nats manager Davey Johnson’s Spring Training proclamation that he expects a “World Series or Bust” in Natstown this season.

We’ve also invited the other credentialed blogs to chip in with their answers. Then on Opening Day, look for the results to the DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association Preseason Survey, where we polled The Natosphere on various topics related to the Nats, as we have for the last several seasons.

Participants:

Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief, District Sports Page
Alyssa Wolice, Staff Writer, District Sports Page
Ted Starkey, Contributor to DSP, author and Editor at SBNation.com
Ryan Kelley, DSP Prospects Writer and founder of BaseballNewshound.com
Patrick Reddington, Editor, Federal Baseball
Joe Drugan, Managing Editor, The Nats Blog
Tom Bridge, Editor, WeLoveDC.com

Part I: Grading the Offseason
Part II: What do you expect from Bryce Harper?
Part III: What aspect of the Nats has you most excited for the coming season?

Part IV: What aspect of the Nats has you most concerned?

Dave: It seems like only the injury bug can derail these Nats. The team expects Wilson Ramos to be able to answer the bell opening day. I have tempered expectations for him this season as he regains his lower-body strength coming off two separate knee surgeries. He wasn’t fast to begin with, so his value hitting is going to be predicated on his power — which is abundant — but we’ll see how much the power will be affected by the atrophy caused by the long layoff. A .260/.310/.420 line is a baseline for him this year, and the Nats can be cautious with him with veteran Kurt Suzuki around to share the position.

Danny Espinosa’s left shoulder is a concern as well. The rotator cuff injury he sustained and played through last season is serious, and rotator cuffs don’t heal on their own — and sometimes they don’t heal at all. He’s not a left-handed pitcher, so it probably isn’t going to threaten his career, but it’s a concern nonetheless. Espinosa has a solid blend of power, speed and defense, and if his contact rate gets better commensurate with his other skills, he could be an All-Star caliber player like his double-play partner. But if he has to go under the knife this year, he’ll probably miss the bulk of two seasons instead of just one if he’d had surgery the past off-season. Steve Lombardozzi is a more-than-adequate utility player I fear would be exposed if forced into full-time duty should Espinosa go on the shelf.

Alyssa: It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of what this Nationals roster could accomplish this year. At last, the spotlight has turned to D.C. baseball and this ball club looks stacked in every way possible. That said, this is still a team new to the limelight. It’s still a team that fell – and fell hard – in the first round of the playoffs last fall and it’s a team that’s got a lot of moving parts, all of which need to be well-maintained in order to work effectively throughout the season.

Like any team, the Nats’ starting rotation needs to be healthy, even if they have some room for flexibility. Regardless of whether or not Strasburg has given us cause for worry, I’m mildly concerned over how he will fare in what ought to be (needs to be!) an April-October stretch for him, at last. I’ll rest easier once he’s tallied a few wins and maintained control against big-league competition on the main stage again, but he sets the pace for a rotation that is expected to make a run for the top ERA in the league.

I would also keep an eye on how the back-end of the rotation fares. With all eyes on Strasburg, Gio and even Zimmermann, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the fate of the Nats could rest largely on the shoulders (or throwing arms) of Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler. Both have the potential to rise to the opportunity, but as always, consistency will be the key.

And – however painful it might be – I don’t think it’s time to underestimate the team the Atlanta Braves have assembled, either.

Ted: Expectations are a funny thing, and this will be the first time the Nats truly come into the season as a favorite to win the NL East – and perhaps the World Series. For years, the Nats came into the year under the radar and without being considered a true contender.

Now, this season, the Nationals will carry somewhat of a target on them for their opponents and be used as a measuring stick for opponents, and there will be an adjustment for them to face teams bringing their “A” game every night. With Davey Johnson at the helm setting high expectations of his own on them, they should adapt to this new unfamiliar role, but at times, the high hopes can come crashing down on a team’s psyche.

Ryan: I’m most concerned about 1) their rotation’s health; 2) the Nats’ lack of left-handed relievers; 3) Rafael Soriano being a huge waste of money.

I’ve seen a lot of pitching mechanics over the years and have written research papers on mechanics and long-term career success of a pitcher. Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gio all show the exact warning signs (hyper-abduction and faulty timing) in their deliveries that end pitcher’s careers early. Even if you don’t believe in the “inverted W” thing, the fact remains that young pitchers face a 1-in-5 chance of career-threatening injury annually. And, power pitchers with injury histories and faulty timing are almost at a 1-in-2 mark. Pitching expert Chris O’Leary has predicted that despite the Nats rotation’s success this year, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to repeat it.

I already explained the Nats problems with their left-handed bullpen arms. To summarize, their left-handed relief was a large part of their success in 2012 vs. 2011, and they failed to replace the three lefties they allowed to walk over the offseason.

I also explained my worries about Rafael Soriano. He’s overpaid, he’s not a team player, he rarely produces outside of contract years and his success in 2012 appears to be (largely) a mirage. His fastball velocity is borderline mediocre for a late-inning guy, anyway.

Patrick: The starting depth. I’m not too concerned about the lack of a LOOGY, but would probably have preferred that they added another lefty. The starting depth does have me concerned though. It seems like the Nationals are putting a lot of faith in some of their top pitching prospects developing quickly. Davey Johnson said recently that he’s comfortable with Yunesky Maya, Ross Ohlendorf and maybe Chris Young if he stays (though I hesitate to even mention him because I fear he might opt out of D.C. before this even gets posted). I’m not sure you’d find too many people who follow the Nationals who would say that they are comfortable with those options.

Behind them, however, it’s all prospects like Nathan Karns, Solis and Purke (both of whom are coming off injuries). The Nationals have acknowledged that starting depth is still a concern because they were really fortunate that their starters were as healthy as they were last season. You can’t expect that every year, and the backup options for a team that expects to contend are not all that impressive.

They do, however, have some depth at other positions that could be helpful if they feel they need to trade for pitching at some point this season, so there’s that. If there’s one big concern it’s the starting depth, with the left-hander in the pen second on my list of concerns and the overall health of the team third.

Joe: Health. Plain and simple. It’s not that I’m concerned that the team is hurt or dinged up now. I’m concerned if someone does get hurt, especially from the starting rotation. That could significantly hinder the team’s performance considering the lack of quality starting pitching depth in the organization that is MLB ready. On paper, there truly isn’t anything that I’m outwardly concerned about, besides maybe Danny Espinosa’s strikeouts. But even then, he’s a bottom of the order hitter who can hit for power and provides exception infield defense. If that’s among your top concerns, it’s probably going to be a good year.

Tom:  The lingering voice of doubt in my head says, “…what if they’re only good on paper?” There’s a lot of youth on this team, built around a couple solid winning veterans, and a couple older mercenary talents. What if that’s not enough to turn it all into a juggernaut? What if Desmond regresses? What if Espinosa can’t play through his rotator cuff tear? What if Drew Storen can’t find his groove? What if, what if, what if?

It’s hard to get down that road. I spent this week reliving a few of my old memories of the late 1980s Oakland Athletics teams, and they remind me that baseball fandom is a construction of layered joy and pain. (Unless you’re a Cubs fan, then it’s just pain) This past season had the most jubilant moment of the franchise thus far (Werth’s walk off in Game 4, which still makes me smile when I see it) and its most tortured hour of agony (when it all came tumbling apart in the top of the eighth in Game 5), and that’s a lot for any fan base to take. The demons will haunt us all season long, when things just look like they won’t come together or won’t go their way, and that’s going to be a new experience for a lot of younger fans.

The point is to say: this is a team that looks great on paper, but, can they do it in the field? When it counts? When they’re down a player or two? When there’s a long road trip? I have to say yes, that they’re capable of that greatness, but man, I worry it just won’t happen.

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. 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

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