The 2013 was supposed to be the Washington Nationals year. We had them representing the National League in the World Series. We had Bryce Harper winning the MVP award. We had Davey Johnson – our dearly beloved little R. Lee Ermey-style manager riding off into a sunset cussing, and holding a trophy. We thought they would win 100 games. So what the Hell happened?
Things looked according to plan two weeks in last year. They swept the White Sox to move to 7-2, before getting swept at home by the Braves and eventually ending April with a 13-14 record. Bryce Harper went from tearing the cover off the ball to running into the right field wall in Dodger Stadium. Things continued to unravel all year long with blown leads by a shaky bullpen and questionable decisions by their Skipper that made observers question his sound-mind. By the time they were ready to start putting the toothpaste back in the tube, it was too late.
They would go on to a noble 86-76 finish. It displayed a lot of the fight and character left in the group that will take the field in 2014. A 23-11 run that began on August 20th scared the bejesus out of a couple other teams who were in the driver’s seat for the Wild Card spots. The Nationals were on fire. But it was too late to save themselves from the sins of their short past.
But all is not lost. They’ve got a new weird manager at the helm in Matt Williams. Bryce Harper’s knee is healthy, and as promised; he got as big as a house. The Nationals return an impressive core and GM Mike Rizzo made a few under-appreciated moves that will have this team knocking on the doors of contention again in 2014.
Major Off-season Moves:
Perhaps we should all tamper expectations on everything until the Nationals show us that they’re ready for the big time – but what fun would that be?
The Nationals young star power is what intrigues us. From Harper to Strasburg to Rendon to Ramos to some of the guys in the minors like Lucas Giolito, A.J. Cole, and Brian Goodwin; Washington has a lot to like in their future if they can show us that we’re in the beginning of the run by making another one.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Leadoff man Denard Span started the season as one of the whipping boys for Washington’s underwhelming start – but as most solid veterans do he ended up right where he should have been. Span added an impressive 29-game hitting streak to his resume that was the longest in baseball last season. What’s not to like about Ian Desmond? He’s a great offensive shortstop with 20/20 potential and a .280 bat. He fires fastballs across the diamond with ease and brings a quiet leadership to the diamond with his fiery play. He’s really grown on us as the seasons have went on.
The middle of the order was a surprise of sorts last season. Bryce Harper has been good, but he hasn’t been phenomenal. One might have expected him to do what Mike Trout has done thus far. If that was your expectation, Harper has fallen well short. Harper’s OPS last season was .854 last season and was supplemented well with a .368 on-base percentage. He hit 20 home runs and stole 11 on a bad wheel. We think it’s reasonable to see Harper’s on-base climb towards .400 and his slugging to enjoy an uptick over .500 – have you looked at the guy lately? A .900 OPS season is a good expectation and baseline for Harper in 2014. If he can do that and play in 140 games or more, the Nationals are going to have an excellent chance at winning the division.
Jayson Werth earned a portion of that monster contract by showing he still has a lot left in the tank in 2013. His .318/.398/.532 slash line resulted in a .931 OPS that surprised everyone. With 25 home runs, he’s still got some thunder left in the bat. He’ll be 35, and a major question the organization faces entering the year is how much can they depend on The Wolfman’s health in the upcoming year.
Adam LaRoche was another reason for the 2013 baseball angst in D.C., hitting just .237 a year after posting 33 home runs to go with 100 RBI. His OPS fell by nearly 120 points. That’s tough to get through when an everyday corner infielder slips like that on a team. One would think an eventual move of Ryan Zimmerman to first base with Rendon sliding over to third could be in the cards, especially if LaRoche struggles again. Or if Danny Espinosa surprises everyone.
Ryan Zimmerman battled nagging injuries all last season and looked stiff and rigid at the plate until getting himself on track with the help of a much needed cortisone shot. Still, his throwing errors in big spots took several ballgames from the win column to the loss column almost directly. It seems like Zimmerman has been around forever – and by some accounts he has – but he’s just 29 and considered still one of the top third basemen in the game. He bristled at some journalists declaring the Nationals Harper’s team, and while he doesn’t lead with a lot of cheerleading; if he was asked off the record he would probably say that the Nationals are led by him. The play of both men in 2014 will dictate the verdict.
We like catcher Wilson Ramos as much as any young player on the Washington roster outside of Harper and Strasburg, and we always have. The only question is health – and if Ramos can stay healthy over the course of a full season he will gain consideration as one of the best young backstops in baseball. We first became attached to the Buffalo back in 2012 when he hit a moonshot home run to centerfield in Cincinnati and then later suffered a season-ending injury in our presence. He’s impressive offensively and a 20 home run season should be coming up soon.
Nate McLouth, Danny Espinosa, Jose Lobaton, Scott Hairston and Jamey Carroll won’t strike fear in anyone’s hearts, but if you take an honest look at those names it is a group that offers a lot of quality big league experience. The Nationals bench will be a strength this year rather than one that failed them in 2013 – with sub-par performances from Chad Tracy, Kurt Suzuki, and Roger Bernadina among others. Mike Rizzo will get little to no credit for this – but we can safely assume the Washington bench collectively will be worth a few more wins than the one they had last season.
Projected Pitching Staff:
We think Stephen Strasburg will contend for the NL Cy Young Award outright in 2014. He wasn’t bad by any means in 2013, but his toughness again came under fire by those closely observing. He posted a 3.00 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, outstanding numbers by most standards. But this was the most-hyped pitching prospect of the modern day.
There was some doubt as to who the best pitcher on the staff was last season with Jordan Zimmerman going 19-9 and being the streak stopper in the rotation, but we expect Strasburg to put an end to that talk in 2014. If he can win 20 games, the Nationals odds of winning the division go up exponentially. At the same time, any injury that would cause Strasburg to miss significant time would be a crushing blow to the team’s hopes.
Gio Gonzalez wasn’t bad last year but didn’t maintain the ace-level production he put forth in 2012. The Nationals made one of the finest moves of the offseason in acquiring the underrated Doug Fister for a minor spare part. Fister projects well into the Nationals park and should perform along the lines of one of the finest number four starters in the game. Ross Detwiler is also chronically underrated if you’ve seen him pitch. He has all the makings of a pitcher who should post an ERA in the mid 3’s despite what his win-loss record ends up.
Drew Storen may have taken the award for most disappointing National in 2013. He posted a 4.52 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, with a lot of that damage coming in late innings of close ballgames. A former first-round pick, Storen was once highly regarded as a future star. He finished last season by having bullpen mates come to his defense against the front office and coaching staff. It almost goes without saying that Storen is a critical component to the 2014 Nationals’ fate. Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty good arms to have at the back end of a game.
The Nationals didn’t have a great LOOGY (late inning one-out guy) last year. They acquired an excellent one in Jerry Blevins. Mike Gonzalez could also fill the role. These are upgrades over Ian Krol (who was slightly impressive) and Fernando Abad.
The Nationals pitching staff as a whole should be a real strength.
Predicted Record and Finish:
92-70, First Place in the NL East
This figures to be a little more realistic, is it not? Last year we said they would go 100-62, and we looked foolish. This year, anything other than a division title and 90-plus wins would be a disappointment.
Quiet improvements in small spots like the bullpen and the bench will help, but the major gains from the young stars like Harper, Strasburg, Ramos, and Rendon will be where the Nationals make their hay. We have them only slightly behind the Dodgers in all of the National League. And to get to see Harper against Yasiel Puig in an NLCS series would be something so exciting, we’re not even sure fans of baseball are ready for it.