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2014 Preview: Washington Nationals

Mar 5, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

Bryce Harper AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Can the Nationals reclaim their throne atop the NL East?

The Nationals were everybody’s pre-season darlings going into the 2013 season. Yours truly, in fact, picked them to represent the National League in the World Series. They just never got it going, struggling to reach .500 deep into August. A late-season run in which they went 32-16 in the final 48 games gave fans a glimmer of hope that they could grab a Wild Card spot, but they ultimately fell short at 86-76.

Don’t let their disappointing season hide some stellar performances by some Nationals players, though. Jayson Werth posted a .931 OPS, tied for the sixth-highest in baseball with Troy Tulowitzki. Bryce Harper’s season was the 26th in baseball history in which a player posted 3.5 or more WAR before his 21st birthday. Stephen Strasburg posted an even 3.00 ERA and would have been in the Cy Young conversation if not for Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez making a 3.00 ERA look bad.

One big reason why the Nationals lagged compared to 2012 was their production at second base. Compared to 2012, their OPS from the position dropped 30 points. Danny Espinosa struggled, primarily due to a broken wrist. He finished with a .477 OPS and lost his job to Anthony Rendon, who posted a .743 OPS.

Denard Span wasn’t quite as good as they hoped when they acquired him in a trade with the Twins. He was half as good for the Nationals in 2013 as he was for the Twins the year prior according to Baseball Reference’s WAR, dropping from 5.1 to 2.4. In 2012, the Nats had Harper and his 5.2 WAR in center, so it was a noticeable difference.

The Nationals weren’t terribly active over the winter. Their marquee move was acquiring Doug Fister in a trade with the Tigers. They made a smooth move in acquiring reliever Jerry Blevins from the Athletics for minor leaguer Billy Burns. Also of note, the club hired Matt Williams as manager, taking over for Davey Johnson, who retired.

What else is going on?  

  • Williams is making Rendon and Espinosa compete for the job at second base. Rendon should be considered the favorite for the job, but a bad spring for the former and a good one for the latter could tip the scales.
  • The Fister trade was an absolute steal and gives the Nationals one of the scariest rotations in baseball. The Nationals gave up minor leaguer Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol, and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi. Fister posted a 3.67 ERA for the Tigers last year with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
  • Werth will turn 35 years old in May and he’s been plagued by injuries over the last two years, and generally over his career. While he was incredibly productive with the bat, the Nationals have to be concerned about his ability to hold up over a grueling 162-game season.
  • Closer Rafael Soriano’s strikeout rate declined from 25 percent to 18 percent last season. While a 3.11 ERA and 43 saves aren’t anything to complain about, closers generally find it tougher to succeed striking out fewer than 20 percent of batters. The National League average for relievers overall last season was 21 percent. If Soriano continues to regress, the Nationals may want to consider moving Tyler Clippard into the closer’s role.

Prediction: The Nationals are bringing back essentially the same club that won 86 games last year, except Doug Fister is replacing Dan Haren. They’ll have a stronger bullpen with Blevins, a healthy Werth, and better production at second base. They should get back into the 90-win club at the very least. First place, NL East.

  1. Old Gator - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    Here’s the deal: we keep on predicting the Gnats will finish first. Sooner or later, they have to, right?

    • chill1184 - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:21 PM

      Law of averages would say so

    • voteforno6 - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:41 PM

      We can also keep predicting that the Marlins won’t finish in last place. Eventually that one will be true as well, right?

      • Old Gator - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:52 PM

        Right. As I wrote a few posts back, I’m open to the possibility that they’ll make it to fourth place this season. They can do it on the strength of their rotation and bookpen. However, someone else – the Mutts or Feelies – will have to implode at the same time.

    • David Proctor - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:43 PM

      You act like they’re predicted to finish first year after year. They were predicted to finish first ONE year. It didn’t happen. So they made improvements.

      • Old Gator - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:50 PM

        They weren’t merely predicted to finish first. Their triumph was represented as something just slightly less invariable than natural law. They made a lot of so-called pundits look overconfident in the process. Anyway, I wasn’t really knocking the team, but the spawrtsriters. The Gnats are, indeed, the class of the division this year.

      • voteforno6 - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:35 PM

        I think that was more of a belated reaction to them winning 98 games the year before when it seemed like a lot more people were picking the Phillies, Braves, or Marlins (remember them?) in ’12. Yeah, it was over the top, but sportwriters are kind of like political reporters – it’s less risky to be wrong when everybody else is than to take a chance and be right when nobody else is.

      • natstowngreg - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:40 PM

        In 2012, they overachieved mightily, winning 98 games. That made them a trendy 2013 pick, under the logical fallacy that, once one achieves a certain level of performance, that level will continue forever. After the team failed to live up to its inflated expectations, predictions come back down to Earth.

        One must have a good team if 86 wins is a mjaor disappointment. This is still a good team, and gaining the 4-5 wins needed to make the playoffs is doable, to be sure. Winning even more, and claiming the NL East, is also doable. I must point out, however, that the Braves are a good team as well, and have not changed divisions.

      • spudchukar - Mar 5, 2014 at 2:07 PM

        The din was clamoring in 2013, it went far beyond just a first place prediction. Maybe they overachieved in 2012, but they definitely underachieved in 2013. That said, as a Cardinal fan I must admit they scare me and I view them as a greater impediment to a return trip to the WS. Even more so than the Dodgers. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but from where I sit the Gnats look awfully good, and will be tough to beat.

    • recoveringcubsfan - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:00 PM

      Well, there was 2012. That warn’t exactly Ain’t-shunt Histry, to put it in Gator’s vernaculee. Maybe few predicted it
      Is that what you’re saying?

  2. karlkolchak - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    Uh, you left someone out in the key aquisitions department. The Nats were undoubtedly thinking of Werth’s age and recent injury history when they signed Nate McLouth, who will no doubt be spelling him far more than Harper out there.

    Also of note are that the infielders have been taking reps at different spots, Rendon at his natural 3B, Zimmerman at 1B and Espinosa at SS. My guess is that Rendon wins the 2B job with Espinosa being the primary sub at both middle infield positions.

    • arungupta27 - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:16 PM

      Nate McClouth is a key acquisition? 1.8 WAR total over the last four years doesn’t really sound all that key.

      • someguyinva - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:32 PM

        Baseball Reference had McLouth at 1.6 WAR last year, when the Nats were using Roger Bernadina (-0.6), Steve Lombardozzi (-0.5), Tyler Moore (-0.9), and Scott Hairston (-0.8) as reserve outfielders.

        McLouth shouldn’t play enough to approach that number this year, but I’d rather run him out there a couple of days per week than those other guys.

  3. 18thstreet - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Hard to believe that the Nats haven’t been able to find a better option at first than LaRoche.

    • recoveringcubsfan - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:05 PM

      Well, I can’t agree. Have you looked at the first base market this year? And what about Tyler Moore? What about Zim being able to do it when they want another righty in the lineup (presumably with Rendon playing 3rd in that case and Espy as a switch-hitter at 2B). It is t just that easy to replace LaRoche. He’s a good team guy, anyway and he could very well have a nice solid season. Hell of a picker with the glove, too. That matters with Zim over at 3rd, as you know.

    • karlkolchak - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:08 PM

      There no doubt hoping for at least a partial bounce back season is what is effectively LaRoche’s walk year. Zimmerman is the likely candidate to eventally move over and take his place, which would allow Rendon to start at his natural 3B position.

  4. blovy8 - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    Only 1B they could really have taken a stab at was Abreu, but they don’t seem to scout internationally that well and that was another big chunk of money for an unknown, though big upside, quantity. They wouldn’t give up the 1st pick for Napoli or Morales. After that, they would need to trade to get somebody to be better than LaRoche. I don’t think Ike Davis is an upgrade, for instance. Maybe they should have gone two years for Baker, but he can’t hit righties anyway, so they’d be stuck if they did have to use him a lot.

  5. Joe Vecchio - Mar 5, 2014 at 10:42 PM

    I think they’re a better team this year than they were last year, and they were really hot at the end of the season, they just couldn’t overcome that horrible first half. Games in April, etc.

    Unless something really weird happens to either team, expect the Nats and the Braves to be fighting for the division for a few more years yet. Second place is the worst they’ll do, and even if they don’t win the division they have a good chance to get into the postseason.

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