2011 Record: 80-81, 3rd NL East
2011 Prediction: 68-94, 5th NL East
Impact Player: 3B Ryan Zimmerman
Impact Pitcher: RHP Stephen Strasburg
Best Reliever: RHP Tyler Clippard
Top Prospect: RF Bryce Harper
The 2011 Washington Nationals were somewhat of an under-the-radar surprise. They were one cancelled game from finishing at the .500-mark for the first time since their inaugural season in 2005 and finished third for the first time since they were still the Expos in 2002. They did this despite not having their best pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, for most of the season, who was recovering from Tommy John’s surgery. They also lacked the full-time and healthy production of their best hitter, Ryan Zimmerman and got very little from their big offseason signing, Jayson Werth. All things considered, the Nationals had a pretty fantastic year.
With a full year of Strasburg, a healthy Zimmerman and a slightly rebounded Werth, as well as the impending arrival of Bryce Harper, the Nationals are poised to become serious contenders for years to come.
Even without Strasburg, the Nationals managed to allow the seventh-fewest runs in the NL in 2011 despite such names as John Lannan, Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis pitching significant innings. Understanding that a repeat of that could be difficult, the Nationals spent a large portion of their offseason improving upon their rotation adding lefty Gio Gonzalez in a trade with Oakland and journeyman Edwin Jackson on an extremely team-friendly one-year deal. Combined with Strasburg and fellow incumbent Jordan Zimmermann, Washington should field one of the better rotations in the NL.
Strasburg, who’s just 23, is expected to be given an innings limit for 2012, but still has the best raw tools of any pitcher in baseball. In five late-season starts, he looked to be back to his world-crushing self, striking out a batter per inning and walking only two batters in 24 innings. Even if he is held to roughly 160 innings, he could contend for the Cy Young Award.
Zimmermann is very underrated and has become a legitimate number-two pitcher. Last year, he had a 3.18 ERA and solid 3.78 xFIP in 161.1 innings. He led the team in fWAR and was third in the NL behind Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in walk-rate.
The two major acquisitions, Gonzalez and Jackson, should fit nicely into the middle of the rotation. Gonzalez is probably somewhat overrated; he has walked more batters than anyone else in baseball over the last two years, but he still posted a 3.5 fWAR last year with Oakland. Jackson, meanwhile, is likely underrated due to his incessant bouncing from team to team. He split last year between the White Sox and Cardinals, helping the Cards win the World Series. He has now posted three straight years of 3.6 fWAR or better, contributing as much value over that time as Josh Beckett.
The final rotation spot will likely go to Lannan but he is by no means guaranteed a job. He seems to routinely outpitch his peripherals, but has a troubling K/BB ratio that doesn’t seem to suggest long-term success. There are whispers that he could be traded before Opening Day. Fellow soft-tossing lefty Tom Gorzelanny and perennial DL squatter Chien-Ming Wang could challenge for the final spot.
The Nats’ bullpen was required to throw more innings than all but two NL teams in 2011 and no one reliever threw more innings than primary setup man Tyler Clippard. Clippard’s peripherals are fantastic, but he’s an extreme flyball pitcher. There’s always a chance with a pitcher of his ilk that he’ll start giving up too many home runs, and indeed he gave up quite a few last season. Still, he’s probably the best reliever on the team. That’s not to take anything away from their closer, Drew Storen, who is also a very good reliever. At just 24, he’s already established himself as an extremely reliable closer (as closers go). He did have a very low batted-ball average last year so he could regress a tad in 2012.
The Nationals also brought in Brad Lidge to help out at the back-end with Clippard and Storen. Lidge is now 35 and lacks all semblance of control; he walked more than six batters per nine innings last season. The one thing he can do, however, is strike guys out with his ridiculously good slider. He’s especially useful against righties (career 2.88 xFIP) and although his health is an issue, if used properly, he can still be effective.
The Nationals also traded for former first-round pick Ryan Perry, sending Colin Balestar to the Tigers. Perry, like Balestar, is a hard-throwing right hander who some think could still find his way to the rotation at some point, but has yet to put it all together at the Major League level. Despite his great arm, Perry struggles to strike anybody out and last season also failed to command his pitches, walking more than five batters per nine innings. At just 25, there’s still some potential there.7
The final three spots will go to Henry Rodriguez, lefty Sean Burnett and a swing-man, most likely one of the three potential fifth starters. Rodriguez puts up impressive strikeout numbers but also walks far too many, while Burnett was only really effective last season against lefties.
The Nationals couldn’t hit last season, finishing 12th in the NL in runs scored. Much of that was out of their control due to injuries to Zimmerman at third base and Adam LaRoche at first, but the inconsistency of Jayson Werth and the stagnant development of players like Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina didn’t help.
Up until last season, Zimmerman had become one of the very best third baseman in the game both offensively and defensively, but problems with his throwing shoulder last season caused him to struggle on both sides of the ball. The Nationals just signed him to a rather large extension so they appear confident that his injuries were a one-season thing. Having him performing at previously established levels will go a long way toward the Nationals contending.
When healthy, LaRoche is a decent second-division first baseman with some power and he appears to be healthy so far. The Nationals were thought to be in heavily on Prince Fielder this winter, but could not land him.
The middle infield will consist of Desmond at short and Danny Espinosa at second base. Desmond doesn’t appear to be good enough either with the bat or the glove to hold down the starting job at short, but since there doesn’t appear to be much on the way, at least for 2012, they may be stuck with him there. They could move Espinosa to short (he’s said to be good enough to handle it defensively) and instead start someone like Steve Lombardozzi at second, but Washington doesn’t appear to be too likely to do that. Espinosa showed surprising power in 2011, clubbing 21 home runs as a rookie to go along with a 3.5 fWAR.
Werth needs to be better in rightfield, especially considering he has six more years and a no-trade clause on his massive contract. He did seem to hit better in the second half and still has the raw tools to be at least an average offensive player if not a little better. Last season, he hit just .232/.330/.389 with 20 home runs. He could be asked to move to centerfield (which would be pretty hilarious defensively) if phenom Bryce Harper makes the team out of Spring Training. The Nats, however, have a strong financial incentive to keep him in AAA at least to start the year. The 19-year-old also doesn’t appear to be quite ready developmentally just yet.
In the other corner outfield spot is Mike Morse. Morse had a big time break out last season hitting .303/.360/.550 with 31 home runs. He won’t provide a ton of value defensively, but he’s far from a fluke with the bat. His batted-ball average suggests a regression in batting average, but the aggressive approach and excellent power looks to be here to stay. One has to think, with the impending arrival of Harper, that the Nats won’t be okay trotting Werth out to centerfield for long. LaRoche is hardly a rock at first base and Morse should far outperform him this year with the bat, so if the Nats decide they’re okay with punting some offense for much better defense, Morse will see a lot of time at first. Centerfield, finally, will be some combination of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina, at least until Harper comes up.
The starting catcher will be Wilson Ramos who was kidnapped in Venezuela this winter, but thankfully was rescued safely. On the field, he’s one of the best young catchers in baseball. Last year, in his age 23 season, he had a 109 wRC+, 15 home runs and a 3.1 fWAR.
Jesus Flores is a perfectly capable backup catcher who’s a better hitter than he showed last year. The rest of the bench will consist of infielder Andres Blanco, veteran utility player Mark DeRosa and another outfield from the group of Xavier Paul, Brett Carroll, and Jason Michaels.
The Nationals managed to approach the .500-mark last season despite sub-par and/or injury plagued seasons from Zimmerman, Werth and Strasburg. If they can consistently hit, there’s no reason to think they won’t be significantly better than they were last year (double negative!), and that should put them in the conversation for the second wildcard spot.
2012 Prediction: 86-76, 3rd NL East