What do you get the team that has everything? More stuff, apparently. The Washington Nationals scuffled through the first four months of last season thanks to injuries, more injuries, and general ineffectiveness. By the time they snapped a six game losing streak on July 25th, they were 49-53 and eight games out of first place. Once everyone got healthy, they finished the year with a 37-23 record but fell short of the postseason. During the offseason, GM Mike Rizzo worked to re-tool the bench, bullpen, and rotation, loading the roster with more talented players than it can handle. Expectations are high in D.C. again this season, but for good reason. This team is capable of winning it all in 2014.
Manager: Matt Williams (1st year)
2013 record: 86-76, 2nd in NL East
SB Nation blog: Federal Baseball
The Nationals' offense was their bugaboo for most of 2013. They ranked among the bottom third of the National League in most offensive categories for the first four months of the season, but broke out for 255 runs in August and September to finish in the middle of the pack. They essentially spent four months as the second-worst offense in the league, and two as the second-best offense in the league. The Nats' brass is banking on those two months moving forward, as there are no big changes to the starting lineup in 2014.
In the outfield, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth will flank Denard Span, who once again had trouble getting on base in 2013. He posted a .327 on-base percentage, making four consecutive seasons where his OBP has been below .350 (and three out of four below .335). Span's glove is still a positive, but the team might want to consider moving him down in the order. Werth missed time due to injury again, but finished second among National League outfielders with a .931 OPS. His 1.012 OPS in August and September is a big reason why the team broke out of the offensive doldrums. Harper is an MVP season waiting to happen at this point... if he can stay healthy. Newly acquired Nate McLouth will also see plenty of playing time when he's not making appearances in hit TV shows.
Behind the plate, Wilson Ramos recovered from a nagging hamstring issue to put up a .455 slugging percentage and .752 OPS in August and September. He hit 10 home runs in those two months and 16 in 2013. With Kurt Suzuki gone, Ramos will inherit the starting job. Veteran Jose Lobaton will be his very capable backup. Lobaton was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays last week for a trio of minor leaguers.
The Nationals are blessed in that they have a talented group of five infielders and only four spots to fill. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has reportedly been taking reps at first base this spring. Whether this has anything to do with Adam LaRoche spending his offseason hunting mountain lions is unclear. And no, he has not shaved the beard. LaRoche struggled his way to a .735 OPS and 102 OPS+ in 2013. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has battled injury problems in the past and wants to contribute offensive numbers similar to last September when he hit .273/.322/.591.
Up the middle, Ian Desmond has blossomed into one of the best shortstops in the game. He followed up his breakout 2012 season with a .784 OPS and team-best 5.0 WAR last year. Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa will battle for the starting spot at second during the spring. Espinosa has the better glove, but lost his roster spot to Rendon in 2013 thanks to a broken wrist. Rendon finished out the year hitting .278/.359/.417 in his final 171 plate appearances. A natural third baseman, he will likely see time at the hot corner when Zimmerman moves across the field.
To say that the Nationals' starting rotation is loaded would be a severe understatement. Stephen Strasburg quietly had an excellent year in 2013, allowing a 3.00 ERA in a career high 183 innings. His strikeout rate dipped considerably, but it was still the fourth-best rate in the National League at 9.39 batters per nine innings. He has been toying with a slider in Spring Training, which -- if Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw are any indication (both "toyed" with sliders at one point) -- is bad, bad news for hitters. Lefty Gio Gonzalez will slot next to Strasburg after the regression bug bit him ever so slightly in 2013. His strikeout rate dipped slightly and he allowed nearly twice as many home runs. Hey, at least he proved that the dip in walk rate so crucial to his success in 2012 was not a fluke.
It says something that I have gotten this far and have not yet mentioned the horse of the Nationals' 2013 staff: Jordan Zimmermann. The 27 year old posted his third consecutive season with 3.2 WAR or more, allowing a 3.25 ERA in a career-high 213 1/3 innings. Old school stat heads will appreciate the 19 wins, tied for the most in the National League. Zimmermann has been what we have been hoping and praying that Rick Porcello could be, and the Nationals are working hard to lock Zim up at a Porcello-like price. Familiar face Doug Fister will once again be the best fourth starter in baseball. The improved infield defense should help his numbers, but so should facing the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies all year long.
The fifth slot in the Nationals' rotation is the only question mark, but like the infield, the Nats have plenty of options available. Lefty Ross Detwiler has the most experience, including a 10-8 record and 3.40 ERA in 164 1/3 innings in 2012. Righties Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan both made their big league debuts in 2013 with differing results. Roark's 1.51 ERA in 53 2/3 innings was miles better than Jordan's 3.66 in 51 2/3 innings, but their profiles -- below average strikeout rate, minuscule walk rate, heavy reliance on the two-seamer -- were similar. Jordan probably offers the most upside since he's two years younger, but all three will get the chance to start at some point in 2014. Ross Ohlendorf deserves a mention because he throws like he's pitching in 1914. If he is in the rotation at any point, something has gone wrong.
The scariest part about this Nationals rotation might not be the five (or seven) players in it right now, but rather that help is on the way. Lucas Giolito ranks among the best prospects in the game despite not having even made it out of short season ball yet. His fastball-curveball combo has scouts drooling, with Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks labeling both offerings as potential 80-grade pitches. A.J. Cole dominated Double-A last year and has front-end potential if his secondary stuff develops. Both will help ease the burden of Strasburg's mega deal when it comes after 2017.
Despite signing closer Rafael Soriano to a hefty contract, the Nationals' bullpen was a league average unit in 2013. Soriano notched 43 saves in '13, but saw a huge drop in strikeout rate as his ERA climbed by nearly a full run. Despite the red flags, I can think of 11 million reasons why he will keep his job come hell or high water in 2014. Setup man Tyler Clippard will continue to be amazing, and I don't think it's a coincidence that he becomes a free agent when Joe Nathan's contract expires.
Drew Storen was awful for most of 2013, but returned from a minor league demotion in late August throwing smoke. He started throwing his four-seam fastball more often and essentially abandoned his changeup (which was awful). In 19 1/3 innings down the stretch, he allowed a 1.40 ERA with 15 strikeouts to six walks. If he is effective, this bullpen goes from good to great overnight. Craig Stammen continued to devour innings with a sub-3.00 ERA. Ryan Mattheus was bitten by both the regression bug and the locker monster. The former pushed his ERA up over 6.00, while the latter broke his hand when he punched it. Lefty Jerry Blevins became the latest pitcher in the Oakland-to-D.C. pipeline when the Nationals traded for him this offseason.
No rest for the wicked
Around here, the Washington Nationals were not a popular club this offseason. General manager Mike Rizzo became Public Enemy Number One in Detroit when he traded Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and prospect Robbie Ray to the Tigers for ground-ball artist and fan favorite Doug Fister. This was not Rizzo's only shrewd move of the offseason, though. He was hard at work throughout the winter, first replacing retired manager Davey Johnson with rookie skipper Matt Williams, formerly a third base coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rizzo also worked to bolster the team's bench, signing free agent outfielder Nate McLouth and trading for veteran catcher Jose Lobaton. Finally, he improved a bullpen that disappointed in 2013 by trading for left-hander Jerry Blevins, formerly of the Oakland A's. This team is not a lock for the playoffs -- is anyone? -- but Rizzo has done everything possible to shore up any and all holes that were revealed last season.
Player to watch: Bryce Harper
Based on all the stories we heard about Harper last year -- his collision with a wall in May (and subsequent DL stint) and his lack of hustle on a routine grounder in August, in particular -- you would think he regressed from his excellent rookie season. Instead, Harper improved across the board, hitting .274/.368/.486 with a .371 wOBA and 137 wRC+. He only put up 3.8 WAR compared to 2012's 4.5, but saw 100 fewer plate appearances and was a full win worse with the glove -- though you would be too if your face got in a fight with an outfield wall. We have not heard much about Harper this offseason, but don't expect that to last. The hype is real, and Harper should prove that he is one of the best players in the game in 2014.
The Nationals were expected to be World Series contenders in 2013, but the injury and regression bugs bit hard as they finished a distant 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves and four games out of a Wild Card slot. Despite their disappointment, they have a core as good as anyone in the league with a rotation that is arguably the best in the game. They will be relying on bounce back seasons from a couple capable players and there are questions about the offense, but it may not matter if no one scores against them. Look for 2013 to be proved a fluke as the Nationals make it back to the postseason in 2014.