Team to Beat: 2011 Washington Nationals Preview

And the last NL East team to look at, this weekend’s Mets opponent, the Washington Nationals.

Manager: Jim Riggleman
General Manager: Mike Rizzo
Projected Finish: 73-89, Fifth place.

The pieces are starting to emerge for the Nationals to make a run at respectability. New-old guy Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman may form the best back-to-back punch in the division; Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa make up, if not a good, at least an interesting young double-play combo; and Jordan Zimmermann is back from Tommy John surgery, while Stephen Strasburg makes his own recovery. Throw in super-child Bryce Harper in two years, the emergence of Wilson Ramos or Derek Norris behind the plate, and the outlines of a winning team are almost visible. Sort of.

But right now, the Nationals still have Rick Ankiel, Pudge Rodriguez, and Livan Hernandez all playing prominent roles, and that makes any run at .500 seem a long way off.

Lineup:
SS – Ian Desmond
RF – Jayson Werth
3B – Ryan Zimmerman
1B – Adam LaRoche
LF – Mike Morse
CF – Rick Ankiel
2B – Danny Espinosa
C – Ivan Rodriguez

Ian Desmond – Desmond hit 10 home runs and stole 17 bases as a rookie, but his game needs lots of work elsewhere. He showed decent range at shortstop, but made 34 errors, tops in the NL and 7 more than anyone else at any position. He also posted a .308 on-base percentage, so he might be a tad miscast as a leadoff hitter . . . but everyone in this lineup would be a tad miscast as a leadoff hitter, so why not Desmond, right?

Jayson Werth – The Nationals’ #2 hitter. I’d like to think this is a forward-thinking move by manager Jim Riggleman, getting Werth and his .367 career on-base percentage as many plate appearances as possible . . . but  Ian Desmond is leading off. It’s almost as if Riggleman wants to bat Werth leadoff, but just can’t bring himself to do it because he’s afraid the press and fans won’t understand why the guy making $126 million is hitting first.

Ryan Zimmerman – Great defender at third, draws walks, and hits for power. The Nationals’ best player, and they have him locked up through 2013.

Adam LaRoche – Signed to a two-year deal in the offseason, LaRoche joins his fifth team in three years. He’s pretty much the lowest-common denominator among first baseman — he hits just enough for someone to justify playing him — but if Werth and Zimmerman are batting in front of him the next two years, he’ll drive in over 100 runs both seasons and end up getting a thirty-seven-year, $500 million dollar deal from the Astros next time he hits free agency.

Mike Morse – Finally given a chance to play everyday, the 29-year-old Morse posted an impressive .519 slugging percentage and .870 OPS in a half-season last year. Morse’s minor league numbers suggest he isn’t quite that good of a hitter, but putting up a .800 OPS and playing a decent left field have some value.

Rick Ankiel – And we’ve reached the part of the lineup that illuminates the Nationals’ problems. Over the last two seasons, Rick Ankiel has hit a combined .232/.298/.388, with 17 home runs and 7 steals. Over that same time period, Justin Maxwell has hit .259/.361/.412, with 19 home runs and 51 steals in Triple-A. The Nationals have a player in their system who could be a competent major league center fielder, but are instead using a veteran who has already proven himself unable. Maxwell might not hit major league pitching, but the Nationals will never find out if they don’t try — and if they don’t try, it’s going to be the likes of Rick Ankiel and Nyjer Morgan forever.

Danny Espinosa – Espinosa blasted his way through the minors last season, hitting a total of 28 home runs on his way from Double-A to the majors. The second baseman lost some plate discipline in the process, and he strikes out a ton, so he might be another .300 OBP guy in a lineup that has three others. Then again, if he can be a bit more selective, Espinosa might emerge as a star.

Ivan Rodriguez – He can’t hit at all anymore (.640 OPS last year), which kills his value, but he can still throw and is still calling the game as Pudge. He’s not totally useless, but if 23-year-old Wilson Ramos doesn’t end up with more at-bats this season, the entire organization should be exiled back to Canada.

Rotation:
RHP – Livan Hernandez
LHP – John Lannan
RHP – Jordan Zimmermann
RHP – Jason Marquis
LHP – Tom Gorzelanny

Livan Hernandez – The Mets’ old friend. Hernandez has a 4.94 ERA over the past five years, doesn’t strike anyone out, and gives up a ton of home runs. Regardless, he experienced a resurgence last season, eating up 211.2 innings and posting a 3.66 ERA as the Nats’ ace, earning himself a two-year extension. On the other hand: Livan Hernandez is the Nats’ ace.

John Lannan – Lannan was demoted to Double-A in June last season, stuck with a 5.76 ERA after 14 starts; he returned in August and made 11 more starts, posted a 3.42 ERA and struck out more batters than he ever had before (which is to say, not that many for an average pitcher, but a good number of strikeouts for Lannan). He could be the 3.80 ERA guy he was in 2008, 2009, and the second half of last year, or the 4.70 guy his strikeout and walk numbers suggest he should be. I have no idea.

Jordan Zimmermann – Zimmermann (the Nationals forced him to spell his name with two Ns, so you can tell him and the third baseman apart) has a 2.60 ERA in the minors and great peripherals. Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, he’s the guy they’re counting on becoming Robinn to Strasburg’s Batman.

Jason Marquis – The Nationals really have a thing for low-strikeout, ground ball pitchers. I’ll note here that they’re also financing Chien-Ming Wang’s rehab, another low-strikeout, groundball pitcher.

Tom Gorzelanny – Former Pirate and Cub, probably best known for making a pitching face that causes him to closely resemble a certain Goonies character.

The Bench:
C – Wilson Ramos
IF – Alex Cora
OF – Laynce Nix
OF – Matt Stairs
UT – Jerry Hairston, Jr.

. . . Yeah. Matt Stairs can still do his old-guy softball thing, Jerry Hairston can play a whole bunch of positions, and Wilson Ramos is Pudge’s superior caddy. But that’s sort of it for “useful skills the bench players have.” Alex Cora can’t do much of anything anymore, and Laynce Nix can sort of play center field. There are a few stray prospects in the high minors, but if any regular gets hurt, it’s not going to be pretty . . . unless that regular is Rodriguez or Ankiel, in which case, the team might actually improve.

Bullpen:
RHP – Drew Storen
LHP – Sean Burnett
RHP – Tyler Clippard
LHP – Doug Slaten
RHP – Chad Gaudin
RHP – Todd Coffey
RHP – Brian Boderick

There’s talent here, but it’s not a deep pen. The other guy the Nats took in the first round of the 2009 draft, Drew Storen, platoons as closer with lefty Sean Burnett. Tyler Clippard seems to have found his calling as a multi-inning reliever (and actually led the Nationals in wins last season, with 11), and Doug Slaten has held lefties to a .630 OPS over his career. It’s a good front four, but as with most bullpens, the back three guys aren’t nearly as impressive. Todd Coffey has problems with home runs his entire career, Chad Gaudin is the longman (and not a particularly good one), and Brian Boderick is a Rule-5 pick the Nats are trying to hide on the roster. It could be one of the division’s better pens, or Riggleman could blow out the arms of Storen, Burnett, and Clippard by mid-June.

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2 Comments

Filed under Columns, Words

2 responses to “Team to Beat: 2011 Washington Nationals Preview

  1. Werth + Zimmerman = may form the best back-to-back punch in the division.

    Too bad it is a downgrade from last year, offensively at least.

    • Patrick Flood

      Good point. That’s really just a defensive upgrade, not to mention that not having another lefty in the lineup seems to have compelled Jim Riggleman to start Rick Ankiel alongside Adam LaRoche.

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