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Nationals' Team Preview: 98 Wins and Rising?

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

All those years of stockpiling high draft picks finally paid off for the Nationals, as they led the majors with 98 wins and made the postseason for the first time since they ceased to be the Expos. Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery seemingly none the worse for wear, a teenage Bryce Harper dialed up what would have been considered an exceptional rookie season in the pre-Mike Trout Era, and a number of other younger and veteran players came through with career years. Management stuck to their guns and didn't lift Strasburg's team-imposed innings cap to allow him to pitch past the first week of September, and when their playoff run ended early there was some grumbling from fans (and journalists), but general manager Mike Rizzo insisted that the long-term future of the club was paramount.

Rizzo backed up his stance with a busy offseason, depleting the minor league cupboard and opening the checkbook to bring in more OBP for the top of the lineup and bolstering the pitching staff, but the core of the roster is young, under club control for a few years yet, and is ridiculously talented. There are no guarantees, but if the Nationals stay at least relatively healthy it's hard not to see them make a World Series appearance or three this decade.

Offseason Moves

Acquired CF Denard Span from Minnesota for SP Alex Meyer.

The Nationals' offense last year was solid but lacked true table-setters at the top of the order, miscasting Jayson Werth as a leadoff hitter and never finding a player who could reliably get in scoring position for the sluggers. Enter Span, whose .357 career OBP represents a big improvement in the leadoff spot and allows the rest of the lineup to settle into more comfortable roles. His plus glove essentially replaces Mike Morse in the outfield as well, with Harper sliding over to a corner, which will be another noticeable upgrade for the Nats. Even his contract is a perfect fit, as his affordable deal will be expiring right around when prospect Brian Goodwin should be ready to replace him. Span won't put up massive numbers himself, but his impact on the roster could be huge.

Re-signed 1B Adam LaRoche.

The Span trade gave the Nationals a choice at first base: move Morse from left field to a less demanding defensive position, or re-sign LaRoche coming off a career year. They chose to bring LaRoche back, both to give the batting order a better lefty-righty balance and to have a steadier glove at first. LaRoche isn't likely to repeat his career 2012, but in a lineup loaded with bigger names Washington doesn't need him to be anything more than a complementary bat.

Acquired SP A.J. Cole and P Blake Treinen from Oakland in a three-way deal that sent OF/1B Mike Morse to Seattle.

With LaRoche back in the fold there was no longer any room for Morse, and general manager Mike Rizzo wasted no time in converting a luxury into prospects. Cole was originally drafted by the Nats in 2010 and was dealt to the A's last offseason in the Gio Gonzalez swap, and while his rough introduction to High-A in 2012 raised some eyebrows he got his mechanics back under control after a demotion and has as high a ceiling as any healthy pitcher in the Washington system. Treinen was old for his level after getting drafted as a college senior, but put up decent numbers with his fastball/slider combo and might have a major league future as a reliever or swingman.

Signed P Dan Haren.

Fifth starter Edwin Jackson was not re-signed, but instead the Nationals turned to the veteran Haren to round out their rotation. Back and hip woes have sapped his fastball of some velocity and led to a career-worst 2012, but he's still capable of solid outings and if he can stay healthy he might yet have some good years left in him. Moving to the NL East can't hurt his chances of a rebound either.

Signed RP Rafael Soriano.

The Nationals' bullpen depth allowed them to survive Drew Storen's absence quite nicely last season, but with the club in full-out win-now mode general manager Mike Rizzo decided that the club couldn't have too much of a good thing and added Soriano to the stable. He immediately slots in as the closer, and his signing pushes Storen and Tyler Clippard into set-up roles and gives the Nats a collection of power relief arms that rivals any team in the league.

Re-signed RP Zach Duke.

The club let Tom Gorzelanny walk as a free agent, but quickly re-signed another former Pirates starter in Duke to fill a similar long relief role after he impressed during a September callup. Given Haren's health concerns and a possible PED suspension looming over Gio Gonzalez, Duke could have some fantasy value in 2013 if he gets pressed into rotation duty.

Signed RP Bill Bray, P Ross Ohlendorf, 2B Will Rhymes, SS Brian Bocock, P Fernando Abad, INF Mike Costanzo, P Sean West, OF Delwyn Young, C Chris Snyder, P Jeremy Accardo and OF Jerad Head.

Bray has a shot to win a LOOGY role coming out of camp, Snyder could see some at-bats early in the season if Wilson Ramos has a setback in his recovery from knee surgery, and Ohlendorf might be next in line for rotation depth after Zach Duke, but for the most part the Nats' 25-man roster is set and these players will just be Triple-A depth.

Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Bryce Harper, LF
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
8. Kurt Suzuki, C

If Werth regains his power stroke he could move down to fifth in the order, with Desmond or Espinosa replacing him in the two-hole. Espinosa is also dealing with some shoulder issues that could sideline him from time to time, and his primary backup (Steve Lombardozzi) is also a good fit for the second spot. Suzuki is just holding down the fort until Wilson Ramos proves he's healthy, but whoever catches will be hitting eighth.

Projected Rotation

1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Ross Detwiler
5. Dan Haren

Gonzalez's name was linked this offseason to a Miami clinic that reportedly provided PEDs to ballplayers (including the previously busted Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal) so there's a real possibility he'll get hit with a suspension at some point. The Nationals proved they could survive without one of their aces last season, but the timing of any suspension could impact their postseason fortunes just as Strasburg's shutdown did.

Closer: Rafael Soriano - Over the last few years Soriano has been much more effective in the closer role than he has working the eighth inning, so it's probably a good thing that the Nationals are making it clear right from the outset that he'll be the main man in the bullpen. He is starting to show signs of getting older, as his fastball has lost a tiny bit of zip from its peak with the Braves and his slider wasn't as effective last season than it's been in the past, but he's still topping 92 mph with the heater and on a team as stacked as the Nats there will be plenty of save opportunities for him.

Key Bullpen Members: Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are ready and waiting if Soriano stumbles, while Henry Rodriguez is also healthy again to do his Ricky Vaughn impression in middle relief. Christian Garcia, another electric-armed young pitcher, could also force his way into a regular bullpen role.

Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise

Can Stephen Strasburg handle a full season's workload?

There's no question that Strasburg has the talent to be mentioned among the elite starting pitchers in baseball, right there with Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. Scouts grade both his fastball and changeup as 80s (which tops the scale), while his curveball is 'merely' very good. His control is plus, he's shown a tremendous feel for pitching in his short time in the league... really, he possesses everything you could want in an ace. What he hasn't shown yet, however, his durability. Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals are going to take the shackles off Strasburg and are counting on him for 30-plus turns in the rotation, and if he maintains his strikeout and walk rates, he could put up some truly filthy fantasy numbers in 2013. Before you pay full retail for that potential, however, you should at least consider the possibility that he may not take the mound every fifth day. There were concerns expressed about his mechanics when he came out of college (just Google 'inverted W'), and his surgery certainly did nothing to quell those doubts.

It's too harsh to call Strasburg an injury risk, but the fact is that he's only pitched 250 innings in the big leagues across three seasons, and while his ceiling is arguably higher than any other pitcher in baseball his floor is also lower than the other players who'll be available in his price range.

How will the bullpen shake out?

The big-ticket Rafael Soriano signing established a clear pecking order in the Nationals' bullpen. Soriano will close, Drew Storen will set him up and get any save chances that arise if Soriano is unavailable, and Tyler Clippard will have to make do with the scraps. Soriano's resume really isn't much longer than Storen's though, as the veteran has only been a closer for two-and-a-half season to Storen's one-and-a-half, and is two years removed from elbow trouble instead of one. Given the multitude of late-inning options available to manager Davey Johnson and the massive expectations for the club, Soriano's leash could be a very short one if he struggles out of the gate.

Will Bryce Harper live up to the hype?

Quite frankly, teenagers aren't supposed to be able to do what Harper did last year. Sure, he struck out more often than you would like and made some truly astounding baserunning blunders, but the positives far outweighed the negatives when it came to his on-field performance and the thing that really stood out about the rookie was not his physical tools but his mental approach. Harper had the focus of a grizzled veteran, showing the ability to learn from his mistakes and make adjustments far beyond his years.

That doesn't mean he won't be streaky, or that he's a lock to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, but the odds of Harper improving on his 2012 numbers rather than slipping back seem far greater than your typical second-year player, much less your typical 20-year-old. Like Strasburg he's another high-risk, high-reward pick who won't come cheap, but unlike Strasburg we really only have a vague idea of what Harper's ceiling might actually be. The reward side of that equation could be massive.

Strengths

You name it, the Nationals have it. Power, speed and on-base ability on offense, Gold Glove candidates at multiple positions, a deep rotation that should be among the best in baseball, and a deeper bullpen.

Weaknesses

The Nats' weaknesses are more theoretical than actual, and might be better classified as nitpicks. Rotation depth could be tested as Haren and to a lesser extent Strasburg carry health-related question marks, and Gonzalez's name was linked to PEDs in the offseason. The batters could stand to make more contact, as Span might be the only regular who doesn't push 120 strikeouts over a full season. That's about it.

Rising: Bryce Harper - In their age-20 seasons, Ken Griffey Jr. added 99 points to his OPS, Mel Ott more than doubled his home-run total, and Al Kaline broke the 200-hit mark. Do you want to be the one to tell Harper he can't do something equally as spectacular?

Falling: Jayson Werth - Werth's ISO has collapsed the last two season, and his HR/AB followed suit in 2012 as injuries took their toll. Given his talent level and the lineup around him you can't rule out some kind of dead cat bounce for Werth, but his days as a productive slugger would seem to be behind him.

Sleeper: Steve Lombardozzi - Danny Espinosa heads into the season still dealing with a torn rotator cuff, and while he managed to play through the injury last season there's no guarantee he'll be able to do it again. Lombardozzi doesn't have anything close to Espinosa's power potential, but if he gets pressed into regular duty or even slips into a supersub role he could be a solid three-category performer supplying batting average, runs and steals.

Supersleeper: Christian Garcia - the former Yankee seems like a safer bet to stick in the bullpen given his long injury history, where he would be buried way down in the closer pecking order, but if a worst-case scenario develops with the starters he could get stretched out and take his high-octane stuff into the rotation with potentially impressive results.

Top Prospects

Anthony Rendon, 3B - After barely playing in his pro debut due to an ankle injury, Rendon tore apart the AFL and cleared up any confusion over who the best position prospect in the Nationals' system was. There is no clear room for him in the majors in the immediate future and for that matter there is still some question over whether his eventual defensive home will be third base, second base or somewhere else, so look for the team to give him a full season at Triple-A unless an injury opens up a spot for him in 2013. Of course, that assumes he stays healthy himself and doesn't stall his development with further injuries. The best comp for Rendon might be Edgar Martinez, both for his upside and for the fact that he might not become a major league regular until he's 27.

Brian Goodwin, OF - Goodwin's pro debut went as well as the Nationals could have hoped as he torched Low-A pitching before getting jumped two levels (and, admittedly, closing out the year with much less impressive numbers). The club now views the 2011 supplemental pick as their center fielder of the future, and it's easy to see why given the combination of power, speed, plate discipline and defense he is capable of displaying. There are still questions to be answered in the high minors but the Denard Span acquisition gives him plenty of development time. If he puts together another strong performance this year Goodwin will be knocking on the door of the 25-man roster as a potential fourth outfielder in 2014, with a starting gig in his sights the year after.

Matt Skole, 3B - Skole's pro debut went swimmingly, as he had no difficulty carrying over the power stroke and plate discipline he showed in college and wound up being named the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year. He is probably looking at a move across the diamond at some point, more due to his own defensive limitations than the presence of Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman above him in the system, and given that Skole is already 23 he still needs to prove himself against more advanced competition. To his credit, he held his own in the AFL this offseason, and that classic lefty Three True Outcomes profile could take him a long way at first base.

Lucas Giolito, SP - The 16th overall pick in the draft went under the knife for the least surprising Tommy John surgery ever in August, and the Nationals do not expect to get anything for their $3 million signing bonus until 2014. Giolito could be worth the wait though. Were it not for his elbow trouble he very well might have gone first overall, as high schoolers with prototypical power pitcher builds and fastballs that light up the third digit on the radar gun tend to get scouts drooling. It will be a long road back for Giolito, but if any team can get the most out of him it would be the Nats (see: Strasburg, Stephen and Zimmermann, Jordan).

Christian Garcia, RP - Cut loose by the Yankees in 2010 after his second Tommy John surgery, the Nationals took a chance on Garcia and their gamble seems to have paid off. After a conversion to relief to try and save his arm, he tore through the high minors before making his major league debut in September and continuing his dominance, finishing 2012 with an aggregate 11.2 K/9 rate across three levels. His arsenal is almost Strasburg-esque, as he combines a nasty fastball that tops out at 97 mph with a mid-80s changeup and vicious slow curve, and while the Nats have plenty of established closer candidates already, it is hard to watch Garcia pitch and not see a ninth-inning role in his future, health permitting. Perhaps there will be some temptation for Washington to move him back into a rotation role, but given his injury history they are probably better served keeping him in the bullpen.

Sammy Solis, SP - Solis made impressive strides in his pro debut two years ago, including an uptick in velocity from his NCAA days, but after losing 2012 to Tommy John surgery he will need to prove himself all over again. Given his strong secondary offerings if his fastball regresses back to the 88-92 mph range he showed in college, his control and command should be enough for him to have some success as a classic finesse lefty, but if he can keep popping it at 91-94 mph Solis has mid-rotation upside. The Nationals will treat him with kid gloves this season, but he could be pushing hard for a major league audition in 2014.

Eury Perez, OF - The young speedster got his first taste of the majors in 2012 and swiped three bases after stealing 51 between Double-A and Triple-A. He still needs to learn to control the strike zone better if he wants to be anything more than a fourth outfielder in the long run, and Brian Goodwin's presence in the system might lock him into that role anyway, but it would not take too much improvement on the plate discipline front for a Michael Bourn-like career path to become a realistic possibility.

Nathan Karns, SP - Karns lost the first two seasons of his pro career to shoulder woes, but after getting his feet wet in rookie ball in 2011, he exploded onto the prospect scene last year with a 148:47 K:BB ratio in 116 innings between Low-A and High-A. He has a fastball that can creep up to 95 mph, a curve so sharp it gets mistaken for a slider every now and then, and the makings of a pretty good changeup, but his high-effort delivery and intermittent control could see him eventually ticketed for the bullpen in the majors. Having any kind of future at all is a huge step though, and given how hard he has had to work just to get where he is now it is clear Karns has the necessary drive to succeed. Further improvement would move him close to the top of the Nationals' pitching prospect lists.