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2014 Nationals Team Preview: Beast Of The East

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.

2014 Washington Nationals Team Preview

Coming off a historically great season that saw the Nationals dominate their division and usher manager Davey Johnson off into retirement with a World Series ring... oh, no, wait, that's what was supposed to happen in 2013. Despite an impressive core of young and veteran players that seemed to be a dynasty in the making, last season didn't go according to script. Injuries and bad luck held back a number of key players, including two pillars of the franchise in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and while the club's eventual record wasn't bad (86-76), it fell far short of expectations and was not good enough to qualify for the postseason.

Without any particular failure of talent evaluation to blame for the disappointment, GM Mike Rizzo mostly stood pat this offseason. He made one big splash by acquiring Doug Fister to replace Dan Haren at the bottom of the rotation but otherwise just tinkered around the fringes of the roster. It's hard to argue with the logic, as the Nats have averaged 92 wins over the last two seasons with mostly the same cast of characters, but another failure to make a deep playoff run could force Rizzo to make more significant changes.

On paper though, the Nationals once again look like a favorite to be playing October baseball. Any rotation that can boast a pitcher with Fister's resume as its number four has to be feared, with Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann all capable of producing exceptional numbers ahead of Fister in the pecking order. The lineup features an enviable blend of offense and defense, headlined by wunderkind Harper and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and without an apparent weak link at any spot on the diamond, while the bullpen includes three relievers with closing experience and a tough lefty (one of the pieces missing from the picture in 2013) in newly acquired Jerry Blevins. Good health and good fortune willing, this is a roster easily capable of winning 100 or more games and facing the AL's best in the World Series.

Offseason Moves

Traded Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi and Ian Krol to the Tigers for Doug Fister.

The surprise trade of the winter meetings, the Nationals acquired a solid and affordable rotation arm in Fister in exchange for three players they likely won't miss. Ray is a decent but unremarkable pitching prospect, while Lombardozzi had been clearly passed by Anthony Rendon in the second base picture and was looking at a bench role in Washington. Krol showed flashes as a power lefty in the bullpen last year but couldn't maintain his success over the long haul. As for Fister, moving to the National League and having a vastly upgraded infield defense behind him could prove to be a huge boon for a pitcher who lives and dies by his sinker.

Traded Billy Burns to the A's for Jerry Blevins.

The Nationals lacked a reliable left-hander in their bullpen last year, so acquiring Blevins and his career .218/.278/.358 line versus same-side hitters will be a welcome addition to the staff. He's almost as effective against righties though (.234/.326/.385 in 149 innings), so Blevins should see more use than a traditional LOOGY. Burns was the Nats' Minor League Player of the Year and looks like a potential future center fielder and leadoff threat, combining great wheels with plus contact ability and a sharp eye at the plate. However, his complete lack of power always generates question marks about how that skill set will play in the majors.

Traded Nate Karns to the Rays for Jose Lobaton, Drew Vettleson and Felipe Rivero.

Karns had an outside shot at winning the fifth starter spot this spring, and while his mid-90s fastball and hard curve seemed to have him ticketed for the bullpen in the long run, there's still plenty of time for him to develop a consistent off-speed pitch and stick in the rotation. In Tampa, he'll have plenty of time to work on it as another season at Triple-A seems likely. Landing Lobaton gives the Nationals a cost-controlled backup to Wilson Ramos and a catcher who can credibly start should Ramos get hurt again. Rivero is a lefty with a big fastball who appears to be a future bullpen piece, although he struggled with his control last season at High-A. Vettleson, a 2010 supplemental-round pick, lacks the power to be a major league starter in right field but has a solid contact-and-defense profile that could see him develop into a dependable fourth outfielder.

Signed Nate McLouth (Orioles) to a two-year deal worth $10 million with a $6.5 million club option for 2016.

After reviving his career in Baltimore, McLouth didn't have to go far to find his next gig. He'll slot in as the fourth outfielder with the Nationals, seeing playing time when any of the starters need a break and possibly DH duty in AL ballparks, but when your starters have checkered injury histories the way Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Denard Span do, there's a visible path to 400-plus at-bats for McLouth. Last year's rebound was fueled in large part by the lowest strikeout rate he'd posted since his All-Star 2008 campaign with the Pirates, so don't be surprised if there's some regression in McLouth's line in 2014.

Signed Chris Young, Josh Johnson, Manny Delcarmen, Emmanuel Burriss, Chris Snyder, Will Rhymes, Mike Fontenot, Jamey Carroll and Koyie Hill to minor league deals with invitations to spring training.

The prevalence of infielders with major league experience on the list (Johnson, Burriss, Rhymes, Fontenot and Carroll) points to what could be the most hotly-contested spots on the Nationals' 25-man roster this spring, but former second base starter Danny Espinosa has one bench spot locked up provided he shows any kind of rebound in his hitting. Snyder or Hill could win a backup catching job as well, but most likely will be Triple-A insurance to start the season. On a team with a less-stacked bullpen, Delcarmen could also factor into the mix, but he's likely ticketed for Triple-A as well. Young is the longest of long shots to win the fifth starter role, as the club has plenty of kids with higher upsides to compete for that spot.

Projected Lineup

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jayson Werth, LF
3. Bryce Harper, RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Anthony Rendon, 2B

Werth's ability to get on base would make him the best fit in the second spot, but new manager Matt Williams might be old-school enough to see Desmond's speed as a better option towards the top of the order. If Rendon takes a big step forward in spring training, he also has a OBP-and-doubles profile that would make him an intriguing No. 2 hitter. Zimmerman might also slide back into the third spot, with lefties Harper and LaRoche then hitting fourth and sixth and Werth, Desmond or even Ramos hitting fifth to make the lineup LOOGY-proof.

Projected Rotation

1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Doug Fister
5. Ross Detwiler/Tanner Roark

Despite his allergy to wins last season and offseason surgery to remove bone chips, Strasburg is still the ace of a very loaded staff and should get the nod on Opening Day. Gonzalez and Zimmermann, each of whom are good enough to take top spot in any number of other big league rotations, fall in behind, with the newly-acquired Fister providing a sinker-heavy counterpoint to all the heat fired by the top three. Detwiler has a leg up on the fifth spot due to being left-handed, but Roark impressed last season in a small sample while prospects Taylor Jordan and possibly Sammy Solis could figure into the mix down the road.

Closer: Rafael Soriano

Soriano's first season in Washington was a success as he racked up 43 saves, but the steep drop in his K/9 rate (to 6.89, his worst mark since he was a rookie in 2002) is a giant red flag. His success in the role will probably keep him in the ninth inning for at least a while, but if Soriano falters badly there are plenty of other options behind him who could be given the opportunity.

Key Bullpen Members: Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Jerry Blevins, Craig Stammen

Clippard just keeps on rolling, posting his fourth straight excellent season in the Nationals' bullpen. His strikeout rate tumbled below 10.0 K/9 though, a possible warning sign that his heavy usage (he's averaged 74 appearances in those four seasons) in high-leverage situations might finally be taking their toll. Assuming he can at least maintain his effectiveness though, he should be manager Matt Williams' first option in the eighth inning or when Soriano needs a breather.

Storen was supposed to be the team's closer of the future when he was drafted in the first round behind Stephen Strasburg, but since he saved 43 games in 2011 things haven't gone smoothly. Last year's ERA looks ugly, but it was partially a combination of bad luck (his FIP of 3.62 was nearly a full run lower than his ERA) and his elevating the ball far more than in previous seasons. If he can rediscover the bottom half of the strike zone, Storen should be able to regain his spot as an effective setup man and possible closer if Soriano breaks down.

Blevins is coming off back-to-back solid seasons in the Oakland bullpen, and immediately becomes the top left-handed option for the Nationals. He showed a reverse platoon split in 2013 but that was likely just a fluke, and while Blevins has been effective against both lefties and righties in his career, his main role for the Nationals will be to stifle tough left-handed hitters. He could see some situational save chances, but shouldn't be a big factor in the ninth-inning mix.

Stammen has been a throwback reliever the last couple of years, working multiple effective innings in both long relief and setup situations during an era dominated by specialization, and has become the glue holding the Nationals' bullpen together. He likely won't ever get a chance to close or rejoin the rotation, but makes up for it by getting plenty of chances to vulture wins. Don't be surprised, if his success as a jack-of-all-trades in the bullpen continues, that other clubs start developing their own Stammens.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Will the Nationals' big names live up to their elite billing?

Ever since they were drafted with back-to-back first overall picks, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have been ticketed for superstardom. Despite all their obvious talent though, neither of them has been able to reach that level yet. Tommy John surgery slowed Strasburg's development, and last year's elbow trouble that resulted in offseason surgery to remove bone chips has re-kindled concerns that his mechanics are just too unstable for long-term success. He seems capable of throwing a no-hitter any time he takes the hill, but can he take enough turns on the hill to win 20 games in a season, or strike out 250 batters? Harper's balls-to-the-wall playing style has made him injury-prone as well, and the 21-year-old may need to find a way to temper his enthusiasm if he wants to stay on the field for 150-plus games. It may be unfair to consider a player as inexperienced as Harper a disappointment just yet, but there's no question that based on his ADP in 2013 he fell far short of expectations. Coming off disappointing campaigns, both on a personal and team level, 2014 could be critical for the two faces of the franchise. Will they be able to put their growing pains behind them and become the All-Stars and possible Hall of Famers they were projected to be, or will they continue to underachieve?

Will Anthony Rendon take a step forward this season?

When Danny Espinosa's hitting stroke completely abandoned him last season, the Nationals wasted little time in promoting Rendon to take his place. He got off to a hot start, hitting .301/.352/.460 through his first 43 major league games, but the rookie fell off after that and finished with a less-than-stellar .265/.329/.396 line. That initial burst more closely resembles the expectations generated by his big minor league numbers though (he was raking at a .319/.461/.603 clip in Double-A before his promotion) as well as his reputation as the best pure hitter in the 2011 draft. With a full and healthy offseason to get ready, there wouldn't appear to be much preventing him from starting to cash in on those expectations this season. A .300/.350/.450 line would look very good near the top of a Nats batting order that has been somewhat OBP-starved in recent seasons, and that could just be scratching the surface of what Rendon's capable of at the plate. He's still got a lot to prove, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him make the Strasburg/Harper duo of young franchise cornerstones a trio in the very near future.

What impact will new manager Matt Williams have?

Davey Johnson provided a very steady hand at the Nationals' tiller the last couple of seasons, and for better or for worse he was a manager content to let his players go out and do their thing. With Johnson now retired though, the club will hand the reins over to Williams, who has no major league managerial experience and was known as a fairly intense, no-nonsense dude back in his playing days. Given Williams' temperament, it's fair to wonder how well his style will mesh with a brash young star like Bryce Harper, how he'll deal with the shaky confidence of a reliever like Drew Storen, or how much patience he'll have if Ryan Zimmerman's defensive issues make another appearance. On the other hand, Williams has already stated publicly that he'll embrace the defensive shifting revolution begun in Tampa, which could have a big positive influence on the pitching staff's numbers. There's no way to predict or quantify Williams' impact in advance, of course, but if the season starts to go sideways like 2013 did for the Nats, how he reacts could impact the fantasy fortunes of any number of Washington players.

Strengths

The Nationals boast one of the deepest starting rotations in the game, a bullpen that features three guys with closing experience, potentially solid or better bats at every position, Gold Glove-caliber defense all over the diamond, and a young core. On paper, this club should be a World Series contender for years to come.

Weaknesses

The two biggest names on the roster have injury concerns. The batters do a lot of things well, but there's a lack of established table-setters who can get on base consistently and set up the offense. The club needs to prove it can come together and not continue to be less than the sum of its parts.

Rising: Barring some very weird spring developments, Anthony Rendon will open the season as the starting second baseman. Given 600 at-bats, the former sixth overall pick has the hitting ability to produce a very impressive slash line, although without the big home run or stolen base totals fantasy owners might prefer. He'll need to prove he can stay healthy, and player development rarely takes a smooth course, but Rendon is capable of some big numbers from a position currently lacking in upper echelon talent.

Declining: Rafael Soriano saw his strikeout rate and fastball velocity take a huge plunge last season, and while he still got enough save opportunities to return good value in 2013, the end of the road would appear to be drawing nigh for the closer. He could always find a way to get by on more guile, of course, but when a two-pitch pitcher begins to lose steam on one of those pitches there isn't much for him to fall back on. He'll open the season as the Nationals' closer and could still find his way to another 40-plus save season, but given the price tag you'll need to pay for him, the risks would seem to far outweigh the potential rewards.

Sleeper: Ross Detwiler is a pitch-to-contact lefty whose stuff isn't good enough to take most of the volatility out of that formula, but as the favorite for the fifth starter job on a team that should boast an excellent defense behind him, the potential is there for him to put up good numbers at a bargain price.

Supersleeper: Danny Espinosa battled through a persistent rotator cuff issue and a misdiagnosed broken wrist to post some truly hideous numbers in 2013, both in the majors and after a demotion to Triple-A, but with the wrist now healed and the shoulder fully rehabbed he could be in good position for a rebound. In fact the biggest obstacle to Espinosa's fantasy value might not be his bat, but a lack of regular playing time. Anthony Rendon will get the first look at second base, and while Espinosa could see action as a super-sub utility player all over the infield (especially if the Nats begin Ryan Zimmerman's rumored transition to first base) he could also find himself nailed to the end of the bench if his strikeout-happy ways see him looking up at the Mendoza Line again. Middle infielders with 20-20 potential don't grow on trees though, and Espinosa's ceiling is still too high to completely ignore despite last season's horror show at the plate.

Top Prospects

Lucas Giolito, P – The Nationals seem to have a knack for taking the highest-upside player in any prospect class despite their draft position, and were able to nab Giolito 16th overall in 2012 due to concerns over his elbow. Those concerns weren't unfounded (he underwent Tommy John surgery soon after making his pro debut) but now that he's recovered and back on a mound he looks like a future ace, combining a projectable 6-foot-6 frame with a fastball that touched 100 mph before his surgery and was sitting comfortably in the 95-98 mph range at the end of 2013, a hammer curve as a second plus pitch and a changeup that has flashed plus as well. The Nats don't have a problem accelerating the promotion schedule of their elite prospects when they feel they are ready, but a 2015 major league debut still seems to be the most optimistic timetable for Giolito.

Brian Goodwin, OF - The five tool outfielder didn't wow anyone with his numbers at Double-A last season, but his ceiling still makes him a player to watch. Contact and consistency are his biggest obstacles to future success at the moment, but at just 22 years old he's got plenty of time to put some polish on his game. The fact that the organization was willing to trade Billy Burns out from under him shows how much confidence the Nats still have in Goodwin's ability to put it all together and become their center fielder of the future, but that future is probably at least a couple of years away yet.

A.J. Cole, P – After an up-and-down 2012 in the A's organization, Cole rejoined the Nats' system and dialed up an impressive 151:33 K:BB ratio in 142.2 innings between High-A and Double-A. His arsenal is very similar to Giolito's, with a four-seam fastball that sits in the 94-97 mph range, a two-seamer with crazy life on it that can still hit the mid-90s, a developing changeup and a slurvy slow curve that still needs some work to become an effective major league pitch. He doesn't have Giolito's frame and is a bit older, but at a solid 6-foot-4 there are no concerns about Cole's ability to handle a full workload down the road. He's another potential front-line starter in an organization that already features four young ones in the bigs and one more ahead of Cole in the Nats prospect pecking order.

Matt Skole, 3B/1B – Skole lost most of 2013 to Tommy John surgery and showed some rust in the Arizona Fall League, but he's still got a classic left-handed Three True Outcome profile that could play very well at first base, his likely eventual defensive home. The Nationals are still trying to figure out their corner infield situation after Adam LaRoche's contract is up, but a big campaign from Skole in 2014 would give them something more to think about.

Sammy Solis, P – Yet another Tommy John survivor on the Nationals' prospect list, Solis got back on the mound in 2013 and posted some decent numbers at High-A to close out the season before excelling in the Arizona Fall League. He's got impressive stuff for a left-hander, firing a mid-90s fastball with a plus changeup and improving curve, and while there's some talk he could crack the 25-man roster this year out of the bullpen the more likely course would be to let him continue to build up innings at Triple-A and wait for a spot to open up in the big league rotation. He's not considered an elite prospect, but he's not far back of the likes of Giolito and Cole and if he gets a chance to produce later in the year Solis could turn in some very respectable numbers.