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Washington Nationals 2011 Preview

January 21, 2011 | By RotoRob | comment on this post
Brian Bruney was rancid for the Washington Nationals.
Despite Brian Bruney’s suckitude, the Nats had a strong bullpen in 2010. That’s the good news…

Let’s head back to the NL East to dissect the Washington Nationals’ chances of taking another step forward in 2011.

The Washington Nationals finished .500 in 2005 – their first season in the U.S. capital after relocating from Montreal/San Juan, but have endured five straight losing seasons since then.

For folks that like to look at the silver lining, last season Washington did manage to put a halt to its streak of two straight years of at least 100 losses, finishing 69-93. Hey, progress is progress, right?

But to say that the Nats weren’t a lot more competitive last year would be grossly unfair. Yes, they struggled horribly on the road (28-53), but consider the fact that until the final game of the season, they had dropped 18 straight one-run games away from home. Obviously, that’s a very fine line between an ugly record and a potential run at .500.

Things started well enough as Washington got off to a fine 20-15 start and sat just one game behind the Phillies for the NL East lead in mid-May. Then the wheels came off and the Nats lost 69 of their next 109 games. A late flourish (7-5 over the final dozen games) allowed Washington to make a run at 70 wins, which somehow seems so much better than 69 (unless we’re talking about sexual positions, that is).

But this team simply didn’t have enough hitting or pitching. If not for a very strong bullpen (even with six weeks of horrifically awful Brian Bruney), a middling team ERA of 4.19 would have been much, much worse.

Manager Jim Riggleman has now won just 43 per cent of his games since taking over as the Nationals’ manager in mid-season 2009, yet he retains the job heading into 2011. But how much rope will he have – especially considering that despite its best efforts to improve itself this offseason, this team won’t be measurably better this season.

Yes, the club has added Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, but considering that Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham have departed, that’s pretty much a wash. The signing of Rick Ankiel gives the bench a bit of a boost, but overall it’s hard to envision this team being significantly better offensively. The upside here is a middling offense.

Addressing a woeful rotation – that will likely be without phenom Stephen Strasburg for the entire season in the wake of elbow surgery – was a priority for this team after Washington finished dead last in the majors last year in quality starts.

Unfortunately, so far the Nats have swung and missed on that front, despite the fact the organization is showing a willingness to overpay for players (see Werth, Jayson and LaRoche, Adam). They paid lip service to landing a couple of front-line starting pitchers, but were about as serious a contender for Cliff Lee’s services as Ryan Zimmerman was when he offered part of his salary to help land Lee.

The Nats were supposedly in the running for Carl Pavano, but cooled on him before he re-signed with the Twinkies.

Then, of course, there was the Zack Greinke situation, as the Royals and Nats were close to a deal that would send the former Cy Young winner to Washington, but he pulled the plug on the deal as the Nats were on his no-trade list – despite the fact he was reportedly offered a kick-ass extension to waive his no-trade right. Ouch.

Washington also failed to land Matt Garza – a pitcher it has been rumoured to be after since the trading deadline last year — as the club was unwilling to part with Ian Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann, at least one of which would have had to be included in a package. In reality, not making the trade may wind up being a blessing in disguise as the Nats would have to give up a ton, and it’s not as if adding Garza would have immediately made them a contender – the only reasonable time to pull off a swap of that magnitude.

The Nationals were also in the hunt to land Jeff Francis (who wound up in KC), but it’s unclear just how much of an upgrade he would have been anyways.

Obviously, any chance the Nats had this offseason to reel in a difference maker for their rotation is now gone and let’s not forget they also struck out in attempts to land Aroldis Chapman last winter.

Fortunately, the Nats have a couple of internal wildcards that may provide a nice boost to a rotation in desperate need. Chien-Ming Wang is almost ready to pitch in the majors again since overcoming his shoulder woes. He was originally expected to make it back by May, but that’s been moved forward, so he may be ready for Spring Training, and if he can come anywhere near rediscovering his old form, he will be a very pleasant surprise.

And then there’s Yunesky Maya, who failed to impress last season, but it’s worth noting that he had been off for 18 months since defecting from Cuba. Reports from the Dominican Winter League suggest that Maya has been absolutely dominant, so he needs to be considered a serious sleeper for 2011.

The organization understands the limitations of the current rotation – especially with no one being able to depend on Strasburg making a contribution this year – so it has tried to focus on defensive improvements to help protect a weak staff. Last year, the club improved defensively by 132 runs (but also scored 55 less runs) and it hopes to continue to shave that number this season. The addition of Werth to go along with fellow speedsters Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina gives the Nats a strong defensive outfield on paper. LaRoche also represents a substantial defensive upgrade over Dunn at first base. Having Danny Espinosa at second for the full season is also a big fielding improvement for this club.

The defense already made strides last year, committing 16 less errors, so instead of leading the majors (by far) in miscues as they did in 2009, the Nats were only tied for the most amount of errors in the majors in 2010. Clearly, there’s still plenty of room for improvement here.

But better defense will only do so much if the team surrenders 151 homers like it did in 2010 (a total which was actually significantly better than 2009).

I’m expecting Washington to continue to take baby steps forward this year – they may even climb out of the cellar depending on how the Mets and Marlins fare – but truly competing for a playoff berth? That may still be a few years away. It’s extremely doubtful the Nationals will come close to .500 this season; in fact, if they reach 75 wins they should be happy.

A year from now, when Strasburg should be healthy again and top prospect Bryce Harper is ready to inject some serious oomph into the lineup, the Nats will start to make real strides. What would really help is if Washington isn’t shut down in all attempts to acquire a frontline starter next offseason. And becoming more competitive this season is one way to help attract such a hurler.

Projected Lineup

CF Nyjer Morgan: The all-speed, no-pop outfielder sure likes to pop off. Let’s hope the Ritalin kicks in this season. It might also help if he returned to the on-base rates he flashed when he joined the Nats in the latter part of 2009.

SS Ian Desmond: Desmond’s name was floated in various trade rumours this offseason, but that only speaks to his perceived upside even though he committed a league-leading 34 errors last year. He won the starting shortstop job out of Spring Training last season and flashed a nice power-speed combo in his rookie effort.

3B Ryan Zimmerman: Zimmerman has become probably the best third baseman in the National League – both offensively and defensively.

1B Adam LaRoche: Signed to a huge-two year deal by the Nats, LaRoche’s career worst BB/K ratio was masked by his first 100-RBI campaign.

RF Jayson Werth: The Nats sure raised plenty of eyebrows when they signed Werth to a mega deal, but expect him to be in the lineup every day, either in right field or even in centrefield on occasion. He’ll need to up his productivity for Washington’s attack to improve at all.

LF Roger Bernadina/Rick Ankiel: Bernadina has the edge on this job, but he won’t play everyday and he needs to improve his patience. Newcomer Ankiel had a decent season, but he struggled with injuries.

C Ivan Rodriguez: The end is near for this likely Hall of Famer as his offensive ability continues to wane.

2B Danny Espinosa: Espinosa didn’t exactly tear it up offensively during his September audition, but he was superb defensively, earning the gig for 2011. He recently underwent surgery to repair his hand, and he should be fine for Spring Training, but keep an eye on his progress. The fact that before getting hurt he hit very well in winter ball in Puerto Rico bodes well for Espinosa’s offensive development this season, although he isn’t likely to hit for a very high average.

Key Bench Players

C Wilson Ramos: This prospect should get a lot more burn this year as the Nats start to prepare for the future. Ramos is already sound defensively and has the potential to be a productive Fantasy catcher in time.

1B/OF Michael Morse: Morse is expected to get plenty of starts against southpaws in both the outfield and at first base, and will play a much larger role than simply being a pinch hitter. He spanked 15 homers in just 266 at-bats last year, so if an injury opens the door for more PT for Morse, he could be extremely valuable.

SS/2B Jerry Hairston, Jr.: Provides decent pop and a little bit of speed, plus the ability to play all over the diamond.

OF Roger Bernadina/Rick Ankiel: If Bernadina doesn’t win the LF job, he’ll also have an opportunity to take some PT from Morgan in centre, so while he’s not the greatest Fantasy option by any stretch, he’s clearly going to get more than fourth outfielder playing time.

Projected Rotation

RHP Livan Hernandez: Considering Hernandez had to pretty much beg for a job, and it wasn’t until late-February when the Nats decided to bring him back – on a minor league deal, I might add – he enjoyed a pretty damn good season, earning double-digit wins and enjoying his lowest ERA since 2004. Can the rubber-armed one do it again? I wouldn’t bet on it…

RHP Jason Marquis: The fact that this dude is the Nats’ No. 2 starter speaks volumes about the state of their rotation. In his third start of the season, Marquis gave up four hits, one walk and seven earned runs – without recording an out. He then disappeared until early August with an elbow injury. We’re talking serious suckitude here.

LHP John Lannan: Lannan was Washington’s Opening Day starter last year, but he was so bad that he had to be farmed out to Double-A in June. He was much better upon his return, so there is hope, but he’ll need to reduce his hit rates to take the next step.

RHP Jordan Zimmermann: Zimmermann looked pretty sharp in his return from Tommy John surgery in September, and his continued development is crucial for the Nats. Consider him a big time sleeper for 2011.

LHP Tom Gorzelanny: Considering how high Gorzelanny’s WHIP was, he should considering himself fortunate to have flirted with an ERA of 4.00 last year. I get the sense that his future is in the bullpen, where he looked very good in six appearances with the Cubs last season.

Other options for rotation: LHP Ross Detwiler (the Nats expect this guy to become their No. 3 starter; I have my doubts); RHP Yuneski Maya (Maya didn’t exactly explode on the scene last year, but remember that he’d been inactive for quite a while…one look at his Dominican Winter League numbers suggests that this Cuban has the chance to help take the sting out of the Nats missing out on Chapman in 2009); RHP Chien-Ming Wang (could be a very pleasant surprise; could need a fork stuck in him…this is a wild card).

Projected Bullpen

Closer RHP Drew Storen: Storen soared through the Nat system and arrived in Washington in May. He was effective in a set-up role and proved he can close, which he’ll have the opportunity to do on a full-time basis this year.

Set-up RHP Tyler Clippard: Clippard emerged as a dominant set-up man last year. Don’t expect double-digit wins again, but he will supply plenty of strikeouts and holds, making him a must-own option in NL-only leagues and a decent option in mixed leagues.

Set-up LHP Sean Burnett: Burnett’s improvement against righties in the last couple of years has allowed him to become a real asset. Last season, he improved his control en route to a career year.

Middle relief RHP Henry Rodriguez: Acquired in the Willingham deal, Rodriguez is someone that could sneak into a much more responsible role in this bullpen should any of three arms ahead of him falter. He’s got serious heat, and if he improves his secondary stuff, look out.

On the Horizon

Mostly on the strength of some top-notch hitting talent, the Nats have made some progress in their farm system to the point where it has likely moved into the top half of the majors. We’re not talking about an elite system, but progress is being made, and that’s great news for long suffering Washington fans.

Bryce Harper, OF: Yes, he’s just 18 and will start the season at High-A, but considering how well he did in the AFL, Harper could move fast. Real fast.

Cole Kimball, RHP: Has shone since converting into a reliever, so he could make a strong bullpen even better soon. Was added to the 40-man roster and could earn a mid-season promotion if he handles Triple-A.

Chris Marrero, 1B: The 15th overall pick in 2006 is coming off a big year at Double-A and should be in line for his first taste of the Show in September after being added to the roster this offseason. Is he the first baseman of the future in Washington? Cutting down on the strikeouts would help.

Stephen Lombardozzi, 2B: He looked really good in 105 at-bats at Double-A (even flashing some power for the first time) at the end of the season, suggesting he could get a look this September.

Brad Meyers, RHP: He looked untouchable at Double-A, but couldn’t stay healthy. He could be in the National rotation by 2012.

Key Moves

Declined the club option on IF Adam Kennedy: Wasn’t needed anymore with the emergence of Espinosa; Kennedy has since signed with Seattle.

RHP Tyler Walker released: Was more hittable this year and then underwent shoulder surgery, so the Nats ditched him.

C Wil Nieves non-tendered: Will be replaced by Ramos and has since signed with the Brewers.

RHP Joel Peralta non-tendered: This move raised some eyebrows considering how good a season Peralta had. He’s since signed with the Rays.

RHP Chien-Ming Wang non-tendered: And then Washington re-signed him to a one-year deal just a couple of weeks later. It’s a decent gamble, considering reports suggest his shoulder woes are behind him, allowing him to fight for a rotation spot this spring.

OF Jayson Werth signed to a seven-year deal: Really? $126 million? Werth enjoyed a fantastic season for the Phils, but this is a crapload of cash. It will pay off down the road, however, if it helps lure more free agents to Washington.

RHP Elvin Ramirez selected from Mets in Rule V draft: This young starter can bring the heat, but where it’s going is another question. If he can harness his stuff, look out.

RHP Brian Broderick selected from St. Louis in Rule V draft: Broderick was cuffed around at High-A, but looked good at Double-A. Go figure.

Traded OF Josh Willingham to Oakland for OF Corey Brown and RHP Henry Rodriguez: Once Werth was signed, Willingham became a moveable asset, and the Nats used him to beef up the bullpen and add an outfield prospect that is coming off a big season at Double-A, but that struggled in his first taste of Triple-A.

Signed OF Rick Ankiel to one-year deal: Ankiel’s got serious pop, but is injury prone and whiff prone. As a fourth outfielder, however, he’s a decent addition. As a starter? Questionable.

1B Adam LaRoche signed to two-year deal: Definitely an improvement defensively, but he’s no Adam Dunn with the bat. That’s not to say that LaRoche can’t be productive, but he’s not the kind of hitter you have to pitch around.

OF Willie Harris became a free agent: There was talk the Nats would bring him back, but he wound up signing a minor league deal with the Mets.

OF Kevin Mench became a free agent: The Nats opted not to offer the veteran arbitration as he is no longer needed after a contribution of next to nothing in 2010.

RHP Miguel Batista became a free agent: He enjoyed a decent season, but Washington wasn’t interested in giving him a raise. Batista signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals.

Signed RHP Todd Coffey (pending physical): Adds depth to the middle relief ranks.

Signed SS/2B Jerry Hairston, Jr.: This provides a boost to the bench as Hairston can spell multiple positions, although barring injuries to starters, he’s unlikely to see as much action as he did in San Diego last year.

Traded OF Michael Burgess, LHP Graham Hicks and RHP A.J. Morris to the Cubs for LHP Tom Gorzelanny: The addition of Gorzelanny should provide a slight boost to the Nationals’ rotation, especially if he can do something about his crappy command.

2011 MLB Previews

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