Monday, March 28, 2011

Scouting the NL East: Washington Nationals

By Michael Rushton

Philadelphia, PA - The future continues to look brighter for the Washington Nationals.

If only they can get this pesky 2011 season out of the way.

It seems as if the Nationals franchise has been building towards the future for the better part of a decade, even before it made the switch from Montreal to the nation's capital. But some once-in-a-lifetime prospects and some key free agent pickups finally look as if they have Washington on the verge of getting out of the National League East's basement.

Of course, this is the Nats so it hasn't been easy.

The franchise hasn't been to the postseason since 1981 and hasn't finished above .500 since the 2003 Montreal-based club went 83-79. While last year's club went just 69-93 to finish 28 games under the even mark, it did avoid a third straight 100-loss campaign.

Those poor finishes haven't come without reward as the Nationals grabbed pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the top pick of the 2009 draft, then selected Bryce Harper first overall in 2010 to bolster their offense. Add in the signing of former Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth to a long-term deal and Washington is putting together a solid core.

Now the Nats must wait for the core to fully ripen. The 18-year-old Harper isn't expected to have an impact on the 2011 club -- he will begin the season with Single-A Hagerstown -- and Strasburg had his debut cut short last year due to Tommy John surgery that has him looking towards 2012.

And while the Nationals added one of the top offensive free agents in Werth at the price of $126 million over seven years, the squad was unable to keep slugging first baseman Adam Dunn, who signed with the White Sox, while also striking out on a number of other free agents.

So instead of contending, 2011 will serve once again as a transition year that will get a handful of younger players some experience; including the likes of closer Drew Storen, shortstop Ian Desmond and catcher Wilson Ramos.

Washington will also have stability in the front office after general manager Mike Rizzo was given a five-year extension last October that also added executive vice president of baseball operations to his title.

New on the field will be third-base coach Bo Porter, who replaces Pat Listach after he joined the Cubs to be their bench coach.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Nationals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 FINISH (69-93) - Fifth Place (NL East)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jayson Werth (RF), Adam LaRoche (1B), Rick Ankiel (CF), Todd Coffey (RHP), Tom Gorzelanny (LHP), Henry Rodriguez (RHP), Jerry Hairston Jr. (INF/OF), Chad Gaudin (RHP), Oliver Perez (LHP)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Adam Dunn (1B), Josh Willingham (OF), Willie Harris (OF), Miguel Batista (RHP), Adam Kennedy (2B), Wil Nieves (C), Scott Olsen (LHP), Joel Peralta (RHP), Tyler Walker (RHP), Justin Maxwell (OF)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Ian Desmond (SS), Rick Ankiel (CF), Jayson Werth (RF), Ryan Zimmerman (3B), Adam LaRoche (1B), Mike Morse (LF), Danny Espinosa (2B), Ivan Rodriguez (C)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Livan Hernandez (RHP), Jason Marquis (RHP), John Lannan (LHP), Jordan Zimmermann (RHP), Tom Gorzelanny (LHP)


MANAGER: Jim Riggleman


The Nationals will have a new right side of the infield after losing Dunn in free agency and declining an option on second baseman Adam Kennedy.

Washington had both Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena in its sights to replace Dunn, but couldn't land either free agent and eventually settled on journeyman Adam LaRoche, who joins the fifth team of his career.

The left-handed hitter will bat fifth or sixth in Washington's lineup based on the pitching matchup and should help make up for some of Dunn's missing power after hitting .261 with 25 homers and a career-best 100 RBI in 151 games with the Diamondbacks last year.

Though it is unknown what second baseman Danny Espinosa will bring to the plate after getting a 28-game taste of the majors last year, the 23-year-old is considered one of Washington's top prospects and projected to be an excellent defender. That is good news after Washington committed 127 errors a season ago.

Desmond was at the head of that committee, leading the NL with 34 miscues. However, Washington likes the leader that Desmond is turning into and he was solid at the plate with a .269 average, 10 homers and 65 RBI while finishing second on the club with 17 steals.

Rounding out the diamond for the Nats is former All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. An excellent defender at third, Zimmerman battled a hamstring injury early last year but went on to hit .307 and surpassed the 20-homer mark for the fourth time in his career. At 26, he remains a key part of the Washington's long-term plans.

Ivan Rodriguez does not, but he will begin the season as the starting catcher until Ramos is ready to take over full time. Rodriguez is in the second season of a two-year deal signed last offseason and hit .266 with four homers and 49 RBI in 111 games. A 14-time All-Star, he remains a good player to have in the clubhouse to mentor young players.


While Nationals fans wait for the eventual ascension of Harper, they will also have Werth, a former All-Star, for the foreseeable future. The 31-year-old was arguably the Phillies' most consistent batter a season ago and has averaged 29 homers and 84 RBI over the past three seasons while playing solid defense. He hit .296 last season and scored a career-best 106 runs.

Werth can also shift over and play center, but the Nationals have plenty of options there as well. Nyjer Morgan, Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina are all battling for the position, with Ankiel emerging as the front-runner towards the end of camp due to his power and defense.

Ankiel could still end up sharing time with Morgan, who brings 50-steal potential but at times struggles to get on base and keep his emotions in check.

The trade of Josh Willingham opened up left field and Mike Morse appears to have edged out Bernadina and Ankiel for that job as well. The 6-foot-5 right- handed slugger, who can also backup first base, compiled 15 homers and 41 RBI in a career-high 98 games a season ago, hitting a solid .289. He could also find himself in a platoon situation should he struggle.


Strasburg figured to spearhead this rotation in 2011, but will instead turn his attention to coming back from his surgery after going 5-3 with a 2.91 earned run average in 12 games. He also struck out 92 in 68 innings.

With the loss of Strasburg and the inability to land free agents Javier Vazquez, Brandon Webb and Carl Pavano, the Nationals will go with a veteran in Livan Hernandez at the top of the rotation after the 36-year-old posted a solid 3.66 ERA in a team-leading 33 starts. He also topped 200 innings for the 10th time in his 15 seasons, but went just 10-12 due to poor run support.

Fellow right-hander Jason Marquis follows after a lost 2010 season. Marquis joined the Nats with a two-year contract, but made just three starts and allowed 19 earned runs in just 8 1/3 innings before being shut down for three months due to right elbow injury. The 32-year-old didn't pick up his first victory until Aug. 30 and went 2-9 with a 6.60 ERA in 13 starts.

Former Opening Day starter John Lannan ensues and after being victimized by poor run support in his previous two seasons, the lefty struggled to a career- high 4.65 ERA in 25 starts, going 8-8 in 143 1/3 innings.

Washington is also excited about its fourth starter, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann. The 24-year-old and former second-round pick returned from Tommy John surgery on Aug. 26 and went 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA in seven starts, holding opposing clubs to an earned run or less in four of those outings.

Unable to add a pitcher through free agency, the Nats shipped three minor league players to the Cubs for southpaw Tom Gorzelanny, who rounds out the rotation after going 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA in 29 games (23 starts) a season ago. Washington would love for the 28-year-old to find the stuff he had with the Pirates in 2007, when he won 14 games with a 3.88 ERA.

Righty Chien-Ming Wang could also crack the rotation at some point. Signed prior to last year, he hasn't pitched since July 4, 2009 due to foot and shoulder issues. He isn't expected to be ready for Opening Day this year, but should return at some point.

Marquis, Wang and Hernandez are all free agents at season's end.

The Nationals also signed former Mets lefty Oliver Perez to a minor league deal in late March, but he is expected to start the season in the minors. He could offer some insurance down the road if he can solve his issues on the mound that led to his release from New York.


Nine picks after the Nationals drafted Strasburg, they selected Storen to be their future closer. That time appears now after Washington shipped Matt Capps to Minnesota prior to last season's trade deadline. The 23-year-old righty got a little taste of ninth-inning action after the Capps trade, posting five saves while ending the season with a 3.58 ERA in 54 games.

Washington added righty Todd Coffey (2-4, 4.76 ERA with Milwaukee) this offseason and he could also finish out games along with left-hander Sean Burnett (1-7, 2.14 ERA) and right-hander Tyler Clippard, who actually finished second on Washington last season with 11 wins.

Regardless of who is closing, that core four figures to lock down innings seven through nine.

Riggleman will also choose from Collin Balester and Chad Gaudin for his long relief role.


Jerry Hairston figures to be the main guy off the bench after hitting .244 with 10 homers and 50 RBI in 119 games with the Padres last year. Not only can he platoon in center, but the 34-year-old can play multiple infield positions as well.

Ramos is also assured a bench spot as he figures to be starting by season's end. Washington got the prospect from Minnesota in the Capps trade and his presence also figures to push the finally-healthy Jesus Flores out of the picture.

While it is possible that Morgan or Bernadina could both begin the season on the bench, it is likely that at least one of them will be sent to the minors if Ankiel holds on to the center field spot.

Alberto Gonzalez will also come off the bench and back up in the infield and powerful pinch-hit specialist Matt Stairs is also an option.


Give Rizzo credit as he was able to go out and land one of the top free agents available this winter. However, Werth's bat would look a lot better in a lineup that also included Dunn. Werth immediately becomes one of the leaders of a young core and teams with Zimmerman and Rodriguez as mentors for the Nats' youth. Riggleman has plenty of options on offense, but he will be counting on a pitching staff that has both injury (Marquis, Zimmermann) and age (Hernandez) concerns. The manager will also have plenty of safety nets in a well-put-together bullpen should Storen struggle as the closer, but lets be honest here; anything other than a last-place finish will be a big step forward for this franchise and roster.

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