Washington Nationals Season Preview: The Youth Movement

Bryce Harper and the Nats hope to bounce back after a disappointing 2013.

After leaving a bad taste in their fans’ mouths in the 2012 postseason, the Nationals failed to even make the playoffs in 2013 when they were considered to be a team that could make a run at the World Series. Whether players struggled or battled injuries, DC’s boys of the diamond couldn't string together a playoff run.

And unfortunately, the National League will be just as tough as it was last year. Are the Nationals better equipped for the 162-game grind?

The Prodigal Son

Bryce Harper has been one of the most highly-touted individuals to play the game over the past 20 years. He has definitely had the most coverage (ever) surrounding his rise to the big leagues. He's a five-tool phenom that was supposed to be the LeBron James of baseball.

This isn't a testament to say that will never happen. This could be the year he fully spreads his wings and becomes the superstar he was projected to be. The 21 year old has two Major League years under his belt now, even though he spent the first month of 2012 in Triple A and has spent a portion of each season on the DL.

Harper has produced solid clips at .270 and .274 each year. They are by no means superstar numbers, but when you consider his age, injury issues and the amount of hype he’s had to deal with, those are a little better than they look. Last year, Harp was just outside of the top 25 in the league for OBP (.368), although he was not among qualifying hitters because he only played 118 games.

Looking at the disparity between his average and OBP, you can’t help but appreciate how well Harper does at getting on when he’s not getting hits. In his first year, the disparity was 70 points and last year it was 94 points. It’s not as if he hit a lot better and that effected his OBP loads; the difference between his average was four points, whereas his OBP saw a 28 point jump from 2012 to 2013. If he can hit maybe a little better, like +.285, then he will continue a larger problem for opponents, because his OBP will only see itself improve immensely.

Also, Harper has hit 22 and 20 home runs in his two seasons. If he was able to maintain a full season, it's safe to project he could be popping 30 out each year - and remember, he just turned 21 last October. His slugging percentage was also impressive as well, also being just outside of the top 25 in 2013 (if he was a qualifying player). Being right on the cusp of cracking the 25 best in OBP and slugging shows that Harper is one of the league’s elite players - he just needs to stay on the field for an entire season.

In addition to his power, Harper swiped 18 and 11 bags during his first two seasons. If he can churn out a 150-plus game season, there's no reason he can’t get 25 bags, or maybe more. Furthermore, Harper had nine triples in his first season, but only three in his second (where he played 21 less games). The Las Vegas native has been able to successfully create doubles out of should-be singles in his short career, which is partially why he scores the most runs for Washington in 2012, even in a shortened season.

Possibly my favorite quality of Harper’s is his defense. He has a very Vladimir Guerrero-esque arm, and logged 13 outfield assists, four less than MLB leader Alex Gordon, who played 40 more games in the outfield that Harper. He only had five defensive runs saved last season and two in his rookie season, but he is still one of the most (if not the) deadliest outfielder when the ball is in his hands.

Harper’s WAR last year dropped by .7 from his rookie year, bringing that production down from All-Star production to just that of a good player. He should be able to fix that if he just plays more games, as he will naturally produce more in 150 games than in 118 or 139.

His combination of speed and power has to continue to excite Nationals' fans for this season and the future, as he has so much upside with his sweet swing and amazing athletic ability. Also, if National fans haven’t seen it yet, Harper put on some serious muscle this offseason. The physical specimen just became a monster. No matter what, there will be a significant increase in his dinger total this season.

The Remaining Outfielders

While Harper gets the majority of the hype among the DC outfielders, his partners who roam the warning track with him are no slouches, either.Jayson Werth and Denard Span, along with Harper, vie for being one of the best outfields in the game, regarding both offense and defense.

Werth is entering his fourth season of his seven-year, $126 million contract, and he hopes to pick up where he left off in 2013. While he had a rough season in 2011 and an injury-plagued year in 2012, Werth finally played like a guy who deserved $16 million dollars last year.

The right fielder had the best line of his career .318/.398/.532, along with 25 bombs in only 129 games. While only trailing the team leader in home runs by one, the former all-star knocked in the team best 82 runs over the course of the season. If he were able to play in 25 more games, there is not doubt he could have led the teams in home runs, RBIs and runs scored by a comfortable sum.

Everything with Werth comes down to his health. He needs to stay on the field and get his lower body under control, as he has injured all of the following since 2012: right knee, left groin strain, right hamstring strain, sore hamstring, sore right ankle, hip injury. He also broke his wrist in 2012, but no one can anticipate a freak accident like that. As long Werth maintains a healthy season, he will continue to produce numbers like he did in 2013.

To his right, is the speedy center fielder Denard Span. In his first year with the Nats, Span hit .279 with 20 stolen bases and led the MLB with 11 triples. He's been pretty consistent with his numbers over his career, only having one shortened season after his first year. Obviously his ideal type of year would be a repeat of his 2009 campaign, but Washington can’t be upset if he maintains a +50 average-OPS difference and has a .380 OPS, too.

Span’s most impressive stat in my book is the percentage of his runs he has scored on a single from second base. The former first-round draft pick scored 17.3 percent of his runs in this scenario. When you wonder if this was an impressive stat, he did better than Adam Jones (8%), Mike Trout (13.8%), and Coco Crisp (17.2%), all of whom play center and scored more runs overall than Span.

Last year, for the first time in Span’s career, the speedster did not have a single error, and was one of only five to do that in 2013. With his consistent glove and speed to along with the above-average speed and cannons at the corners, the Nationals will be making their pitchers lives easy.

Consistent Corner Infielders

While Werth has the big contract and Harper has all of the hype, Ryan Zimmerman has been the constant piece in the lineup. He has hit .288 and cracked 121 home runs over the past five seasons, even with 12 in his shortened 101 game campaign in 2011. His .487 slugging percentage over the past five seasons ranks in the top 30 among hitters who have played in each of those years. His extra base power has provided a consistent spot in the lineup for the Nats, which is huge when looking at potential injury problems for the team.

Across the diamond for Zimmerman is Adam LaRoche, who hit his 300th career home run in early September. LaRoche had a very impressive season in 2012, but the same could not be said for his most recent campaign, as he put together a .237 clip, well below his career average. He did have an OBP of .332 almost 100 points higher than his batting average, which is a huge jump.

There are two things that fans can expect from Laroche in any season: his reliable glove and 20-plus home runs. He has hit at least 20 home runs in 8 of his 10 MLB seasons, and one of the seasons where he failed to do so was shortened to 43 games. The other was his rookie campaign.

It would be asking a lot of LaRoche to have him play as well as he did in 2012, but Washington should expect 20 more home runs and hitting right around .245, which is where our projections currently have him.

Manufacturing the Middle

Ian Desmond has developed into a top-tier shortstop since he got his first chance with the big league ball club in 2009.

On top of his line being .280/.331/.453, Desmond was the only shortstop in the bigs who hit 20 home runs while stealing 20 bases. Over the last two years, he's had 30-plus doubles, where he had 20-plus the two years before. Desmond has played in 150-plus games in three of the past four years, and he will be able to continue this out put if he can stay on the field that frequently.

The back-to-back Silver Slugger has developed immensely through his career. Based on his offensive output for the year, it’s hard to argue that Desmond isn’t in the conversation for top five shortstops in the league. And currently, we have him fourth.

After his first 98 games with the big league club, second baseman Anthony Rendon is expected to start the season alongside Desmond. The Rice Owl alum was the Baseball America College Defensive Player of the Year, so his offense has been the worry for the club throughout his developing process.

Rendon had an average start to his career with a .265/.329 line, but his slugging (.396) was nothing to write home about. His home run power is still going to be non-existent, but he should be able to improve his average about 10-15 points now that his feet are wet. However, Rendon has shown that he can be a good doubles hitter at the Major League level, hitting 23 in 351 at-bats.

Rendon spent the majority of his time at second base and had a .976 fielding percentage, much better than his percentage at third (.868) and shortstop (.846). Clearly the 2011 first-round pick has found a comfortable spot up the middle and hopes to stay there.

After being two years removed from being abducted in his home country and a hamstring-injury filled season, Wilson Ramos is finally prepared to take full reigns at catcher again. Ramos only played 78 games last year after suffering going down from three hamstring issues in 2013. In those 78 games, however, he managed to hit 16 homers, one more than he did in 2011 when he played 113 games. He also managed to knock in 59 runs, 7 more than in 2011, as well. If he can stay on the field, there is no question that Ramos will be a huge help with run production for the Nats.

The Venezuelan-native has hit .269 in the past three years, with an OPS of .776. His doubles were only at nine last year, but if he logs more games and gets his hammy under control, there is no reason he can’t get more towards the 20-30 mark in that category, as well. While Jose Lobaton backing him up, Ramos should be able to get consistent rest to last longer in the season. So long as he is able to play four of every five games, maybe even three of five, Ramos will be an all-star candidate and a big help to Washington’s offense.

The Ol’ 1-2…3?

Stephen Strasburg’s record last year was bad. There's no way to put it lightly. That was not necessarily an accurate reflection of how he pitched last season, though.

The former San Diego State Aztec pitched in thirty games over his career and had a 3.00 ERA, slightly lower than his average in his all-star season in the previous year. In addition, he had his lowest WHIP (1.05) of his career (excluding his five-game 2011 campaign) and logged the most innings he ever has (183).

One issue that is instantly noticeable is his K/9 dropped from 11.1 to a 9.4. While that might seem to be a cause for concern, if you look a bit closer, it is a great sign for Strasburg in the long run. His groundball-to-fly ball ratio was a 1.05, the best of his career by 0.2, and 0.3 better than his 2012 total.

If Strasburg can maintain a 9.00 K/9 and continues to have players pound groundballs, he will become a 20-game winner. Strasburg’s 2013 record is a great example of why win-loss records have to be examined carefully before starters are judged.

Strasburg’s wingman was under a lot of scrutiny coming into last season. Lefty Gio Gonzalez had just come off a 21-win season when the Biogensis steroid scandal came out. He was able to clear his name in the end, but his play was watched under a microscope all year.

Though he only went 11-8, Gonzalez still had a good year. While logging 3.36 ERA, a career high since he became an everyday starter, the rest of his numbers were standard Gio. His 8.8 K/9, 1.25 WHIP and an average fastball of 92.8 from 2013 were all equal to or above his career averages to this point.

Another bright spot was he was able to keep his walks down to 76, the same as 2012 where he only threw 3.2 more innings. This is huge for Gonzalez because in the two years prior to moving to D.C., he average 4.1 walks per nine innings, whereas he averaged 3.5 between 2012 and 2013.

Like Strasburg, Gonzelez’s record didn't reflect the pitcher he was in 2013. These two will regain their rightful spot as on of the top-five 1-2 punches in the league.

The only pleasant surprise of 2013 for the Nationals was the blossoming of Jordan Zimmerman. In looking at his season splits, Zim’s number looked rough in the second half, with a 1.28 WHIP and a 4.33 ERA versus a 0.97 and 2.58 respectively.

In reality, he really only struggled in July. With a 7.18 ERA and a .321 batting average against, it's no shock. Even then, it was really just one atrocious game that skewed his numbers; a two-inning, seven-run affair against the Dodgers. He had a couple of occasions in the season where he was blown up, but none that were as short as this one. He only averaged above a 3.00 ERA in August outside of that, and had a sub 3.00 every month for the rest of the year.

Zimmerman is definitely a great three, but he is definitely prone to allowing games to get out of hand. He should continue to be a stable arm for the Nats, but he won’t out perform Strasburg or Gonzalez by any means.

Addition With Subtraction

A little over a year ago, the Nationals thought they were going to get a nice deal by signing Ian Krol, in a trade to fill the gap left by Haren. Krol will turn 23 this season, his second in the bigs. After having an average ERA (3.95) last summer, he hopes to build from that with a team that is in need of a stable bullpen.

While the Nats are losing a left-handed arm, they gained a proven starter in Doug Fister. The righty has had a lot of success in the past three seasons. He averaged a 3.30 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, while throwing 200-plus innings in two of those seasons.

One thing Washington likes a lot about him is ability to perform in the postseason. Although he only has a 3-2 record, he has a career 2.98 ERA. Also, he has shut down both of the last two World Series champs when he has faced them, allowing one run over six in each. Fister is a good number two, and to have him as a fourth is incredible.

Back-End Questions

The wheels fell off for the Nationals bullpen before the season even started in 2013. Drew Storen battled and injury filled 2012 and then blew the most important game of the season in the 2012 playoffs. The problem there was that Davey Johnson went with Storen, who had 30.1 innings on the whole season, instead of Tyler Clippard, who had converted 32 of his 37 save opportunities as Storen’s replacement.

After the collapse, the Nationals felt Rafael Soriano was the quick and easy answer to any issue Storen could bring about. And while Soriano had good 2013, Storen could not say the same.

In 68 appearances, Storen had a career high 4.52 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP. His walks were not the major problem for him, as he maintained a similar rate to past years, walking 19 in 61.2 innings, for a 2.8 BB/9 rate, only 0.4 off from his 43 save season.

His biggest problem was he allowed more hits than innings for the first time in his career. The former Stanford Cardinal had a 6.5 hits per nine ratio in 2013, and had a 6.8 rate the previous season. Storen allowed a whopping 9.5 hits per nine innings last year. That’s a tough rate to deal with as a reliever, even if you aren’t walking a lot of guys.

Soriano wasn’t much better in this category, allowing 8.8, but with a lower walk rate. The best at the back end was Clippard, at 4.7. He had the highest walk rate at 3.0, but his hit rate was almost half of Soriano’s, so he can afford the walks.

Clippard blew his only three save opportunities of the season, but he was clearly the most effective pitcher in the pen. His 2.41 ERA and awesome 0.86 WHIP speak for themselves.

Even though he had a slightly high ERA in 2013 (3.72), Clippard has been lock down since the Nationals moved him to the bullpen. He actually saw a dip in his K/9 last year to 9.3, while he hovered at a rate around 10-11 for the previous four years.

Soriano will continue to be a good closer for the Nats. He can probably get his ERA back down to about a 2.80, but his WHIP probably won’t fluctuate much. The biggest thing for Washington his how many games he’ll blow, and it looks like he’s good for about five this year. He has been around that in his years as a closer and there is no reason to expect him to change.

These three are the finished touch on this ball club. Unfortunately, they really need all three and it doesn’t look like Storen will come back to form after his rough season last year, especially if arm problems spark up again.