2014 Preview: Washington Nationals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Can the Nationals reclaim their throne atop the NL East?

The Nationals were everybody’s pre-season darlings going into the 2013 season. Yours truly, in fact, picked them to represent the National League in the World Series. They just never got it going, struggling to reach .500 deep into August. A late-season run in which they went 32-16 in the final 48 games gave fans a glimmer of hope that they could grab a Wild Card spot, but they ultimately fell short at 86-76.

Don’t let their disappointing season hide some stellar performances by some Nationals players, though. Jayson Werth posted a .931 OPS, tied for the sixth-highest in baseball with Troy Tulowitzki. Bryce Harper’s season was the 26th in baseball history in which a player posted 3.5 or more WAR before his 21st birthday. Stephen Strasburg posted an even 3.00 ERA and would have been in the Cy Young conversation if not for Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez making a 3.00 ERA look bad.

One big reason why the Nationals lagged compared to 2012 was their production at second base. Compared to 2012, their OPS from the position dropped 30 points. Danny Espinosa struggled, primarily due to a broken wrist. He finished with a .477 OPS and lost his job to Anthony Rendon, who posted a .743 OPS.

Denard Span wasn’t quite as good as they hoped when they acquired him in a trade with the Twins. He was half as good for the Nationals in 2013 as he was for the Twins the year prior according to Baseball Reference’s WAR, dropping from 5.1 to 2.4. In 2012, the Nats had Harper and his 5.2 WAR in center, so it was a noticeable difference.

The Nationals weren’t terribly active over the winter. Their marquee move was acquiring Doug Fister in a trade with the Tigers. They made a smooth move in acquiring reliever Jerry Blevins from the Athletics for minor leaguer Billy Burns. Also of note, the club hired Matt Williams as manager, taking over for Davey Johnson, who retired.

What else is going on?  

  • Williams is making Rendon and Espinosa compete for the job at second base. Rendon should be considered the favorite for the job, but a bad spring for the former and a good one for the latter could tip the scales.
  • The Fister trade was an absolute steal and gives the Nationals one of the scariest rotations in baseball. The Nationals gave up minor leaguer Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol, and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi. Fister posted a 3.67 ERA for the Tigers last year with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
  • Werth will turn 35 years old in May and he’s been plagued by injuries over the last two years, and generally over his career. While he was incredibly productive with the bat, the Nationals have to be concerned about his ability to hold up over a grueling 162-game season.
  • Closer Rafael Soriano’s strikeout rate declined from 25 percent to 18 percent last season. While a 3.11 ERA and 43 saves aren’t anything to complain about, closers generally find it tougher to succeed striking out fewer than 20 percent of batters. The National League average for relievers overall last season was 21 percent. If Soriano continues to regress, the Nationals may want to consider moving Tyler Clippard into the closer’s role.

Prediction: The Nationals are bringing back essentially the same club that won 86 games last year, except Doug Fister is replacing Dan Haren. They’ll have a stronger bullpen with Blevins, a healthy Werth, and better production at second base. They should get back into the 90-win club at the very least. First place, NL East.

Bryce Harper is really just a tiny bit better Adam Lind when you think about it

Associated Press
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Tom Boswell of the Washington Post writes about an important matter facing the Washington Nationals over the next year: what to do about Bryce Harper, who is entering his walk year and will be a free agent a little over 12 months from now.

That’s a fine and important question. The Nats do need to decide whether to offer Harper a long term deal, when to offer it and, above all else, how big that deal should be. Should it be $300 million? $400 million? Should it be conventional or unconventional, with opt-outs and such? It’s not every day that a generational talent comes along and it’s even more rare that the generational talent hits free agency at the age of 26, so the decisions facing the Nationals are not easy ones.

Boswell acknowledges that bit of trickiness, but he also, strangely, spends a whole lot of time trying to portray Harper as an ordinary talent. He starts with health, comparing him poorly with Stephen Strasburg, who is ranked 30th in games started over the past five years. In contrast . . .

In those same five years, Harper ranks 90th in games played, just 126 a season, and now he says he should have skipped quite a few more games in 2016 when he had a balky shoulder. That’s almost six weeks out per season.

Nowhere in the column is it mentioned that the several weeks he missed in 2017 was the result of a freak injury in wet conditions and that, despite that, Harper worked his tail off to come back and be ready for the postseason. Not that Boswell doesn’t mention the postseason of course . . .

Harper, for the fourth time, failed to lead his team out of the first round and has career playoff batting average and OPS marks of .215 and .801. By the high standards of right fielders, he’s Mr. Average in October.

I suppose it’s not Boswell’s job to refrain from insulting a player on the team he covers, but he certainly seems hellbent on insulting not only Harper, but our own intelligence via comparisons like this:

In the past five years, in those 126 games, Harper averaged 26 homers, 72 RBI and a .288 average. Over the last nine years, Adam Lind averaged 128 games, 20 homers, 70 RBI and hit .273. That’s selective stat mining. Harper is much better, in part because he walks so much. But Harper and Lind in the same sentence?

“A person can eat delicious chocolate cake or lead paint chips. The chocolate cake is much better, but chocolate cake and lead paint in the same sentence?” I guess Boswell gets points for acknowledging that it was a misleading comparison, but if he thinks it is, why make it in the first place? If you want to eliminate this one as an outlier, cool, because he makes a lot of other comparisons like that in the piece.

This is not necessarily new for Boswell. Here’s something he wrote about Harper in 2014:

Harper has not driven in 60 runs in either of his two seasons. He has only five RBI this year. He’s never had more than 157 runs-plus-RBI. Ryan Zimmerman has had between 163 and 216 six times. Adam LaRoche, no big star, has had 175 or more three times. Fourth outfielder Nate McLouth once had 207. Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

That was written 16 games into his age-22 season.

I’m not sure what Boswell’s beef with Harper is. I’m not sure why he’s contorting himself to portray him as an ordinary player when he is fairly extraordinary and, most certainly, a special case when it comes to his impending free agency. In his career he already has 26.1 career bWAR, 150 homers, an MVP Award under his belt and, if it wasn’t for that freak injury in August, would have a strong case for a second one. Guy has a career line of .285/.386/.515 and he turned 26 four days ago. He’s younger than Aaron Judge.

My view of things is that players should ignore the media for the most part, but they don’t always do that. Sometimes the hostility or criticism of the local press — especially from the most respected portions of the local press who have the ability to shape fan sentiment — gets to them.

Which is to say that, if this kind of noise keeps up, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harper puts up a line of .340/.480/.650 in 2018 and then walked the hell out of D.C. for New York or Chicago or L.A. or something. Would anyone blame him?