Bryce Harper

2014 Preview: Washington Nationals


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.

Theo Epstein on sportswriters: “The life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself…”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 07:  Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein stands on the field during batting practice before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field on October 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Rick Morissey of the Chicago Sun-Times published an article on Sunday giving a bit of insight into Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. When Epsten was younger, he dabbled in sportswriting, but quickly realized the trade wasn’t for him.

As Morissey details, when Epstein was 19 years old writing for Yale’s student newspaper, he wrote an article suggesting the school’s football coach should be fired during what would become a 3-7 season. Epstein was told during the meeting that one writer would defend the coach and one would call for his job. “It was a lesson in the way that the world of journalism sometimes works. It was an eye-opener for me. I regret it, and I’ve happily moved on.”

Epstein continued, “I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94. I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar. Not to generalize.” He added, “But I really respect writing and respect sportswriters.”

He’s not wrong, and he seems to have found his calling as a front office executive. His Cubs are back in the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Jason Kipnis injured his ankle celebrating the pennant with Francisco Lindor

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17:  Jose Ramirez #11, Francisco Lindor #12, Jason Kipnis #22 and Mike Napoli #26 of the Cleveland Indians celebrate after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays with a score of 4 to 2 in game three of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on October 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis tweeted on Sunday, “Got a little too close to [Francisco Lindor] during the celebration!! Freak accident but should be good to go by Tuesday! #cantkeepmeoutofthisgame!”

Per’s Jordan Bastian, manager Terry Francona said Kipnis is dealing with a low ankle sprain, but he’s expected to be ready to go when the World Series begins on Tuesday. Kipnis went through fielding drills on Sunday.

Kipnis is hitting .167/.219/.367 with a pair of homers and four RBI in eight games this postseason.