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.

Kolten Wong lashes out after losing his starting role with the Cardinals

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Kolten Wong is no longer the only second baseman being considered for a starting role on the Cardinals’ roster, and he’s not happy about it. On Saturday, GM John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny hinted that Wong could lose playing time to Jedd Gyorko or Greg Garcia in 2017 — in other words, an infielder who brings a little more pop at the plate. Prior to the Cardinals’ game against the Marlins on Sunday, Wong gave his heated response to the media. Via Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

I don’t think you give somebody a contract for no reason,” Wong said. “When you are given a contract, you are expected to get a chance to work through some things and figure yourself out. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, all these guys never figured their stuff out until later on down the road. It’s the big leagues. It’s tough, man. For me, the biggest thing is I just need people to have my back. When that comes, it will be good. But, I think right now, it’s just staying with my play, understanding I’m working toward getting myself more consistent, understanding what kind of player I can be. If that’s going to be with another team, so be it.

When pressed, Wong said that he would rather be traded away from St. Louis than step into a limited role with the team. “I don’t want to be here wasting my time,” he told the press. “I know what kind of player I am. If I don’t have the belief here, then I’ll go somewhere else.” The 26-year-old was inked to a five-year, $25.5 million extension prior to the 2016 season, complete with a $12.5 million option and $1 million buyout.

Part of Wong’s frustration stems from the Cardinals’ backtracking on their stated commitment to him as their starting second baseman last winter. Mozeliak admitted that while Wong had the defensive tools necessary to hold down the position, he failed to impress at the plate. It’s an argument that Wong hasn’t been able to rebut this spring, going 8-for-44 with two extra bases and 10 strikeouts in camp. He hasn’t looked much better in the regular season, sustaining a career .248/.309/.370 batting line with a .678 OPS and 5.1 fWAR over four years with the organization.

Still, the second baseman feels that he should have been given some heads up that he was playing to keep his starting role this spring, admitting that he entered camp with the mentality of someone who had a guaranteed spot on the Cardinals’ roster and not someone whose job security was dependent on his day-to-day results. “I need the time to consistently figure out how to be me and succeed at this level,” said Wong. “Everybody goes through it. Not everybody is Mike Trout.”

The Tigers are trying to convert Anthony Gose into a pitcher

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Tigers’ center fielder Anthony Gose wants to try his hand at pitching, according to comments made by manager Brad Ausmus on Sunday. Gose is poised to start the year in Triple-A Toledo after receiving a midseason demotion to Double-A last summer following an altercation with Triple-A manager Lloyd McClendon.

While the experiment won’t detract from Gose’s outfield work in Triple-A, the 26-year-old is expected to take on additional bullpen sessions throughout the year. According to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, the left-handed hitter last took the mound in high school, where his fastball was clocked as fast as 97 m.p.h. Gose ultimately rejected the idea of starting his professional career as a pitcher, despite receiving favorable assessments from scouts.

Ausmus said the idea first surfaced at the end of the 2016 season. It appears to be a fallback option for the outfielder, who has struggled at the plate over his five-year career in the majors. Via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:

Doolittle in Oakland did it and he was in the big leagues a couple of years later,” Ausmus said. “It’s going to take some time. He’s going to have to be a sponge and catch up on experience fast. But we feel it’s worth investigating.