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.

Jack Morris and Alan Trammell make the Hall of Fame on the Modern Era ballot

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The Modern Era ballot was revealed last month. The results have been announced on Sunday night. Jack Morris and Alan Trammell will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next summer.

Morris, now 62, pitched parts of 18 seasons in the majors, 14 of which were spent with the Tigers. He played on four championship teams: the 1984 Tigers, the 1991 Twins, and the 1992-93 Blue Jays. While his regular season stats weren’t terribly impressive beyond his 254 wins, Morris has always had a decent amount of Hall of Fame support due to his postseason performances. Morris shut the Braves out over 10 innings in Game 7 of the ’91 World Series. That being said, his postseason ERA of 3.80 isn’t far off his regular season ERA of 3.90. If you ask me, Morris doesn’t pass muster for the Hall of Fame. He now has the highest career ERA of any pitcher in the Hall.

Trammel, now 59, had been unjustly kept out of the Hall of Fame despite a terrific career. He hit .285/.352/.415 across parts of 20 seasons from 1977-96, all with the Tigers. He was regarded as a tremendous defender and made a memorable combination up the middle with Lou Whitaker, who also played with the Tigers from 1977-95. According to Baseball Reference, Trammell racked up 70.4 Wins Above Replacement during his career, which is slightly more than Hall of Famer Barry Larkin (70.2) and as much as Hall of Famer Ron Santo (70.4).

Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Luis Tiant, and Marvin Miller were not elected to the Hall of Fame. Miller continuing to be shut out is a travesty. Craig has written at length here about Miller’s exclusion.