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.

Cavaliers will move ring ceremony to avoid conflict with World Series start

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 11: A general exterior image of the Quicken Loans arena which is next door to Progressive Field where the Chicago White Sox will take on the Cleveland Indians on July 11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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In a show of good sportsmanship, the Cleveland Cavaliers have moved their championship ring ceremony start time back to 7 PM EDT to avoid conflicting with the start of the World Series opener on Tuesday. The Indians are set to host Game 1 at Progressive Field on October 25, while the Cavs will open the 2016-17 NBA season against the New York Knicks at the nearby Quicken Loans Arena, preceded by a ceremony recognizing their first franchise title.

In the event that the Indians clinch a World Series title, it’ll be the first time Cleveland has seen two championships in the same calendar year since 1948, when the Indians’ last Series title came on the back of the Cleveland Browns’ All-American Football Conference championship against the Buffalo Bills. The same was true for the Dodgers in 1988, when their World Series win against the Athletics coincided with the Los Angeles Lakers’ 11th championship, while Chicago has yet to see a multi-title year among their NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB franchises.

Regardless of the Series’ outcome, Cleveland fans will get the chance to revel in one long-awaited championship win on Tuesday before watching the beginning of a nail-biting conclusion to another long-awaited playoff run. The Cavaliers are scheduled for 7 PM EDT on October 25, while the Indians will take the field at 8 PM EDT.

Indians could benefit from long rest before the World Series

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 09: Danny Salazar #31 of the Cleveland Indians delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on September 9, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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If any team can turn a six-day rest period into an advantage, it’s the Indians. The club polished off their pennant race with another injured starter and an overtaxed bullpen, as Trevor Bauer exited in Game 3 of the ALCS with a laceration on his right pinky finger, leaving the bullpen to shoulder 16 innings through the last three games of the series. On Friday,’s Jordan Bastian reported that injured starter Danny Salazar could rejoin the rotation in the World Series, though he’ll need at least one more simulated game before Terry Francona determines whether or not he’s fit to return for the team’s last postseason push.

Bauer, who has been under the close watch of hand specialist Dr. Thomas Graham, told the press that he feels confident that he’ll be ready for a World Series start when the final showdown commences on Tuesday. Keeping the wound bandaged is not an option during games, and Bauer said that Dr. Graham decided against additional stitches to keep the laceration from re-opening. Instead, they’re banking on extra days of rest to heal the cut naturally. Should Francona pencil the right-hander into the lineup for Game 3 or 4, he’ll have had 10-11 days to rest his finger between starts — just a hair under the seven games Bauer said he was prepared to pitch.

Salazar, too, has been preparing for a World Series showdown. He’s scheduled to pitch three innings of a simulated game this weekend, and if it goes well, it could land him a spot in the starting rotation alongside Bauer, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and newcomer Ryan Merritt. Salazar has been sidelined since September 9 with a right forearm strain, and even after undergoing a rigorous throwing program over the last several weeks, any kind of comeback is expected to be curbed by a strict innings limit. Francona has been understandably tight-lipped about his World Series roster, but he hasn’t yet nixed the idea of utilizing Salazar out of the rotation, provided the right-hander remains healthy for another week or so.

The Indians have had to remain flexible throughout their seven-game playoff run after weathering injuries to Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, pushing their rotation through several games on short rest and relying heavily on Andrew Miller and Cody Allen‘s one-two punch in the ‘pen to clinch more than a few postseason victories. While history doesn’t always favor the first team to secure their league’s pennant race, an extra week of rest should only benefit Cleveland’s beleaguered pitching staff.