Springtime Storylines: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Strasburg-less Washington Nationals.

The big question: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

In a word, yes.

It’s not wrong to call Jayson Werth’s contract excessive — in fact, I’d be shocked if the Nationals don’t regret it down the road — but more than anything, I found the signing as an acknowledgement from ownership that they weren’t content with returning to being an afterthought in the D.C. market, at least in the short-term.

Whether they’ll admit or not, the Nationals needed to inject some excitement into their fanbase this offseason. They already knew they were going to be without Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season and the signing came less than 48 hours after Adam Dunn — a fan favorite — bolted for Chicago. They needed something to sell the team for 2011, even if they had to massively overpay in order to do it. This was a P.R. move just as much as it was a personnel move.

The main objective for the Nationals this season is to stay relevant long enough until Strasburg returns and Bryce Harper is ready for the major leagues. If all goes well, that could happen in September. Then in 2012, the real fun can begin.

So what else is going on?

  • I don’t mean to short this current squad. There are some interesting pieces here. Ryan Zimmerman continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated players in baseball. Werth helps soften the blow of losing Dunn in the middle of the lineup while Adam LaRoche adds some balance from the left side. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have some flaws, but are a pretty talented middle infield combo. Wilson Ramos, who was acquired in the Matt Capps deal, should be fun to watch behind the plate. And while he entered spring training without a clear role on the team following the signing of LaRoche, it looks like Mike Morse has won the starting left field job.
  • Where I’m less optimistic is center field. The Nationals appear poised to give the starting job to Rick Ankiel, which probably says how much the organization has soured on Nyjer Morgan over the past year. Yuck.
  • Nationals starters had a 4.61 ERA last season, which (sadly) was their lowest since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. They averaged around 5.5 innings per start. If everyone stays healthy, they should be able to improve on those numbers, at least by a little bit. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny aren’t great options, but they’re better than the cannon fodder they’ve sent out there in years past. And I haven’t even talked about Jordan Zimmermann yet. The former 2007 second-round pick is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and has the potential to a be a frontline starter.
  • Who’s gonna close here? If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Drew Storen, but now I’m not so sure. There are even some rumors that he could begin the season in the minors. The good news is that the Nationals actually have some pretty decent depth here, including Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. They should do OK.

So how are they gonna do?

I’m tempted to pick the Nationals for fourth place, but the other four teams in this division all have the potential to be better. With the Nationals, nearly everything would have to break right in order for them to play .500 ball. I’ll give them 73 wins and their fourth straight last-place finish. They’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait another year for things to get interesting.

Cubs won’t make Kyle Schwarber available in trade talks

Kyle Schwarber
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that the Cubs won’t deal Kyle Schwarber this winter, despite multiple inquires from teams around the league. Schwarber is approaching his first year of arbitration and will remain under team control for another three seasons before reaching free agency in 2022.

The decision comes on the heels of one of the strongest seasons of the 25-year-old outfielder’s short career. Over 137 games and 510 PA for the Cubs, he proved a passable defender in left field and batted .238/.356/.467 with 26 home runs, an .823 OPS, and 3.2 fWAR in 2018. He also led the National League in intentional walks, with 20, and bumped up his total walks from 59 in 2017 to 78.

Despite his marked improvements from previous years, Schwarber’s performance still left something to be desired — specifically against left-handed pitchers, who held the slugger to a paltry .224/.352/.303 with four extra-base hits across 91 PA. Still, it’s evident the Cubs feel Schwarber is capable of strengthening his splits in the years to come, and they might stand to get more value from him on the field than they would in a trade this offseason.

Of course, that’s not to say the Cubs intend to pass the Winter Meetings in total silence, especially as they’ll be seeking bullpen and catching depth in advance of their 2019 run at the division title. As club president Theo Epstein remarked last week, “We’re certainly open and active in trade talks with a lot of deals that usually don’t come to fruition. So, we may make some trades. We could make big ones that transform the roster. We may make smaller complementary ones. But there’s certain things we’d like to accomplish.”