MLB March Report: Washington Nationals

The nation’s capital is where TheSportsNotebook stops today in its March run of major league baseball. The Washington Nationals have never had a winning season moving from Montreal in 2004. They have never made the playoffs in D.C. (even in Montreal they only made it in 1981). Expectations are high among Nationals’ fans to at least end the first streak and to give a real run at ending the second. TheSportsNotebook evaluates the personnel of a team that went 80-81 a year ago (c’mon MLB, let them play a makeup a game and try and get to .500!) to see if incremental improvement is in the cards. We’ll use our usual measuring sticks of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: I don’t like what I see here, as the Nationals have few players—if any for that matter, that can be really effective in setting the table. The power hitters, whom we’ll look at momentarily are good here, but you clearly want them to be in RBI situations or to hang a crooked number if they good deep. If we determine that the run producers have to be Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman who does that leave us with? Catcher Wilson Ramos is respectable at getting on base, and has decent pop. After that, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and whomever wins the centerfield job, Roger Bernardina or Rick Ankiel, are liabilities.

POWER: The offensive outlook for Davey Johnson looks good here. Morse is 30 years old and got his first chance at regular playing time over the past two seasons. In a “where has this guy been hiding” scenario, he’s consistently gone deep, slugged over .500 and puts up solid OBPs in the .360 range. Zimmerman has seen his power decline a bit the last couple years, but he hasn’t been completely healthy. He looks to be fine this spring and is a 25-30 HR man. First baseman Adam LaRoche hit exactly 25 home runs a year from 2008-10 before a bad season last year, but there’s no reason he can’t bounce back. Espinosa has atypical power for a second baseman, popping 21 out of the park. Ramos is a contributor in this area. And the big X-factor is Jayson Werth. After becoming the franchise’s $100 million man last offseason he struggled through an awful year. Was it just the pressure of it being the first year under his big contract, or is Werth ill-suited to be the main gun in an offense after being able to hide behind names like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in Philadelphia? For this year anyway, I think Werth deserves the benefit of the doubt and I’m betting on a return to career norms. Up and down the lineup, this team can take you deep.

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STARTING PITCHING: All of the media air in the room is going to be sucked up by Stephen Strasburg, the 23-year-old phenom who is finally healthy and ready to pitch  on Opening Day. In 17 career starts Strasburg’s ERA is 2.54, so we can understand where the hype is coming from. Now he has to stay healthy and show he can handle lineups as they get their second and third looks at him later in the season. Washington acquired Gio Gonzalez from Oakland, a great addition o the staff. Over the last two years Gonzalez has gone to the post 65 times with an ERA close to 3. While he leaves the comfort of Oakland’s pitcher-friendly ballpark, he also leaves the aggravation of the designated hitter. Jordan Zimmerman is another good young arm, who made 26 starts last year and posted a 3.18 ERA. John Lannan has quietly become very consistent. Over the last four years he’s had three seasons—including last year—of 30-plus starts and a sub-4 ERA. And in another great acquisition, the Nats added Edwin Jackson. Is it just me, or should Jackson be a lot older than 28 years old? He’s had ERAs throughout his career from the mid-3s to mid-4s. Most of that has been in the American League, but he was a big trade deadline addition for St. Louis last year in their improbable World Series run. Along with Werth, he gives this still-unproven team a veteran that’s gone the distance. The starting pitching is good enough that promising Ross Detwiler, who had a 3.00 ERA with ten starts can’t find a place to pitch.

RELIEF PITCHING: This part of the team could go either way. The setup situation looks very good. Tyler Clippard has quietly pitched at least 60 innings (a good number for a short reliever) for three consecutive seasons, with ERAs from a low of 1.83 to a high of 3.07. Sean Burnett has been similarly consistent, albeit without the high ceiling. Young Henry Rodriguez broke in at age 24 last year and had a respectable 3.56 ERA—not great in the National League, but certainly enough to be a solid arm when a starter has to leave after five or six innings. The closer situation is what will swing this. Drew Storen was fantastic in this role last year, closing 42 of 48 save chances with a 2.75 ERA. But he hasn’t pitched this spring thanks to inflammation of the elbow. An MRI shows no major damage…but he still hasn’t pitched this spring. Veteran Brad Lidge is on hand to either help in setup or step in at closer. The 35-year-old has been effective the last two seasons in Philadelphia when healthy, but the latter is a big qualifier. If Johnson has a healthy closer he’s got a great bullpen. If he doesn’t the skipper has the arms and the savvy to piece together the end of games, but it will be a lot more nerve-wracking and any hope of late-game dominance is out the window.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL:  84—I like this pitching staff and Johnson’s record of success with the Mets, Reds and Orioles—three organizations that have not exactly been synonymous with excellence—means I’ll take the Over, but I do with a little nervousness. This is a team not used to dealing with expectations and they’re a definite a media darling this spring. They’ve got the practical concern about getting runners on base consistently, and teams like that can hit some bad summer slumps as power shortages come and go. The NL East won’t give any easy games. Since my own rules require me to make a pick, I’m taking the Over, but this isn’t one where I’d put my money where my mouth is.