Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Should The Fans Expect of the Washington Nationals This Season?

When it comes to my local sports teams I am admittedly a total homer. Ever the pessimist regarding how they'll perform based on the history here in the DMV I try to stay optimistic as a team is assembled.

I have not paid much attention to the Nats in Spring Training but from what I gathered watching Britt McHenry do her 6pm sports cast on ABC 7 the team has not performed well of late and the manager and players are tired of losing. While currently sitting at 5-13 this spring fans have to hope this isn't a sign of things to expect from the team this season. Expectations are high, the stadium is usually bare and a slow start could lead to low attendance in a city that is looking to support a winning team, beyond the struggling Capitals and the Nats are expected to be that team.

Entering Spring Training all eyes were on one person, a kid named Bryce Harper. Harper has been branded as the next "Big Thing," a man-child, who is developed far beyond his years but still a little dense between the ears (being a fan of the Cowboys, Yankees, Lakers and I believe Blue Devils). The biggest question regarding him was would he make the team to start the season or be called up later on in the year. A calf injury, followed by slow production upon his return helped make the decision to send Bryce down to AAA-ball a bit easier. It also helps that he wasn't lights out against AA pitching and also by waiting to bring him up in June or later it allows the team to have him under contract for one extra year. One good sign this spring is that teammates say that he was soaking up the knowledge, listening to the vets, not being egotistical, and even said to the media its not about him, that there are many components than one man to the team. There is little doubt that Bryce will make an appearance later this year, barring injury, and when he does I expect the Nats to not only sell out every game the rest of the season but also have fans show up to the games so that their announced attendance of 30,000+ doesn't actually have 4,000 people sitting there watching the games with ghost seat fillers sitting next to them.

As for all things not Bryce Harper this team is in a perfect position to take the next step going forward. I for one believe the team overachieved last year by not finishing 10 games under .500. Despite not having the phenom Stephen Strasburg for most of the year because of Tommy John surgery, the pitching staff came along nicely, especially Jordan Zimmerman who was limited by an innings limit due to coming off of surgery. This year the team has Strasburg, on an innings limit, and Zimmerman, returning to the rotation, while adding young hurler Gio Gonzalez who could be a Cy Young candidate potential, and Edwin Jackson, a player that has been a bit of a nomad that was thought to be a top of the rotation talent that will be the team's number 4 starter. He can be effective but I'm not fully sold on him and he's having the worst spring training, statistically of his career. Hopefully it has more to do with the park, line-up or defense and not a prelude. The 5th starter is up for grabs between John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, and my personal choice, Ross Detwiler. Looking at the stats I'd say Detwiler has the edge but I think they'll look to make him more of a long reliever.

That brings me to the team's bullpen. Drew Storen, the closer, is expected to start the season on the disabled list, which is better than the "available to be traded" list that he was on at the trade deadline last year. I really like this kid's pitching and hope we sign him long term. The other main guy in the bullpen is Tyler Clippard, the Nats All-Star last season. Clipp has his moments where he's dominant out of the pen and then gets lit up for stretches but he's been the most consistent and most used reliever on the team and will be an important cog. With Storen out the closer's role is expected to be filled by Henry Rodriguez, who possess a fastball that can clock 100MPH, and Brad Lidge, he of the "I give up home runs to Albert Pujols and then get all messed up psychologically" ilk. I'm not a fan of the Lidge signing but he's a vet and hopefully a change of scenery will help him. Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, Cole Kimball, and Craig Stammen will all be looking at time in the bullpen throughout the year.

The Nationals every day line-up is possibly the best its ever been, and that's before the addition of Harper. The problem is that every the team goes through long stretches of strong pitching and little to no offense and then once they do start hitting the pitching lacks, the defense has been suspect during that time too. For now, Adam LaRoche and his bum shoulder will be the man at first. I say for now because I don't see him staying healthy or being productive enough to keep in the line-up. Not that we need an $8 million guy to sit on the bench but I'd rather have Chris Marrero. At second base is one of my favorite players on the team in Danny Espinosa. I fell in love with this guy when he hit two home runs in one game after he was called up in September of 2010. He's still young and has some pop and I expect this to be a career year for him, possibly even with an All-Star appearance.  At shortstop is everyone's favorite punching bag on the team, Ian Desmond. He's not a great hitter, has a little pop, and can steal bases. There is one thing he does better than steal bases though and that's commit errors. He's committed 57 errors in the last two seasons though he did have 49 more chances he had 11 less errors. A lot of that improvement came from Desmond learning to not try and make a play/throw when he should just pocket the ball. This will continue to be an area the team looks to upgrade including in their minor leagues with Steve Lombardozzi. At third base is the team leader, Ryan Zimmerman. The team extended Zimmerman with the hopes that he'll be this team's Cal Ripken Jr but without the consecutive games streak. An injury of Zimmerman should be expected every year and every year I expect him to be a little better than the previous year. I expect that again this year with Jayson Werth hopefully having a better season. Behind the plate will be Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores. They don't strike fear into many but they're good young catchers that will be pivotal for the improvement of the pitchers and they got to learn under future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez the past two years.

In the outfield the team will have Jayson Werth in right. Werth got paid and then forgot how to hit last year. For the Nationals to reach their peak this year they can not have a repeat season and the fans, those who do show up, will have no trouble booing him like he were Kwame Brown or Andray Blatche. Left field belongs to Michael Morse, currently hampered by a back injury. I'm really hoping this isn't a long term thing for Beast Mode because last year he had the career year I was expecting and I hope he can continue with those numbers. He provides perfect protection in the line-up for Zimmerman and Werth. My fear is that this injury will last all season and depending on if he can play through it he may take over first base like last season, where I felt he did an above average job. In center will most likely be the platoon of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina. Its a shame we can't combine these two guys. I have loved Ankiel's game since he burst onto the scene in St. Louis and took baseball by storm before having one of the craziest declines I've ever seen and it amazes me that now he can't hit the catcher from the pitcher's mound but he can do it perfectly without a hop from over 300 feet away. Besides Ankiel's rocket for an arm he also provides some power but he strikes out a bunch too. Bernadina gives you speed so again combine the two and you have a five tool prospect.

The bench looks sparse and I really only know of Mark DeRosa and he'll be spelling a lot of guys as a utility player/suber-sub.

What the season holds for the Nationals depends on which team shows up, the team that ended last season or the team that showed up in Spring Training. Expectations being high puts a lot of pressure on these guys. Strasburg was nearly untouchable when the games matter so here's hoping spring numbers mean very little, which most people believe that they do. The NL East is stronger this year than last year with Miami upgrading thanks to a winter shopping spree, the Mets have some players but I'm hoping they'll continue to implode, the Phillies are as lethal as ever with an amazing starting rotation, and probably the only one better than the Nationals in the East. The Braves seem to always a contender for at least the Wild Card and I wouldn't be surprised to see them be a pest again this season.

As for the Nats, if they click on all cylinders I say they go 92-70 and set themselves up for a shot at the Wild Card. If they don't get their act together but stay healthy this team should still be able to hang around the .500 mark. I have always felt that 2013 would be the season to expect them to make their move but the upgrades in pitching shows they want to do it now. History tells us that DC teams with high expectations never live up to them but last year's team, despite the lower expectations and the quitting of their manager maintained a light hearted atmosphere and went out there and just had fun. If they can continue to play that way and not press they should be just fine. A winning locker room is a happy locker room.

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