Best Case/Worst Case: 2014 Washington Nationals Season Preview

The 2014 baseball season is finally upon us, and while everyone likes to take their best stab at making predictions, thankfully, no one has any idea how it’s going to turn out — if we did, there’d be no point in watching.  With that in mind, we’ve decided that rather than make predictions, we’d rather just talk about the two extremes in a way a season can turn out — the best case and worst case scenarios.  Below is a reasonable best case scenario for each Nationals’ player, alongside a reasonable worst case scenario.  And we couldn’t help but make a few predictions, wrong though we know they’ll be — you’ll find those at the bottom of the page.

PITCHERS

Aaron Barrett

Best Case: Barrett builds off his remarkable spring, in which he pitched 10.2 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, by putting together a very strong rookie campaign.  After striking out more than 12 batters per nine at AA Harrisburg last year, Barrett fans more than a batter an inning at the big league level.  He throws more than 60 innings with an ERA under 3.00, solidifying the sixth inning, and gives the club confidence that he can be used as a set-up man or even a closer in the future.

Worst Case: Barrett’s diving slider, the reason for his success in the minors, doesn’t fool big league hitters, causing his strikeout rate to drop and his walk rate to rise.  After giving up runs in his first couple outings, Barrett sits collecting dust at the back of the bullpen, and gets sent down to Syracuse by the middle of May.

Jerry Blevins

Best Case: Blevins does exactly what he was sent to Washington to do — get lefties out.  He holds left-handed batters to a .220/.270/.350 batting line (just better than his career averages).  But he also has success against right-handers, becoming a reliable southpaw set-up man in the mold of Sean Burnett in 2012.

Worst Case: In 2013, Blevins had a surprising reverse platoon split, allowing a .741 OPS to lefties against a .581 OPS to righties.  The trend continues, as while Blevins still manages to be an effective reliever, he cannot seem to put away left-handed hitting.  The Nationals still struggle to match up against the tough lefties in their division, like Chase Utley and Freddie Freeman.

Tyler Clippard

Best Case: Clippard continues his six-year run as one of the most successful relief pitchers in the major leagues, throwing 75 innings, striking out 10 batters per nine, and ending up with an ERA around 2.00.

Worst Case: Over the past five years, Clippard has thrown more relief innings than any pitcher in baseball, and the heavy workload finally catches up to him.  His strikeout rate, which dropped from 10.4 batters per nine in 2012 to 9.3 in 2013, continues to fall.  Clippard had a career low and league low .170 batting average on balls in play last year — that rises, drastically curtailing Clippard’s success.  And for the first time in his career, Tyler Clippard spends time on the Disabled List.

A.J. Cole

Best Case: Cole dominated in a 45 inning stint at AA Harrisburg, posting a 2.19 ERA, a WHIP under one and a 9.7 K/9 ratio.  His second stint at the level is so successful that after another 45 innings, he forces his way to AAA Syracuse.  He dominates there as well, and by September, the 22-year old has earned a call-up to the majors.

Worst Case: Cole spends the entire year at Harrisburg, posting an ERA in the mid-fours and only a league-average strikeout rate.  He never seems to master the level in his season in the Eastern League, and is forced to begin 2015 right back at Harrisburg.

Ross Detwiler

Best Case: Detwiler adjusts well to his new role in the bullpen, and gives the Nationals a unique weapon — a left-hander who not only can throw in the mid-nineties, but who can be used as both a long reliever and a situational reliever.  His strikeout rate, which stands at 5.4 K/9 for his big league career, nearly doubles out of the bullpen this year.

Worst Case: Detwiler struggles to make the adjustment from pitching every fifth day to pitching out of the bullpen.  He is not the dominant reliever the Nationals envisioned, as his strikeout rate fails to improve, and his lack of an effective off-speed pitch still haunts him, even when pitching an inning at a time.

Doug Fister

Best Case: Fister returns from the disabled list in mid-April, and he becomes everything the Nationals envisioned when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire him.  The 6’8″ righty still manages to throw 200+ innings, and buoyed by a defense much more agile than the one he pitched in front of in Detroit, nearly equals a career low 2.83 ERA.  He proves to be the best fourth starter in baseball, manages to win 18 games, and even receives a couple votes in the Cy Young balloting.

Worst Case: The lat issue proves more serious than Fister and the Nationals had hoped, and while Fister rushes back from the injury, he never fully recovers.  He never seems healthy, and is ineffective when on the mound.  The lat issue forces Fister to change his mechanics, leading to arm soreness, which causes the Nationals to shut him down in the middle of August.  Meanwhile, Robbie Ray ascends rapidly through the Tigers’ minor league system, earning a September call-up, and Steve Lombardozzi hits .298/.369/.411 (his minor-league averages) in 400 plate appearances with the Orioles.

Lucas Giolito

Best Case: Giolito is simply spectacular.  He starts the season at low-A Hagerstown, but manages to finish the season at AA Harrisburg after dominating both the South Atlantic League and the Carolina League.  His 2014 performance earns him both a place in Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects list and an invite to major league Spring Training in 2015.  A major league debut before his 21st birthday (which will be on July 14th, 2015) becomes a distinct possibility.

Worst Case: The only true worst-case scenario for Giolito would be a recurrence of the elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2012. If Giolito stays healthy for a full season, the Nationals will surely count the season as a success.

Gio Gonzalez

Best Case: Gonzalez’s 2012 season was easily the best by a starting pitcher in the short history of the Washington Nationals — 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 199 innings, leading to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young balloting.  While his performance regressed in his second year with the club, the peripheral numbers stayed largely constant — his walk rate stabilized, while his strikeout rate dropped only slightly (the biggest change was a spike in his home run rate, which nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013).  The best case scenario for Gonzalez would be a reprise of that 2012 season.

Worst Case: Gonzalez’s walk rate, which has sat around 3.5 BB/9 for the past two years, ticks up to around 4 per nine in 2014.  He regresses somewhat, posting an ERA somewhere in the mid-threes — still valuable, but not dominant by any stretch of the imagination.

Taylor Jordan

Best Case: Jordan firmly entrenches himself in the Nationals’ rotation with a powerhouse sophomore season.  His pinpoint control keeps the free passes to a minimum, while the slider that has so impressed scouts enable him to put away big league hitters.  His ERA hovers around 3.00, and alongside Fister, he gives the Nationals one of the most impressive 4-5 pitching duos in the league.

Worst Case: Before his stellar 2013 campaign, Jordan simply hadn’t been very good in his professional career — in 2012, he had posted a 5.13 ERA as a 23 year old splitting time between short-season A Auburn and low-A Hagerstown.  Jordan cannot seem to repeat his 2013 success, as he is hit hard in four big league starts, then gets sent back to AAA Syracuse, where he continues to struggle.

Tanner Roark

Best Case: Roark seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the major leagues in 2013, posting a minuscule 1.51 ERA in 53.2 innings.  While that performance is clearly unsustainable (he gave up only one home run in that time, with a home run/fly ball rate that would have been the lowest in the major leagues had he qualified), he continues to succeed thanks to his low walk rate and high ground ball rate.  At age 27, Roark becomes a reliable major league starter, and a part of the Nationals’ future.

Worst Case: Roark’s 2013 turns out to be a fluke — once his home run rate and BABIP normalize, his ERA skyrockets, and Roark quickly finds himself falling out of favor with the Nationals’ brass.  When Doug Fister returns, it is Jordan, not Roark, who gets to keep his starting spot, with Roark heading back to Syracuse for a third straight season.

Rafael Soriano

Best Case: Soriano, who spent the offseason working on his slider, finds renewed effectiveness with his breaking pitch.  While the fastball is no longer what it was three years ago, Soriano can still use the pitch effectively thanks to the improvement in his off-speed.  He posts another 40 save season, and makes the Nationals give serious thought to exercising his club option for 2015.

Worst Case: Last year, Soriano posted the lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season, and with his fastball velocity declining steadily (down almost a mile and a half from two years ago), that does not figure to improve.  No longer armed with that blazing fastball, Soriano struggles to put away both hitters and games — each of his save opportunities are nail-biting marathon innings.  He loses the closer’s job in June, leaving the Nationals $28 million investment in him looking foolish.

Craig Stammen

Best Case: After a poor (at least by his standards) first half of the 2013 season, Stammen returned to dominance in the second half, holding the opposition to a .228 batting average and posting a 1.41 ERA from the All Star Break on.  Stammen picks up right where he left off the year before, striking out more than a batter an inning and using his heavy sinker to get weak contact when batters do connect (his ground ball rate was around 60% last year, the highest of his career).

Worst Case: Stammen, like Clippard, has been used heavily over the past two years, and the cumulative toll of back-to-back 80 relief inning seasons takes its toll.

Drew Storen

Best Case: Storen is the pitcher who returned from minor league assignment and allowed only 3 runs in 19.1 innings; he finally manages to erase the doubts about him that have lingered since Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

Worst Case: Storen is closer to the pitcher he was before that minor league assignment, when his ERA sat at 5.95 and he allowed opposing hitters to hit .295/.346/.486.  He is once again demoted to the minor leagues, and leaves tremendous doubt that he will be ever become the closer of the future he had been touted as.

Stephen Strasburg

Best Case: Strasburg finally has the breakout year that has been predicted of him since he was at San Diego State.  He strikes out 11 batters per nine, has an ERA under 2.5, and most importantly, cracks the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career.  He wins the first Cy Young Award of his career.

Worst Case: It seems the worst case scenario for Strasburg in 2014 (aside from a major injury) is a repeat of his 2013.  He misses time thanks to some minor injuries, and his numbers, while strong, are be no means transcendent.  The league is left wondering whether Strasburg will ever become the player he was expected to be.

Jordan Zimmermann

Best Case: Over the past three years, Zimmermann has posted a 2.58 ERA in the first half of the season; if extended over a full season, that would rank second in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw.  Zimmermann finally manages to find the same success in the second half as he has in the first, and he ends up as one of the top five pitchers in the National League.

Worst Case: Zimmermann is effective but hardly dominant in the first half of the season, and once again fades in the second half (his second-half ERA over the past three years is 4.33).  He goes another 200 innings this year, but with his ERA in the mid-threes, is more of an innings-eater than an ace.

HITTERS

Wilson Ramos

Best Case: Ramos manages to stay healthy, playing in over 120 games for the first time in his career. He also keeps on playing like he did from his return from the Disabled List on July 4th last season, when he hit .276 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs in 62 games.

Worst Case: While running down the first base line, Wilson Ramos re-tears his hamstring, causing him to miss 60 games. He never really gets healthy, and his power numbers suffer because of it.

Jose Lobaton

Best Case: After Wilson Ramos goes down with an injury, Lobaton steps in and starts 80 games for the Nationals. Lobaton improves on his last season, hitting around .260-.265 with 10 home runs.

Worst Case: Wilson Ramos stays healthy throughout the year, giving Lobaton only 20-30 starts. The lack of playing time hurts Lobaton’s rhythm, causing him to hit below .200 as the back up.

Kevin Frandsen

Best Case: Frandsen returns to his 2012 form, hitting over .270 off the bench, with power. His success causes the Nationals to platoon him with Adam LaRoche at first base, starting Frandsen in games against tough lefties.

Worst Case: Frandsen hits under .220, and fails to replicate the pinch-hitting success he had last year. He is cut by the Nationals mid-June in favor of Tyler Moore.

Adam LaRoche

Best Case: Adam LaRoche shows that 2013 was a fluke, and while he can’t to replicate his incredible 2012 season, his batting average and slugging percentage return to their career norms. He also manages a .244/.300/.439 against left-handed pitching (his career averages), meaning he plays his way out of a platoon.

Worst Case: Age continues to take its toll on the 34 year old first baseman, and LaRoche’s numbers continue to decline. The Nationals have to remove him from the lineup against tough lefties. LaRoche’s struggles cause the Nationals to decline his option, leaving them without a solution at first base heading into 2015.

Danny Espinosa

Best Case: Anthony Rendon struggles out of the gate, causing the Nationals to start Espinosa more often. In the starting role,  Espinosa finally is able to hit consistantly from both sides of the plate and by midseason, Espinosa regains the role of starting second baseman. Espinosa cuts down on his strikeouts, while his power swing returns, and he hits 20 home runs for the second time in his career.

Worst Case: Espinosa’s 2013 was the worst possible scenario for him — he hit below the Mendoza Line, dealt with wrist injuries, and lost his starting job to Anthony Rendon, perhaps for good.  In 2014, the offensive struggles continue, and though his defense still draws rave reviews, the Nationals cannot continue to put his bat in the lineup.  They once again demote him to AAA, then end up trading him to the Astros.

Anthony Rendon

Best Case: Rendon improves on his strong rookie year; he raises his average over the .280 mark, and is finally able to find his power swing at the major league level, hitting 20+ home runs. He also gets more comfortable at second base in his second year, cutting his errors in half.

Worse Case: Rendon’s injury problems that let him slip to the 6th pick in the 2011 draft return, as Rendon has troubles staying on the field throughout the season. While Rendon is off the field, Espinosa takes over at second, and shows the Nationals why he should have been the starting second baseman all along. When Rendon finally gets healthy, he finds himself sitting on the bench behind Espinosa.

Ryan Zimmerman

Best Case: Zimmerman manages to stay fully healthy, avoiding the DL for the entire season for the first time since 2010. He comes out of the gate showing the power that he flashed last September, hitting 18 home runs by the All Star break. His throwing woes gone, he also improves defensively, allowing the Nationals to keep him at his natural position of third base for the forseeable future.

Worst Case: Zimmerman still cannot seem to shake the throwing problems that have dogged him for the past three years, committing a league-leading 18 throwing errors.  Worse yet, Zimmerman, a very streaky hitter, never seems to get truly hot, and finishes with an OPS under .800.  He ends up playing the majority of September at first base.

Ian Desmond

Best Case: Desmond builds on his recent success; he hits 28 home runs and steals 25 bases, becoming a member of the 20-20 club for the third straight season. He is able to stay on the field for the entire season, playing in more than 150 games. His success leads to his second all-star performance and his third silver slugger.

Worst Case: Desmond’s performance dipped in most major offensive categories from 2012 to 2013, and it continues to dip in 2014.  He plays in 145 games and hits .270/.310/.420 — good numbers for a shortstop, but hardly all-star caliber.  He begins to regret not signing the 7 year, $90 million deal the Nationals placed in front of him in the offseason.

Zach Walters

Best Case: Walters works on his defense in the minors, and thanks to Danny Espinosa’s struggles, finds himself in the majors by June.  Shifted into the utility infielder role, Walters shines, hitting 10 home runs in 250 at-bats.  He establishes himself as a talent worthy of a starting job in the major leagues.

Worst Case: Both Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon put together solid seasons, leaving no room for Walters in Washington until September.

Scott Hariston

Best Case: Hariston does what he was brought to D.C. to do; kill lefty pitchers off the bench. He slugs .500 against left-handed pitching (in line with his career average), getting some key hits off the bench, and even earns himself a couple of spot starts a week.

Worst Case: Hariston hits .177 in the first two months of the season, and it seems like the end of the road for the 11-year MLB veteran. Because of his struggles, the Nationals decide to cut ties with Hariston, releasing him mid-June.

Bryce Harper

Best Case: Bryce Harper proves that when he is healthy, he is the best player on the planet. He hits over .300 for the majority of the season, and finishes the season with over 40 home runs. His great season doesn’t just earn him an all-star game start and a silver slugger award, but it also wins him the NL MVP.

Worst Case: Held back by injuries and his struggles against lefties, Harper fails to make the jump from stardom to superstardom.  He plays in 120 games and hits .280 with 25 home runs — fantastic numbers for any other 21 year old, but they fail to live up to the lofty expectations the media has for Harper, and Harper has for himself.

Nate McLouth

Base Case: McLouth sees significant playing time, and makes the most of that playing time, hitting .260 with 10 home runs and ranking among the team leaders in stolen bases.

Worse Case: McLouth only sees the field as a pinch hitter, and doesn’t get much time in the field.  He regresses to something resembling the form he displayed in 2011 (when he hit .228/.344/.333), and the Nationals regret being stuck with him for the 2015 season.

Tyler Moore

Best Case: In the minors, Moore is able to find his groove, hitting over .300 with 15 home runs in the first two months of the season. After Hariston is released, Moore is called up to replace him on the bench.

Worse Case: Moore struggles in the minors, causing him to stay there until September.  The organization accepts that Moore is not a part of their long term plans, and looks outside the organization for Adam LaRoche’s replacement.

Denard Span

Best Case: Span is able to recreate his September performance (when he hit .316/.352/.412 in the teams last 29 games) over a full season. Under new manager Matt Williams’ tutelage, Span finally learns to be aggressive on the basepaths, swiping 40 bags for the first time in his career. He continues his impeccable play in center field, earning him his first career Gold Glove.

Worse Case: Span plays like he did for the majority of last season, forcing Matt Williams to move him to the eighth hole in the lineup. Because he can’t get on base, he can’t steal bases, ending up with only 15 on the season. Span’s platoon problems (he had a .539 OPS against lefties last year) continue, and by August, he no longer starts against left-handed pitching.

Jayson Werth

Best Case: Werth proves that 2013 was no fluke, hitting .310 with 26 home runs. Werth manages to stay healthy, playing in over 140 games for the first time since 2011.  On top of that, Werth makes the all-star team for only the second time in his career, and finishes top-20 in MVP vote for the fourth time.

Worse Case: Werth’s injuries continue, as a now 35 year old Werth plays in fewer than 130 games for the third straight year. He also returns from the spectacular heights of 2013 to his career averages, and hits a respectable-but-unspectacular .265/.355/.440 in the 2014 season. His 2014 play reignites the debate over the $126 million contract the Nationals gave him in 2011.

14 QUESTIONS for 2014

Who leads the team in wins? With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, 19

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, 18

Who are the Nationals’ All Star Representatives?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg

Who leads the team in saves?  With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Rafael Soriano, 22 (replaced mid-season)

Jonny Rasch: Tyler Clippard, 15

When does Doug Fister return?

Jacob Rasch: April 26th vs. Padres

Jonny Rasch: April 30th @ Astros

Who will lead the team in Batting Average?

Jacob Rasch: Anthony Rendon, .308

Jonny Rasch: Jayson Werth, .314

How many games does Ryan Zimmerman play at first?

Jacob Rasch: 5 games

Jonny Rasch: 0 games

How many games does Wilson Ramos play at catcher?

Jacob Rasch: 110 games

Jonny Rasch: 125 games

Who will start more games at the end of the season: Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, or Ross Detwiler?

Jacob Rasch: Tanner Roark

Jonny Rasch: Taylor Jordan

How many innings does Stephen Strasburg throw?

Jacob Rasch: 210 innings

Jonny Rasch: 214.2 innings exactly

Where does Stephen Strasburg place in the Cy Young race?

Jacob Rasch: 3rd

Jonny Rasch: 5th

How many home runs does Bryce Harper hit? Does he lead the team?

Jacob Rasch: 36 home runs, yes

Jonny Rasch: 42 home runs, yes

Where does Bryce Harper place in the MVP?

Jacob Rasch: 5th

Jonny Rasch: 1st

How many games do the Nationals win?

Jacob Rasch: 93 games

Jonny Rasch: 95 games

When does the Nationals’ season end?

Jacob Rasch: NLCS in St. Louis

Jonny Rasch: World Series loss to Rays

2014 AL Preview

EAST

Can the Red Sox repeat their success from last year?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)

2. Boston Red Sox (90-72)

3. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)

4. New York Yankees (82-80)

5. Baltimore Orioles (79-83)

SLEEPER TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays

All five teams in the AL East have at least a reasonable chance at contention in what shapes up to be the most competitive division in baseball.  But of the five teams, the Blue Jays seem to be getting the least amount of buzz.  Projected to challenge for the division title last year after a very active offseason, the Jays instead slumped into last place with a 74-88 record, the only sub-.500 team in the division.  And this offseason, they added only catcher Dioner Navarro to the fold, returning essentially the same roster as the one that was so disappointing a year ago.  So why will they succeed in 2014?  Because they can’t possibly be as unlucky as they were in 2013.  As this handy chart (warning: language is NSFW) compiled by Reddit user atomicbolt displays, the Jays had more freak injuries than a bus crash at a carnival last year.  Assuming the team is healthy, the talent is there.  If Jose Bautista can play more than the 105 games he has averaged over the past two seasons, he will anchor a lineup that has as much firepower as any in the American League.  The rotation is a little shakier — behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the team will throw two injury risks — Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow — and a 23 year old prospect, Drew Hutchinson.  But if the Jays can miraculously stay at something resembling full strength throughout the season, they could finally live up to the expectations heaped on them before the 2013 season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: New York Yankees

Last year, despite scoring 21 fewer runs than they allowed, and despite frequently starting the likes of Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, and Lyle Overbay, the New York Yankees managed to contend until the last week of the season, finishing with a record of 85-77.  And this offseason, they bought nearly every player available on the open market, spending a total of $491 million to acquire the likes of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka.  But despite the spending spree, the Yankees still have gaping holes in their infield — one talent evaluator called it “the worst in baseball.”  They’ve lost superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, their first baseman is coming off a major wrist injury, their best third baseman is suspended for the year, and their shortstop is 40 years old and on the doorstep of retirement.  The pitching staff has question marks as well — formerly reliable ace C.C. Sabathia is coming off his worst career season and has seen his velocity drop precipitously over the past three seasons.  The team is old everywhere (nobody in the starting lineup is under 30) , and simply doesn’t have the depth to weather the inevitable attrition that comes with the injuries of an aging team.  For the first time since the 1980s, a spending spree won’t be enough to fix what ails the New York Yankees.

WHY WILL THE RAYS WIN THE EAST?

It seems amazing that the Tampa Bay Rays could possibly be the favorites in a division that contains both the defending world champion Red Sox and the free-spending Yankees.  And yet, the Rays have compiled such an impressive amount of talent that it seems a fifth playoff appearance in seven years is not only possible, but likely.  The team’s stable of pitching depth is so impressive that the Rays could have traded away former Cy Young winner David Price in the offseason and still had one of the best rotations in the sport.  And unfortunately for the rest of the American League, they hung onto Price, who will headline a rotation that includes three other pitchers whose ERAs sat under 3.30 in 2013.  The lineup, led by Evan Longoria and James Loney at the corners, as well as Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings up the middle, is no slouch either.  They have a payroll that projects to be among the bottom five in the league, but the Rays have their best opportunity yet to prove that money isn’t everything.

CENTRAL

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73)

2. Kansas City Royals (85-77)

3. Cleveland Indians (79-83)

4. Chicago White Sox (69-93)

5. Minnesota Twins (65-97)

SLEEPER TEAM: Kansas City Royals

This may be the best shot the Royals have towards breaking the playoff drought that has lasted since their only World Series title in 1985.  They have a bona fide ace in James Shields, a superstar talent in flamethrower Yordano Ventura, and a bullpen that last year was easily the best in the American League.  Offensively, the 2013 season saw Eric Hosmer break out at age 23, posting a .302/.353/.448 slash and 3.6 bWAR, and the Royals have another breakout candidate this year in 25 year old Mike Moustakas.  Elsewhere on the diamond, the Royals finally solved their long-standing second base problem by signing the reliable Omar Infante, and made a savvy pickup in outfielder Norichika Aoki.  Of course, the Dayton Moore-led front office also made a couple missteps this offseason, handing Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million contract and allowing Ervin Santana to escape while simultaneously re-signing Bruce Chen.  Thus, the back of the rotation is shaky, with Vargas and Chen joining the adequate but unspectacular Jeremy Guthrie.  Their pitching will likely regress, but the Royals have a real shot to usurp the Tigers and bring the AL Central crown back to Missouri for the first time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

After 94 losses in 2012, the Indians shocked the baseball world in 2013 with a scalding second half that enabled them to win 92 games and a wild card berth.  They did so on the backs of an emerging superstar in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, as well unlikely resurgences from  key members of their pitching staff, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.  Unfortunately for the Indians. Jimenez and Kazmir are gone, Jimenez heading to Baltimore and Kazmir to Oakland.  Gomes’ 2013, in which he hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs in 88 games, might be sustainable (he hit a freakishly similar .287/.345/.484 in his 5-year minor league career), but it also might not.  And in order to accommodate Gomes, the Indians have moved the defense-challenged Santana to third base (a position he hasn’t played regularly in eight years), where he could either be a revelation or a tire fire.  The Indians have too many question marks, too many things that have to break that way. It’s impossible to feel confident predicting success for them, but don’t rule out another surprise season.BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

WHY WILL THE TIGERS WIN THE EAST?

The Tigers, even without Doug Fister, have one of the most formidable rotations in the major leagues.  Their rotation is so good that reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is the team’s number 2 starter, behind 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.  And Scherzer might not even be better than the team’s 3 starter, Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA leader.  The lineup has more holes than it has in the past (especially at shortstop), but with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera alongside Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, the Tigers should hit enough to back up that outstanding pitching staff.

WEST

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers' fall.

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers’ fall.

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Angels (92-70)

2. Oakland Athletics (89-73)

3. Texas Rangers (84-78)

4. Seattle Mariners (74-88)

5. Houston Astors (59-103)

SLEEPER TEAM: Los Angeles Angels

It’s a little hard to call that plays in Los Angeles and has some of the most notable stars in the sport a sleeper.  But after four years without a playoff berth, and two years of disappointment in the shadow of the Albert Pujols contract, it’s difficult to find a prognosticator who’s bullish on LA’s other team.  And for good reason — the Angels struggled mightily in the first half of 2013, finishing with a 79-83 overall record.  Albert Pujols, their highest-paid player played in only 99 games, and hit a career-low .259 with just 17 home runs.  Josh Hamilton, the superstar who hit 43 home runs the year before signing a 5 year, $125 million deal with LA, hit fewer than half that in his first year of the contract, with an on-base percentage that barely cracked .300.  So why be optimistic?  Because despite the struggles of Pujols and Hamilton last year, the two are still superstar talents primed for ascension back to their career norms.  And of course, the Angels have recent $144.5 millionare Mike Trout, unquestionably the greatest talent in the game right now.  Despite having a thin pitching staff that features C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver, and not much else, the Angels still seem likely to be buoyed by their superstars to a strong finish in 2014.

 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Texas Rangers

After the greatest five-year run in the history of the franchise, it seems the door is finally shutting on the Texas Rangers dynasty.  Last year, the team’s formerly prolific offense slid back to the middle of the pack, posting a .737 OPS, which ranked 8th in the league, and a 99 OPS+.  So the Rangers spent heavily this offseason to rectify this problem, signing free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and taking on Prince Fielder’s contract in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Choo is a solid addition, but the Fielder trade, which opened a spot on the infield for top prospect Jurrickson Profar, seems more a lateral move than a positive one — after all, Kinsler was second among Rangers’ position players with 4.5 bWAR last year.  Additionally, the pitching staff looks very thin behind Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish, who is injured and will not start Opening Day.  In his stead, the Rangers will give the Opening Day nod to Tanner Scheppers, the first player since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first major league start in his team’s first game.  Behind Darvish, Scheppers and Martin Perez, the Rangers will go with Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross, neither of whom inspires confidence.  And frankly, neither do this year’s edition of the Rangers.

WHY WILL THE ANGELS WIN THE EAST?

The Angels are a team of superstars, and as previously mentioned, this might be the year that those superstars finally perform up to expectations.  Their division is weakened from previous years by injury and attrition, leaving the Angels a prime opportunity to finally reach the lofty heights owner Arte Moreno has spent heavily to reach.  Also, Mike Trout.

AL MVP: MIKE TROUT, LOS ANGELES ANGELS

AL CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER, DETROIT TIGERS

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: YORDANO VENTURA, KANSAS CITY ROYALS

FIRST AL MANAGER FIRED: RON GARDENHIRE, MINNESOTA TWINS

AL WILD CARD GAME: RED SOX OVER ATHLETICS

AL DIVISION SERIES: RAYS OVER RED SOX, TIGERS OVER ANGELS

AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: RAYS OVER TIGERS

WORLD SERIES: RAYS OVER CARDINALS

2014 NL Preview

The long wait is over, and baseball has finally arrived. And rather than enjoy the festivities of Opening Day, every baseball fan and his or her mother will mark the occasion by attempting to predict the outcome of the 2014 season. As baseball fans, we at Serious Jammage feel obligated to do our own predictions, even though they are almost guaranteed to be wrong. Today is the NL Preview, with the AL Preview coming out tomorrow.

EAST

 

How will Doug Fister impact the Nationals?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Washington Nationals (93-69)

2. Atlanta Braves (87-75)

3. New York Mets (75-87)

4. Miami Marlins (70-92)

5. Philadelphia Phillies (69-93)

SLEEPER TEAM – Miami Marlins: 

Last year, the Marlins not only finished last in the division, but also finished last in the NL, ending the year with a 62-100 record. The 2013 Marlins suffered from an historic lack of offense, as they finished dead last in batting average, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs. In fact, the Marlins hit just 95 home runs in 2013 — two fewer than the combined totals of Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis.  However, their young rotation brimmed with talent, headlined of course by Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, whose 2.19 ERA was the lowest by a rookie since Dave Righetti in 1981.  But the rest of the rotation managed success in Fernandez’ shadow, with Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs under 4. Over the offseason, the Marlins made some to improve their offense, bringing in former Boston Red Sox’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs in 121 games last season. They took fliers on former Pirate Garrett Jones, who is coming off of a down year, as well as Rafael Furcal, who missed 2013 with injury, and Casey McGehee, who spent the year in Japan. On top of those additions, the Marlins will get full seasons from top outfield prospects Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Look for the pitching to improve as well in 2014, as probable regression from Fernandez will be mitigated by improvements from Turner, Eovaldi, and Alvarez, each of whom are no older than 24.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Philadelphia Phillies

The 2013 Phillies finished with the franchise’s worst record since 1997, and none of their moves this offseason suggest that they will be able to turn it around. Already this season, the Phillies have already lost pitcher Cole Hamels to bicep tendonitis, which will likely keep him out for at least the first month of the season.  Age is the biggest problem the Phillies face; their projected Opening Day lineup will have an average age of about 31, and their starting rotation (including Cole Hamels) will have an average age of about 33. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (given the derisive moniker “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.” by his detractors) did nothing to make his team younger — his biggest offseason signings were Marlon Byrd (36), Carlos Ruiz (35), and A.J. Burnett (37).  With a lack of major league talent in their farm system, the Phillies may be trapped if one of those aging stars go down with an injury. The Phillies may be looking for a redux of their famous Wheeze Kids team of 1983 — that club won the pennant despite an average age over 32.  But with the talent level on this year’s team, it seems the Phillies’ dynasty has finally run out of breath.

WHY WILL THE NATIONALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

Last season, the Nationals were one of the biggest disappointment in baseball. After winning 98 games and the division in 2o12 , the Nationals slipped in 2013, winning only 86 games and finishing 4 games out of the playoffs. A lack of offense for most of the season, injuries to star players like Bryce Harper, and a lack of pitching depth restricted the Nationals from becoming they team prognosticators thought they would be. However, the Nationals greatly improved their chances this year with possibly the biggest steal of the offseason, acquiring Doug Fister from the Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. Fister will slide into the fourth spot in the Nationals rotation, behind all-stars Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, giving the Nationals arguably the best rotation in baseball. As for their offense, full seasons from Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos will help give the Nationals plenty of depth in their lineup. If the Nationals are able to stay healthy in 2014, they have the potential to be as good as any other team in baseball.

CENTRAL

 

The Pirates lack of starting pitching will keep them from repeating their 2013 playoff run.

 

PROJECTED FINISH

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

2. Cincinnati Reds (88-74)

3. Pittsburg Pirates (82-80)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)

5. Chicago Cubs (68-94)

SLEEPER TEAM – Milwaukee Brewers: 

Heading into 2014, there are a lot of questions revolving around the Brewers. How will Ryan Braun play after his PED suspension? Can Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura repeat their success from last year? Is Matt Garza finally healthy? Will Yovani Gallardo return to his 2012 form? Who would name their child Scooter? Last season, the Brewers were a middle of the pack offensive team. However, they only got half of  a season from Braun, inarguably the most talented hitter on the roster; Braun has picked up where he left off this Spring, hitting .379/.468/.690 with 2 home runs. But the Brewers success this season comes down to their starting pitching, and more specifically, Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo. Garza, who signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this offseason, is coming off back to back seasons that have been shortened by injuries. If Garza can stay healthy in 2014, then the Brewers will have a strong 1-2 punch of him and the always-consistent Kyle Lohse. But Gallardo is the true lynchpin of the team’s success.  In 2013, Gallardo posted career worsts in almost all statistical categories. He pitched the fewest innings in his career, striking out the fewest he has in a season, while still giving up the most earned runs he has ever given up in a season. The Brewers need Gallardo to return to the form he displayed from 2009-2012 — when he had a 3.64 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning — in order for them to succeed this year. With a full season from Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, and a hopefully healthy Matt Garza, the Brewers have a chance to turn many heads this year. Plus, how can a team do poorly with this guy as their mascot?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Pittsburgh Pirates: 

One year removed from finally making it back to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the Pirates seem destined to find themselves sitting outside of the playoffs once again in 2014. After losing pitcher AJ Burnett to free agency, the Pirates didn’t do anything to replace them besides adding reclamation project Edison Volquez, who hasn’t had a season with an ERA under 4 since his rookie season in 2008. While a low risk/high reward signing worked out very well for the Pirates last year with Fransisco Liriano, Volquez hasn’t had the same career success as Liriano had heading into last season. And it’s impossible to be sure which Liriano the Pirates are going to get in 2014; the 2013 version who had a 3.02 ERA and a 117 ERA+, or the 2012 version, who finished the season with a 5.34 ERA, which was 4th worst among all qualified pitchers. By not re-signing AJ Burnett, the Pirates have lost the man who functioned as their staff ace over the past two seasons. If the Pirates rotation, now anchored by the mercurial Liriano and the young flamethrower Gerrit Cole, cannot hold together in 2014, it will be a long season in the Steel City.

WHY WILL THE CARDINALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

There is no team in baseball that has fewer holes on their roster than the St. Louis Cardinals. After losing to the Red Sox in the World Series, the Cardinals made two moves that help stack their lineup from top to bottom – signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and trading David Freese to the Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjous. By making these moves, the Cardinals can now move Matt Carpenter, who had a career year in 2013, back to his natural position of third base, start top prospect Kolten Wong at second, platoon Jon Jay, who had a down year last season, with Bourjous, and replace the offense-challenged Pete Kozma with the offense-heavy Peralta. Even when the Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran in free agency, they had a viable plan to replace him, moving Allen Craig to the outfield and handing Matt Adams the starting job at first base. Not only do the Cardinals have a fantastic lineup, they also have a rotation filled with young starters — like Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and postseason hero Michael Wacha — who have been successful at the major league level, alongside one of the best pitchers in the game in Adam Wainwright. On top of that, the Cardinals have one of the best young relievers in baseball in Trevor Rosenthal, whose fastball hits triple digits with regularity. With one of the most complete teams in baseball, look for the Cardinals to win their division again.

WEST

Can the Padres return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

2. San Diego Padres (89-63)

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83)

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (77-85)

5. Colorado Rockies (67-95)

SLEEPER TEAM: San Diego Padres

The Padres are the team with the most potential to surprise heading into 2014. Their rotation is headed by one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball in Andrew Cashner, who has had health issues in the past, but also has one of the best fastballs in baseball — Fangraphs had it as the fifith most valuable fastball in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Cliff Lee, and Max Scherzer. The Padres also have Eric Stults, who pitched more than 200 innings last year with an ERA under 4, and Tyson Ross, a 27-year old journeyman who finally found success at the big league level last year.  They have added reclamation projects Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy, both of whom have at one point been among the best pitchers in baseball, though both have struggled recently (Johnson has already been placed on the DL with a flexor strain in his right arm). Their lineup is full of players who had strong years last year, though their numbers were suppressed by their cavernous home park.  Outfielder Wil Venable and rookie second baseman Jedd Gyrko both showed that they could hit for power, hitting 22 and 23 home runs respectively. The Padres will be getting all-star shortstop Everth Cabrera back after a PED suspension cost him 50 games in 2013. And if Chase Headley can return to his 2012 form (when he finished 5th in the league in MVP balloting), the Padres will have a strong lineup in addition to an extremely deep bench, with players like Chase Hundley and Kyle Blanks being used as backups. If their pitching can hold up, and one of their reclamation projects can recover some of his former glory, the Padres will be able to compete with anybody in the NL, and will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks have finished 81-81 for the past two seasons, and this year, they might not even reach that mark.  In one of the most confusing moves this offseason, the Diamondbacks gave up starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs and outfielder prospect Adam Eaton for Mark Trumbo, who will be playing left field for them. While Trumbo is known for his power at the plate, his on-base percentage dropped below .300 last year, and his defense in left is Adam Dunn/Lucas Duda bad:

Like many other team this spring training, the Diamondbacks have been bit by the injury bug, losing ace Patrick Corbin and reliver David Hernandez for the season to a torn UCL. Losing Corbin for the season will cause the Diamondbacks to use either Josh Collmenter or Randall Delgado in their rotation. While neither of those player are bad, they will not be able to fill the void that Patrick Corbin left. Even with the signing of Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks will finish the season on the bad side of 81 wins.

WHY WILL THE DODGERS WIN THE DIVISION?

When you beat out the Yankees for the biggest payroll in baseball ($235 million, almost $30 million more than New York), you’re likely to be pretty good. The Dodgers have superstars at almost every position: Hanley Ramirez at short, Adrian Gonzalez at first, Yasiel Puig in right, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke in their rotation. Like the Cardinals, this team has very few holes. This offseason, the Dodgers did a good job fortifying their bullpen by re-signing Brian Wilson to a one year deal and signing former Indians closer Chris Perez. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, was a good as any other closer last season, compiling a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves. Outside of second base (where the team neglected to sign Mark Ellis, instead opting to replace him with untested Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, the Dodgers lineup projects to be a nightmare for opposing teams. And their rotation, with reigning Cy Young winner Kershaw alongside Greinke and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, seems likely to be one of the best in baseball. The Dodgers are not only the best team in the West; they might be the best team in baseball.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

NL CY YOUNG: Jose Fernandez. Miami Marlins

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

FIRST NL MANAGER FIRED: Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

NL WILD CARD GAME: Reds over Padres

NL DIVISION SERIES: Cardinals over Reds, Nationals over Dodgers

NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: Cardinals over Nationals

STAY TUNED FOR THE AL PREVIEW, COMING OUT TOMORROW.

Can Aaron Barrett or Blake Treinen Break Camp?

We’ve neared the end of Spring Training, and the Nationals roster is beginning to take shape. Players who impressed this Spring, like Zach Walters. Brock Peterson, A.J Cole, and Sammy Solis have departed for the minor leagues. But there are two names of the thirty left in big league camp who are both surprising and intriguing: relievers Blake Treinen and Aaron Barrett. With the news that Ross Detwiler would be moved to the bullpen, it seems that there is only one bullpen spot left with a whole host of pitchers (Ryan Mattheus, Mike Gonzalez, Xavier Cedeno) vying for that coveted last spot. So do Barrett and Treinen stand a chance?

In 2010, the Nationals drafted  Aaron Barrett with the 266th pick of the draft. Barrett, who was a starter at the University of Mississippi, immediately struggled in rookie ball, allowing 22 earned runs in 21 innings in his first season. His struggles were so bad, that he was considering giving up baseball. After his atrocious 2010 season, Barrett gave up starting pitching and was moved to the bullpen, where, in 2011, he continued to struggle with his command. However, something changed for Barrett in 2012. Barrett started the season in single-A with the Hagerstown Suns, where he impressed many by dropping his ERA to 2.60 in 34.2 before getting called up to single-A+ Potomac in July. In Potomac, Barrett continued to improve, compiling a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings. In 2013, Barrett played the entire season in AA Harrisburg, where, from the pen, he had a 2.15 ERA in 50.1 innings, while striking out 69 batters, and only walking 15. This offseason, Barrett received his first invite to major league camp, and thus far, he has not disappointed. In 8.2 innings this spring, Barrett has yet allowed a run, and has only allowed 4 base runners, while striking out 7. What makes Barrett so effective is his slider, which has been his main pitch throughout his career. Barrett also features a low-90’s fastball with sink, that Harrisburg Senators pitching coach Chris Michalak has described as a “bowling ball”.  What would give Barrett an edge over Treinen is the fact that last November, Barrett was placed on the 40-man roster, meaning that if he were to start the season in the majors, the Nationals would not need to designate any of their players for assignment.

Blake Treinen’s time in the Nationals organization has been much shorter than Barrett’s as Treinen was acquired last offseason along with AJ Cole and Ian Krol in Michael Morse trade. In his first season in professional baseball, Treinen was exclusively used as a relief pitcher. Then, in 2012, the single-A+ Stockton Ports shuttled Treinen from relief to starting pitching. By the end of the season, Treinen was almost exclusively used as a starting pitcher. After the before mentioned Michael Morse trade, Treinen was sent up to AA Harrisburg, where he started in 20 of 21 games he appeared in, posting a 3.64 ERA in 118.2 innings pitched with 2.61 K/BB ratio. Similarly to Barrett, this spring is Treinen’s first with a major league club. Even though his stats this spring haven’t been all that impressive, his stuff wows the scouts. Treinen’s repertoire is headlined by his 97 MPH slider, which has one scout saying that Treinen is absolutely one of the Nationals best 12 arms in the organization. However, Treinen’s raw stuff has not led to dominance in the minor leagues. His career K/9 of 7.7 is not particularly eye-popping. His 1.28 career WHIP is similarly uninspiring. On top of that, Treinen is not currently on the Nationals 40 man roster, which means that if he were to make the team, the Nationals most have to designate a player for assignment, with the most likely candidates being catcher  Jhonatan Solano or utility man Jeff Kobernus.   

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there are other pitchers also competing for that final bullpen spot. Mike Gonzalez, who was signed to a deal on March 4th, has struggled, compiling a 9.00 ERA in 4 appearances this spring. Xavier Cedeno has look good, but it is unlikely that the Nationals will want to carry a third lefty. Ryan Mattheus has been hurt the entire spring, and will most likely be ready for the start of the season. So that leaves Treinen and Barrett as two of the strongest viable candidates for the job. Even though Treinen’s raw talent is good enough to start in the majors, he has not yet harnessed it to become the dominate pitcher that his talent suggest. Barrett does not have the stuff that Treinen does, but he has shown more consistency in his last two seasons and against major league hitting this spring. If one of the two were to win the last spot, the Nationals would be wise to pick Aaron Barrett over Blake Treinen.

Who is Currently Winning the Nationals’ Position Battles?

Coming into Spring Training, the Nationals had several questions concerning their Opening Day roster. Who is going to start at second base? Who is going to be the fifth starter? Who is going to fill out the bullpen? With Spring Training games almost half way through, many answers to these questions are coming into shape. Today, we examine who has the edge at each of these position battles.

Starting Second Baseman

CompetitorsDanny Espinosa (Spring Stats: 4 for 17, 1 RBI, 1 XBH, 1 SB)

Anthony Rendon (5 for 16, 1 HR, 2 RBIs, 7 SO)

Both players started off their springs looking rusty, going a combined 0 for 17 with 8 strikeouts. Since then, however, Rendon and Espinosa have gone from frigid to scorching hot. Rendon has gone 5 for his last 9 with a home run off of Joe Kelly in yesterday’s contest.

rendon hr

Espinosa has been equally good over the past few games, going 4 for 7 with a walk and some impressive defense:

espinosa ranges

Espinosa has also impressed with aggressive baserunning, as well as with his swing from the left side of the plate.

Espinosa’s improved baserunning is most likely a product of Matt Williams’ tutelage, as is the aggression on the bases from other Nationals such as Denard Span and Ian Desmond.  Both Espinosa and Rendon have displayed the full range of their abilities. However, despite Matt Williams’ strong fondness for Espinosa, Rendon came into this battle with the edge due to his production and pedigree, and has done little to fall off the top of the depth chart. 

VERDICT: As of March 10th, Anthony Rendon maintains a slight edge over Danny Espinosa.

Fifth Starter

Competitors: Ross Detwiler (3.1 IP, 10.80 ERA, 4 ER, 4 Ks)

Tanner Roark (4.2 IP, 1.93 ERA, 1 ER, 3 Ks)

Taylor Jordan (7 IP, 3.86 ERA, 3 ER, 11 Ks)

Spring Training stats must be taken with a grain of salt, especially with pitchers. Often times, pitchers will be hit hard because they are working on a new pitch or new approach for the regular season. That is exactly the case for Ross Detwiler, as his inflated 10.80 ERA is a product of him working on his curveball, which has looked good at times this spring.

While Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark have been impressive thus far in Spring, this is still Detwiler’s job to lose, and unless something big happens, it doesn’t look like that will change.

VERDICT: As of March 10th, Ross Detwiler will be the Nationals fifth starter, with Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark starting the year in the minors.

Final Two Bullpen Spots

CandidatesChristian Garcia (4.1 IP, 8.31 ERA, 4 ER, 6 Ks)

Luis Ayala (4.1 IP, 8.31 ERA, 4 ER, 3 Ks)

Manny Delcarmen (3 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 ER, 5 Ks)

Ross Ohlendorf (0 IP, INF ERA, 2 ER, 0 Ks)

Mike Gonzalez (NO STATS)

Ryan Mattheus (NO STATS)

Xavier Cedeno (4 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 ER, 3 Ks)

Anything can happen with this competition. Both Luis Ayala and Christian Garcia’s ERAs have been inflated by one bad outing — each has had an outing in which they gave up four runs. Ross Ohlendorf only has one appearance, in which he struggled before being removed from the game with an injury. Manny Delcarmen, whose chances of making the team are slim, has pitched very well thus far, allowing only two baserunners in three innings of work. Ryan Mattheus suffered a bruised rib before the start of Spring Training game, and thus has yet to see any action this Spring. Lefty specialist Xavier Cedeno, who saw time with the Nationals in September, has been very impressive in limited time this spring, allowing just 2 hits in 4 innings. Mike Gonzalez, who signed with the Nationals last week on a minor league contract, is scheduled to pitch some time this week for the Nationals. The composition of the bullpen’s final two spots depends just as much on manager preference as it does spring performance, and manager Matt Williams seems to prefer filling those spots with a lefty one-out guy and a righty long reliever. Cedeno has not done anything to prove that he shouldn’t be the Nationals LOOGY, and if he is healthy, Ohlendorf seems likely retain his role on the team.

VERDICT: As of March 10th, Xavier Cedeno and Ross Ohlendorf will be the last two Nationals to make the bullpen.

You Don’t Know Chone: The Sleeper Pick to Win the Dodgers’ 2nd Base Battle

20140303-225645.jpg

There may be a familiar face in Southern California baseball this spring. Chone Figgins received a minor league deal with a spring training invitation with the Dodgers. He played for the Angels from 2002-2009. Figgins had a disastrous three year stint in Seattle and was cut by the Marlins (!) prior to the start of the 2013 season. He took 2013 off and is itching to get back into baseball in sunny SoCal, the site of his last successful MLB season. In his last year with the Angles, he stole 42 bases and earned a trip to the All-Star game. Five years later, after being nearly out of baseball, he is competing for the Dodgers open 2nd base job. Chone Figgins’ last chance at a comeback seems to be feasible with the cast of characters he is competing with this March. Don Mattingly has said that 2nd base is “up in the air”.

Over the offseason, GM Ned Colletti expanded his spending to Cuba to fill his 2nd base hole, signing 27 year old Alex Guerrero to a four year, 28 million dollar deal. Yet, Guerrero had looked shaky so far this spring and there has been talk he may spend the beginning of the season in Albuquerque. A former shortstop, the transition to second base has not been an easy one. With Dodgers being the favorite in the NL West as well as a serious contender for the World Series crown, the Dodgers brass may not be willing to deal with Guerrero’s rough transition at the major league level. Guerrero could very well start the year in Triple-A and could look to contribute as the season goes on.

Two more veteran options include former Mets 2nd baseman Justin Turner and journeyman Brendan Harris. The Dodgers are Harris’ eleventh organization and chances are, he will be looking for a twelfth by the end of March. Justin Turner was a fan favorite in Queens who is a .260 career hitter. Neither Harris nor Turner offer the speed that Figgins or our next candidate bring.

Dee Gordon was once a top prospect in the Dodgers organization. A potential candidate to win the stolen base crown multiple times. Yet, Tom Gordon’s son never put it together at the plate, struggling to clear .240. The Dodgers have essentially given up on him as their future shortstop and the presence of Hanley Ramirez makes that decision easier. Yet, Gordon speed still makes him an attractive option at 2nd.

Now back to Figgins. Figgins possesses all the things Mattingly may be looking for in his short term 2nd baseman. He is a seasoned veteran who has speed and a bat that can be serviceable this season. Of course the days of him stealing 40-plus bases (let alone his career high of 62) and hitting over .290 may be over. Yet it is not out of question he could hit .270 and steal 20 bases. That would be considered a successful season at this point in his career and could be wishful thinking. If Figgins can prove he can still play this spring, he will offer an intriguing veteran safety blanket for Don Mattingly come opening day.

Chone Figgins is hoping the Southern California weather can help him recapture his All-Star production from five years ago. If he receives a chance, Figgins hopes to help the other LA team reach the Fall Classic.

10 Bold Predictions For the Nationals in 2014

2013 was a year of disappointment for the Nationals. After being everybody’s favorite to win the World Series, the Nats fell flat on their face, missing the playoffs by a handful of games. As we turn the calendar to 2014, we make several bold predictions for the Nats this year.

10. They are not done this offseason

Over the course of this offseason, the Nationals have traded for Doug Fister and Jerry Blevins, and have signed Nate McLouth. To many experts, the Nationals have completed everything that they needed to this offseason and are ready to start the 2014 season. However, I still believe that Mike Rizzo and Co. have one more trick up their sleeves. Earlier this off season, the Nationals were rumored to be in on several free agents, including catcher John Buck and infielder Eric Chavez. Since then, Chavez has re-signed with the Diamondbacks. However, Buck is still available. While the Nationals seem content with Jhontan Solano and Sandy Leon being the backup catchers, and Buck’s asking price being a little hefty for a backup, the Nationals might surprise people by making this small move. They could also still be in the market for a utility infielder or a lefty power bat. Be on the look out for the Nationals to make another under-the-radar move.

9. Wilson Ramos plays 125+ games this season

In an interview during the winter meetings, GM Mike Rizzo was asked about signing another catcher. Rizzo responded that he thinks Ramos can play most of the season. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t know what the average everyday catcher caught … what, about a 125-128 games? I think he can take on that load.” Many people thought that this claim was ludicrous, since in the past two seasons, Ramos has played in a total of 103 games. However, it is possible for Ramos to achieve this feat. In 2011, Ramos’s rookie season, he was able to play in 113 games, while still sharing time with Ivan Rodriguez. However, in 2012, Ramos tore his ACL, and missed the majority of the season, and this year, Ramos dealt with numerous hamstring issues. The injuries have caused people to lose faith in Ramos’s abilities to stay healthy. However, Ramos changed his approach on the basepaths later in the season last year, so that he wouldn’t injure his hamstring again. That change in approach allowed Ramos to stay healthy and fresh in the second half of the season. It also allowed Ramos to play in 20 consecutive games at catcher, before a double header forced Ramos to sit. If Ramos can pick up where he left off, there is no reason to believe he won’t play at least 125 games.

8. Doug Fister will receive Cy Young votes at the end of the season.

By far the Nationals’ biggest move this offseason was the acquisition of starting pitcher Doug Fister in exchange for Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, and Steve Lombardozzi. By making this trade, the Nationals filled out their rotation, adding one of the most undervalued pitchers in baseball. This upcoming season, Doug Fister will show baseball how good he is by not just being one of the best pitchers in the vaunted Nationals rotation, but in all of baseball. Over the past three seasons, Fister has, in terms of fWAR, been the ninth best pitcher in the major leagues, just behind Cy Young Winners Justin Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. Fister is also making the transition from the AL to the NL — in 12 career starts against the senior circuit, Fister has a 2.09 ERA. Although that is a small sample size, it bodes well for Fister’s transition.

7. Strasburg won’t be ready by Opening Day

A few weeks after the season ended, Stephen Strasburg underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. While Strasburg wasn’t the only National to get surgery (Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche also had surgery to repair various injuries), Strasburg’s is the most worrisome, as he has already dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career. This new injury that Strasburg suffered this season is only another addition to Strasburg’s long and well-documented injury history. Historically, the Nationals have been very careful when handling Strasburg and his myriad injuries. Don’t look for him to be rushed back if he the Nationals don’t feel that he is ready.

6. Danny Espinosa will play 120+ games this season in DC, and will start in at least half.

Espinosa’s 2013 was an unmitigated disappointment for both himself and the Nationals organization. After a very good rookie year, Espinosa suffered a slight “sophomore slump” in 2012, batting .247/.215/.402 and leading the league in strikeouts with 168. In 2013, things only got worse for Espinosa, as his average dropped to .158, and he whiffed in 28% of his at bats. Then, in June, Espinosa was sent to the minors, where he continued to struggle, batting .216/.280/.286 in AAA Syracuse. While Espinosa struggled all of last year, both in the majors and the minors, he still has a good shot of making the major league roster out of spring. His plus defensive abilities make him valuable as a defensive replacement in the later innings. However, I think that Espinosa will be used for more than that. At the end of the last season, the Nationals had first round draft pick Anthony Rendon as their starting second baseman. Rendon had a good rookie year, hitting .265/.329/.396 with 1.5 fWAR. However, one of the Nationals main concerns with Rendon is that he is often injured. Throughout college and even in his pro career, Rendon has dealt with various injuries, including one in 2012 which cost him most of the season. Of course, no one can really predict an injury. But the Nationals will want to keep Rendon healthy, and one way that they could do that is by limiting his playing time, and having Espinosa make starts at second. Combine that with the fact that Rendon will see some time at third base, with Ryan Zimmerman seeing occasional time at first, and it seems likely that Espinosa will get some solid playing time this year.

5. Denard Span will hit over .300

In the 2012-2013 offseason, the Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer in the hopes that Span could be the franchise center fielder that the Nationals have long sought out. Span’s first year in D.C. was decent — while his offensive numbers were slightly below his career norms, he was one of the top defensive center fielders in baseball. However, in 2014, Span’s offensive numbers will make him as valuable on offense as he is on defense. In 2013, Span started off the year on a bad note, and was hitting .265/.320/.355 through the teams first 90 games. Then, on July 22nd, the Nationals fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein and brought in minor league hitting coach Rick Schu. Schu’s arrival brough marked improvement from Span, as Span managed to hit .303/.337/.418 through the teams final 62 games. Another reason for Span’s success might be a change of approach at the plate. On August 25, Denard Span received a text from his mom telling him “to swing the first pitch more often.” From August 25, until the end of the season, Span hit .336/.374/.451, including a 29 game hitting streak. While the league will probably adapt to Span’s new approach, his offense will still be more of a factor in 2014.

4. Jayson Werth will regress, a lot.

Last year, Jayson Werth had his best season as a Washington National, and possibly the best in his career, hitting .318/.398/.512 with a 4.8 WAR. Werth also finished 13th in the NL MVP vote, and was probably the best the NL offensively last season. While he did suffer a hamstring injury that kept him out for almost all of May, it didn’t detract from his amazing season. That being said, there is very little chance that Werth will be able to keep that up next season. In the past two seasons, Werth has missed almost 115 games with various injuries. Werth, who is turning 35 in May, is the Nationals oldest position player. Every year Werth gets older, he will be more likely to get injured, and it will be more and more difficult to overcome those injuries. While it is impossible to predict injuries, Werth might be the most likely offensive player to get injured.

3. Rafael Soriano wont be the closer by the end of the year.

After signing a two year, $22 million deal in the offseason of 2012-2013, Soriano became the closer for the Nationals. The team hoped that he could repeat his 2012 performance with the Yankees, where Soriano saved 42 of 46 opportunities and had a 2.26 ERA while replacing Mariano Rivera in the back of the Yankees pen. On the surface, Soriano’s 2013 campaign seems pretty good; Soriano saved 43 games, putting him in the top five in that category, and converted 88% of his saves, which was above league average last season. However, if we dig deeper into Soriano’s season, we see more troubling signs. According to Brooks Baseball, Soriano’s average fastball and slider speed were down almost a full MPH from 2012 to 2013. On top of that, almost all of his pitches had less vertical movement than in years past, making Soriano more hittable. His contact percentage was up to 88%, the highest in his career, and his WHIP was also a career high. Soriano is on the downswing of his career, and it is unlikely that he will improve in 2014. Moving Soriano from the closer role will be made easier because…

2. Drew Storen will return to his 2011-2012 form.

From 2010-2012, the Nationals seemed to have their closer of the future in Drew Storen. In his three season, Storen converted 52 of 60 save opportunities, including 43 of 48 in 2011, his first and only full year as closer. There were times in those three years where Storen looked like one of the top closers in baseball. Then, on one fateful night in October, everything changed. Come April, Drew Storen was no longer the Nationals closer. After being demoted to set-up man, Storen struggled through his first 47 appearances, collecting a 5.65 ERA with a .355 BABIP (batting average of balls in play). After a July 24th outing where Storen gave up 3 runs in 2/3 of an inning, he was demoted to AAA to work on his mechanics. After about a month in the minors, Storen was called back up to the majors. After that, he was a different pitcher. From August 16th (the day he was called up) to the end of the season, Storen gave up just 3 runs in a little over 19 innings, giving him a 1.40 ERA during that stretch. That Storen resembled the Storen who got those 43 saves in 2011. If Storen can keep that up in 2014, he will return to the closer role by the end of the season.

1. Bryce Harper will finish top 3 in the NL MVP vote.

Last April, this seemed like it was going to happen in 2013. Harper started off the season on a tear, hitting .356/.437/.744 with 9 home runs in the month of April. Then, on April 29th, Bryce Harper flung his body against the wall in Atlanta, bruising the entire right side of his body. After that night, Harper wasn’t the same player. From April 30th until May 13th, Harper batted .138/.297/.241. His batting average dropped almost 50 points in the matter of two weeks. Then, on May 13th, Harper made things worse by running face first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, further injuring his side and his knee. These injuries kept Harper in and out of the lineup for the next two months. He ended up missing the entire month of June due to his injuries from running into the walls. After his various run-ins with the wall (see what I did there?), Harper’s performance dipped considerably. While it wasn’t expected for him to keep hitting at a .356/.437/.744 pace, he was surely expected to do better than what he did. If Harper hadn’t run into those walls, he could have had a year for the record books. Barring another wall collision, Harper will have a phenomenal third season.