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.