Five questions: Washington Nationals

Who are the starting five?

It is obvious that one of the Nationals’ offseason goals was to greatly improve their pitching staff. They are rumored to have made a competitive offer to Cliff Lee and purportedly put together an acceptable package for Zack Greinke before he confirmed that he would not accept a trade to the nation’s capital. Having missed on the premium options of the offseason, Washington took aim at Cubs starter Tom Gorzelanny, who became expendable after the Matt Garza trade. They also re-signed the seemingly ageless innings muncher Livan Hernandez and former Yankees worm-burner Chien-Ming Wang.

Those moves bring the total of talented starting pitchers in camp up to eight. In addition to Gorzelanny, Hernandez and Wang, the Nationals also own the rights to Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Yunesky Maya and Ross Detwiler. Chad Gaudin is also in camp on a minor league contract and the ghost of Stephen Strasburg lingers as if to tease us all.

Given the multitude of options, it is a challenge to parse out what the starting rotation will look like. At least to start the season, five jump to the fore as proven major league commodities. The Opening Day roster will likely be some combination of Hernandez, Marquis, Gorzelanny, Lannan and Zimmermann. However, that is not to say those are the club’s best options and over the full season a few of those Opening Day presences are likely to find themselves elsewhere.

As such, a better question might be, “What five starting pitchers will pitch the most innings this season?”

Let’s start with the pitchers who should have secure jobs. Zimmermann will be given every opportunity at the big league level as a player who is expected to slot in well behind Strasburg. Gorzelanny also has solid job security as a fairly stable, middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. Barring injury, those pitchers should have little trouble putting together a full season with the Nationals.

More pedestrian options like Hernandez, Marquis and Lannan need to watch their backs. None of that trio is likely to be a part of the next successful Nationals team and so management has little incentive to continue to invest major league innings in them. Some may be wondering about this conclusion with regards to Lannan. After all, 2011 is his first arbitration season, making him team controlled through at least the 2013 season. However, Lannan is an extremely pedestrian pitcher and as someone already earning $2.75 million in 2011, he is a likely non-tender candidate. All three are solid back-of-the-rotation pitchers, so look for the Nationals to ship one or more of them elsewhere.

While Hernandez, Marquis and Lannan are not likely to be a part of the next great Washington team, the Nationals do have a couple of major league-ready arms that might be. The easiest one to put in the back of the line is Wang. The righthander is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery and while the scouting reports have bordered on glowing, he is way behind his competition in mound work and was recently pulled from an intrasquad game with shoulder soreness. For Wang, the road to recovery puts him at a disadvantage. Add in that he is not cost controlled by the Nationals and it becomes harder to see the front office investing playing time in him.

The more interesting options are Maya and Detwiler. Maya is an extreme command and control type pitcher whom the Nationals really like. The Cuban defector has seen little work in the States and could probably benefit from some time spent in the minors. Still, the Nationals are likely eager to give Maya the opportunity to mature into something more valuable than their current back-of-the-rotation veteran depth.

In short work this spring, Detwiler has been impressive. He’s talked about finally feeling recovered from his previous hip surgery and scouts have indicated that they can tell. As the sixth overall pick in the 2007 Rule IV draft, Detwiler has the former prospect pedigree and raw skills to be an effective and reliable middle-of-the–otation pitcher. If Detwiler maintains the poise that has made his early spring appearances so impressive, the decision makers in Washington will be falling all over themselves to find a way to get him in the rotation.

Who will emerge from the outfield logjam?

The rotation is not the only place where the Nationals have acquired an enviable quantity of depth. Going into the offseason, the Nationals had three returning outfielders including the suddenly mercurial Nyjer Morgan, Mike Morse and Roger Bernadina. They added right-handed slugger Jayson Werth on a widely scorned mega-deal and took a flier on everyone’s favorite baseball story, Rick Ankiel. Freshly signed super utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. can also man the outfield.

While this appears to be a normal amount of major league depth, the Nationals’ challenge will be to find enough playing time for all five. Werth obviously will play pretty much every game that he’s healthy and management has even indicated a desire to let him roam center field from time to time. The remaining four are more difficult to project in terms of playing time.

Morgan, the incumbent center fielder, has placed himself on thin ice via a number of incidents that can be best described as temper tantrums. Furthermore, his previous super-elite defensive skills all but vanished last season when he began relying solely on his speed while taking extremely circuitous routes. His troubles translating his speed into effectiveness on the base paths has been more widely discussed. With those portions of his skill set languishing, Morgan is a poor option as a major league starter. His slappy plate approach does not help his case. Nevertheless, he is the best center fielder on the roster so the position should be seen as his to lose, regardless of how short a rope the Nationals keep him on.

Ankiel is an interesting investment for the Nationals. It appears the plan here is to get him playing time among all three outfield slots and first base with the hopes that he enjoys a renaissance at the plate. Since he’s capable of playing center field, the decision to sign him may have redflcted the franchise’s worries about Morgan. The ultimate goal may be to build value in him before flipping him at the trade deadline for a potentially useful prospect, much as the Nats did with Matt Capps. He does not fit in with the long term plan.

Morse may be the most interesting non-Werth of the bunch. In his brief major league career, he has punished left-handed pitching and in 2010 he simply murdered them with a .999 OPS (albeit in a small sample). Unfortunately for Morse, the outfield is not an ideal defensive home for him. Scouts, advanced statistics and front office personnel agree that his defense is severely lacking. At this point, Morse looks like an ideal platoon fielder who can provide hefty damage against left-handed starters while chasing those pesky left-handed relievers out of the game. His defense and average results against right-handed pitching limit his utility.

Bernadina is extremely average across the board. He has adequate contact skills, power, plate discipline, speed, defense and even arm strength, yet none of his skills really flash above average. As such he’s a general manager’s dream fourth outfielder, a guy who will almost never hurt your team even if he rarely helps it. He’s a little stretched when defending in center field, but he can hold his own out there, giving the Nationals further depth if Morgan resumes his shenanigans of 2010. He’s also a solid platoon partner for a guy like Morse.

Taken together, it appears the Nationals have more outfielders that they want to play than roster spots. Werth can be penciled in for a clean 150 games and Ankiel is likely to get plenty of time to build his trade value. The Nationals also really like the idea of a Morse and Bernadina platoon, yet the presence of Morgan as the incumbent center fielder might hamper their plans. Don’t be surprised if the Nationals send a little depth elsewhere, although they may be prudent to hold off until closer to the trade deadline.

How will Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa develop?

Nationals top prospects Strasburg and Bryce Harper capture most of the media attention, but in 2011 we will be able to closely follow another important aspect of Washington’s youth movement—the middle infield.

Desmond will be entering his sophomore season as the team’s shortstop. During his tenure, he’s shown good range and a solid arm combined with a propensity to occasionally misjudge choppers. The Nationals hope that he can continue to improve defensively and become more sure-handed. The switch from Adam Dunn to Adam LaRoche at first base is likely to bail him out of a few of his previous mishaps. At the plate, Desmond demonstrates good power for a shortstop. His contact skills are merely adequate but he can get good leverage at times and could drive as many as 20 home runs per season in his prime. Currently he can be expected to steal quite a few bases with a solid success rate. If his plate discipline skills take a step forward, he will become even more valuable to Washington.

Espinosa just missed out on rookie status last season and will likely handle second base in 2011. He’s a capable defender at shortstop, so some early season struggles from Desmond could result in a position swap. Defensively, he does not seem to have the same arm strength as Desmond but he does have good range and sure hands. He looked effective at second base in his brief exposure in 2010. At the plate, he strikes out at a fairly high clip but has surprising power, making it a worthwhile trade off. His batting average is likely to be low most seasons, but he can chip in 20 or more home runs, a similar amount of stolen bases, and walks at a slightly below average clip. He will drive in his share of runs but will never be a good table setter.

Altogether, the Nationals just need to sit back and let these two play. They will hope that both players mature defensively and if either shows improvement in plate discipline, the brass will be very pleased.

Will we see Strasburg or Harper in September?

Honestly, who can say, but everyone watching the Nationals will be hoping to catch a peek of both players.

Strasburg is the more likely of the pair to show up in a major league box score. His Tommy John surgery was a success and he has yet to suffer any setbacks. Edinson Volquez, who in 2009 had his surgery at a similar time to Strasburg in 2010, managed to return in mid-July. The Nationals are certainly going to be more careful with their most prized possession and will move Strasburg along slowly and carefully. He’ll get plenty of minor league rehab work, but a call-up with expanded rosters in September is quite possible. As we have seen in the past, a Strasburg start means more money in the bank for the franchise.

Harper faces a far more challenging road to the big leagues in 2011. He’s expected to open the season in high Single-A and the plan is to move him along to Double A. To earn the call up, he will have to annihilate all expectations by making a mockery of his first two stops. Working in his favor is the hype that follows him. If he can utterly oppress his competition at Double A, the Nationals do have a financial incentive to not only call him up, but to cut him loose as an everyday regular.

Much like Strasburg last season, Harper’s presence will bring in some healthy revenues. What it all comes down to is whether a call-up will detract from his development. If the Nationals decide that it will not and that he’s prepared to flash his impressive skill set at the big league level, it would behoove them to spur the excitement of the fans. In the end, it is doubtful we see Harper on the big league diamond, but not outright impossible.

Can the Nationals attract top talent?

Well there is Werth. And then there is a long list of talented players who have either ignored Washington’s free agent offers or placed the Nats n their no trade list. Even Werth required an unusually steep financial commitment to entice. While many have criticized that deal, it may be exactly the type of move required to make Washington a popular destination.

The Nationals may be closer to turning the corner in regardto wooing players than many think. It will not be long before Ryan Zimmerman, Werth, Harper, and Strasburg share the same field. That quartet is extremely talented and could add more than 20 wins to the bottom line combined. Given the presence of solid role players like Desmond, Espinosa, Morse, Bernadina, Zimmermann, Detwiler and Maya, and an effective bullpen, the Nationals are perhaps only one superstar away from becoming a force to be reckoned with. Much of the roster is cost-controlled, making investment in a star even easier.

Furthermore, ownership is committed to building the brand. Majority owner Ted Lerner is said to have the highest net worth of any majority owner in baseball and is rumored to support any move that helps build the brand. The Washington market is also fairly large—and almost entirely untapped. The unveiling of their future stars and their hefty investment in current stars will soon translate into more filled seats. Soon, the Nationals’ biggest issue might not be the quality of their on-field product but the relative inaccessibility of their stadium (seriously, D.C.’s Metro or $40 parking? Yikes).

This is not to say that Albert Pujols is in the Nationals’ future, but fans can start to expect the days when players like Greinke welcome a trade to D.C. And, who knows? The ownership has the financial muscle to make everyone’s dream come true. It is just a matter of convincing Prince Albert that he is the one piece between the Nationals and a long string of playoff appearances.

It’s spring training. Why not dream a little?

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  1. Todd Boss said...

    Rotation: Most Nats pundits, beat-writers and bloggers have our starting 5 written in ink right now.  Livan gets the opening day, Zimmermann is the best arm out there, Marquis is earning too much not to get a spot, Lannan was the opening day starter for the past 2 years, and Gorzelanny has no options.

    Not saying its a great rotation, but it should do better than last year’s opening day rotation (which had Stammen at #3, Mock at #4 quickly to be replaced by Olsen).  Detwiler and Maya are probably #1 and #2 callups, with Gaudin 3rd in line to replace injured or demoted players.  Detwiler and Gaudin have looked very good in the spring, and we know Maya has the stuff to compete.

    Ankiel looks to be the 4th outfielder no matter what happens between Morgan and Bernadina.  He’s not hitting at all in spring but is on a major league deal. 

    There’s no baseball-reason to get Strasburg back one iota earlier than needed.  And, Harper should spend most of the season in A-Ball.  Any sighting of these guys in september will be a rather galling attempt by the team to capitalize on their star power for some late-year gate receipts.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    First off, I don’t understand what’s galling about putting the best/most interesting players on the field. If it earns them more gate receipts it’s because those guys are the best/most interesting. That’s what a team is supposed to provide, an intriguing product.

    Strasburg had surgery on September 4th if I recall. Pitchers typically are ready to return to the bigs in about 11 months so making Strasburg a September call up is actually at the 12 month mark. They’ll want him pitching past the minor league postseason too so he’s pretty likely to see a Nats uniform if he avoids setbacks.

    Harper’s obviously more of a long shot. If he mashes everything he faces in a season split between A+ and AA, then it may help his development to give him a little taste of the big leagues. The Nats would have to feel comfortable that he wouldn’t get frustrates at the highest level and they’d also need to be sure he wasn’t showing signs of being worn out in his first pro season.

  3. Will Hatheway said...

    Brad – This is an excellent stab at an overview. I don’t say that indiscriminately (another major site I usually love did a rather lazy one recently on the Nats, IMO), but of course “a few things”:

    I’d emphasize even more the mess that is Nyjer and their CF situation. Eury Perez might – might! – one day give them a legit MLer in center, but as for now none of those guys offer much in the field there. But Nyjer goes even further, insofar as he is a lead-off guy who can’t get on base and, when he does manage to, often kills potential rallies by being caught stealing … that is, if he isn’t picked off first. He was 6th in the latter in ‘09, and first (with 11) last year. And he doesn’t pick his spots for taking risks wisely enough to even come close to making up for getting called out, in last year’s case, 28 times (CS and PK combined) versus 34 SBs, according to both my eyes and his WPA record. If I’m allowed to use an “intangible” type term on this website, he defines “baseball UNintelligence”.

    This raises one weakness not mentioned, and that is Riggleman. That he kept him leading off, and apparently with the green light, all season raises some questions in that arena.

    On a more positive note, Gorzelany was largely mocked as a nothing trade, but he gives them a cost controlled player whose recent struggles may legitimately be assumed to be the result of injuries and overuse too early. That’s not to say that that is the case, but it is quite possible that he is a very solid pitcher who simply had some recent obstacles.

    Stammen is another I’d throw out there as a cost-controlled back-end starter, insofar as his peripherals suggest he could be better than what his results have shown.

    First impressions really are tough to break, I’ve found, seeing as how I still cringe at the mention of Maya despite very favorable results in the winter league and spring training. I wasn’t just at the night of his MLB debut, but stupidly close (thanks awesome event staff for letting poor people move up!!!), and if I had had a towel I would have thrown it onto the field. He didn’t help when mentioning that single A players surprised him by not chasing stuff he said international leaguers bit on all the time, but hey, maybe he really was just thrown in way too early…

    And a last note on SPs, I am generally loathe to lavish confidence on unproven potential, but I am convinced that Zimmerman(n) is just as likely to be a stud as he is a “solid role player”. I’ve watched him a number of times, and while I have no reason to believe I can see such things, he genuinely appears to have the “stuff” and the “presence” that scouts talk about.

    Oh, and have to agree with you on Lannan… I always look to see that the game I’m buying tickets for is not started by him. He can’t strike my mother out, and should best be seen as a symbol of where the franchise is going; that is, away from having to make an connections between guys like him and their team’s core.

    How dare you forget Matt Stairs?!?

    I know you have a colleague who is also fairly sure of Espinosa and his 20/20 potential. I wish I did, but I’m not expecting much more out of him than some really sweetly turned double plays. Well, I mean, that’s not all, but I guess I just wouldn’t put my money on it anytime soon … but would love to be proven wrong.

    Oh, and while relievers are always really inconsistent year to year, some mention of how good their bullpen was should be made. They led the majors with 545 2/3 IP yet were tied for fourth with a 3.33 ERA.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on waaay to long. Thanks for the piece!

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Thanks for the detailed response Will, it’s appreciated.

    First, in reference to the bullpen, my last question was either going to be about that or their chances to attract exceptional talent. Both I and my editor agreed that the latter was more interesting. Bullpen pieces tend to be remarkably interchangeable.

    Some of my fellow THTers have convinced me that Maya is better than my eyes tell me he is. My dead honest opinion is that once he develops, he will be hard to distinguish from Lannan. Still, there’s upside to be had and for a franchise that’s building, it’s better to dig for upside than let Livan Hernandez soak up 190 frames.

    On Nyjer, I wanted to be…how shall I say it…diplomatic. By the way, scouts seem very confident that Harper will stick in CF. Seem to think he might end up a little below average defensively but they think he can make up for a lack of speed with very crisp route running. Scouts also seem to believe he has unlimited learning potential…do with that as you will.

    I really like Gorzelanny. I don’t think he’s much worse than Garza truthfully. I think he’ll be very happy in Nats Stadium with a solid OF behind him.

    Can’t believe I forgot Stairs…:)

    I’ve bought the kool aid on Espinosa and 20/20. What I actually suspect will happen is that he’s capable of hitting 20 homeruns and/or stealing 20 bases, but those two skills won’t overlap every year. His on base skills are iffy-ish which hurts his ability to swipe bags. If he’s getting on enough to steal 20+, chances are some would be home runs stayed in the park.

    Stammen is a nice swing man to keep around. I can’t say anything nicer about him…

    I think that just leaves Zimmermann. It seems like everyone really likes Zimmermann a lot but I see him as kind of a Brett Myers/Chad billingsley/Jeremy Bonderman type of pitcher. I think he’ll dominate for stretches and then throw up 3 games that make you wonder if he’s pitched before. If the Nats find a guy to slot between Stras and Zimm they’re going to be in really good shape. I also really like the idea of Detwiler as a #4.

  5. mockcarr said...

    Stammen is likely going to be caught up in a bullpen numbers game, and his peripherals and sinker always look better than his results, kind of the opposite of Lannan who is usually better than his peripherals. Lannan just has a way of getting by, whether it’s weak contact or working the outside corner, or setting up hitters, it’s hard to say. There aren’t going to be the magical numbers in groundout percentage, K/BB, etc., but he’s been durable and had a sub-4 era in 2008, 2009, and after he made adjustments in the minors last year, he pitched at a 3.42 for the last two months. I think he’s underrated in real life because he’s not a valuable fantasy player, but he stands to get a boost from an improved Nats defense, if that actually happens.

  6. Will Hatheway said...

    Forgot to add:

    Under the bridge overpass, about a ten minute walk from the stadium, is a $5 parking lot. Fact. But lets just keep that between you and me, ok?

    (and return points taken, btw)

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    I know of a few cheap lots, but I also have heard stories of muggings outside of the pseudo police enforced green zone including one acquaintance (so they’re not all hearsay at least)…

  8. Will Hatheway said...

    Mugged? Near Southeast? No f-in way.

    Crap, one really, really last thing: no one will actually pay for it, but watching Livan recreate his brother’s eephus (sp?) live is-just-awesome. Seriously. It’s one thing to read about a 56 mph curve, but watching it live is just wild. Which is not to say that I’d go for that if given the chance to experience my first Strasmus, but I will always be glad I did…

  9. Mark W said...

    Overall, a solid, in depth review. But one comment stands out…

    Inaccessible? How is Nats Park inaccessible? It’s a block from the Metro, right off of 295, minutes from downtown. You can pay $40 for parking, but there’s plenty of safe, close options under $20.

  10. Brad Johnson said...

    To be fair, there’s a bit of projection in there. Currently, I consider getting to the park a hassle both via highway (with limited cheap parking options) and via metro. The games I’ve gone too have been pretty sparsely attended. Add 30,000 fans and a minor inconvenience will probably become a serious hassle.

  11. Mark W said...

    Ok, so, when the Nats win and fill the Park, the stadium will become inaccessible. Still disagreeing, but only because I’ll agree that getting there could be a hassle – depending on where you are coming from. For me, in north VA, getting to Camden Yards was so much of a hassle, I stopped going. But I wouldn’t call either park inaccessible. But that’s just me.

    It’s between 295 & 395, and a block from the Metro. Nats Park is a lot of things. Inaccessible is not one of them.

  12. Steven Booth said...

    Good piece on an enigmatic team. After the league completely sold out the Expos, one still hopes the Nats will figure it out. They’re trying.

    As for inacessibility, everything’s easy after the quagmire that is Dodger Stadium.

  13. Brad Johnson said...

    All I know is that transferring from the Orange to the Red lines for a normal night time start has required me to wait for a second red line train 2 of 4 times. I can’t imagine what it will be like if a full stadium’s worth of people are going.

    I’ve run into snags driving too but they can all be attributed to being unfamiliar with the area. I’ve had luck finding $5-10 parking but it always seems like the last spot left…

  14. Jim C said...

    Thank you for the optimistic report. I was born in DC in 1950, endured bad teams for all of my childhood and young adulthood. I had to wait 34 years for a team to come back, and they teased me the whole first season with playoff possibilities before collapsing at the end. Since then it’s been the worst kind of deja vu, with the team getting steadily worse until last year. Then the knives get after Strasburg as soon as he has his first ouchie, and a year of his career is gone. I believed in Bob Gibson, who once said, “Everyone gets sore, only a few are really injured.” Why is it that pitchers throw less than ever, and get hurt more than ever? Anyway, I hope they make it to .500 this year, and that I see them win a World Series before I die.

  15. Brad Johnson said...

    Jim, there is a ton of work into your ‘why pitchers throw less and get hurt more’ question. If I have a chance tomorrow I’ll try to dig some of those articles up for you. The general conclusions seem to be that tons of pitchers got hurt, they just weren’t reported as injuries. You can find a lot of interesting historical work here at THT that links common present day injuries with historical players who experienced sudden drop offs in talent.

    Another factor seems to be effort, many of those great innings eaters of history could go out there and throw 75% every 3rd day and rack up huge totals of innings while saving their arm from some of the strain.

  16. Pops said...

    How about the question that I want to know…. can’t believe this was ignored.

    Who is going to close for the Nationals in 2011?

  17. periculum said...

    rotation sleeper: Tom Milone

    and Ryan Tatusko in addition to the aforementioned Yunesky Maya and Ross Detwiler.

  18. Andrew L. said...

    Brad, I am late to the game but someone posted up your link yesterday on  I agree with Todd Boss, the rotation has been set for weeks and all that was left was placing their pitching order to start the season with Livan Hernandez getting the Opening Day honors.

    It has been the bullpen which we would say has one or 2 names left to definitely pencil in as a few incumbents struggled most of ST and Coffey has been shakey too. Now it is probably just about set with Gaudin, Slaten, Clippard, Storen, Burnett and pick 2 from Balester, Coffey and Broderick.

    The bench and CF remain open also.  The holes as I see it are a backup RH 1st baseman since Michael Morse is now the starting LF and the starting CF everyone thinks is Rick Ankiel although I don’t get a warm and fuzzy over that. Backup catcher Wilson Ramos is a legit starter and I think the upside on Bernadina is better than Ankiel.  So Ramos, Hairston, and Laynce Nix and Ankiel as starter or 4th OF are locks for the team which leaves question marks on Nyjer Morgan, Bernadina, Matt Stairs, Cora, Alberto Gonzalez and Bixler (remote). There is also that RH/LH issue which I think could get Alberto Gonzalez a bench job and he has 3 career games at 1st base (LOL).

    The Bryce Harper discussion will be the most debated as the season goes on, and he is starting in Low A Hagerstown and not High A Potomac.  He should CRUSH in A ball. AA will be where he will settle in and should do just fine there and work on seeing better pitchers and a more refined repitoire of ML quality pitches.  Clearly Harper feasts on fastballs so it is working on offspeed and breaking pitches that he will need to work on as well as getting reps in the OF.  Also will be debated is whether he is the CF of the future or LF now that Werth has 7 years in RF in Washington.

    Strasburg is on the Jordan Zimmermann track one year apart so if you follow that and Strasburg’s regimen is like Jordan’s then I would say September for a few starts will happen.

    The future looks bright in Washington DC for baseball!

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