Five questions: Washington Nationalsby Brad Johnson
March 18, 2011
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?
Follow Brad on Twitter @baseballAteam. Email him at pitchin432 AT Yahoo.com
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