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Washington Nationals 2013 Season Preview

March 26, 2013 in Nationals Roster

By Staff Writer John Manuel:

The Washington Nationals are coming off their most successful season in the franchise’s short history but many felt their playoff exit was way too early.  The defending NL East champions did not spend the winter just talking about their young stars potential in 2013, they went out and added to their roster.

Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson are going for a world series and will not be satisfied with just a division crown this time.  Here is a rundown of what the Nats got going on.

Lineup:

It was very obvious the past couple seasons that the Nationals had one major hole in their everyday lineup.  Washington needed to acquire a true centerfielder and more importantly someone to stick in the leadoff position.  Mike Rizzo was able to accomplish both by trading for the Twin's Denard Span.  Span not only gives them finally a true leadoff guy but should improve their outfield defense.

Former part time leadoff guy Jayson Werth moves to a permanent second spot.  Werth's career with the Nats has never lived up to his big contract although he now owns the most famous at bat in the club’s history.  But in this lineup I see him going back to being the Phillies Werth and putting up solid numbers.

Will Harper be 2013 MVP?

Will Harper be 2013 MVP?

Then comes the phenom.  Bryce Harper to no one’s surprise has been tearing it up down in Florida and should bring that up north next week.  Harper should be seen as a potential MVP candidate.

The person on the Nats that I see as a sleeper pick for MVP is Ryan Zimmerman though.  If he can get his health back there is no reason Zimmerman shouldn't have a big year with the 3 guys in front and the 2 guys behind him.  I see a huge year from Zimmerman in 2013.

The offseason's biggest question is whether Adam LaRoche would be back.  He is and it was a big deal for Rizzo to keep him.  It is funny that we talk about Harper, LaRoche, Zimmerman, and Werth and forget that last season the best player in the everyday lineup may have been Ian Desmond.

That just shows how good this team could be.  Desmond took his game to a higher level in 2012 and if he can do it again this lineup suddenly gets scary.  What could really make it scary is if Danny Espinoza does what Desmond did last season.  I wouldn't call it out of the question either.  And if Espinoza struggles the Nats have a great insurance policy in Steve Lombardozzi, who should still see plenty of action.

Finally the question of who will catch and Washington has two options now and both should be solid.  Both Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos coming off injury are capable backstops for the Nationals to rely on this season.  This is the kind of lineup that even if a star went down they should still have no issues scoring runs.  Roger Bernadina, Chad Tracy or Tyler Moore can also step in and then you do not lose much.

Starting Pitching:

Sometimes it isn't a bad thing to stink for a few years.  Especially when that is in the past and gave you what could be a ridiculous starting five in 2013.  Going into the spring all five positions were locked in barring an injury.  Now it’s a new season so the debate of shutting down Stephen Strasburg should be finally over.  Strasburg leads what could be the majors’ best rotation and is looking for his first of hopefully many Cy Young’s.

Strasburg leading the way for the Nats strong pitching staff in 2013.

Strasburg leading the way for the Nats strong pitching staff in 2013.

Speaking of Cy Young, it is a pretty good thing to have the guy who finished 2nd last year as your number two starter in Gio Gonzalez.  Gio is a number one for probably 25 teams and here he is a number two.

Or maybe he could end up a number three with Jordan Zimmermann becoming another Cy Young type contender.  It wouldn't be out of the question.

Now it gets kind of crazy when you look at the Nationals potential at number four.  Ross Detweiler is another guy who has the potential to up his game this season and become one of the better starters in the National League.

Finally, you have a former top of the rotation guy in Dan Haren.  Rizzo made a solid one year investment in Haren as hopefully an upgrade over Edwin Jackson.  Most teams looked at Haren to come in as a 3rd of 4th guy maybe even a 2nd, but with Washington he sits in the 5th spot.

One concern for the Nationals could be what if two of these guys go down?  But if that was to happen I feel Rizzo would go out and get another legit starter for this team so I don't see it as much of a concern.  The Nationals have the potential of having a 1990s Atlanta Braves like rotation for the next few years.  Once again, we can look back and thank the years of sucking.

Bullpen Pitching:

The bullpen catches most of the blame for how 2012 ended.  Good news is that most of the season the bullpen was very strong, even though Drew Storen missed a huge part.  But did the Nationals like most teams sit back and just say we are good enough there?

Rizzo and Davey didn't and paid big money for closer Rafael Soriano to bolster the pen.  Soriano come off a huge 2012 with the Yankees and makes the Nats bullpen very strong.  Drew Stroren will need to knock off the feel of how the Cardinals series ended, but he should be good.

Tyler Clippard is Tyler Clippard and expect the same.  Ryan Matheus and Craig Stammen also return to bolster the pen.  Only worry right now could be a lefty out of the pen.  Looks like Washington is depending on Zach Duke to be the guy, but I could easily see them adding another one.  Just like with starters if the bullpen has injuries or struggles, I fully expect Rizzo not be to patient and make a move.

X Factor:

Much like with my review of the Orioles, I feel that Davey Johnson is just a winner.  When he goes somewhere the team is going to win, and in possibly his final year he will go all out.  They lost Bo Porter to the Astros, but Davey will find a way to make up for that.

Could the face of the Nats, Ryan Zimmerman be the real X-factor this season?

Could the face of the Nats, Ryan Zimmerman be the real X-factor this season?

The X Factor's with this team is the number potential players who can take their games to new levels and become award candidates.  Harper, Zimmerman, Desmond, Strasburg, Gio, Zimmermann and Detweiler just off the top of my head.

Very Early Prediction:

The Atlanta Braves are a very formidable foe in the NL East and the Phillies have talent to once again challenge the defending champion Nationals.  But what I see is a team of young stars who have mostly already shown what they are capable of doing.  I don't think Jayson Werth was far off in his comments.  This team should be good, actually they should be great in 2013 and beyond.  There is way too much talent and so few holes for them not to be a powerhouse.

Final call.  105-57 and I had closer to 110 before I rethought.  NL East, NL and World Series winners after taking down Atlanta and San Francisco in the playoffs and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

 

 

Was Dan Haren the Right Move for the Nats?

December 20, 2012 in Nationals Offseason

I'm not a big fan of sabremetrics and I'm certainly more an "eyeball" guy. One of the primary reasons for this, or at least I think so, is that I'll never be able to comprehend how these statistics are come up with. Many players are evaluated by their WAR, these stats may be valid but you'll never see me using them. Today it was announced that former Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson will sign with the Chicago Cubs. It makes me wonder if the Nationals should have stuck with Jackson or pursued Dan Haren.

I'll be honest, I haven't seen too much of Dan Haren due to the fact he's spent a great deal of his career on the West Coast. The 32 year old was phenomenal in his time with Arizona and Oakland. The success carried over a bit into his time with Angels, but he seemed to struggle some in 2013 posting his first losing record since 2003. I certainly have no complaints about Haren and he's certainly a heck of an arm to have at the back of your rotation, especially on a one year deal. But with a young team that is currently on an assent would Edwin Jackson made more sense?

The 29 year old Jackson has been a guy that has always passed the eyeball test for me. He has nasty stuff, can hold his own batting, and seems to be a quality teammate. Jackson didn't have dazzling stats with the Nats going 10-11 this past year with a 4.03 ERA. These numbers are pretty comparable to Haren, but Jackson seems to be a guy with a bit more upside.

Essentially, as with many things, it seems to have come down to money. Jackson has been a nomad of sorts playing for seven MLB clubs over the course of his career. He could never seemingly cash in on a multi-year deal. The Nationals seem like a team still looking for something at the end of their rotation and have continually brought in guys like Jackson, Chien-Ming Wang, and Jason Marquis. I'm happy Jackson scored a four year deal today, but $13 million for four years of Jackson is just too costly. In the end Mike Rizzo played his cards right and the one year deal for Haren at $13 million puts the Nationals in a much better position. This is why I can't always trust my eyeballs.

Nationals Take a Smart Risk With Dan Haren

December 5, 2012 in Nationals Offseason

The Washington Nationals today signed SP Dan Haren to a 1-year $13 million contract to roundout their pitching rotation for next season. Though it wasn't the mega-deal either via trade or free agency that some were hoping for, Haren represents an upgrade to the Nationals rotation as well as a tremendous value.

Haren is coming off his worst season since becoming a full-time starter in 2005. Haren was limited to just 30 starts and 176.2 innings pitched. Going 12-13, with a 4.33 ERA. Prior to last season though, Haren had never pitched fewer than 216 innings or won fewer games than he lost. It's that prior consistency, that the Nationals are betting on him returning to with this contract.

From 2005=2011 Haren had a WAR (wins above replacement) In terms of value of at least 4.0, and three years was over 6.0 (according to Fangraphs). To put those numbers in perspective, in the last 8 seasons, typically between 4-6 pitchers have a WAR of 6.0 or higher (and it never was higher than 10), and between 24-27 pitchers have a WAR as high as 4.0. With the exception of Zack Greinke (5 times), no other top free agent starter (Hideki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Loshe, Ryan Dempster), had broken that 4.0 barrier more than once (most though had multiple seasons in the high 3.0's), and none had come close to 6.0.

Now is WAR the be all end all? Of course not, but it's a pretty good baseline stat (whether you use Baseball reference or Fangraphs). While there is always a lot of debate about the stat, it ends up being pretty accurate when you think of the players or pitchers who are Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, with maybe slight adjustments with the order. Which means that based on those WAR numbers, Haren has been a Top 25 pitcher for his first 7 years as a full time starter, and for three of those years he was Top 10. That is a very impressive resume, and could be a nice boost over Edwin Jackson who has typically been more of a Top 30-50 starter.

The big question of course is will Haren go back to that level of value, given both some concerns with his hip and back. It's tough to say until the season gets under way, but there is some reason for hope. In addition to the fact that he was so highly durable for nearly all of his career, Haren is just 32 (turns 33 in Sept.), meaning that he's still near his peak. Haren also pitched better after returning from the D.L. in late July. In his first 17 starts last season (prior to going on the D.L.), Haren allowed 3 or more earned runs in 11 starts, including 5 or more in six of those starts. After the D.L. stint, he allowed 3 or more earned runs in just four out of 13 starts, and only twice did he allow 5 earned runs or more. In fact Haren gave up just 29 earned runs in the those final 13 starts which breaks down for an average of 2.23 runs per game. That is below Haren's 2005-2011 average of 2.59 earned runs allowed per start. Now it is a small sample size and probably not sustainable, but does show that he can limit runs, like he had in the past.

With a fair expectation that he can return to form, the Nationals should get excellent value with this deal. Had Haren not fallen off last season, the Angels would have never let him hit free agency exercising their $15.5 million option on him. If he had just been on the market and healthy, he reasonably could have expected a 4-5 year deal at $20 million a season. So getting him at $13 million is a steal for just one season, even with the added risk. Yes if he pitches like last year or is significantly injured, the Nationals aren't getting their money's worth, but any pitcher regardless of their track record can get injured. If Haren is healthy though he's likely to outshine every free agent pitcher not named Zach Greinke, and for less money and less years.

In addition to the injury risk, the Nationals do have a slight long term concern with signing Haren for just one year. Washington doesn't have much in the way of starting pitching depth in the high minors, especially top end quality guys. That means the Nationals will have to either trade for or sign a starter next season as well, and it's possible (and somewhat likely) that the Nationals won't get as much value next season (even if they re-sign a healthy Haren next year, it will be for a significant amount). The Nationals are passing on the chance of adding Zack Greinke, who while more expensive, would have locked up a position and a top of the rotation for the Nationals of Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann for at least the next three years. Greinke is also a safer bet for this season, though Haren is very capable of matching him. Whether or not this was the better choice is really unknown until Greinke's price is known and Haren's health and production are determined. For 2013 this is a very good deal, but leaves open some future questions.

 

Nationals Win Big in Denard Span Trade

November 29, 2012 in Nationals Trades

The Deal: Minnesota Twins trade CF Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for High-A SP Alex Meyer

Denard Span:

Span is the center fielder/lead-off hitter the Nationals have been looking for the last couple of years. He's got very good speed and for his career is a 76% base stealer (74% last year). He doesn't hit for power, but did have 38 doubles last season in just over 500 AB's. He hit .283 last year with an on base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .395, which was slightly below his career average. He hits lefties and righties equally well, with an OPS last year vs southpaws at .737 and against RHP's hit .739. One shocking split from last year for Span was his home vs road split. At home Span had an .881 OPS, on the road it fell to .593. Hopefully Span finds the confines of Nationals park as friendly as Target Field in Minnesota.

Span's greatest value though may come from his contract. Span is signed through 2014, with an option for 2015. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts Span is due to make $4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014, and $9 million if his option is exercised in 2015. That is just $21.25 million for three years for a lower end top 10 centerfielder. Compare that to B.J. Upton who just signed a 5 year $75 million deal, and it is easy to see how much of a value Span is. Other CF's like Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino would all be looking at commitments north of $12 million a year, with Bourn's deal potentially costing $17 million over 5 years. Yes those players may be better than Span (though not consistently), but not when contracts are factored in.

Alex Meyer:

The Nationals did have to give up a very promising prospect in pitcher Alex Meyer. Meyer was the Nationals first round pick, and compensation for losing Adam Dunn in the 2011 draft. He excelled in Low and High- A last year, and has the potential to be either a number 2 or 3 pitcher, with a worst case scenario of him being an effective back of the bullpen arm, given his power fastball.

Though a significant prospect, he was at least two years away from being major league ready, and like any prospect is not a guarantee. With the Nationals having control of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler for at least the next three years, the Nationals could comfortably make this deal.

What this means for the Nationals:

This deal gives the Nationals a big upgrade in the outfield as Michael Morse will no longer be counted on out there. It also gives them a lead-off hitter  who has good speed and on base abilities. Teaming him with Werth, Harper and Zimmerman at the top of the line-up gives the Nationals a very effective top of the order. Also by getting Span under a very affordable contract the Nationals have plenty of money to re-sign Adam LaRoche, and address their pitching needs.Span was also more preferable to a Bourn or Upton, 5 year deal because the Nationals have a good young centerfielder prospect in Brian Goodwin, who can be ready in 2-3 years.

Conclusion:

This was a very smart play that helps the Nationals in both the short term with production and long term financially. Meyer is a good prospect, but he's a bit of a wild card. It was going to be a couple years before he was major league ready, even if everything went perfectly and it is conceivable that he could take a couple years to figure it out and be an effective starter. The Nationals now have great financial flexibility, and if they can re-sign LaRoche can move Morse to an AL team in need of a DH.

Washington Nationals Offseason Series: Why Standing Pat Doesn't Work

November 29, 2012 in Nationals Offseason

There seem to be two essential schools of thought when it comes to Washington Nationals fans on how they approach this offseason. The first school of thought recommends maintaining the status quo, and not making any significant changes to the roster with the possible exception of re-signing free agents like Adam LaRoche or Sean Burnett.The other camp, favors a more aggressive approach of being major players in the free agent/trade markets, getting the team over the next hump onto the World Series. Both schools have a fair amount of validity behind them, but the question remains which one (or more precisely, which camp the Washington Nationals offseason should follow.

Read Also: Nationals Win Big In Denard Span Trade

On paper the "standing pat" crowd has a very strong case. The Nationals led the majors in wins last season despite these situations with the following players:

Bryce Harper- Harper played the first month of the season in the minors and dealt with some growing pains throughout the year. He should be both more developed and play in more games this season.

Ian Desmond- Desmond had a breakout year with 25 HR's and 21 SB's despite missing 32 games throughout the year. You could easily expect to see Desmond for an additional 25 games.

Jayson Werth- Werth might not have been the 'impact' bat the Nationals were hoping for, but he had a .387 OBP and .827 OPS. He only played in 81 games though and should be counted on for 150+ games this season.

Michael Morse- Morse didn't have as strong as a year as was expected, but still showed some nice power numbers. He missed 60 games on the year, and could see his numbers rise being fully healthy.

Kurt Suzuki- Suzuki played in just 46 games for the Nationals, and was a big improvement offensively and defensively over what they were starting. He's not a great catcher, but having him for the full course of the season helps.

Wilson Ramos- Ramos is kinda forgotten, but he only played in 25 games for the Nationals. It's unclear how he'll split time with Suzuki, but what is clear is that a year of him and Suzuki is a vast improvement than what the Nationals had last year.

Tyler Moore and Steven Lombardozzi- Both of these rookies were key utility players and injury replacements for the Nationals last year. While ideally they won't get as many overall at bats if some of these other guys are healthy, both should see their performance improve.

Stephen Strasburg- Strasburg has the best stuff on the staff and was limited to 28 starts and under 160 innings. He should be capable of 32+ starts and at least 200 innings next year. Add in the fact that pitchers are typically stronger after their first year back from TJ surgery and it is even more promising.

Drew Storen- Storen missed the first half of the season due to injury and was only able to pitch 30 innings last year. He also took a while to get back to form, so his performance over at least twice as many innings should be improved.

In addition to improvement in health and or performance of a number of players, the Nationals face a division where they appear to be the clear favorites:

Miami Marlins- The Marlins have sold off nearly all their moderate to high impact talent players and are very much in a rebuild mode for next season. Not only does this mean they aren't a threat for the division, but the Nationals should be able to win more games in their head-to-head series. Last year the Nats were 9-9 against the Marlins. With Miami selling their assets the Nats should be able to pick up a couple of games here.

New York Mets- The Mets are building for the future, and really don't look like a threat in the division. It's also possible that the Mets trade away their two biggest stars, David Wright and R.A. Dickey, as they look to build for the future. Regardless of what the Mets do, the Nationals should be favored to win their season series.

Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies finished 81-81 last year and a full 17 games behind the Nationals for the division. They still have their three aces at the top of their rotation, but as a whole their performance dipped considerably. Add in the loss of some good secondary players and key contributors and Philly's outlook is up in the air. If they make some big free agent splashes they could be a threat, but they need a lot to go right for them.

Atlanta Braves- The Braves are still the Nationals biggest threat, but they are facing the loss of a couple key players in Michael Bourn and Chipper Jones. Though they have signed B.J. Upton over Bourn, and though he's probably the better long term investment, for next season the Braves overall CF production (offense and defense) will be down a bit. Martin Prado may end up taking over at 3B for Chipper Jones, but it's unclear who will take over for Prado in LF. Likely whomever it is will be a slight downgrade at best as well.

So with improved player production and a favorable outlook in the division the Nationals shouldn't do a thing right? Wrong, now is exactly the time to strike. The Nationals could probably stand pat and be a contender, but they'd be missing an opportunity to improve their chances. Sure their bullpen figures to be pretty solid, but why not try to add an arm to see if you can improve it? Michael Morse and Tyler Moore could handle first base, but they'd probably be a downgrade still to Adam LaRoche (particularly defensively). Adding a LF or CF to improve the outfield's defense would be ideal as well. And though the Nationals appear to have four good starters even without Edwin Jackson, why weaken the rotation and take a risk on an unproven 5th starter?

The Nationals can't get complacent, because if they do it will cost them more later than it will now. Look at the San Francisco Giants, who last year after trading a top prospect for Carlos Beltran let him walk in free agency, only to then see the need later to trade multiple prospects for Hunter Pence at the trade deadline. Instead of addressing a hole in their team, they tried to go a cheaper route and it cost them more in the long run. The Braves are a great example of thinking that you have too much pitching. I doubt anyone thought the Braves needed to add to their rotation at the beginning of the year, as they looked strong 1-5, with top prospect depth in the minors. Yet this team needed sign Ben Sheets off the street, trade a high prospect for Paul Maholm, and pull Kris Medlen out of the bullpen to get through the season.

Washington doesn't have many needs, but they should be aggressive filling them. The Nationals have a strong farm system and good depth so they can both make some trades, as well as use their financial status to sign some big name players. Any myths about not having the money will be dispelled in Part II, while I'll outline some bold proposals in the rest of the Series.    .

 

2012 Washington Nationals Season in Review

October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

By DC Staff Writer John Manuel:

Even with last Friday's game 5 devastating loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, I still see the Nationals 2012 season as a success.  Yes, it was disastrous how it ended and yes the team expected to still be playing this week but winning the National League East has to be a major accomplishment for the organization.  And at least Robert Griffin III helped DC fans start to move on and forget with his performance on Sunday.  Sorry I had to tie RG3 into this.

So where do the Washington Nationals go from here?  They have laid a solid foundation which will have them starting the 2013 season once again as a contender to win the National League.  So what questions have the Nats left us with this winter?

The Nationals biggest decision stands with who will manage the team in 2013.  The obvious situation is for Davey Johnson to return to the dugout but he doesn't have a contract yet and it’s been pretty quiet.  If the Lerners weren't willing to splurge to keep the metro open, will they to keep Davey around?  And it wouldn't be the first time Johnson didn't come back to a team after having success as he left the Orioles after winning AL Manager of the Year.  The team has already lost Bo Porter to the Astros so losing Johnson would put them into a tough spot.  Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre are around, but so is Manny Acta.  I think that the Lerners, Rizzo and Davey Johnson know too much is at stake to blow this and it gets worked out in the end.

The Nationals have many positives lined up for the future and it has to start with the starting pitching staff.  The Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate hopefully is over, but I doubt it as the "league's most hated team" will have to answer questions if they fail to make the playoffs.  With Strasburg ready to fully go, the staff should be as good as anyone in the majors.  Gio and Zimmerman will need to bounce back from tough playoff starts and Ross Detweiler could be ready to join the big 3 at the top.  The Nats are in a situation where they know they have four legit starters but will they be able to keep the five intact and bring back Edwin Jackson?  Jackson has said he wants back but do the Nationals make the investment in him?  Most likely coming down to a dollars game here between the two sides.  John Lannan could also be back in the rotation if Jackson doesn't come back.  All in all, the starting staff looks to be in great shape for a few years to come.  Not sure they need to mess around right now with what they have.

So where do you go when it comes with the position players?  Wilson Ramos will be back and if it takes some time, Kurt Suzuki could return to cover at catcher.  Ian Desmond may have been a question mark at shortstop before the season, but he is no longer after 2012.  Desmond arguably was the team’s MVP in 2012 and at only 27 puts the Nats in a solid spot at short.  Ryan Zimmerman is at third, no more commentary needed.

As for the outfield, Bryce Harper should explode in 2013 much like the Angels saw in Mike Trout this year.  Jayson Werth's contract is always a point to discuss but his magical home run in game four should have quieted some critics.

Question comes in three spots with this team.  Does the team work to resign Adam LaRoche?  If they do, then the other team MVP candidate returns and a solid lineup is set with Michael Morse in the outfield.  Or do they let LaRoche walk, put Morse at first and finally look for a true centerfielder like a BJ Upton?  I have a feeling that Upton could be the call in center and that LaRoche unfortunately is the odd man out.

Finally, they have to decide what to do at second base.  Danny Espinoza struggled in the playoffs when many felt that Steve Lombardozzi should have been at second.  Are either these guys the answer right now at second or they just holding the spot for potentially Anthony Rendon to one day take over?  My guess is they start the season with what they currently have at second and see where it goes, no drastic moves.

And finally the bullpen, which looked to be solid for most of the season, minus the Henry Rodriguez days.  But then everything unraveled last Friday.  The true question is where is Drew Storen's head after the game 5 implosion? Does the organization still have confidence in Storen as the closer?  Do they have still have confidence in Clippard as a setup man or potential closer?  Does the team have more confidence Storen can put the game behind him or do they have more confidence in going after a veteran like Francisco Rodriguez?  I wouldn't expect them to give up on Drew Storen as the team’s closer but it’s a real important spot you need to be sure of come playoff time, so it could get interesting.

So as the fall and winter moves forward the key questions are Davey, Edwin, LaRoche, 2nd Base and who closes?  It should be an interesting off season in DC.

 

 

Ian Desmond: Unlikely Star

September 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Perhaps it is fitting that on a team that wasn't expected to compete, an unlikely star emerged. That is what has occurred in Washington, as shortstop Ian Desmond has become one of the Nationals most important players, and a clubhouse leader. It wasn't supposed to be that way, and if you asked a fan at the beginning of the season how important Desmond was, he'd be lucky to crack the top 10 Nationals on people's minds. Now though, despite being surrounded by bonafide stars Desmond would be near the top of the list.

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What Ian Desmond has done this season is pretty remarkable. Among all shortstops Desmond ranks 4th in batting average, 7th in onbase percentage, 1st in slugging, and 1st in wOBA (which is probably the most accurate stat on offensive productivity). He's just one home run off of Hanley Ramirez for the lead, despite playing in almost 30 fewer games. Though Desmond has been unable to run as much due to injuries (even when he is playing), he still ranks 6th in steals (among shortstops), and has shown good speed throughout the year. His defense which has always been a bit of an enigma, as he possessed fantastic range and a cannon for an arm, but would make some bad errors or miss plays he should have had. This season though, Desmond's defense has been even more consistent and has made a number of highlight worthy plays.

Desmond in his previous two seasons as a starter hadn't come even remotely close to these types of numbers. A .269/.308/.392 line was Desmond's better of those two seasons, and that is well below his .295/.331/..522 current line. Perhaps most impressive is his .331 on base percentage. Desmond has never been a patient hitter, and still isn't this season. His walk rate has remained roughly the same (5.1%), Desmond is just making better contact and getting more hits this year. Now typically the fear would be that it is just luck, but his BABIP of .332 shouldn't be a huge concern because he posted a .317 BABIP number each of the last two years. In fact the biggest jump for Desmond in his numbers is the fact that he's hitting the ball out of play. His 23 home runs in 474 plate appearances, are five more than his previous two seasons combined which spanned 1,213 plate appearances.

Despite very impressive numbers, Ian Desmond's best contribution to the Washington Nationals this season probably hasn't come in the batter's box or in the field, as his leadership has set him apart. Desmond is almost always the first one out of the dugout to take the field each inning, and leads by example. When a batter has a poor at bat or a pitcher is in trouble typically it will be Desmond who will be talking with them to settle them. Reports behind the scenes also speak to Desmond's character and leadership. It is that leadership from Desmond and others, that has allowed the Washington Nationals to deal with so many injuries and slumps this season and still be firmly in first place. A more talented team, but weaker in the locker room would have been more likely to collapse. That hasn't been the Nationals though as they have faced every adversity thrown their way.

Ian Desmond may have been an unlikely star and an afterthought to many at the beginning of the season, but he's now a core Washington National (note to Mike Rizzo sign him to an extension ASAP). His bat, his glove, but most importantly his character has set the tone for the Nationals all season, and should continue as they look to head into their first playoffs since coming to Washington.

Point-Counterpoint: Washington Nationals Playoff Chances & Trade Targets

July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

By DC Staff Writer John Manuel & Steve Shoup:

JOHN MANUEL – POINT:

Last week we went back and forth on the O's playoff chances.  This week it’s the Nationals.  A team in much better shape rolling towards the playoffs with the National League’s top record as we start the second half of the season.  Two months ago I think the Nats were in wait and see mode as to keeping up the winning.  And now the talk is becoming can they win in the playoffs if Stephen Strasburg is shut down?  There is a lot of excitement at Nats Park, but is it premature?

STEVE SHOUP – COUNTERPOINT:

I don't think the excitement is premature for a number of reasons, including as you said the fact that they sit atop the NL standings. Beyond that Nationals and their fans have a number of reasons to be excited this season. While the "Strasburg Watch" will last the rest of the season, the Nationals pitching goes far beyond their young ace. Gio Gonzalez has been just as good as Strasburg, and the rest of the starting rotation has a sub 4.00 ERA. The bullpen has also proven to be among the best units in the league.

On offense to go along with the emerging talents of Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche has been very productive and Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have started to heat up. Finally, Nats fans may be most excited by the fact that when RF Jayson Werth and RP Drew Storen return from injury, the team will be even stronger.

Now saying all that, there is still a lot of baseball to play so the Nats can't make October plans just yet, but there is enough reason for optimism. The question now becomes not what the Nationals should be positive about, but what they need to be concerned about going forward?

JOHN:

Zimmerman's bat is coming alive, which is a great thing for the Nats.

All great points, especially the way that Ryan Zimmerman has begun to hit.  Right now, the only concern for me is the injury to Ian Desmond, but that doesn't at all look serious as he could be back any day now.  I never would have guessed he would be the Nats best offensive star at this point.

Most would say the Strasburg shut down is their main concern but that has not been determined yet.  Good news is they have the arms in case Strasburg is capped at 160.  Is it Storen and Clippard, somehow being at odds over who will eventually close?  Don't see that as an issue with them or the coaches.  Inexperienced manager?  No chance with Davey's track record of getting to and winning in the playoffs.

Probably the main concern is the Braves and if they keep winning as they have recently. It will be big series this weekend.  The Braves have shown they will contend the rest of the way but are the Mets in for the long haul and is it too early to bury the Marlins and Phillies?

STEVE:

I think the N.L. East is very much the Nationals biggest concern as the Braves and Mets are very much in it, and I'd never count out the Marlins or Phillies, even if they become sellers at the deadline.

There is no such thing as an easy series when facing another N.L. East team, but the good news is the Nationals so far have a winning percentage over 60% against their division, and with the extra Wild Card spot they have a greater chance of being postseason bound.  The Braves are the biggest threat as they have a very nice combination of hitters and pitchers, and have let it be known that they are likely to be very aggressive at the trade deadline. Can the Nationals survive if the Braves make one or two major moves? And does that mean the Nationals will need to respond in kind?

JOHN:

Obviously it depends on who the Braves add, but say they add a good starter and position player I still like the Nats with Storen and Werth coming back.  Werth will be in the best lineup easily since he came to Washington much like in Philly.

As for Washington adding, they could go lights out in the rotation and try to add someone like Greinke, Dempster or Garza.  If Even if Strasburg is going to be shut down, I don't think that kind of move is really needed.  Gio and Zimmerman are still a great playoff 1-2 and I think they would have confidence in Edwin Jackson who could show up and be big time in a series or two.  The bullpen is solid and will get better.

As for the lineup the two weakest holes if any are at catcher and second base.  But I can't see them pushing aside Danny Espinoza at second, especially with Lombardozzi on the roster already.  As for catcher, not sure if there is anyone out there worth grabbing with Ramos back next season.  I could just see them adding a veteran bench player unless they go big on a starter.  You got a big move for me?

STEVE:

Will the Nats need to find a pitcher to "replace" Strasburg for the end of the season?

Well I don't know about a 'big move', but I got a couple medium ones that could be enough to balance out any potential Braves moves. I think the Nationals need to add a centerfielder, a catcher, and a starting pitcher (to replace Strasburg), while a potential reliever option (in case Drew Storen isn't good to go) needs to be considered as well.

For the centerfielder my top target would be the Twins Denard Span, who may not be a top 10 CF in the league, but he's top 15, and excels in the two areas the Nationals need the most; defense and on-base skills. B.J. Upton who grew up playing ball with Ryan Zimmerman (I think Ernie Grunfield says he's a friend of Jan Vessely as well), could be another option, but he's an impending free agent.

At catcher I'd look to Ramon Hernandez, who could be basically had for salary relief. He's not hitting well this year, but he's had a good MLB career and would be worth the small financial risk.

As for a starting pitcher I'd target one of two Mariners pitchers, Kevin Millwood or Jason Vargas. Millwood will cost less (in both money and prospects) but there is less upside and he's a free agent after the year. Vargas will cost a bit more, but well less than the market for some of the top pitchers. He's got greater upside and is under control for next season, where he could replace impending free agent Edwin Jackson in the rotation.

JOHN:

I thought about Ramon Hernandez as well.  He would be a big help for Flores down the stretch.  I like Denard Span as a player and he would be a solid pickup but I don't see them going for a centerfielder until the offseason.  You trying to ground "The Shark?"  More importantly with Jason Werth about to start a rehab assignment it would give them four guys for three positions.  LaRoche, Harper, Werth and Morse would have to platoon between first, left and right.  And I can't see them taking Harper or Werth out regularly.

So unless you think they would platoon LaRoche and Werth at first, I think they go with Harper in center.  Grunfeld would have traded Anthony Rendon for Endy Chavez and Nick Johnson by the way.

STEVE:

I'm not sure if Morse is a long-term fit for the Nats and the team could do well to ease Werth back into the line-up, so it just might work to add a centerfielder like Span. I think the one thing we can both fully agree on is the fact that we are lucky to not have a G.M. like Mike Rizzo to get us through this season and not Ernie Grunfeld.

 

Do the Nats Already Have a Strasburg Solution?

July 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

There's been a lot of talk regarding what the Nationals should do in regards to their ace Stephen Strasburg and his mythical 160 innings count. Some think they will just plug the pull when a number is hit by Strasburg, others think they will come up with creative ways to rest Strasburg so that he can be an active member of the rotation in September and possibly beyond. Those that think the Nationals will come up with some sort of a six man rotation or another creative venture to preserve Strasburg point to the starting pitching trade market and the upcoming trade deadline. But do the Nationals have a solution in house?

Remember John Lannan? Nats Nation was in shock when the four year starter was sent down to Syracuse prior to Opening Day. Then trade rumors started to swirl, one of which had the soon-to-be 28 year old heading to the Angels. Lannan, seemingly unmotivated, had a terrible start to the year for the Chiefs but then rebounded. On the year he 6-9 with a 4.89 ERA, but the veteran lefty has gotten bombed in his last three outings giving up twelve earned runs in just over eighteen innings. The Siena product will get his first start wearing the "Curly W" this Saturday as part of a doubleheader versus the Braves. Lannan has been respectable at the major league level going 38-51 with a 4.00 ERA. Could he rekindle some of his past "success" and possibly be a part of a six-man Nationals rotation?

Lannan basically lucked out to get this start because he pitched last night in a loss to the Pawtucket Red Sox. Beyond Lannan the Nationals could look to another pair of Chiefs' starters who have big league experience. Zach Duke, a seven year MLB veteran with Pittsburgh and Arizona is pitching well in the International League and recently was named to the All-Star team. As of right now Duke is 10-4 in Syracuse with a 3.78 ERA. Another name familiar to Nats fans who could be called upon is that of Yunesky Maya. The right hander has posted a 3.68 ERA in Syracuse while going 6-7 this year for the Chiefs.

The important thing for all Nats fans to remember is that the club has options.

What do the Nationals do with Michael Morse?

July 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Heading into the season it was generally thought that Michael Morse would be a middle of the order, impact bat for the Nationals. His major power display for the final 4 1/2 months of 2011, after a solid partial season in 2010, left many fans thinking that Morse had reached his potential and had a bright future in DC. Now just a few months later there are legitimate questions about Morse's future in DC.

Morse was expected to handle LF duties until Bryce Harper was ready, and then they'd look to move him to first base. That would have likely meant that the Nationals would trade Adam LaRoche or at the very least not pick up his option for next year. Morse who is signed for $6.75 million next year looked like the logical fit for 1B for the future. Now between Morse's injury, LaRoche's quality start to the year, and the depth the Nationals have those plans have changed.

Now some might point to using Morse in LF when Jayson Werth comes back and keeping Bryce Harper in CF, but that doesn't seem like a likely option. The Nationals need to get a quality centerfielder (preferably one who can bat lead-off), and are all but assured to do so either via trade this summer or free agency next season. As good as Harper has been he'd be better served in a corner spot, and it would be a great way to add a table setter for the offense.

That really leaves first base as the only real option for Morse. While some might handicap it as a tough decision between keeping Morse or bringing back Adam LaRoche for $9 million next season, but I don't see it as that tough of a decision. Adam LaRoche might not have Morse's offensive power potential, but he's a far more consistent hitter, who even when he's not producing with the bat at least knows how to take a walk. Morse currently is walking just 3.5% of the time, which is lower than two of the Nationals starting pitchers. LaRoche being a lefty also offers a natural platoon with rookies Tyler Moore and Chris Marrero, something that Morse can't offer. In addition to the offensive reasons, LaRoche offers a major defensive advantage to Morse. Not only does he have better range and hands in the field, but he's far better at catching balls at first base, particularly throws from across the diamond that he needs to get on a short hop.

Now the final reason why the Nationals should choose LaRoche over Morse also answers the question of what to do with the slugger. If the Nationals were to decide to stick with Morse, they would be letting Adam LaRoche walk for nothing next offseason. But if they were to keep LaRoche, they would be able to trade Morse for assets. What he brings back will be determined in large part to how Morse finishes the season, but they should expect a solid return. Morse could appeal as a cheap power source for a number of teams, and will obviously appeal to American League clubs who can stick him at DH. Now the safest thing would be to wait till next year to trade Morse during the offseason, as hopefully he could rebuild his stock more and he has a starting role at least until Jayson Werth returns from injury. Despite that, it could still be worth exploring what exactly Morse's trade value is now. If the Nationals trade for a center fielder, they could get by with Tyler Moore and Steven Lombardozzi handling the LF duties until Werth came back. I could see teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates or Baltimore Orioles (as well as a couple others) intrigued about acquiring Morse for two playoff runs. While it is probably more prudent to wait, it should at least be under consideration, especially if through the deal the Nationals could get a piece to help them down the stretch this year.

What do you think? Will the Nationals trade Michael Morse and should they explore it this year?.

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