Where Will The Nationals Finish In 2011? Part I Offense:

Steve O Speak

If you talk to most Nationals fans, it is clear that they realize that 2012 has the potential to be their year. 2012 marks when Stephen Strasburg will be healthy again, and when top prospect Bryce Harper could look to make his major league debut. Beyond those two, the Nationals have a number of other reasons to be optimistic a year from now. Young players such as Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, and Jordan Zimmermann (among others) should be established pieces of a good team. Other prospects like Catcher Derek Norris and LHP Sammy Solis should be ready to contribute as well. Also, if the Nationals choose a top college pitcher with their first round pick in this year’s draft he could be ready as well. In addition to all of that young talent that the Nationals are looking forward to, Washington has one of the best players in the game in Ryan Zimmerman, and two offseason signings, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to build around. The question remains, just how good can the Nationals be this season?

To figure this out I am going to compare the Nationals offense, defense, rotation, and bullpen to their fellow N.L. East compatriots:


The Nationals swapped Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham for Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, but I’d expect a significant improvement in their offense. Now Werth is the key, as he might not have the power of Dunn, but he is just as dangerous of a hitter. The most important thing for Werth though is to just stay healthy. The Nats lost Willingham for 1/3 of the season last year and their offense suffered without him. If Werth can be counted on for 150+ games, their offense should be fine. LaRoche needs to stay healthy as well, but he isn’t near the concern of Werth.

The Nationals will need more than just a healthy Werth to improve on an offense that ranked in the bottom third (and usually closer to the bottom) in every major category. The first thing to point out is just why Werth’s health is so important. If Werth can play just about every day, then that means only one of Roger Bernadina and Mike Morse is in the lineup every day, allowing the Nats to take advantage of their strengths. Also it means a much more potent bat is on the bench for pinch hitting duties. Now obviously the Nationals need to see Morse sustain his success from last year, and Bernadina to continue to grow. While neither player is a star, they can be an effective platoon for the Nationals.

Another area where the Nationals can improve is the 660 at bats that Adam Kennedy and Christian Guzman had last year, that now should go to Danny Espinosa (and a few more going Ian Desmond’s way), which should be a big improvement. Espinosa at his peak profiles as a solid-to-good starter, and should perform near that level this season. I’d expect him to offer more production than what Guzman and Kennedy combined for. The Nationals will also likely see a boost in production from the catching department. Pudge Rodriguez held his own last season, but in reality his numbers died off after a huge April. He should probably receive no more than half a season’s work at this point in his career, which is exactly why the Nationals went out and acquired Wilson Ramos. Ramos is a pretty good catching prospect, who likely won’t be an All-Star, but should be a very good starter. He will definitely improve on last year’s back up catcher’s Wil Nieves at bats (.554 OPS, ouch), and will be at least a slight improvement over Pudge’s at bats as well.

One area where the Nationals greatly improved, but is often overlooked is their bench. Last season Justin Maxwell, Alberto Gonzalez (still could be back), Wil Taveras, and Willie Harris combined for about 550 at bats and the results weren’t pretty. This year you can expect the majority of those at bats to go to Jerry Harriston Jr., Rick Ankiel, and Matt Stairs. While none of Harriston Jr., Ankiel or Stairs are stars, they should offer a big time improvement over the bench options from last season.

Now I don’t want to make it seem like the Nationals will have a top ranked offense or mash their way into the postseason, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that improvements have been made, and while there aren’t any additional superstar players (i.e. Werth=Dunn), the quantity of major league talent as gone up. I’d expect the Nationals offensive numbers to be somewhere in the high teens (15-19 range) in most major categories. While it won’t be a drastic change, it is a step in the right direction.

Now even with those improvements the Nationals offense is far from great, but it should be more competitive. Pound for pound it pales in comparison to both the Phillies and Braves, but it definitely is a lot closer than it was before. The Marlins had a solid offense last season, right about where the Nats should be this year, so you could go either way as to who is better. Florida did lose Dan Uggla from the middle of their lineup, but they should get better full seasons from top young guys Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton, so that is basically a wash. I think overall I’d give it to the Marlins by a slight edge, but the Nationals offense will be right behind them. The Mets on the other hand are trending downward, and while they should have a few players returning from injury this year, I think their offense will be well below the Nationals in terms of production.

While the Nationals improved on offense, it is really just one part of the equation, and in the coming days I’ll look at their defense, rotation and bullpen and how it stacks up.

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