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Apr 01

Nationals Preview: The Outfield

The Nationals’ most dramatic upgrade this season is in the outfield. With the addition of Denard Span, the team has defensive skill across the board and speed at the top of the order. While Michael Morse‘s high average and power will be missed, if Span can play to his potential, the rest of the lineup will be able to boost its production.

Span’s last two seasons have been shortened by injuries, but his career average .357 OBP is very similar to his 2012 season. He’s also averaged 70 walks and just 88 strikeouts per 162 games. His OPB of .347 this spring was also in line. While he struck out a dozen times in 63 at-bats, his career trends suggest that he will start making contact once the games count. In the leadoff spot, with the productive Jayson Werth batting behind him, his consistent presence on base and speed on the basepaths should provide plenty of opportunities for the middle of the order to drive in runs.

His other big value lies in his defense, where general manager Mike Rizzo has described him as  “a true defensive ballhawk center field type of guy with great range.” and “… a front line defensive center fielder.” While Bryce Harper was a capable center fielder as a rookie, Span brings the potential to make the kind of game-saving plays that could make a big difference in a close pennant race.

Span’s acquisition allows Harper to move to left field, where he broke in last spring. While his cannon arm won’t be as much of a factor as it would be in center or right, it’s a safe bet that the Nats will be one of the toughest teams in the National League to tag up and score on.

At the plate, Harper’s fans will be looking for him to improve on his Rookie of the Year performance of.270 with 22 homers and 59 RBIs. He was a workout demon this offseason, doing daily conditioning in Las Vegas with major and minor league players and working out on his own. He brought an additional 20 pounds of muscle to spring training, where he threw that weight around quite nicely. He hit .478 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 67 at-bats. He will be batting third in the Nats’ lineup, behind Werth and ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, so there’s little possibility of pitching around him. The folks at Sports Illustrated are already placing Harper among D.C.’s national monuments, and by the end of the season, there’s a good change the rest of the sports world will be, too.

Although Werth won’t supplant Ryan Zimmerman as the “face of the franchise,” he has replaced Zimmerman as the first thing Nats fans will see as they approach the ballpark from the center field gate. Werth’s walkoff shot in Game 4 of the NLDS provided the Nats with the defining moment in their short history in Washington and gave fans reason to believe the team can succeed in the postseason.

It wasn’t long ago that Werth was being constantly derided for not living up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with the Nats before the 2011 season. But he’s shown that his most valuable contributions are not necessarily on the field, but though his leadership and presence in the clubhouse. On the field, of course, Werth has been perhaps the team’s most versatile player, bouncing through several spots in the batting order before filling in at the top last season when the team was out of other options.

Werth’s defensive abilities have always been ranked among the best in baseball, and he has also enthusiastically taken on the role of mentor to Harper, who could eventually replace him in right field.

Roger Bernadina will be the first man off the bench after a career year in 2012 in which he hits .291 and had a .777 OPS in 129 games. “The Shark” is perhaps best remembered for his game-saving ninth inning catch in Houston last Aug. 8, preserving a 4-3 win that would be the Nats’ fifth straight in a streak they eventually ran to a season-high eight games. Although he is a streaky hitter, his speed and defense make him a valuable part of the Nats’ bench.

Tyler Moore is another versatile player who can fill in at multiple positions. His clutch bat and defense both in the outfield and at first base were probably the clinching factors in the decision to part ways with Michael Morse, allowing Moore to play a bigger role with the team this season.

Prediction for 2013: The Nationals have high expectations for the 2013 season, but they certainly have the personnel to live up to them. However, the Atlanta Braves have been just as aggressive as the Nats, if not more, in shoring up their lineup. The result looks to be one of the classic pennant races in recent years, with both teams capable of winning 100 games or more. No matter which team comes out on top, the Nats look like a team that can make it back to the postseason, giving manager Davey Johnson a chance to back up his own “World Series or bust” prediction.