Mar 29

Nationals 2014 Preview: Hitters

Let’s get the predictions out of the way first.

I’m calling “World Series or Bust” for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The defending National League West champions have two wins under their belts before most other teams have even played a game, and there should be many more to come. In fact with all their talent and pitching, anything short of 120 wins this season should be considered a disaster.  And after last season’s romp in the pool at Chase Field to celebrate their division title, we should expect to see Yasiel Puig & Co. spray-painting their Twitter handles onto the Green Monster to celebrate a sweep in the Fall Classic.

So there. The high expectations have been passed on to the most recent surprise team, and no longer reside with the Washington Nationals.

Oh, the burdens of those high expectations.

From the day their own manager proclaimed “World Series or bust,” the 2013 Nationals were saddled with them. With each passing month of the offseason, and even through the first series of the regular season, those burdens grew heavier. Only in such an atmosphere can an 86-win season, the team’s second straight winning mark and second in its nine-year existence, be considered a failure.

But that’s how it was in the nation’s capital, where those expectations seemed to drag the Nats’ bats down, as if they never knocked off the weights in the on-deck circle. Even with all the other problems the 2013 Nats experienced (Dan Haren’s 10-14 record, Drew Storen’s ineffectiveness in the bullpen, baseball’s worst stolen base percentage at .826, or a defense whose 107 errors were the seventh-worst in baseball) it was the lack of hitting and the inability to score runs that cost the Nats their National League East crown and kept them from returning to the postseason.

To be fair, the Nats’ hitting line of .251/.313.397 was middling, 7th best in the National League, but still a cut below most playoff teams, and their OPS of .710 was worse than anyone who made the postseason, except the wild-card Pirates.

The Nationals’ biggest failure was was in the clutch, where they hit just .245./333/.380 with runners in scoring position and .218/.327/.332 with two outs and RISP. They also hit just .229/.296/.372 late in close games, and their pinch-hitting was abysmal at .207/.249/.357.  Their big weakness overall was against left-handed pitching, with a line of .239/.307/.367. Those numbers would have been a lot worse if not for a September surge in which they went .260/.324/.411, outslugging all the NL playoff teams and outscoring everyone in the league except St. Louis.

So in 2014, how can things be different? Without the burden of defending a division title or the expectations of carrying a retiring manager to the pennant, the Nats may be more likely to play as they did in September, when they nearly worked their way back into the playoff race.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the Nats and their players in 2014:

Catcher: Wilson Ramos is the Nationals’ best candidate for a breakout year. In 78 games last season, he hit .272./307/.470 with 16 homers and 59 RBI. Almost half his homers and more than half his RBIs came in September, when he was injury free and playing regularly. The question with Ramos, as it is with any catcher, is his durability. Coming back from a torn ACL and meniscus suffered in 2012, Ramos was plagued by hamstring injuries for much of 2013 before finding his groove late in the year.

The Nats are excited about his potential for putting up strong offensive numbers if he can play regularly, and this spring he has hit higher on the order than No. 8 spot he occupied most of last season. The team acquired Jose Lobaton from Tampa Bay to spell Ramos behind the plate in hopes that Ramos can play at least 100 games this season. If Ramos does play that many games, it will probably be a good sign that he is healthy and productive, hitting the ball well.

First base: Of all the players in the Nats lineup, Adam LaRoche epitomized the team’s struggles at the plate. He followed the second-best statistical year of his big league career (.271/.343/.510 with a career-best 33 homers in 2012) with his worst full season in the majors (.237/.332.403 with 20 home runs). While his strikeouts dropped from 139 to 131 and his walks increased from 67 to 72, his RBIs plunged from 100 to just 62 and only 12 percent of runners on base came around to score on his at-bats.

This year, LaRoche will have at least one thing in common with his 2012 campaign. This is the final season of the two-year deal the 34-year-old signed before last season. The Nats will likely be looking at other options at first in 2015, but LaRoche will need to bounce back if he hopes to catch on elsewhere as a starter.

Second base: After Danny Espinosa’s injuries and lack of production in the minors, Anthony Rendon is the incumbent here. In 98 games, Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs. Rendon went through the usual ups and downs of a rookie, and although expectations were buoyed by a phenomenal 2013 spring training, he did well enough to keep himself in the lineup. The biggest drawback for Rendon, a career third-baseman who moved over to second because of the team’s desperation, was his defense. He committed 16 errors, 9 at second base, in 101 games.

This year, The Washington Post’s James Wagner reports Rendon has added 18 pounds of muscle since the end of last season, increasing his potential for power. He has battled illness in spring training but apparently held off a challenge from Espinosa. Likely hitting lower in the order than the No. 2 spot he occupied for most of 2013, he and the Nats are hoping for some progression offensively. His defensive numbers may improve slightly if only because it’s likely Espinosa will be at second base late in close games.

Shortstop: Ian Desmond was the most consistent hitter in the Nationals infield last season, going .280/.331/.453 with 20 homers and 80 RB. Most of those numbers were down form his spectacular 2012 output (.292/.395./.511, 25 HR, 73 RBI) , but it was still a solid offensive season by any account, good enough for his second straight Silver Slugger award. He did cool off considerably after his All-Star appearance, with only 5 home runs and 31 RBIs, and his slugging percentage dropped from .486 to .406. Defensively, he had 20 errors in 158 games, but showed good range in getting to balls.

Matt Williams will likely use Desmond as a No. 2 hitter, at least to start the season. It’s an interesting move because Desmond’s offense took off in 2012 after he was moved from the No. 2 spot to No. 5. In the two-hole, Desmond will be expected to set the table, moving runners over and getting into scoring position himself with extra-base hits. If he’s successful, the middle of the Nats’ order will benefit.

Third base: After a slow start at the plate and widely-noted throwing problems, Ryan Zimmerman was one of several Nats hitters to heat up at the plate toward the end of the season, using a second-half surge to finish at .275/.344/.465 with 26 homers and 798 RBIs, mostly in line with his career numbers.  He belted 11 of his homers in September. Zim was also one of the Nats most consistent clutch hitters, batting .272/.390/.395 with RISP and driving in 31 runs with two outs.

This season, it looks like Williams will use Zimmerman in the cleanup spot, and he may get extra duty at first base against tough left-handers. Consistent baserunners at the top of the order would be great news for a guy who has hit .285/.358./469 with men on base for his career.

Outfield: Everything else aside, a healthy Bryce Harper will go a long way toward curing the Nationals’ offensive woes. Before injuring himself in collisions with outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Harper was hitting .344/.430/.720 with 9 home runs and 18 RBI. Afterward, playing through bursitis and a painful knee that required offseason surgery, he finished with a respectable .274/.348/.486 with 20 homers and 58 RBI. His hitting line was actually an across-the-board improvement on his Rookie-of-the-Year 2012 campaign, but it could have been oh, so much more.

Harper is vowing to be smarter this season, telling The Washington Post he will likely forgo painkillers and opt for mid-season surgery if he has another injury like the one he faced last season. He insists his knee is healthy again, and tells Grantland that he came into spring training weighing a muscular 240 pounds, although he expects to lose 20 of that during the course of the season. Can we expect a monster season like the one he was projecting before his injury last year? Probably not, but it’s not unreasonable to foresee numbers on par with the best National league outfielders, laying to rest the derision of his peers as baseball’s most overrated player in a recent ESPN poll.

Denard Span had a typical season in 2013 for a player who is changing leagues. Early on, when he was just getting to know National League pitchers, he struggled in the leadoff spot, hitting .263/.320/.358 before the All-Star break. His second time around, he knew what to expect and began nailing the ball. He went .302/.337./.413 with team-record 29-game hitting streak in the second half to finish at .279/.327/.380. His walk total of 47 is still not close to the 70 he tallied in his breakout year of 2009, but it is in line with more recent years, and his 20 steals were close to most of his career numbers.

Where Span sparkled was on defense, where he ranged for balls in the gap to take the pressure off his ailing outfield mates, and made catches that were routinely seen on sports highlight shows.

This year, after a spring training in which he hit a blistering .370/.382/.463, Span is primed to continue the progress he was making at the end of last season. If he does, the middle of the Nats’ order will have lot off RBI opportunities.

Jayson Werth is coming off the best season of his big league career, when he hit .318/.398/.532, with a .380/.468/.620 August when he nearly single-handedly propelled the team to the fringes of the playoff picture. His 25 home runs and 82 RBIs were not career highs, but you can blame that on a groin strain that limited him to 129 games. Werth’s defensive reputation is stellar, with an arm that few opposing baserunners dare to challenge.

For this year, the question for Werth, as always, is his health. His all-out playing style can lend itself to injuries like the broken wrist he suffered diving for a ball in 2012 or last year’s groin strain. In most seasons when he he has played at least 130 games, he has put up impressive stats. We should certainly expect the undisputed clubhouse leader and author of the signature moment in Nationals history, to keep producing the big plays when needed in 2014.

Bench: As noted earlier, the Nats’ pinch-hitting was abysmal last season, so they basically cleaned house. The biggest addition here came at the end of spring training, when he team signed Kevin Frandsen (.234/.296/.341 with the Phillies last season). A right-handed hitter, he can play first and third, and is .265/.318/.343 in his career as a pinch-hitter.

Nate McLouth is a capable defensive outfielder who can play center or left field and hit .258/.329/.399 in 146 games last season in Baltimore.

Jose Lobaton, the backup catcher, hit .249/.320/.394 with 7 homers in 100 games last season with Tampa Bay.

Danny Espinosa can be considered a holdover from 2013, although he missed the majority of last season with injuries and recovering in the minor leagues. His line last year was .158/.193/.272 in just 44 games. He was brought north with the club for his defense, though, and that’s where he will get most of his playing time.

Scott Hairston is also  a holdover from 2013. After hitting .224/.246/.379 with the Nats last season and .191/.237/.414 overall, he is on a short leash as the team’s fifth outfielder. Jeff Kobernus is waiting in the wings at AAA Syracuse if he falters.

Next: Pitching