Friday, December 20, 2013

2014 Expectations

It's been a while since I've done one of these, but being surprised with that stuff people call free time, I figured I'd give it a go real quick.

So 2013 was a year of high expectations and disappointments in DC. The Nats were one of the early season favorites for the World Series, yet actual performance was far from that as they failed to make the playoffs. With a late season run, they looked more respectable finishing at 86-76 good for 2nd in the AL East, down by 10 games to the Braves, and 4 games out of the 2nd Wild Card spot.

This year brings a new set of expectations, not of world series or bust, but more tempered and hopeful expectations this time around. This offseason, the Nationals made a shrewd move to shore up the rotation by trading for Doug Fister, formally of the Tigers. An already stout starting rotation is now one of the best in baseball with Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Fister and Detwiller. The bullpen was cause for some clubhouse issues last year when the team signed Soriano to be the closer, stripping the job from young Drew Storen. That move didn't sit well with many on the team, and was the beginning of a rift between players and coaches. The team is currently looking to bolster depth, and one of the areas of concern is the pen, where Soriano, Clippard, Stammen and Storen are arguably the team's best RP, and all right-handed. The team recently traded for LHP Jerry Blevins but after him, the only lefties are Xavier Cedeno, and two former highly touted prospects both coming off various degrees of injury recovery in Sammy Solis and Matt Purke. With additional RHP Ohlendorf, Mattheus, and Erik Davis, the team could be looking to acquire another LHP for balance and depth.

A potential match could be found just 40 miles north if the teams were so inclined, as the Baltimore Orioles have an opening at the back of their bullpen after trading Jim Johnson, and have a LHP with a similar salary, service time, and is lights out against lefties in Brian Matusz. A swap of the two would give the Nationals another late inning lefty to counter division foes such as Heyward, Freeman, Utley, Howard, Brown, and Granderson, while giving the Orioles a cost effective option to close for the next few years.

On the offensive side of things, Jason Werth had a great year after returning from injury, leading the team in both average (.318) and OBP (.394). Harper fought some injuries himself (he will learn where the walls are this year I'm sure) but still posted a very respectable OPS for a guy that will be a future MVP candidate. Span rounds out the starting OF, playing a great defensive CF, leading the team in hits last year, and adding some speed to the top of the order. The team went shopping and brought in OF Nate McLouth to be a 4th OF, who is a great fit in that role for a contending team. The infield, anchored by Ryan Zimmerman had to overcome a mysterious case of the yips from their team leader, who for no physical reason had trouble making throws from 3rd last year. For a player that was considered one of the best defensively in the game, it was puzzling to see such a bad issue pop up, but the encouraging sign is that his glove was still solid as the overwhelming majority of his errors came on the throw, and his bat was seemingly unaffected. Ian Desmond progressed even further as a player and has turned into a wonderful option at SS. First base was and will be filled immediately by veteran Adam LaRoche, while 2B is filled with promising young player Anthony Rendon, who has battled through various ankle injuries to finally make it to the majors. While a potential move of Zimmerman to 1B, and Rendon to 3B, his natural position has been speculated, unless the team can trade LaRoche it doesn't make much sense yet.

The last component of the team, and rumor is, a cause of some of the problems last year is the coaching staff. Talks were that Johnson had lost the team last year after the way the bullpen issue was handled, and then through a few various issues throughout the year. Matt Williams, former star 3B for the Giants and Diamondbacks was brought in to manage, leaving much of the old staff including bench coach Randy Knorr, and 1B coach Tony Tarasco in place. This sort of transition can be helpful to a new inexperienced manager, and hopefully will limit the transition pains.

Going into the season, with Danny Espinosa and McLouth on the bench, the team looks very solid on paper, and just needs to perform on the field. A few slight tweaks may remain to be made, but the Nationals look ready to battle the Braves for the NL East crown in 2014.