Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond should be an improved player in his second big-league season.
Opinions seemed to be split among those who believe this team will be better in 2011 because of the development of several young players versus those who believe the Nats will be worse because of a lack of impact additions (other than Jayson Werth) and the projected regressions of several players.
It's an interesting debate, and I wanted to continue it today with more of an analytical tone. Have the Nationals improved or gotten worse so far this winter? To me, the best way to determine that is to look at the club position-by-position and compare what it had this year versus what it will have next year.
This exercise, of course, is subjective rather than objective. It also requires some educated projecting of stats and performance. And there are still seven weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Viera, with plenty of opportunity for more roster changes between now and then.
But let's take a quick look, for now, where the Nationals stand in the improvement/non-improvement department...
Ivan Rodriguez and Wil Nieves held the job last year, with Wilson Ramos squeezing his way into the lineup on a semi-regular basis in September. Combined, they hit .255 with nine homers, 71 RBI, a .285 on-base percentage and .352 slugging percentage. Other than the RBI total (which was higher than I would have guessed), these are pretty weak numbers, which should almost certainly improve in 2011 with Ramos getting more playing time, Nieves out of the picture and Jesus Flores perhaps finding his way back into the mix as well. Pudge is by no means going to rediscover his peak form, but he performed much better in September when he was playing every other day than he did during most of the summer when he would start three or four days in a row.
It's impossible to really know how this one will shake out until the Nationals, you know, actually acquire a first baseman. But if we assume it turns out to be either Adam LaRoche or Derrek Lee, we still know the offensive production from this position won't match what Adam Dunn did this year (.264, 38 homers, 102 RBI, .357 OBP, .901 OPS as a first baseman). Defensively, the Nats should be better here. But the defensive improvement isn't going to completely make up for the loss of offense.
Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy shared the job for most of the season, with Danny Espinosa taking over in September. Overall, Nationals second basemen hit .252 with eight homers, 47 RBI, a .312 OBP, a .350 slugging percentage and a meager .662 OPS. We don't know for sure how Espinosa will handle the task of regular play in the big leagues, but I've got to believe he can produce more than that over a full season. His batting average may be low, but he hit six homers in 112 plate appearances, so 15 to 20 homers isn't out of the question next year. He'll need to draw some walks and cut down on his strikeouts (as is the case for almost every rookie) but his superior defense should make up for some of his offensive inadequacies. He's certainly going to make more plays than Guzman or Kennedy did.
Ian Desmond got the overwhelming majority of the playing time at shortstop last year, with only occasional help from Guzman, Espinosa and Alberto Gonzalez. He wound up hitting .269 with 10 homers, 65 RBI, a .308 OBP and a .392 slugging percentage. Is that Desmond's limit as an offensive player? I don't think so. I think he'll learn to hit for a bit more power and a higher average, cutting down on his strikeouts while drawing a few more walks. I also think he'll benefit greatly from a spot higher in the batting order. His numbers out of the 2-hole (.326-.359-.489) were significantly better than his numbers as a No. 8 hitter (.254-.304-.388). Defensively, you've got to believe he'll reduce his staggeringly high error total from this year (34) and indeed we saw him cut down on his mistakes in the field over the second half. He may never get that number down below 25, but I doubt it will ever be in the mid-30s again.
Verdict: Slightly improved
If there is a sure thing on this team, this is it. We know what Ryan Zimmerman is, and we know what he will be. He's established himself as a guy who will hit anywhere from .280-.300 with 25-30 homers, 85-105 RBI, an OBP over .350 and an OPS approaching .900. That's not going to change much, even without Adam Dunn hitting behind him. Whoever hits cleanup next year (whether it's Werth or the yet-to-be-named first baseman) Zimmerman will have some semblance of protection behind him. And defensively, he remains the best third baseman in the game.
As a whole, Nationals left fielders hit .248 with 24 homers, 80 RBI, a .352 OBP and .436 slugging percentage this year. Josh Willingham accounted for most of that, though Roger Bernadina took over as the everyday starter once Willingham had knee surgery. Bernadina is the favorite to take this job next year following the Hammer's trade, with Michael Morse and perhaps Rick Ankiel also figuring into the mix. Team officials believe that combination of players can equal or surpass what Willingham provided this year. I don't know. I don't know that Bernadina, Morse and Ankiel can display the patience to equal that .352 OBP. I don't know they can produce with men on base enough to account for 80 RBI. The average may come up, and the home run total may look similar, but as a complete package I don't see better offense out of left field next year. I do see better defense, though again, does that make up for the loss of offense? Probably not.
Verdict: Slightly worse
You probably won't be surprised to learn this was the Nationals' weakest offensive position this year, boasting a combined .238 batting average, two homers, 31 RBI, .310 OBP, .303 slugging percentage and anemic .612 OPS. Nyjer Morgan didn't exactly produce at the plate. At this moment, though, the job is still his. Ankiel could push him for playing time, but the organization seems committed to giving Morgan a chance to prove this year was an anomaly. Was it? There's just no way to know until we see Nyjer back out there in 2011. But I'll say this: It's hard to imagine him playing any worse next year than he did this year. That doesn't mean he's suddenly going to blossom into the ideal leadoff man the Nats hoped they had. But it does mean he should show some sign of improvement, both at the plate and in the field.
Verdict: Who knows? But probably some improvement.
Seven different players saw time in right field this year, combining to hit .248 with 26 homers, 86 RBI, a .327 OBP, a .437 slugging percentage and a .767 OPS. Jayson Werth's solo numbers from the past year: a .296 average with 27 homers, 85 RBI, a .388 OBP, a .532 slugging percentage and a .921 OPS. Will those numbers diminish somewhat now that he's not playing at Citizens Bank Park and now that he's not hitting behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard? Probably. But he's still going to produce more than this year's mish-mash of right fielders did, while playing solid defense as well.
Nationals pinch-hitters weren't exactly big producers this year, combining to hit .202 with two homers, 33 RBI, a .280 OBP and a pathetic .289 slugging percentage. The group primarily consisted of Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, Kevin Mench, Michael Morse and Justin Maxwell. Gonzalez and Morse are back, but the others have been replaced by Ankiel and Matt Stairs. And Wilson Ramos and/or Jesus Flores replaces Wil Nieves as the backup catcher.
This obviously remains the Nationals' biggest question mark. The 2010 rotation combined to go 42-64 with a 4.61 ERA and a hefty 1.444 WHIP. If Mike Rizzo isn't able to acquire another starter, next year's rotation looks like Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and either Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler or Chien-Ming Wang as the No. 5 starter. Livo is Livo; you know what you're going to get. He probably won't be as good as he was this year, but he probably won't be awful either. Marquis has to be better, if only because he can't be any worse than he was this year. Lannan is a toss-up, though it should be noted that he's been a pretty good pitcher for 2 1/2 of his three big-league seasons. Zimmermann is probably the biggest question of them all. Is he ready to realize his potential, or is he just another guy with a good arm who doesn't pan out? We also don't know what the Nats will get from Maya, Detwiler or Wang, though it's not like there are loads of quality No. 5 starters out there, and those guys are merely trying to outperform this year's revolving door of No. 5 Nats starters that included Luis Atilano, Scott Olsen and J.D. Martin. A sub-5.00 ERA alone might qualify as progress.
Verdict: Uncertain, but more likely to improve than get worse
The Nationals' relief corps was good in 2010 (27-29, 3.35 ERA, 37 saves in 41 opportunities) and it should continue to be a strength in 2011. Drew Storen should become more comfortable pitching in late innings, though he may not be ready for full-time closing duties yet. Sean Burnett is rock-solid. Tyler Clippard probably can't duplicate his 2010, but I'm not sure anyone could. Doug Slaten and Collin Balester were quietly quite good. Chad Gaudin or Craig Stammen takes over for Miguel Batista in the long man role. And flamethrower Henry Rodriguez (acquired in the Willingham trade) could become a mainstay. I'd feel more confident about this group if it featured a veteran late-inning guy who could close if Storen isn't ready (a la Matt Capps from a year ago) and I wouldn't be surprised if Rizzo still acquires a guy like that. Until then, this looks like a strong bullpen again, though probably not as good as the 2010 unit.
Verdict: Slightly worse
So, there you have it. I believe the Nationals will be improved at catcher, second base, shortstop, center field, right field and off the bench. I believe they've gotten worse at first base, left field and in the bullpen while staying the same at third base. The big question remains the rotation, which I believe is more likely to be better than it is to be worse.
What's the net gain or loss of all that? For now, I see a slight net gain. If the rotation really does improve, this team can take a significant step forward. If the rotation holds steady, the rest of the team should be improved enough to account for a few more wins. If the rotation ends up worse somehow ... well, they're in trouble then.
A lot can (and will) change between now and Opening Day. But if I had to make a prediction today, I think the Nats as currently constructed are a 75-win team.