Photo by Bob Youngentob for CSNwashington.com
Livan Hernandez is the least of the Nationals' worries entering spring training.
There are, however, a handful of certainties surrounding the Nats as the 2011 season approaches, players whose roster spots are secure and who don't face any serious question marks this spring. They won't draw many headlines in Viera; they'll simply show up every morning, work hard and make sure they're ready to be counted on by Opening Day.
Let's take this opportunity to highlight five "sure things" about the Nationals entering spring training...
1. RYAN ZIMMERMAN
MLB Network aired a show the other night ranking the top 10 third basemen in the game right now. There was no doubt Zimmerman would appear on the list. The only question was whether he'd rank No. 1 or No. 2. In the end, the MLB folks deemed Evan Longoria slightly better, though I've seen other rankings this winter that put Zim on top.
Whatever the case, it's clear Zimmerman has established himself as an elite major-leaguer and his standing with the Nationals is as secure as it gets. He posted career-highs last season in batting average (.307), on-base percentage (.388) and OPS (.899) and won his second straight NL Silver Slugger award. His power and production numbers dipped slightly, but that was a product both of some games missed due to injury and the lack of runners on base in front of him.
Zimmerman's range at third base remains the best in baseball, and though he occasionally goes through some throwing hiccups, he always seems to nip them in the bud pretty quick. There's nothing special the Nationals need to see out of Zimmerman this spring. They just need him to continue doing what he's been doing for the last five years.
2. LIVAN HERNANDEZ
Where would the Nationals have been last year without Livo, who led the pitching staff in starts (33), innings (211 2/3) and strikeouts (114) while leading the rotation in wins (10) and ERA (3.66)? OK, they still would have been in last place. But the big guy's presence every five days on the mound and every other day in the clubhouse was a calming factor this club sorely needed.
Re-signed for $1 million, Hernandez is back for his 15th season in the big leagues. Can the Nats count on him to post a mid-3.00s ERA and 22 quality starts again? Probably not. Common sense suggests Livo regress some in 2011. But don't write this guy off just yet. His struggles in 2008-09 were in large part due to nagging injuries that are no longer an issue. Hernandez rededicated himself last winter to getting in shape, and it showed in his ability to log innings, pitch deep into games and throw with a bit more velocity than he had in previous years.
Would he be starting on Opening Day for a good team? No way. But would any other club in baseball take him for their rotation right now? I think so. The Nationals are fortunate he wants to be a part of this franchise, and his presence in 2011 will once again be soothing.
3. SEAN BURNETT
As a left-handed setup man, Burnett doesn't draw lots of attention. But the guy sure does his job well. He was as reliable as any reliever in the sport last season, posting a 2.14 ERA in 73 appearances, and he was even better when it really mattered. Burnett held opponents to a .167 batting average with runners in scoring position. And with two outs and runners in scoring position, that number was a minuscule .031.
Burnett was rewarded over the winter with a two-year, $3.95 million contract. Some might be worried about the likelihood of a regression because relief pitching is a fickle business from year to year. But Burnett has now put together two consecutive seasons of dominance and has really settled into his role as a guy who can be counted on to get big outs late in games.
If I'm the Nats, I have no worries about this guy.
4. ADAM LAROCHE
Let's get this out of the way: No, LaRoche is not as good (or as consistent) as Adam Dunn at the plate. Everyone knows that, and no one expects the new first baseman to fill his predecessor's large shoes. But this guy is no slouch, either.
LaRoche's home run totals the last five years: 32, 21, 25, 25, 25. His RBI totals: 90, 88, 85, 83, 100. His batting average: .285, .272, .270, .277, .261. His OPS: .915, .803, .841, .843, .788.
Is he an All-Star? No. But you certainly have a pretty good idea what you're going to get. And that has to give the Nationals some feeling of comfort.
5. JAYSON WERTH
For $126 million, you'd sure hope this guy would be a sure thing. There are perhaps a couple of question marks with Werth. Will he suffer from not playing in homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park? Will he suffer from not having Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and others hitting in front of him and Raul Ibanez hitting behind him?
Still, there's little reason to believe Werth is going to be a bust. He has steadily progressed as a hitter the last three seasons and is continuing to progress at the plate. He led the league in doubles last year. He's been successful on 60 of his last 68 stolen base attempts. And he's rock-solid in right field.
He may not prove worthy of the massive contract the Nationals gave him. But he will be one of their two best players this year (along with Zimmerman) and the club isn't going to spend a lot of time worrying about him.