The 2011 baseball season serves as a transitional year in many ways for the Washington Nationals. Past seasons of poor records have led the team to select several can’t-miss prospects in drafts. Now, it seems like some of the pieces are finally coming into place and the team is finally ready to start improving on its previous finishes.
Jayson Werth is expected to provide some veteran leadership and offensive pop to an improving Nationals team.
However, this is also a team that is not ready to contend either. Top hitting prospect Bryce Harper won’t be with the team until September call-ups, if at all. Ditto for pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery and likely won’t return until 2012.
Without these two budding superstars with the big league club, the Nationals will look to a combination of other young players like starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and closer Drew Storen, as well as some veteran leadership that includes newly acquired right fielder Jayson Werth. The Nationals should improve on their 69-93 record last year, but they don’t yet have the talent or experience to compete with Atlanta or Philadelphia in the NL East.
With no Strasburg in Washington this season, some of the Nationals mid-rotation guys will be looked upon to step up. Ageless veteran Livan Hernandez will be the opening day starter on Thursday afternoon. Hernandez had a solid year in 2010, registering his lowest ERA since 2004 and allowing opponents to hit just .270 off of him. He’ll be 36 on Opening Day, however at worst he will eat innings and keep the bullpen rested. Behind him is a group of mid-range starters that include lefty John Lannan, well-traveled veteran Jason Marquis, young prospect Jordan Zimmermann and newly acquired Tom Gorzelanny. Zimmermann is the most intriguing of the four, he enters 2011 ready to pitch his first full season in the majors. He started seven games at the end of last year after returning from Tommy John surgery. He did allow eight home runs in that span, but also struck out 27 in 31 innings and has the tools to be a solid #2 behind Strasburg in the future.
The future is now in the pen as Drew Storen should move into the closer role full-time before the year is out. Storen did have a bunch of walks (22) last year, but that is to be expected for a young pitcher. His high strikeout rate was promising and he converted five save opportunities late in the season. Left-handed Sean Burnett will split the closer role with him to start the year. Burnett does fare decently well against right-handers, however he lacks the stuff to be a closer full-time. Behind him, there will be a core of middle relief guys for the seventh and eighth innings. Tyler Clippard, who appeared in 78 games last year and was decent in his middle relief role, could be a potential set-up man down the road. Free agent acquisition Todd Coffey will be behind him as a veteran presence in the pen.
The Nationals will have two new faces starting in the infield in 2011, as Adam LaRoche moves into the first base spot while prospect Danny Espinosa will get his first crack at a major league starting gig. LaRoche is a definite downgrade at first base from Adam Dunn, who departed for the White Sox in the off-season. He’s hit 25 home runs last year, but lacks the on-base percentage that Dunn has and still strikes out a lot. Espinosa brought some power in his September call-up to the Nationals last year, hitting six home runs. However, he had an average of just .214 in that same span. The right side of the infield will be identical to last year. Franchise player Ryan Zimmerman will be back at third base. The perennial all-star improved his average to .307 last year while also hitting 25 home runs and providing solid defense at third. To his left, shortstop Ian Desmond will be in the leadoff spot for Opening Day. Desmond may not be the best leadoff candidate, especially will a on-base percentage of just .308 last year, but he did have 21 stolen bases. Defense will remain a concern with Desmond as well, the team can’t afford another 34 errors this season from him.
The new gem in the Nationals’ outfield is Jayson Werth, who the Nationals’ swiped out of free agency from division-rival Philadelphia. Werth had a career-year in terms of batting average and on-base percentage, hitting at a .296/.388 clip. He added another 27 home runs for good measure, giving the Nationals a solid hitting presence that isn’t named Zimmerman. There are some question marks in center field and left field. Rick Ankiel has booted Nyjer Morgan out of his starting spot in center field. The lefty-hitting Ankiel has showed some power off the bench, however his hitting line of .232/.321/.389 doesn’t suggest that he’s ready for a full-time gig. Over in left field, it appears Mike Morse will be the starter for the time being. Morse had a good 2010, hitting .289 and 15 home runs in just 289 at-bats. The question remains whether he can sustain that production in a full-time role.
Ivan Rodriguez will be keeping the catcher’s spot warm while young prospect Wilson Ramos waits in the wings. Rodriguez lacks the offensive tools that he had in the past and is now 39 years old. However, he should provide good tutoring for Ramos, who will be at the major league level for his first full season.
The Nationals will have a bench full of utility players who can move anywhere in a pinch. They are led by Jerry Hairston Jr., who comes over from San Diego via free agency and can provide some at-bats if Espinosa falters at second base. Alberto Gonzalez could also make the roster as a backup infielder again this year, Gonzalez can provide some relief at all four infield positions as well. Lefty-handed hitting Matt Stairs could crack the roster as well, he could be a good pinch-hitting choice late in games.
Tags: Adam Laroche, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Marquis, Jayson Werth, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Livan Hernandez, Mike Morse, MLB, preview, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Zimmerman, Sean Burnett, Stephen Strasburg, Todd Coffey, Tom Gorzelanny, Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals