Winter report card: Washington Nationals
With just a few days before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Today’s report card is the 30th and final one. For all previously published report cards, click here.
2012 Results: 98-64, 1st place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: LHP Sean Burnett, UT Mark DeRosa, C Jesus Flores, LHP Mike Gonzalez, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, RHP Edwin Jackson, LHP John Lannan, OF/1B Michael Morse, RHP Chien-Ming Wang
Key arrivals: RHP Dan Haren, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, 1B Micah Owings, C Chris Snyder, RHP Rafael Soriano, OF Denard Span
After six straight sub-.500 seasons, the Nationals posted the majors’ best record and run differential last year, and went into the postseason lined up to have home field advantage for as long as they remained alive. They were just one pitch away from dispatching the Cardinals and advancing to the National League Championship Series when all hell broke loose, with the defending world champions turning a two-run deficit into a two-run advantage against Washington closer Drew Storen before manager Davey Johnson could give him the hook.
That stunning turn of events helps to explain why the team signed Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal, surrendering its top draft pick (not that the overall 29th pick has a great history) in the service of upgrading a bullpen that ranked third in the league in ERA (3.23) but just 11th in strikeout rate (8.2 per nine). Strictly speaking, the Nationals didn’t need such a move, but in their quest to get over the top, they bought what agent Scott Boras was selling. In doing so, they’ve bumped Storen (who was limited to four saves due to surgery to remove a bone chip in his elbow) and Tyler Clippard (who saved 32 but wore down late in the year) back into setup roles, with the 33-year-old Soriano taking over as closer. With the Yankees in 2012, he filled in for the injured Mariano Rivera and bounced back from his own elbow woes to save 42 games with a 2.26 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine.
In the rotation, Washington replaces the departed Jackson (who signed a four-year deal with the Cubs) with Haren, who signed a one-year, $13 million deal. The 32-year-old righty battled back woes last year, failing to reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time since 2004 and winding up with full-season worsts in both ERA (4.33) and homers per nine (1.4), but as noted previously, he’s been one of the game’s top pitchers over the past eight seasons, 10th in WAR (28.8), second in innings (1,875) and 17th in ERA+ (118). The team will also have the benefit of a shutdown-free season from Stephen Strasburg, though that good news is offset by Gio Gonzalez’s name surfacing in the Miami Biogenesis investigation. The chances of Gonzalez being suspended aren’t high, but with Lannan and Wang both gone, there’s no obvious sixth starter on hand, suggesting another move could be forthcoming. Ohlendorf, who was signed to a minor league deal, probably isn’t enough; he’s been tattooed for a 7.94 ERA in 87 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, well off the 3.98 mark he put up for the Pirates in 2009-2010.
The lineup will have a new look via the acquisition of a true centerfielder in Span, who turns 29 on Feb. 27, and who’s signed for $10.25 million through 2014, with a $9 million club option for 2015. Acquired from the Twins for high-ceiling pitching prospect Alex Meyer, Span hit .283/.342/.395 with four homers and 17 steals in 568 plate appearances last year, numbers that lost a bit of their luster after he sprained his right (non-throwing) shoulder diving for a ball in mid-August. His arrival will allow Bryce Harper to shift to leftfield in place of the departed Morse, with Jayson Werth in right for an outfield that should be an above average unit defensively as well as offensively.
One thing that remains to be seen is whether Johnson uses the speedy Span in the leadoff spot or sticks with Werth, who took to the spot late last year after returning with diminished strength in his broken wrist and finished with a .300/.387/.440 line in 344 PA. Both have similar career OBPs (Werth .362, Span .357), but the latter hasn’t come anywhere close to the .390 he managed in his first two seasons (2008-2009).
Morse was traded to Seattle in a three-way deal that brought back 21-year-old righty pitching prospect A.J. Cole, a 2010 fourth-round pick sent to Oakland in last winter’s Gonzalez trade, as well as a 24-year-old righty prospect in Blake Treinin and a player to be named later. His exit was secured when the Nats re-signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal with a $15 million mutual option for 2015. That’s a reasonable move for a 33-year-old who rebounded from major shoulder surgery to set or match career highs in games played (154), plate appearances (647), hits (155), homers (33) and RBIs (100) while batting .271/.343/.510. Washington could have gone cheaper in keeping Morse to play first base, but both Johnson and Rizzo clearly preferred LaRoche, and they hardly broke the bank to retain him.
Though it’s a minor league contract, one of the more interesting moves the Nationals have made this winter is the signing of Owings. The owner of a career 4.86 ERA in six seasons, he was an effective reliever as recently as 2011, but he made just six big league appearances last year before suffering a forearm strain and eventually undergoing surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. Instead of signing him to pitch, the Nats are going to try him as a hitter and first baseman, given that he owns a lifetime .283/.310/.502 line with nine homers in 219 major league plate appearances. His plate discipline certainly needs work, given his 72/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he’s likely to spend time in the minors, but he could become an interesting weapon off the bench if the experiment takes.
Unfinished business: Something left. With Soriano, Storen and Clippard, the Nationals have the makings of a formidable late-game unit, with Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen and Henry Rodriguez providing ample middle relief support from the right side. Missing from the equation is a lefty or two to offset the losses of Burnett, Gonzalez and Gorzelanny, a trio that combined for 162 appearances and 164 1/3 innings with a 2.73 ERA and 8.7 strikeouts per nine, but who scattered to the four winds via free agency. Failed starter Zach Duke, who made eight major league appearances last year, is the ranking lefty on the depth chart, while former Astro Fernando Abad and former Red Bill Bray will be in camp via a minor league deals, but you can expect general manager Mike Rizzo to make another move here. Experienced lefties like Brian Fuentes, Will Ohman and Doug Slaten (who pitched for the Nationals in 2010-2011) appear to be upright and still unsigned, and several more names are sure to float around as teams begin narrowing down their rosters.
Preliminary grade: A-. Already a strong team, Washington has gotten a bit stronger this winter — a necessity to stay ahead of the revamped Braves in the NL East. The Nationals have spent money, boosting their payroll from last year’s $92.5 million to upwards of $106.6 million, but they haven’t done so exorbitantly; none of the deals they’ve signed are for longer than two years, and their big trade piece, Span, is cost-controlled through 2015. More than anything, they’ve made it clear they’re aiming for a World Series title, something that should resonate with the Washington fans and boost their attendance into the upper half of the league.