2012 Season Forecast: Washington Nationals

2011 Season: 80 – 81 (3rd, NL East)
Runs Scored: 624 (12th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 643 (7th, NL)

A rain out prevented the team from having a chance at getting all the way back to .500.  Davey Johnson’s task is to find at least ten more wins, telling reporters at one point that if this team doesn’t make the playoffs he should be fired.  Let’s see if that can happen.

2011 Season Recap:

Without their ace, Stephen Strasburg, who was out following elbow surgery, the Nationals started adding even more pieces to the roster, building a team that remained competitive all season long – just in the wrong division.  What was odd was that the team played over .500 with Jim Riggleman, who then quit because he couldn’t get an extension to his contract.  Johnson took over – it took a month to figure things out, but he was 38 – 43 in his time with the team.

Just looking at the statistical breakdown, the team really just needed someone who could bat first or second.  Leadoff hitters batted  .226 with a .285 OBP and the number two hitters were worse – .222 with a .283 OBP, and the lowest slugging percentage other than the pitcher’s spot in the order.  Give them 70 extra runs out of those spots, and you have a team on the brink of a 90 win season.

Starting Pitching:

Last year, the Nationals opened with a rotation of John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny, and gave test drives to Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and others before giving five starts to Strasburg when he came back in September.  The problem here is that Hernandez is really just eating innings but not that effective, costing his team some 24 runs against the league average.  Even Lannan, who has been their best pitcher prior to the arrival of Strasburg is below average now – -11 runs, and Wang, despite the winning record, cost the team almost nine runs.

Looking ahead, the Nationals now hope to get 30 starts from Strasburg, which could be worth 50 runs by replacing Hernandez – a huge change.  The Nationals also added Gio Gonzalez to the rotation – a solid starter for Oakland, who if he can take over for Lannan (who, surprisingly, found his way to AAA to start this season) and pitch close to what he did last year will save the team another 25 runs.  The rest of the rotation will include Edwin Jackson – and he has the potential to save another ten to fifteen runs over Marquis.  The last two spots go to Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom showed promise last year.  Having Lannan as an alternate isn’t a bad thing – worst case he’s a bargaining chip for help later.  This could be a very tough rotation in 2012.

Relief Pitching:

At the back end, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are solid – a net 30 runs better than average pitching, though Storen’s ERA (2.75) is a touch high for a closer.  Sean Burnett and Todd Coffey are tolerable long men, and being able to move Tom Gorzelanny to the pen will be a help.  Another addition that could prove to be valuable is former stopper Brad Lidge and fireballer Henry Rodriguez.  It’s a reasonably deep staff with at least three solid options.  I think this team will be a shade better than last year – but not much.  The bullpen was pretty good as it was.

Catching:

Wilson Ramos took over the job – defensively, he’s pretty good.  As a hitter, he wasn’t bad either…  He has a little power, batted .267, and would take a walk if offered.  Backed up by Ivan Rodriguez, who can’t hit but can still work the plate and threw out more runners than were successful stealing, it wasn’t a bad combination.  However, former starter Jesus Flores is back and healthy, so Pudge was sent packing for 2012.  This remains a solid duo.

Infield:

This is a group with a little pop and solid defensively all around.  Adam LaRoche didn’t hit well last year, but Michael Morse was solid when he played there.  The problem is that they need TWO Michael Morse types.  Morse also played left, and moved to first only because LaRoche didn’t hit at all (3 – 15 – .172).  Danny Espinosa has power (21 homers, 55 extra base hits), but only hit .236, and Ian Desmond has a bit better batting average but less power.  Neither guy gets on base and each were hitting too frequently at the top of the order.  At third, Ryan Zimmerman missed two months with injuries – he needs to play a full season.  If he did, he’d be an MVP candidate.

These guys have room to grow, but it would help if Adam LaRoche found his hitting stroke.  Steve Lombardozzi and Mark DeRosa are around for insurance, but Lombardozzi isn’t as good a hitter as these guys and DeRosa hasn’t been healthy in three years.  I think Washington is going to miss Laynce Nix, who played a variety of positions and put a few runs on the board.

Outfield:

Last year, Michael Morse was the dominant hitter in the outfield.  Jayson Werth had signed the big contract to come to Washington and struggled, finishing with a .232 batting average, but he still helped to put runs on the board.  He drew 74 walks, was 19/22 on the bases, and had 47 extra base hits.  Granted – he didn’t hit to his contract, so there is room for improvement.  Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina will battle for playing time in center – and neither are even league average hitters anymore.

The top prospect on the team, Bryce Harper, has to play here.  Yes – he’s still a teen, but Werth or Harper has enough gas to cover centerfield and having Harper could be a step up over either Ankiel or Bernadina.  Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady are around and will get at bats.  Neither has been a productive enough hitter since about 2008.

Morse can hit – he’s done it everywhere he has played.  Werth should be better – it’s all about getting someone else in the outfield (or first base) who can contribute.  I think if the Nationals get off to a slow start, Harper will be here quickly.

Prospects:

Let’s start with the obvious – Bryce Harper hit .318 with power and patience at A level Hagerstown and earned a trip to Harrisburg in AA where he wasn’t overmatched.  He may need a full season at AA or AAA, but I don’t know if the Nationals can wait for that.

AAA Syracuse features outfielder Chris Marrero, who has a decent bat and eye, but I don’t think he’s got enough power to merit a job at first base.  He’d be better than Adam LaRoche was last year, but not a game changer.  Pitcher Tommy Milone has an interesting line – only 16 walks and 155 Ks in 148.1 innings.  He got a look in 2011; he might get some long relief innings in 2012.  Ross Detwiler made 16 starts here before joining the rotation with the major league team.

AA Harrisburg had Harper for a little while, but featured the 31 homers of Tyler Moore.  Unfortunately, Moore’s power comes with a lot of strikeouts and little patience at the plate.  Catcher Derek Norris hit for power, but his batting average doesn’t make you long for his arrival yet.  Brad Peacock had a great run in AA – 129 Ks and 23 walks in 14 starts.  Something clicked for him – it was, by far, the best season he’d had in the minors in five seasons.

David Freitas, a catcher at Hagerstown, might have a future – he hit .288, drew 82 walks, and had mid-range power.  He could make the Nationals roster in a couple of years.  Infielder Blake Kelso also had a nice season, stole some bases, and will get a shot at AA soon.  Pitcher A.J. Cole fanned 108 in 89 innings, showed good control and kept the ball in the park.  He may have a nice future here.

2012 Forecast:

With the upgrade to the rotation, the Nationals look to save at least 80 runs when compared to the 2011 model – which would be a huge step forward.  The issue remains with the offense, which isn’t really good enough.  The lineup can be better.  Desmond or Espinosa could move forward ten runs each.  Werth could improve by twenty runs.  Zimmerman could play a full season – another twenty run impact.  On the other hand, Ankiel and Morse could fall back a similar amount.  The Nationals really need a leadoff hitter – and they don’t have one.

I see them scoring about twenty runs more than last year, and saving 80 more runs.  That puts them around 640 runs scored and 560 runs allowed – or 92 wins.  You might temper that total based on the competition in the division – the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves are all very good teams.  Realistically, the Nationals could win 90 games – I just don’t know if 90 will be enough to win the division.  It could be enough to get that second wild card slot.

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So the Nationals Might Fire Manny Acta… Will it Help?

A couple of weeks ago, when the second manager firing of 2009 took place, I wondered how long Manny Acta would keep his job in Washington.  Now, FoxSports is reporting that Acta may be fired and replaced by Jim Riggleman, and Sports Illustrated confirms this rumor.

Here’s what I wrote in their season forecast.  I figured 72 – 90 was an optimistic season based on what should be an improved offense (they are better than eight other teams, right in the middle of the pack), but the lack of solid pitching and a thin collection of young talent in the minors would work against them.  For their pitching to improve, they needed at least one of three things to happen: 25 starts by Shawn Hill; improvement from Scott Olsen, and a significant return to form of Daniel Cabrera.

Cabrera was awful and was released after starting 0 – 5 with 5.85 ERA, led by 16 strikeouts and 35 walks in 40 innings.  Nobody has picked up the one time Baltimore prospect and fireballer – a sign that something is really wrong.

Scott Olsen has been eminently hittable, starting 1 – 4 with an ERA over 7, and is on the DL with shoulder inflammation.

As for Shawn Hill, the Nationals decided to release him right after I did the forecast because he was undependable – management never knew if he’d be healthy enough to pitch.  Signed by San Diego, Hill is back on the DL with soreness in his bicep and elbow.

So much for optimism.  Suddenly National fans long for the return of Tim Redding and Odalis Perez.  At 355 runs allowed, no team is worse at preventing runs than the Nationals.

The starters aren’t the only problem.  The bullpen gave up on Chad Cordero, actually had a night where the whole bullpen was overhauled in April, and those that have stayed haven’t been able to maintain the few leads they have actually had.  With 16 wins and 44 losses, there haven’t been that many leads.

Offensively, four players have contributed.  Ryan Zimmerman is a top flight hitter and defender at third base.  When healthy, shortstop Christian Guzman has held his own at the top of the lineup.  First baseman Nick Johnson (knock on wood) has been healthy and gets on base.  Leftfielder Adam Dunn does what he always does – hit homers and draw walks.  Backstop Jesus Flores has been a decent hitter when healthy – he’s just missed half the season.  Outfielder Elijah Dukes has hit a little, but not enough.  I keep thinking he’s going to get seriously hot, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Then what?  Backup catchers aren’t hitting (few do).  Austin Kearns needs to be released, Anderson Hernandez isn’t a major league hitter at second base, and the bench players haven’t helped at all, except an occasional hit from Josh Willingham.  But, Willingham has nine homers and just twelve RBI (!) – is that possible???

AAA Syracuse offers little hope.  Anyone who pitched well there is already on the big league roster or back, including Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Tyler Clippard, and Jason Bergmann.  Stammen is in the rotation, and Bergmann has been disappointing since looking like he might have potential back in 2007.  The best hitter is soon to be 30-year-old Jorge Padilla, a very good AAA hitter, but someone who (for whatever reason) hasn’t ever been given a shot.  Padilla no longer has speed to cover center, though, and he wouldn’t have a job on this roster if Roger Bernadina was healthy.  The Nationals need a burner in centerfield who can start or continue rallies, and Dukes or Padilla would hurt pitchers in the new stadium with their lack of range.  Still, he’s cheaper and better than Kearns and might be happy to be a fourth outfielder on this roster.

AA is empty – Ross Detwiler is on the roster, and nobody else is tearing it up at Harrisburg.

That leaves you with trades, and there are few veterans that are going to fetch anything on the open market.  Few contenders are going to need an injury-prone first baseman, or a slugger who can’t realistically cover left field, or an aging shortstop.  The most tradable commodity is starter John Lannon or rookie Jordan Zimmermann, and if Ryan Zimmerman leaves (a la Nate McLouth), the Nationals could draw fewer fans than the Marlins the rest of the way.

Stephen Strasburg.  I think there are issues with racing guys through the minors – not that there aren’t people who can play in the majors without the benefit of a minor league apprenticeship, but that kids need to experience some success that they can fall back on should they stumble in their first outings in the majors.  So, while I believe that the Nationals may have no choice but to race a Stephen Strasburg to the majors, the fact that they have little or no choice but to do so is problematic.

Look, few teams play .267 ball for a whole season.  So, once Riggleman (or someone) gets Acta’s job, it’s going to be a step forward just to play .400 ball.  Getting Scott Olson back and contributing will do that.  Finding four reasonably dependable relievers would certainly help.  Accepting their fate with Austin Kearns and letting Jorge Padilla show appreciation for a shot at playing in the majors might help.  I’d certainly be willing to give Paul Byrd (still available) or someone a shot at being the fifth starter.  But don’t expect miracles.  The Nationals need six quality players – a second baseman, an outfielder, two starters, two relievers.  Firing Manny Acta doesn’t address that.  Of course, neither does stringing Acta along in the press. 

Really, the team needs a completely new management structure – GM, Manager, Minor League Director, the whole thing.  Riggleman gets them to October.  Who is going to get this team to 2012?