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March 30, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Play ball! 2014 Nats season preview

I’ve been doing this blog for nearly three years now, but I think this is my first season preview article. My general approach to this blog is to try to do stuff that other Nats blogs aren’t doing. We’ll see if that works for this post.

In thinking about the Nats’ prospects for 2014, I think about how similar this team is to the one that started the 2013 season 12 months ago—7 of the 8 regular position players, the top 3 starters, and the 4 pitchers who constitute the core of the bullpen are all the same. Only the bench looks significantly different. I remember I was projecting last year’s team for about 91 wins… how does this year’s team compare?

Since the team is so similar, mostly we’re comparing the prospects of individual players with the prospects of those same players a year ago. And the worrisome news is that in most cases, I’m seeing reductions in their projected performance. Ryan Zimmerman? He now looks like a liability as a third baseman. Adam LaRoche? His 2012 season is looking more like a fluke, and we’re wondering if he’ll ever be even an average first baseman again. Stephen Strasburg? While he didn’t have a bad season, I notice he’s no longer showing up in the conversation when people talk about the top ten pitchers in baseball. Gio Gonzalez? He also took a step backwards. Ross Detwiler? With health issues and inconsistency, he stepped all the way off the rotation. Drew Storen? Rafael Soriano? They each took a huge step backwards. Denard Span? While I think he suffered more from unrealistic expectations and was seen as the scapegoat by too many fans, I have to agree that this year’s expectations are lower. Danny Espinosa? More like several giant leaps backward, moving from regular to bench player.

Some other players project about the same this season as last. I’d put Bryce Harper in this category. Whereas last spring we were worried about a sophomore slump, this spring we’re worried about him staying healthy. But I see his chances for a breakout season as about the same that I thought they were 12 months ago. I also see Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen as about the same as a year ago.

Finally, there are a handful of players who project a little higher. Two have moved up quite a bit: Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Desmond actually didn’t hit as well last season as he did in 2012, but a year ago we still had a lot of questions whether he was a one-season fluke; now we believe he really is this good. Zimmermann quietly put together an excellent season. Jayson Werth also put together his best season since he left the Phillies, but I wouldn’t say his projection is much higher than what it was last spring. After all, he’s also another year older now, and his defense has continued to slip. Wilson Ramos also demonstrated that he’d come back from his injury, so his prospects are better than they were a year ago.

So looking at all of the returning players that are still here a year later, I have to say that the Nats’ prospects as a team look worse—the handful of players who’ve improved don’t offset the large number whose projections simply aren’t as bright. But there is another partial offset – the new players that have joined the team, in comparison to the players who’ve left.

In general, I think the new players help offset the losses among the existing core. Doug Fister certainly seems like he should be an improvement on Dan Haren (knock on wood). Anthony Rendon has been a pleasant surprise, as have Tanner Roark and Taylor JordanNate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen seem like upgrades compared to last season’s bench.

So on the whole, I’m willing to project this year’s team as close to, but not quite as good as last season’s team. Last season, I projected them at 91 wins, so this season I’m going to project them at 89 wins. (That’s also close to where the statistics sites are projecting them—FanGraphs has them projected at 89 wins, and Baseball Prospectus has them at 87.6 wins.) If the Braves had stayed healthy, I’d have seen the Nats as neck-and-neck with Atlanta, but with the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, I now think the Nats have the clear edge.

Dave Nichols of the Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association sent around a pre-season survey, which I completed. For the full results, see the DC-IBWAA website. Here are my responses:

1) Who will lead the Nats in home runs in 2014? Bryce Harper
2) Who will lead the Nats in RBI? Ryan Zimmerman
3) Who will lead the Nats in stolen bases? Ian Desmond
4) Who will lead the staff in wins? Stephen Strasburg
5) How many games will Ryan Zimmerman play first base? 20
6) Who starts more games: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf? Taylor Jordan
7) Who will get more at bats for the Nats this season: Danny Espinosa or Jamey Carroll? Danny (waiting to respond made that one easy!)
8) Which minor leaguer are you most interested in keeping tabs on this season? AJ Cole
9) Who will reach majors first: Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito or Matt Purke? AJ Cole
10) How many all-stars will the Nats have? Who? 3 – Harper, Strasburg, J Zimmermann
11) Total wins and what place in the division? 89, 1st
Essay: What should be the single most important development for the Nats this season? Harper and Strasburg reach their potential, with Harper emerging as one of the top power hitters in the league and Strasburg as one of the top three starting pitchers in the league.
That’s enough analysis. It’s time to get ready for some meaningful baseball! Go Nats!
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