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January 31, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

This off-season: A review

With the exception of the Doug Fister trade, it’s been a pretty quiet off-season for the Nats. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report in less than two weeks, I guess I’ll go ahead and try to sum up the moves and where they leave the team.

A good reference point for comparison is the roster as of the All-Star break last July. At that point, the team was mostly healthy, with only Ross Detwiler and Ryan Mattheus on the DL. The team’s playoff odds (according to coolstandings.com) were 20%, so there was still a reasonable hope that they could come back from a lethargic first half and make a run for it. Later that summer, Kurt Suzuki was traded and Roger Bernadina was released. After the season, free agents Dan Haren and Chad Tracy left the team without any known attempt to retain them, and Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Fernando Abad were traded away.

The striking thing is that none of the team’s core left. The departing players were the # 4 starter, the backup catcher, three bench guys, and two lefty relievers. All eight starting position players, four of the five starters, and six members of the bullpen were retained.

The big acquisition, of course, was Fister as the # 4 starter. A groundball pitcher with a 5% walk rate last season (12th lowest in the majors), he represents a solid upgrade from Haren. Nate McLouth was signed as a free agent on a two-year deal, taking Bernadina’s place as the backup outfielder. Although Bernadina was a more versatile fielder, McLouth projects as a league average hitter, making him an overall upgrade from the Shark. For the bullpen, Mike Rizzo acquired lefty Jerry Blevins via trade.

Other than that, all of the other slots have been filled from within the organization. The utility infielders appear to be Tyler Moore at first base and Danny Espinosa at second base and shortstop. (I’d guess that when Ryan Zimmerman needs a day off, they’d shift Anthony Rendon over to third and let Espinosa cover second.) The backup catcher appears to be Jhonatan Solano, with Sandy Leon also available. Non-roster invitees include Jamey Carroll, Chris Young, Chris Snyder, and and Mike Fontenot.

So let’s assess the roster that Rizzo’s put together.

No moves were expected in the starting lineup, and none occurred. There are no glaring holes among the starters, though at this stage I’d say that Adam LaRoche projects as a below average first baseman, and Rendon and Denard Span as only average at their positions. Nevertheless, IF everyone is healthy (a big if, obviously), the Nats potentially have an above average starting lineup, both offensively and defensively. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Rendon, in particular, each have the potential to have a breakout season if they are healthy and can reach the potential that they seem to have.

The starting pitching, again if everyone is healthy, also has a lot of potential. Although I worried a lot last season about the gradual decline in Stephen Strasburg‘s performance, he still has tremendous stuff and has the potential to develop into one of the very best pitchers in baseball. And while we might expect a little regression from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, any team in baseball would love to have them. Adding Fister, all of the top four should be projected to turn in above-average performances. Detwiler will probably start the season as the fifth starter, though Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark are also possible candidates.

Although the bullpen doesn’t project as especially strong, I tend not to worry about it too much. I guess one reason is that at some point during the season, I sort of expect Detwiler to be moved to the bullpen. Furthermore, as long as he’s healthy, I would expect him to thrive there, which would obviously take care of the need for another lefty in the bullpen. Relying on his fastball for 88% of his pitches last season, his opponents’ OPS increased markedly the second and third times through the order (.663 the first time, .896 the second time through, and .939 the third time through the order). These factors point to a pitcher who will likely perform much better in relief.

The bench is where I’m disappointed in what Rizzo has accomplished, or failed to accomplish, this winter. Backup catcher is a huge hole–there’s simply no evidence that either Solano or Leon is a major league hitter. You might live with that if you thought you could count on Ramos to give you 130 games, but he played 78 games last season and 25 the year before. The lack of a quality backup catcher is a gaping hole on this roster.

In the infield, there’s a lot of uncertainty. If Espinosa is fully healthy and can play like he did in 2011 and the first half of 2012, he’d be one of the best backup infielders in baseball. The problem is that we didn’t see any evidence last season that he was recovered and is capable of that. Moore is a defensive liability any place other than first base, and as a pinch hitter seems redundant (and inferior) to Scott Hairston. There have been rumors of continued interest in Jeff Baker; I hope that’s true, since the current infield bench seems awfully risky.

The Nats should have a good shot in a weak division, and the Fister signing made it a good off-season. Unfortunately, the weak bench, which was one of the Nats’ biggest problems last season, really hasn’t been improved.      

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