Tuesday March 10th, 2015

The Washington Nationals’ starting rotation may have made them a heavy favorite heading into the 2015 season, but with centerfielder Denard Span now the second of their three starting outfielders to have his availability for Opening Day placed in doubt due to injury, the cracks are already beginning to show in their mighty edifice.

Span had surgery to repair a right core muscle injury Monday morning and is likely looking at a four- to six-week recovery period before he can resume baseball activities. Given that, it seems a near certainty that Span will open the season on the disabled list, where he may be joined by rightfielder Jayson Werth, who had surgery to repair the acromioclavilcular (AC) joint in his right shoulder in early January, a surgery which was said to have a two- to three-month recovery time.

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It is certainly possible that Span and Werth will return to the Nationals’ lineup in April, but Werth isn’t expected to begin throwing until next week, and Opening Day is exactly four weeks from Span’s surgery date. If Span isn’t able to resume baseball activities until the six-week mark, then has to begin a rehab assignment to compensate for his missing most of spring training, he may not return until May.

Span and Werth may not have the star power of Bryce Harper or the Nationals’ pitchers, but they were Washington’s leadoff and third-place hitters last year and are expected to fill those slots in the lineup again this year. What’s more, they ranked first and third on the team in on-base percentage last year, with second place belonging to the since-departed Adam LaRoche.

In terms of offensive wins above replacement, Baseball-Reference’s statistic comparing a player’s total offensive contribution to replacement level at his position, the only National who was more valuable than Werth and Span on offense last year was Anthony Rendon. Werth, who has hit .303/.394/.479 (139 OPS+) over the last three years, and Span, who hit .302/.355/.416 last year while stealing 31 bases in 38 attempts and tying with Philadelphia's Ben Revere for the National League in hits, are key parts of Washington’s attack. Their simultaneous injuries are a quick reminder of what undermined the high expectations that ushered the Nationals into the 2013 season.

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Coming off their first playoff berth in 2012, the Nationals were heavy favorites heading into '13 as well. However, on Aug. 7, they were languishing six games below .500 and 15 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East. The reason was easy to deduce: With an offense that had been decimated by injury, including a month-long absence by Werth, the Nationals couldn’t score. Through those first 114 games of the 2013 season, the Nats had scored just 3.68 runs per game.

That may have been two years ago, but the Nationals’ lineup has not changed dramatically since then. Werth, Span and Harper were the starting outfielders. Rendon, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman were the most frequent starters in the infield other than LaRoche. Wilson Ramos, though injured for much of the season, led the team in starts at catcher. Heading into 2015, Harper and Rendon are older and more experienced at the major league level, but LaRoche is gone, replaced in the lineup via a shuffling of the infield by Yunel Escobar (himself nursing a Grade 1 oblique strain right now) and at first base by Zimmerman, who is now 30 and coming off a season in which he was only healthy enough to appear in 61 games. Harper, meanwhile, has proven fragile himself, missing a month with knee bursitis in 2013 and two months with a torn thumb ligament last year.

As strong as the Nationals’ rotation may be, they need to score to win and their lineup is once again proving vulnerable. As for the likely replacements for Werth and Span, Michael Taylor, the organization’s top position-player prospect and the expected replacement for the impending free agent Span in center next year, will be the first choice to start in Span’s absence. Taylor should be up to the task in the field, but there are concerns about rushing the soon-to-be-24-year-old as he has just 29 games above Double-A under his belt and didn’t hit much in Triple-A or the majors last year across that tiny sample.

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With Taylor already deployed in center, veteran Nate McLouth would appear to be the top candidate to replace Werth, though McLouth himself is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and a season in which he posted a mere .517 OPS. Other candidates include Kevin Frandsen, Tyler Moore and non-roster invitees Tony Gwynn Jr. and Mike Carp. Of that lot, Taylor and Gwynn Jr. are the only viable centerfielders.

We’re currently in the part of spring training in which things can only go wrong and a dearth of news can lead to overreactions to minor injuries which will have four more weeks of exhibition play in which to heal. It’s entirely possible that Werth will be ready for Opening Day, Span will return soon after and Washington will cruise to another division title as expected. Still, this pair of injuries serves as an important reminder of the vulnerability of a seemingly powerful team and of the specific vulnerability of the Nats themselves. Opening Day is still a long way away. That might be a good thing for Jayson Werth and Denard Span, but it could be a bad thing as well.

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