Winter Report Card: Washington Nationals
With less than a month 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 2013.
2013 results: 86-76 (.531), 2nd place NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Like the Blue Jays in the American League, last year's Nationals learned the hard way that "winning the winter" did not guarantee on-field success. While Toronto was the only team to receive an A in last year's Winter Report Card series, Washington had the National League's highest grade, an A-. Given that the team's moves appeared to represent upgrades on a club that had won 98 games and the division title in 2012, its failure to make the playoffs — it lost the division by 10 games and missed the second wild card spot by four — made it arguably an even bigger disappointment than Toronto, which simply muddled along in sub-.500 mediocrity as it had done the previous year.
Thus it's worth tempering enthusiasm for Washington's chances in 2014 despite another strong winter, even if the number of moves it has made thus far is minimal. A year ago the Nats committed a total of $65 million to three major league free agents (Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano and Dan Haren). This time around they've spent just $10.75 million, that for two years of outfielder Nate McLouth, who spent the past season and a half resurrecting his flagging career with the Orioles. The 31-year-old lefty is coming off a modest .258/.329/.399 performance with 12 homers and a career-high 30 steals in 593 plate appearances, the most playing time he's received since 2008, but barring injuries -- something that bedeviled the Nationals in 2013 -- he'll get less than that in the nation's capital. Instead, he'll serve as a backup outfielder behind Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth, representing a big upgrade on Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Scott Hairston and the other spare parts who combined to hit .185/.242/.274 in place of the aforementioned regulars.
Far bigger than that is the move Washington pulled off via its Dec. 2 trade with the Tigers, in which it received Doug Fister in exchange for light-hitting utilityman Steve Lombardozzi (who was particularly miscast as a spare outfielder), lefty reliever Ian Krol and lefty pitching prospect Robbie Ray. The latter is a 2010 12th-round pick who split his season between High-A and Double-A and profiles as a back-end starter. In exchange for those spare parts, the Nationals landed Fister, a 29-year-old who has ranked ninth in Wins Above Replacement (12.6) over the last three years — higher than any of the team's other starters. In 2013, he put up a 3.67 ERA with microscopic walk and homer rates (1.9 and 0.6 per nine, respectively) to offset his modest strikeout rate (6.9 per nine) en route to a career-best 4.1 WAR.
As in Detroit, Fister doesn't have to be the ace in D.C. Instead, he can settle in comfortably alongside Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, and at the same time be a significant upgrade on the departed Dan Haren (4.67 ERA in 169 2/3 innings) and his 2012 predecessor, Edwin Jackson (4.03 ERA in 189 2/3 innings). As if this deal needed a silver lining, Fister has two years to go before he reaches free agency, and even if he gets the $8.5 million salary for which he filed in arbitration, it will still be substantially less than the $13 million Haren made last year.
Another change that could have a large impact came in the dugout, where Davey Johnson has been nudged into retirement in favor of rookie manager Matt Williams. For as great a job as Johnson did in 2012, he seemed to be at a loss as to how to face last year's challenges, and he deserves at least some of the blame for what appeared to be a communication gap between the manager, players, training staff and front office when it came to handling some of his wounded players, particularly Harper. The 48-year-old Williams has a reputation for toughness that might be a concern when it comes to pushing injured players, but his relative youth, close ties with general manager Mike Rizzo and progressive approach to statistical analysis all provide reason for optimism.
On a much smaller scale, Rizzo has made two deals with the A's involving lefthanded relief and minor league outfielders. Gone are Fernando Abad (who made 39 appearances for Washington) and undersized on-base machine Billy Burns (who split the season between High A and Double A), and in their place are Jerry Blevins and John Wooten (a 2012 37th-round pick who slugged 20 homers in A-ball). Blevins' 60 innings are nearly as many as Abad and Krol combined (65); he put up a 3.15 ERA while striking out 7.8 per nine, doing a better job of handling righties than lefties for the second year out of three. He'll fill a middle relief role.
Speaking of small-scale, the addition of 5-foot-9 utilityman Jamey Carroll via a minor league deal could be a boost. Carroll hit just .211/.267/.251 in 249 plate appearances for the Twins and Royals last year, but he's a career .272/.349/.338 hitter whose on-base ability and versatility could make him an upgrade on Lombardozzi (.259/.278/.338 in 2013).
Espinosa began the 2013 season as he had the previous two years, as the team's starting second baseman. However, he hit just .158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances while playing through a rotator cuff tear and a fractured bone in his wrist before going on the disabled list, then spent two and a half months further flailing at Triple A (.216/.280/.286). All the while, rookie Anthony Rendon was putting a claim on the keystone. Espinosa's ability to play shortstop — an opportunity he won't have here given the presence of Ian Desmond — has generated plenty of interest from other teams, and the Nationals have explored trading him at several points. Thus far Rizzo has yet to make any deals, likely because he doesn't want to sell so low; he's prepared to go into the year with Espinosa as a backup. Given that the 26-year-old is in his final year before arbitration, he should bring back a significant return in trade if he can prove he's healthy during the spring.
Likewise for Storen, an ex-closer who was roughed up for a 4.52 ERA in 61 2/3 innings in 2013 and briefly sent to Triple A. The 26-year-old righty saved 43 games in 2011, but between missing much of 2012 with injury and taking a backseat to Soriano, he's gotten little ninth-inning exposure since. The team would like an alternative to Soriano, who was less than dominant in his first year in Washington; he saved 43 games but blew six saves and struck out just 6.9 per nine. Soriano has a $14 million vesting option for 2015 that will trigger if he finishes 62 games (he had 58 last year), something the team would like to avoid; Tyler Clippard, who handled the bulk of the closer's duty in 2012, could regain some of the opportunities in that role. Storen seems to be on the outside looking in, a change of scenery candidate who has generated considerable interest elsewhere — albeit one whose value is depressed at the moment. Like Espinosa, he could restore some of that value in the spring and help fill other areas of need via trade.
Preliminary Grade: B+ The Nationals have had another strong offseason, significantly strengthening their rotation with the addition of Fister and improving their bench as well. If they can stay healthy, they should resume challenging the Braves for division supremacy at a time when the rest of the competition is weak.