This could be the year that Bryce Harper establishes himself among baseball’s elite
by Christopher Wenrich
After the 2012 season, in which the Washington Nationals won the National League East with a 98-64 record, expectations soared among the fans. The Nationals were eliminated in five games during the League Division Series and went on to disappoint in the 2013 season. Although their 86-76 record was good enough for second place in the NL East, they missed the playoffs. In 2012, the Nationals scored 731 runs and allowed 594; in 2013, they scored 656 runs and allowed 626. Despite the disappointing 2013 season, the Nationals are expected to be one of the top teams in baseball in 2014.
If they stay healthy, the Nationals should be among baseball’s highest-scoring teams this season. Denard Span leads things off in the Nationals’ lineup and possesses great speed. Ian Desmond is among the best hitting young shortstops in the game today and Ryan Zimmerman is still a serviceable hitter. The key to the Nationals’ offensive potential this season is durability. If Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Zimmerman stay healthy, the Nationals will pile on the runs. (After having difficulty throwing, Zimmerman was diagnosed Sunday with inflammation in his right shoulder.)
From 2007-2013, Werth averaged only 129 games played per season; however, he was very productive with a .374 OBP and an .856 OPS. With Span leading off, Werth will bat in the meat of the order this season. Although Werth strikes out quite a bit, he is a disciplined hitter who draws many walks and has great power to the gaps. Werth is capable of a 25-plus home runs and a minimum of 40 doubles.
Harper got an injury scare in the opening series with the New York Mets. While attempting to break up a double play at second base, a sliding Harper was struck by a fielder’s shin. Harper remained in the game and passed a series of concussion tests. Fans are excited about the prospects of an MVP-caliber season from Harper, who buffed up considerably in the past year. At the young age of 19 in 2012, Harper hit 23 home runs, produced 59 RBI, stole 18 bases, registered a .340 OBP and .817 OPS in 533 at-bats. The 2012 Rookie of the Year improved in his second season with 20 home runs, 58 RBI, a .368 OBP and .854 OPS in only 424 at-bats.
The high OBP numbers for such a young hitter shows great plate discipline. The increase in Harper’s OPS indicates that more improvement is on the way. Now 21 years old, Harper’s best years are still ahead of him. Manager Matt Williams has shown great confidence in Harper by batting him fifth this season.
Much like Harper for the offense, the pitching staff needs Stephen Strasburg to stay healthy. Strasburg’s electrifying talent for striking out hitters is not without worry. His oft-criticized mechanics may have already been responsible for the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2010. Further adding to the concern over Strasburg’s arm, is his commitment to developing a slider this season. A slider can place great strain and torque on the forearm and elbow, especially when thrown incorrectly. Many pitchers with heavy slider usage have toiled with injuries over the years. While a new pitch is a welcome weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal, it comes with great risk with a pitcher like Strasburg. Although Strasburg does not have a reputation for pitching deep into games and his mechanics leave many fans crossing their fingers and biting their nails, he is one of the best pitchers in the game when he is in form.
Fellow starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are also excellent pitchers. Although Strasburg is more often talked about, Zimmermann is perhaps the best pitcher on the team. He pitches deep into games, pounds the strike zone, and induces ground ball outs. The acquisition of Doug Fister conceivably gives the Nationals the best pitching rotation in baseball this year. However, Fister is currently on the disabled list with a strained lat. Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan round out the rotation, with one on the chopping block upon Fister’s return.
The Nationals do not lack depth in the bullpen. Rafael Soriano is the closer, but Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are also capable of closing if Soriano struggles or is injured. Clippard is an excellent strikeout pitcher and is capable of pitching more than one inning in a game. With Clippard and Storen serving as the bridge to Soriano, there is less pressure on the starters to last seven or eight innings.
Catcher Wilson Ramos is out for four to five weeks with a hand injury, so Jose Lobaton starts behind the plate for now. Sandy Leon is the backup catcher. Nate McLouth backs up Harper in left field and Scott Hairston backs up Werth in right field. Danny Espinosa fills in for Anthony Rendon at second base. Kevin Frandsen, released by the Phillies during spring training, is the utility infielder. Frandsen will likely see starts at third base on days Zimmerman replaces Adam LaRoche at first base.
The NL East is seemingly a weak division and the Nationals should win it with ease. If their key players stay healthy, the Nationals will contend with the St. Louis Cardinals for NL supremacy this season and possibly contend for the World Series.
Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment. Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).