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Posted at 06:23 AM ET, 03/31/2011

Nationals 2011: The best case and the worst case


Barring rain, opening day is less than seven hours away. Soon, then, we’ll have real things to watch and discuss and debate. For now, all we have is possibility and fantasy and only a few more hours to embrace that.

In that spirit, I’m going to envision the best and worst possible season from every Nationals starter and the collective bench and bullpen. These are not going to be realistic. In most cases, they are going to be quite ridiculous – it’s either complete elation or total doom and gloom, pure, goofy fun. The Best Cases are too optimistic and the Worst Cases are unfair. It’s just meant to be an exercise on the eve of opening day, when anything seems possible.

Here they are, the best and worst projections for each National:

Adam LaRoche

Best case: He ditches his career-long habit of slow starts and puts together two halves of a season at his typical second-half rate – that translates into a .295/.354/.535 slash line with 30 home runs. The small labral
tear in his left shoulder never becomes an issue. He wins the Gold Glove at first base and makes people forget about Adam Dunn.

Worst case: His slight labral tear becomes a significant labral tear and he misses a few months. When he comes backs, he starts slow and never recovers. Fan outrage over losing Adam Dunn resurfaces.

Danny Espinosa

Best case: He drills 25 home runs, steals 20 bases, showcases unbelievable range at second base and wins the National League rookie of the year of the award. Basically, he’s Dan Uggla with more speed and way more range, and the Nationals have the second baseman for the next 10 years.

Worst case: Espinosa plays solid defense, but major league pitchers are able to take advantage of his high strikeout rate – once every 4.6 plate appearances in three minor league seasons – as he hits .240 with a .310 on-base percentage. The Nationals still believe they have their second baseman of the future, but doubt creeps in.

Ian Desmond

Best case: With Jayson Werth batting behind him, Desmond becomes a star. He hits .290/.350/.475 with 17 home runs and 20 steals. Adam LaRoche at first base and a full year of experience transforms him on defense, and he makes 19 errors with better range than any shortstop except Alexei Ramirez.

Worst case: He is the player he was last season, period. He makes another 30 errors, only four fewer than last year, and his on-base percentage settles at .315. He hits 10 home runs. By the end of the year, the Nationals consider playing Danny Espinosa at short.

Ryan Zimmerman

Best case: At 26, he enters his prime and becomes one of the best players in baseball, maybe the very best outside of Albert Pujols. The Nationals sign him to a 10-year, $200 million contract extension at the all-star break. He wins the Gold Glove, the Silver Slugger and finishes in the top five in NL MVP voting.

Worst case: His nagging groin injury from spring training returns in the cold of April and he spends 15 days on the disabled list. Once he returns, it takes him another two weeks or so to catch up to the rest of the league. His unique throwing motion, for the first time, becomes an issue and he makes five extra throwing errors. The Nationals never initiate contract-extension discussions.

Jayson Werth

Best case: Werth is the player the Nationals thought they would get – just better. He thrives on the pressure of his megadeal and his development continues to buck convention – he keeps improving at 31. He hits 30 home runs despite playing outside of bandbox Citizens Bank Park and punches up a .400 on-base percentage and a .540 slugging percentage. He’s an all-star and finishes in the top three in MVP voting.

Worst case: Werth starts slow and, in a rare break from his steady, relaxed personality brought on by pressure to meet his contract, starts to press. It turns out Werth is past peak. Outside Citizens Bank, Werth hits 18 home runs and his on-base percentage slips to .350. It becomes clear Werth will not be able to play center field in 2012, at which point he’ll be 33 for most of the year. The Nationals have hope Werth can turn himself around, but they feel regret for his contract far sooner than they ever imagined.

Rick Ankiel

Best case: The Nationals made a smart bet this offseason – Ankiel is healthier than he’s been in three years and a reunion with hitting coach Rick Eckstein restores his swing. He hits 25 home runs, punches up a .525 slugging percentage. He leads the league in assists at the all-star break, but lags behind in the second half because no runner will test his arm.

Worst case: The Nationals were grasping at straws this offseason – neither Ankiel’s health nor coaching changes the fact that he can’t get on-base. He hits 10 home runs with the same exact slash line he had over the past two years combined: .232/.298/.388. He’s got a rocket in the outfield, but defensive metrics bear out and his range does not match his athleticism. By August, the Nationals wonder why they didn’t one more chance to Nyjer Morgan, who is leading the Brewers to the NL Central title with a .355 on-base percentage.

Michael Morse


Best case: As Rick Ankiel becomes a legitimate power threat behind him, Morse sees a steady diet of fastballs and continues the tear he was on all spring training. He leads the National League in home runs at the all-star break with 23, 13 of which he hit to right field. He becomes a breakout star and the Nationals sign him through his first two years of free agency over the winter.

Worst case: As Morse plays more, National League pitchers find a hole in his swing and Morse cannot adjust. With Rick Ankiel struggling behind him, he can’t get fastballs to hit. By midseason, he is platooning with Laynce Nix and the Nationals wonder why they let Josh Willingham get away.

Ivan Rodriguez

Best case: Rodriguez is happy to split time with Wilson Ramos, and the time off energizes him. He bats like he’s 34 again but with more walks, hitting .275/.315/.410. He is still an elite defensive catcher. He ends the year 75 hits away from 3,000, and the Nationals are more than happy to bring him back to make a run at it in 2012 as Ramos’s backup.

Worst case: Rodriguez chafes at playing every other day, but his play makes it impossible for the Nationals not to play Ramos instead. By the middle of May, Rodriguez is hitting .200/.250/.360 and his union with the Nationals, a team he previously loved playing for, crumbles. With Jesus Flores raking in Class AAA, the Nationals attempt to trade him.

Bench

Best case: Matt Stairs hits three walk-off home runs and Bangor High wins the 2012 Maine Class A boys hockey state title. … Laynce Nix hits .285 in a limited pinch-hitting role and plays great defense at all three positions whenever needed. … Jerry Hairston plays an excellent defensive center field despite limited experience and hits .320 against left-handed pitching. … Alex Cora teaches Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond how to be a major league middle infielder. … Across the board, it’s well-balanced, athletic group that serves specific roles perfectly.

Worst case: Old age (in baseball terms) catches up to Stairs and Cora, and the Nationals can’t afford to keep their performance around despite their being excellent clubhouse influences. … The Nationals find out why no one signed Nix until February. … Turns out Hairston can’t play center field anymore and, like last year, hits .244/.299/.353. … Across the board, the bench is too left-handed and, ultimately, too old.

Livan Hernandez

Best case: He proves everyone who called his 2010 season lucky completely wrong. He keeps throwing his sinkers and sliders and cartoon curveballs, constantly inducing weak contact. He gets some run support and wins 15 games with a .3.60 ERA, his best mark since 2004. The Nationals arrange a unique contract with Hernandez that pays him $4 million per season with a team option every single year, ensuring he’ll play in Washington the rest of his fabulously unique career.

Worst case: By mid-June, 2010 looks like a mirage. His home run rate normalizes and he actually gets a little unlucky on balls put in play. He has a 5.45 ERA – the same total he had from 2007-2009 – and the Nationals decide they can’t keep Ross Detwiler in Syracuse anymore. As painful as it is, the Nationals designate Livo for assignment.

John Lannan

Best case: Lannan continues the surge he ended last season on, when he punched up a 3.42 ERA, 6.19
strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.36 strikeout-to-walk rate in 11 starts With a vastly improved infield behind him, Lannan’s groundball-inducing ways pay off more than ever before. He gives the Nationals a homegrown 1-2-3 punch behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

Worst case: Lannan is not as bad as he was at the start of 2010, but he has bad luck on balls put in play and his strikeout rate drops back to 4.2 or so. He finishes with a 4.50 ERA and has to fight for a spot in 2012 spring training.

Jordan Zimmermann

Best case: In his first year out of Tommy John rehab, Zimmermann establishes himself as a true, solid No. 2 starter and makes fans salivate about a Zimmermann-Stephen Strasburg 1-2 punch in 2012. Scouts gush that his slider is one of the best in the game, and he hits 95 and 96 miles per hour regularly. When he reaches 160 innings, the Nationals shut him down and add to the rotation Yunesky Maya, who posts a 2.75 ERA in six starts, five of them Nationals wins.

Worst case: Despite how good he looked in the spring, the bite on Zimmermann’s slider – his best pitch – doesn’t quite return. His bad habit of leaving fastballs up surfaces, and he allows 28 home runs. He is already tired by 140 innings, and they have to shut him down a little earlier than expected. He could still become a frontline starter, but for 2012 he remains something of a question mark.

Jason Marquis

Best case: Marquis gives a reprisal of his 2009 season, when he made the NL all-star team. He has an ERA of 3.40 after June, and the Nationals trade him in early July for a legitimate prospect. After the trade, Ross Detwiler goes 8-2 with a 3.15 ERA, making a convincing case to join the 2012 rotation.

Worst case: Marquis throws 200 innings, but he gives a reprisal of 2006, when he lost 16 games with a 6.02 ERA. The Nationals find few takers and have to trade him for practically nothing after their trade partner offers to take on the rest of his contract. With Marquis gone, Detwiler comes to the majors and struggles.

Tom Gorzelanny

Best case: In a new setting, Gorzelanny finally finds consistency and his stuff, particularly his slider, makes him an above-average starter. He wins 15 games and strikes out 7.8 batters per nine innings. With a late-winter trade, the Nationals surprisingly find a foundational piece of their rotation.

Worst case: Despite the stuff to become a reliable starter, Gorzelanny can’t find consistency. He falls behind in counts too often and strikes out only 6.1 batters per nine innings. The Nationals have to move him to the bullpen to make room for Detwiler – who, surprisingly, is not much better.

Bullpen

Best case: Drew Storen proves the meaningless of spring performance and dominates during the season. He and Sean Burnett lockdown the ninth inning, and Manager Jim Riggleman, without a set closer, can freely choose the best reliever for the situation. The tight-knit bullpen buys into it, and they pitch even better than last year.

Worst case: Drew Storen can’t recover from his spring funk, and by May the Nationals send him to Class AAA Syracuse and call up Collin Balester. By that time, the unsettled roles in the Nationals bullpen lead to regression by just about every reliever from last year. A strength suddenly becomes a weakness.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals are more about the future than the present, Boz says, but the present shouldn’t be ovelooked.

Jayson Werth will begin his seven-year reign today, convinced he’ll help turn the Nats into a winner.

Capital Weather Gang is saying rain is 50-50 for the game today.

By  |  06:23 AM ET, 03/31/2011

 
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