Nationals positional review, Part 2: Outfielders

Toni L. Sandys/TWP

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Each weekday, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional groups. In Part 2 of 5, we look at the outfielders. In the previous installment, we looked at the infield

2013 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals began the season with a set outfield and backups that faced few questions. Jayson Werth returned from a broken wrist in 2012 and posted a strong second half, and this spring felt confident that his power and strength was back. After a historic rookie season at 19, Bryce Harper looked poised to make a dramatic jump in his sophomore campaign. The Nationals traded away Michael Morse and finally had the leadoff hitter they had long coveted in Denard Span. The bench was also set with Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi, all fresh off career seasons in 2012.

Then, injuries happened, and the Nationals’ bench was exposed. Harper played hurt for nearly four months of the season. His problems began when he scraped against the right field wall in Atlanta trying to rob a home run on April 30. Then, on May 13, he slammed into the right field fence in Los Angeles. For 11 days, he tried playing through the subsequent injuries. Finally, on May 26, he couldn’t take the pain in his left knee longer. He missed 31 games and received injections to treat the bursitis. He also battled a sore hip in September that limited his speed and forced him to miss five games.

Harper hit .274/.368/.486 in 497 plate appearances and fell short of qualifying for league leaderboards by five plate appearances. If he had qualified, his .854 OPS would have ranked 11th in the National League. That would have also been tied for 10th since 1900 among hitters 20 or younger. Imagine what the numbers had been like if Harper had not hit both walls? The day before he hit wall, Harper was hitting .356/.437/.744 over 103 plate appearances. After he returned from his bursitis on July 1, Harper hit .266/.358/.431 with eight homers in 319 plate appearances.

Injuries also prevented the Nationals from benefiting from Werth’s stellar offensive production. He began the season decently, displaying power and proving that his wrist was back to full strength. Werth then missed 33 games, most of them early in the season with hamstring issues. When he returned, the right fielder did so with a vengeance. He hit .334/.421/.569 with 21 home runs over 425 plate appearances after returning to the lineup on June 4. No player on Earth had a higher OPS in the second half of the season than Werth’s 1.032. Werth was not only playing like a player with $126-million should, but he was hitting better than he did in Philadelphia. Werth’s final slash line of .318/.398/.532 were either career highs or close to it. His .931 OPS was a career best and he finished with 25 homers.

Span didn’t suffer from any major injuries like his outfield teammates, but he was slowed by his own struggles at the plate. He entered the season with a .357 career on-base percentage. He was, however, in a new league after spending five seasons with the Twins, facing new pitchers and pressing in an effort to make an early impact on his new team. For months, Span admitted he didn’t feel comfortable with his swing. He started strong, but by July 13 he was hitting .258 with a .316 on-base percentage. The next day, Davey Johnson moved Span out of the leadoff spot and began using him less frequently against left-handed batters.

Span responded. He hit .302 with a .337 on-base percentage in the second half, and it’s no coincidence the Nationals offense picked up as a whole during that stretch. He earned back the leadoff spot and faced left-handers by September. His 29-game hitting streak was a highlight of the Nationals season, the second longest such mark in team history. He finished with a respectable .279/.327/.380 slash line, a drastic improvement from his midseason form. In the field, Span’s defense never wavered. He may have been the Nationals best defender. He made game-saving catches and tracked down difficult flyballs with ease.

When the injuries struck, the Nationals turned to the bench that helped keep them afloat in 2012. This time, it partially sunk the team. Moore, also a first baseman, hit .222/.283/.310 in 178 plate appearances and was demoted. Bernadina was sub-par from the start, hitting .178/.247/.270 in 167 plate appearances before being released. Lombardozzi was the bench’s lone producer, hitting .259/.278/.338 in 307 plate appearances, but saw most of his time at second. The Nationals called up players from the minor leagues, such as Jeff Kobernus, to help. The team finally addressed the meager bench production by trading for Scott Hairston in early July. Hairston’s tenure began slow, but he finished hitting .271 against left-handed pitchers.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

Health, health and health are the top priorities for the Nationals’ outfielders. Harper said recently that he wouldn’t need offseason surgery on his knee. He knows he needs to rest his body so that his knee and hip, and other nicks and bruises, can heal. When he was on the field, he showed some improvements from his rookie season, but not enough given his high ceiling. Catching his breath this offseason, and learning how to play smart so that he can last an entire 162 season, will help him take the final steps towards reaching his potential.

Can Werth repeat what he did in 2013? Little is normal about his career. The 34-year-old missed seasons of his career due to injury when he was younger, so he has relatively fewer miles on his body than his age would suggest. He was also a late bloomer. And, he has shown an aptitude to adjust and thrive when needed; from succeeding as a leadoff hitter in the second half of 2012 to shining as a middle-of-the-order slugger in 2013. Werth is also a health nut and careful about his body’s nutrition and training. So as he enters the fourth year of his contract in 2014, Werth’s track record suggests that he could remain productive — as long as he is healthy.

Span, 29, finally showed the ability to adjust to a new league and pitchers, and performed well. But with the passing seasons, Span’s on-base percentage have trended down. If he hits in 2014 like he did in the second half of 2013, the Nationals offense will happily benefit. But can he stay consistent from beginning of the season until the end? The 2014 season could be his last in Washington as the Nationals owe him $6.5 million and his contract calls for a $9 million team option for 2015. If prospect Brian Goodwin progresses as expected, he could be ready to take a spot in the outfield by then.

The biggest area of improvement will be the bench. Hairston, who is under contract next season, is a sure bet for that unit. But Corey Brown could also help fill a void. After the departure of Bernadina, the Nationals used Hairston as the primary back-up. But Brown would be best equipped to fill the role vacated by Bernadina. Brown, 27, is a left-handed hitter, a solid defensive replacement and posses power. Brown has accomplished just about everything at Class AAA Syracuse and could possibly earn the fourth outfield job with a strong showing in spring training. He has spent the past three seasons at Syracuse, and still slugged 19 homers and .473 last season despite injuries.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

The Nationals could likely turn to the free agent market to improve the bench. One possibiliy: David DeJesus. He was a National for four days but, after he shipped the outfieler to Tampa Bay, General Manager Mike Rizzo said he would be open to talking to the potential free agent. DeJesus, 33, is a veteran outfielder and strong defender, a left-handed hitter and has a career .353 on-base percentage. Imagine if he had been the Nationals fourth outfielder when Harper and Werth each missed about a month?

PROSPECT TO WATCH

The future makeup of the Nationals outfield hinges, in part, on the development of Brian Goodwin, the top position player prospect in the organization’s minor leagues. The 22-year-old outfielder spent his first full season at Class AA Harrisburg this year. He earned an all-star selection for hitting .252/.355/.407 with 10 home runs and 19 stolen bases in 30 attempts. He can play all three outfield spots, has some power and is a gifted athlete. More than anything, the Nationals have wanted Goodwin to just play; the 2013 season was only his second in professional baseball after being drafted 34th overall in the 2011 draft.

He may start at Harrisburg next season or at Class AAA Syracuse. And if he continues progressing well, he could receive a September call-up. If so, the Nationals could get a chance to evaluate Goodwin and judge when he may be ready to help patrol a major league outfield.

Coming tomorrow: Catchers

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