Revisiting the preseason best and worst cases

October 9, 2013

At the end of spring training, my colleague Adam Kilgore wrote a “best and worst case scenario” post on the Nationals, the players and every unit. It is an exercise in doom and gloom, a moment to ponder the highs and lows that the team could achieve. Again, it is only a fun preseason activity. And now that all the dust has settled, we look back at the preseason warnings or signs of glory to come. This, too, is just a fun examination at the range of preseason expectations.

Denard Span


(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Best case: The Nationals’ wayward quest to find a center fielder is over. Span chases down every ball in the 202 area code. He matches his career-best .392 on-base percentage from 2009, this time with more extra base hits. His goal to steal more bases leads to a career-best 35 steals. Span realizes his vision and makes his first All-Star Game. Meantime, Alex Meyer struggles once Class AA hitters stop chasing his slider like they did in Class A, and the Twins begin to see logic in making him into a reliever.

Worst case: In his career, Span has hit .260/.330/.349 on the road. For some reason, leaving Minnesota and trying to adjust to a new leagues renders him far less productive than the Nationals envisioned. His on-base percentage lags around .325, and his aim to steal more bases never comes to fruition. He covers plenty of ground, but his arm makes the Nationals long for the days when Rick Ankiel and Bryce Harper shut down the running game. Meantime, Alex Meyer lights up Class AA, reaches the majors midway through the season and strikes out 10.3 big league batters per nine innings. The Nationals lost an ace and gained an uncertainty.

Final verdict: For the first three and half months, Span was closer to the worst-case scenario. At the all-star break, he was hitting .263/.320/.358 and had been dropped from the leadoff spot. Hot hitting over the final two and half months corrected his season. He finished with a .279/.327/.380 slash line, along with 20 steals in 26 attempts, four home runs, 11 triples and 47 RBI. His defense was splendid, but his arm wasn’t as strong as Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth. Meyer started at Class A and was promoted to Class AA where he posted a 4-3 record, 3.21 ERA, a 10.7 K/9 ratio but a 3.7 BB/9 rate over 70 innings.

Jayson Werth


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Best case: His off-field contributions are valuable, but they pale what he does on the field. He quickly regains strength in his broken left wrist. He’s still an on-base machine, matching .394 OBP he punched up once he returned last season. Back to using his usual, heavier bat, Werth also clobbers 26 homers. At 34, he puts together  the kind of all-around season the Nationals envisioned when they signed him to his massive contract, and he shows no sign of slowing down.

Worst case: Werth’s excellence down the stretch begins to seem like a fleeting stroke of good fortune. His left wrist may never be the same, and once pitchers begin to realize it they attack Werth in the strike zone, unafraid he’ll do damage. His walks and on-base percentage goes down. He’s better than he was in 2011, but not by much. At 34, he loses range in the outfield. His impact on the franchise can’t be questioned, but his on-field performance keeps the criticism about his mega-contract coming.

Final verdict: Despite missing 33 games and battling injuries, Werth certainly finished close to best-case scenario. He finished with a slash line of .318/.398/.532, 25 home runs and 82 RBI. His .931 OPS was the best of his career. His power returned and his wrist regained full strength. His outfield range has indeed diminished, but he counters with savvy and a good arm. His off-the-field contributions — from putting teammates in their place to mentoring Bryce Harper — continued.

Bryce Harper


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: Last year was only the appetizer. He uses the final month of 2012 – when he hit .330 with a 1.043 OPS and seven homers – as a springboard for an age-20 season that is even more historic than his age-19 rookie year. Harper challenges for the Triple Crown, and doesn’t quite get there. Instead, he settles for 37 homers, a .960 OPS, 31 stolen bases and the National League MVP award.

Worst case: Last year turns out to be a preview. Harper has a rollercoaster season – he can adjust to the league, but the league finds new ways to attack his aggressiveness (which often can turn into over-aggressiveness). It turns out dominating the league at 20 cannot be taken for granted, not even for a player with Harper’s skills. Harper’s all-out style leads to a series of nagging injuries, and he plays in only about 140 games. There aren’t questions about his future superstardom, but Harper’s final numbers look awfully similar to last year – .270/.340/.477 with 20 homers.

Final verdict: Because of his talent and high ceiling, Harper finished closer to the worst-case scenario. He, too, has spoken critically of his season and performance. His sophomore slash line (.274/.368/.486) was better than his freshman numbers (.270/.340/.477) but he didn’t make the big leap that many expected. He began the season with high hopes and his performance in April validated them, but then injuries set in. He smashed into two walls by early May, and he played hurt for the rest of the season, the knee and hip the biggest casualties.

Ryan Zimmerman


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: Still the face of the franchise. Zimmerman gains more and more arm strength, and by the end of the year he’s throwing like it’s 2009 – he alleviates all concerns about his defense. Offensively, he’s the same player as he was once he received a cortisone shot last year, only over a whole season and slightly better. Zimmerman delivers a signature season: He hits .325/.390/.585 with 35 homers, wins the Gold Glove and the MVP.

Worst case: Even though Zimmerman looked better by the end of spring training, his throwing form deteriorates with the strain of playing every day, and he struggles to regain his form. Debate rages about him moving to first base. Unlike last year, the defense carries over to the plate. Zimmerman grounds into more double plays than any hitter in the majors, and he hits .275 with a .340 on-base percentage and 25 home runs. For the first time, there are concerns over his $100 million contract extension.

Final verdict: Much like Harper, Zimmerman’s 2013 season wasn’t bad, but more was expected. Zimmerman, the longest tenured National and a $100 million player, finished with a .275/.344/.465 slash line along with 26 home runs and 79 RBI. He hit 11 home runs in a torrid September after months of a lower power output. His throwing problems raged for months as he essentially rehabbed in games and committed 21 errors. The debate about him possibly moving to first base subsided with a strong final month-plus in which he was flinging the ball across the diamond better than he had all season.

Adam LaRoche


(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Best case: LaRoche’s career year in 2012 keeps rolling along. He has his slumps, sure, but he whacks another 32 homers and, hitting fifth in a loaded lineup, posts 125 RBI. He makes his first all-star team, recognized as one of the way best two-way first basemen in the majors. The Nationals are thrilled they listened to Davey Johnson and re-signed him. Duck Dynasty launches a Buck Commander spinoff, and LaRoche wins an Emmy to go with his second Gold Glove.

Worst case: LaRoche does what most 33-year-olds coming off career seasons do – he regresses. His defense remains strong, but LaRoche’s slumps outweigh his streaks. His on-base percentage drops to .325, his slugging decreases to .450 and his homers drop to 23. The Nationals are glad they didn’t give him the third year on his contract; they just wish they didn’t give him the second.

Final verdict: Other than his injury-shortened 2011 season, the 2013 season may have been the worst of LaRoche’s career. His .735 OPS was the lowest of his career. His 20 home runs were his lowest output since the 2005 season. A Gold Glover in 2012, he committed 11 errors in 2013 — four more than a year ago — and recorded only one defensive run saved — compared to eight the previous season. He regressed, questions were raised about his slowing bat speed and he struggled to keep weight on because of his ADD medicine. His final slash line: .237/.332/.403 — worse than the worst-case scenario.

Ian Desmond


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: In a league lacking superstar shortstops, Desmond becomes one. He continues his development as a hitter and bats .300/.345/.520 with 30 homers. He plays Gold Glove defense and finish in the top five of the MVP vote. The Nationals sure are glad they signed him to a five-year, $49 million contract extension in April.

Worst case: Desmond’s aggression as a hitter limits his ability to develop more. He has less luck on balls in play, and his slash line drops to .270/.320/.460 with 150 strikeouts. The trouble he had with errors throughout the minor leagues and in his rookie year return. He’s still a plus player given the scarcity of shortstops, but the Nationals have to wonder: Do they have a franchise player, or should he be the infielder they move to find a spot for Anthony Rendon?

Final verdict: Desmond’s 2013 season finished closer to the best-case scenario, but not all the way there. Perhaps behind Werth, he was the Nationals’ best player. He was a stalwart (team-high 158 games), a strong defender (he overcame early miscues but still finished with 20 errors), a team leader and one of baseball’s best hitting shortstops (.280/.331/.453 with 20 home runs and 21 steals). His numbers may not have been as good as 2012, but he was still a relatively consistent presence in the lineup. He did strike out 145 times in 655 plate appearances. He remains, however, a strong candidate for a long-term deal.

Danny Espinosa


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Best case: Espinosa’s new left-handed swing allows him to make a leap similar to Ian Desmond’s step forward last season. He strikes out 140 times rather than 189, and his on-base percentage climbs to .340. He crushes 30 homers, plays the best second base this side of Brandon Phillips and makes the first of many All-Star Games. He establishes himself as one of the best at his position, for now and for years to come.

Worst case: Espinosa’s admirable mission to play through a torn rotator cuff turns out to be misguided. After two months of hitting .247/.315/.402 – same as last year – Espinosa finally admits he can’t play any longer and has season-ending surgery. Anthony Rendon comes up from Class AA, but he struggles to adjust to major league pitching after so little professional experience.

Final verdict: Espinosa’s shoulder didn’t doom him, nor did any surgery. His own hitting woes simply worsened and a fractured right wrist didn’t help, either. His offensive production was worse than the worst-case scenario: .158/.193/.272 with three home runs, 47 strikeouts in 158 at-bats in 44 games. His defense was stellar, but his hitting wasn’t even enough to keep him on the field. At Class AAA Syracuse, where he was demoted, he hit .216/.280/.286 with two home runs and 101 strikeouts in 283 at-bats.

Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: The Nationals have one of the best catching situations in baseball. Suzuki and Ramos stay fresh all summer, never dealing with the dreadful wear-and-tear all catchers face, and it shows in their offense. They combine to hit 26 homers with an .830 OPS. In better shape after rehabbing from knee surgery, Ramos becomes one of the best defensive catchers in baseball and a big target pitchers love throwing to. Suzuki plays so well the Nationals can exercise their $8.5 million for him in 2014 – then trade him to an AL contender, wish him well and give Ramos the everyday job for the next 10 years.

Worst case: Ramos and Suzuki are too good of team players to complain, but they struggle for other reasons. Suzuki slumped in Oakland last season after Oakland made him a part-time player, and he again struggles offensively in a lesser role. Ramos’s shaky defense from the start of 2012, especially his odd penchant for dropping throws from the outfield, remains. Suzuki leaves in free agency and signs with Phillies, and the Nationals hand the everyday job to Ramos with diminished confidence.

Final verdict: This ranged between both scenarios. Ramos recovered well from his knee injuries, but missed 58 games with hamstring strains. Suzuki slumped while carrying the everyday load while Ramos was on the disabled list, hitting .222/.283/.310 over 79 games. Ramos returned, proved he could remain healthy and was a force in the lineup: .272/.301/.470 with 16 home runs and 59 RBI over 78 games. Suzuki was traded to an AL contender, back to the Athletics, but his 2014 option won’t kick in and he likely faces free agency in the winter.

Stephen Strasburg


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Best case: He becomes the National League version of Justin Verlander, just younger and, if anything, better. He manages to be efficient even while he strikes out 11.5 batters per nine innings. He throws 210 innings in the regular season, then the Nationals ride him through October. To cap his first career complete game, Strasburg records the final out of the World Series, and the Nationals pile on him on the Nationals Park mound.

Worst case: Strasburg’s effort to pitch to contact more backfires. He loses his identity and, rather than relying on his great stuff, he overthinks. His “struggles” still mean a 3.65 ERA, but he has a hard time getting deep in games – not once does he reach the eighth inning. He doesn’t face questions about innings limits, but he does run into a byproduct of his 2012 shutdown: Having never pitched more than 160 innings, Strasburg fades down the stretch, loses his best command and isn’t even the Nationals’ best starter in the playoffs.

Final verdict: Because of his talent and high ceiling, the preseason best-case scenario was understandably a lofty goal. Strasburg, nor the Nationals, reached those highs, but the right-hander’s season wasn’t bad. In fact, Strasburg finished among the best pitchers in baseball in several categories: 3.00 ERA, 1.049 WHIP, 9.4 K/9 and a .207 opponents’ batting average. But because of quirks to his season — injuries, rain-shortened starts, an ejection and his own struggles and overthinking — Strasburg only logged 183 innings over 30 starts, just two more than his 2012 shutdown season. He got little run support and finished with an 8-9 record. He did learn to pitch deeper into the game and notched his career-first complete game, but he still has more room to grow.

Gio Gonzalez


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: It is easy to forget that Gonzalez is only 27, and even as a two-time all-star he’s still getting better. His command improve and his walk rate shrinks again, all the way below 3.0 per nine innings. His stuff remains unhittable, and his connection to Biogenesis becomes a dead issue. Even with Strasburg at the height of his powers, Gonzalez improves on his third place Cy Young finish in 2012 and wins the award this time.

Worst case: The National League begins to figure out Gonzalez’s curveball, mainly by simply laying off of it when it’s out of the zone. For the first time in his career, his walk rate climbs, back to 4.1 per nine, same as 2011 and 2010. The Biogenesis will not stop swirling around him, and eventually it affects his performance. He finishes with a 3.85 ERA, not bad but not good enough to make his third straight all-star team.

Final verdict: For the Nationals, Gonzalez, too, left much to be desired and fell somewhere in between both cases. The Biogenesis cloud loomed over him until August, when he was cleared and, although he didn’t show it, the investigation affected him some. His 2013 ERA of 3.36 was nearly half a run higher than than in 2012. His record, 11-8, was 10 wins less, too, though the Nationals’ offense was often to blame. He threw one less complete game and finished with 195 2/3 innings, less than 2012, too. He is one of the toughest pitchers to hit because of his stuff — a .231 opponents’ batting average — but he is his own worst enemy with command issues. His walk rate increased slightly to 3.5 BB/9 and his strikeouts fell slightly to 8.8 K/9.

Jordan Zimmermann


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Best case: His “February changeup” turns into the pitch that takes him from solid No. 2 to bonafide ace. He still dominates left-handers like few right-handed starters – and now he’s even better against right-handed batters, holding them to a .225 batting average. Zimmermann’s strikeout rate climbs to 9.1 per nine innings – the same as his rookie year – and he contends for the Cy Young award.

Worst case: Turns out he still can’t figure out his changeup, and right-handed hitters continue their mystifying success against him. The addition of Michael Young, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton to the NL East make his relative problems with right-handers stand out more. He’s still a solid starter, but he seems to have reached his ceiling.

Final verdict: In a career year, Zimmermann nearly fulfills the best-case scenario. He will likely finish outside the top three candidates for the NL Cy Young but his resume is incredibly strong: 19-9 record, 3.25 ERA, four complete games, 213 1/3 innings, 1.088 WHIP and a 4.03 K/BB. His strikeout rate drops to 6.8 K/9 but he has mastered the concept of pitching efficiently and to contact. He improves against right-handers, holding them to a .212 average, but left-handers do better against him, a .262 average. He builds more confidence in his changeup and uses it more, and gets swings and misses.

Dan Haren


(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Best case: Haren starts the season on a mission to prove himself and never looks back. He throws 226 innings with a 3.49 ERA and a 4.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio – exactly what he averaged from 2005 through 2011. The work he did this offseason to solve his hip and back issues turns him back into the same pitcher he was prior to 2012, and that means he’s one of the best in the league.

Worst case: So durable for so long, the wear and tear of 1,758 innings over eight seasons continues to take its toll on Haren. Once the grind of the season begins, his hip issue return and derail his season. He finishes with a 4.50 ERA. The Nationals’ gamble on his health seemed prudent, but it does not pay off. They wish they had simply given Edwin Jackson a qualifying offer after he punches up a 3.30 ERA with the Cubs. And when Haren goes down for a few starts, the Nationals’ lack of starting pitch depth dooms them.

Final verdict: This gamble, which made a lot of sense in the winter, turned out to be a worst-case scenario for the Nationals. Haren’s first half was a mess: 6.15 ERA and 19 home runs allowed over 15 starts. He landed on the disabled list with a phantom shoulder injury. He regrouped, vowed to keep the ball down in the strike zone and not worry so much about his velocity. His final 16 games were a drastic improvement: 3.29 ERA and nine home runs allowed. He is a positive clubhouse influence and stand-up guy, but finished with a 4.67 ERA over 30 starts for $13 million. Jackson has an equally difficult season in Chicago: 8-18 record with a 4.98 ERA for $13 million.

Ross Detwiler


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Best case: A former sixth overall pick, Detwiler has as much pedigree as anyone on the Nationals’ staff except Strasburg, and he pitches like it. Building off his stellar performance in Game 4 of the NLDS, Detwiler starts strong, makes the All-Star Game and challenge 20 wins with an ERA under 3.50. At season’s end, the Nationals sign him to a contract extension, and they have another homegrown ace locked up for the long haul.

Worst case: Detwiler’s cannot break his extreme reliance on his sinker, and it begins to hurt him. As the season wears on, it becomes easier for opponents to face him. It never could have been seen before the year, but the Nationals are left wondering whether Detwiler may be best used as a swing man/reliever.

Final verdict: Coming off his Team USA appearance in the World Baseball Classic, Detwiler began the season strong. But injuries doomed him. He missed nearly a month with an oblique strain and then three months with a herniated disk in his lower back. He made only 13 starts and produced a 4.04 ERA. His development into an reliable piece of the rotation is stunted. The Nationals are forced to dig deep into their pitching depth, turning to Ross Ohlendorf, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark to fill the back of the rotation.

Bullpen


(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Best case: Rafael Soriano gives the Nationals exactly what they’re looking for, an experienced late-inning reliever who sucks the drama out of games. Fans untuck their shirts as soon as the eighth inning ends. Drew Storen is overpowering, his stuff still getting better. Tyler Clippard remains a fastball-changeup marvel. Zach Duke has an even better year than Tom Gorzelanny, and in the few cameos he makes as a starter he goes 3-0. Ryan Mattheus’s sinker-splitter combo stifles lefties. The lack of a second lefty never matters – the Nationals’ bullpen is so overpowering no one could care less what arm they’re throwing with.

Worst case: The pall of Game 5 never lifts. Rafael Soriano isn’t the answer – and, in fact, he falls prey to the volatility of relievers and teammates come to resent his aloofness in the clubhouse. Drew Storen adjusts poorly to the rhythm of his new set-up role. The strain of leading the league in relief innings the past three years finally catches up to Tyler Clippard. Left-handed sluggers take advantage of the Nationals’ lack of a lefty specialist, and when they try to alleviate the issue by calling up J.C. Romero he pitches like he has over the past two seasons. Sean Burnett is an all-star with the Angels while Tom Gorzelanny bails the Brewers out as a spot starter and versatile reliever.

Final verdict: The preseason worst-case scenario nearly captures the mess of the Nationals’ 2013 bullpen. Clippard and Craig Stammen do their part, but the rest of the bullpen doesn’t. Soriano saves 43 games but also blows a career-high six. Storen’s struggles get him demoted to Syracuse, as does Mattheus, who broke his own hand out of personal frustration. Duke is done by early June. The left-handed side of the bullpen hurts the Nationals, and fill-ins Fernando Abad and Ian Krol start strong but fade. Supposedly a strength entering the season, the Nationals’ bullpen finished with a 3.56 ERA, only 17th in the majors.

Bench


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Best case: Tyler Moore makes the Nationals decide at which position he should be an everyday fielder. Steve Lombardozzi gets 250 at-bats as a super-sub all over the field and ups his power and on-base ability. Chad Tracy is again a late-inning weapon as a pinch hitter. Roger Bernadina keeps all three Nationals’ outfielders fresh with spot starts and continues to improve as a pinch hitter.

Worst case: The tremendous performances last year turn out to be only a recipe for regression.  Lombardozzi’s 12-for-66, one-walk spring training sets the tone for his season. The league finally finds a weakness in Moore’s simple, see-ball-hit-ball approach. Lingering injuries plague Tracy. Bernadina, disappointed in not having a chance to start, cannot pick up the slack as a left-handed pinch hitter.

Final verdict: Regression overcame the Nationals’ 2013 bench. Moore struggled and was demoted to Syracuse. Bernadina was released in August after months of next-to-no production. Tracy struggled, too. Lombardozzi shook off a slow start to be the only productive bench player. This area of the team also needed an in-season overhaul, as the Nationals traded for Scott Hairston in July to bolster the bench.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · October 7, 2013