Nationals Q&A: Potential starters, bench upgrades, Anthony Rendon and more

November 25, 2013

Nationals hitters. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Thanks to everyone who contributed questions to our second-ever Q&A. We were again thrilled with the feedback and appreciate the interest. Please keep coming up with questions and we hope to tackle more of them soon. We chose 10 of the best and most interesting questions and took a stab at them below.

guest101: There’s been much talk of bench and bullpen but one thing that 2013 made clear was that the Nats need to upgrade offsensively — either at 1B or in the OF.

Adam Laroche is on a downward trajectory and it is wishful thinking to expect he will ever return to his 2012 near-MVP season. However there don’t appear to be many good options at 1B in the FA market. Could the Nats move Harper to 1B and pursue a FA outfielder with some pop — Granderson or Nelson Cruz?

Kilgore: I would reject the idea that they need an offensive upgrade in the outfield. They could use a health upgrade, but Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper were, at times, among the best offensive players in the majors. (Before Harper jumped into the wall in Atlanta, he had a monster April. A few people have wondered if Harper will have his big breakout this year at 21. I think he already it – it just got interrupted by the fences in Atlanta and Los Angeles.) It’s a big year for Denard Span. If he can take the adjustment he made after Rick Schu became hitting coach into 2014, it’ll be a huge upgrade. Some officials think a top-shelf leadoff hitter is what the Nationals lack. Can Span be that guy?

I thought the Nationals might look to deal LaRoche, eating a bunch of his salary in order to free up first base after LaRoche struggled in 2013. Unless Mike Rizzo is trafficking in misdirection, that won’t happen. Rizzo said at the GM Meetings that LaRoche will be the Nationals’ first baseman in 2014, period. He thinks LaRoche will bounce back and hit at his career norm. Given that scouts saw him lose bat speed last year and he’ll be 34, that’s a big gamble. Then again, LaRoche has had one of those every-other-year careers, and he seemed to get his weight-loss issues under control. Not being able to keep on pounds had a huge effect on him last season.

Woland: What are the chances that the Nats ignore the starting pitching market (almost) completely and sign somebody boring like Bartolo Colon to a cheap 1 year deal? While pitching was somewhat inconsistent last year, the main issue was with the offense and bullpen. Moreover, there is pretty decent amount depth in the Nats system with ML ready pitching prospects, many of which got a shot last year such Roark, Jordan, Karns, as well as others in the high minors such as Solis, Ray, Cole, Purke, and others.

Personally, I rather see the Nats add an impact bat at corner OF or 1B if we are going to spend money or trade prospects. LaRoche is a sunk cost, and while I feel he will rebound I will not hold my breath.

Wagner: First of all, I don’t think this is an either-or situation (read: adding a free agent starting pitcher or an impact first baseman). But the Nationals don’t really need an impact corner outfielder with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper expected to be healthier next season. And based on how Rizzo talks about LaRoche, they don’t want an impact first baseman because they believe they have a capable one already. So, given that, the Nationals lineup is fairly set. They are in need of upgrading the bench, particularly with a left-handed bat. And if LaRoche struggles, he could be spelled with a right-handed hitter, like Tyler Moore. But the Nationals likely should also target a right-handed hitter who can play the outfield and infield. But I digress.

My colleague Adam examined the Nationals’ options for a starter well here. The Nationals have shown a willingness to add good-but-not-elite starters to a one-year deal (see: Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson). It’s a great option because it’s only a one-year deal and provides plenty of flexibility for the future. And maybe that’s the best avenue if any larger deals, such as a trade for a bigger name like Max Scherzer, David Price or Jeff Samardzija, don’t work out. Inking Colon, a strike-throwing machine, to a one-year deal could help shore up the rotation, but it sounds like the Athletics and him were open for another one-year reunion. (A.J. Burnett could also work well in the Nationals rotation — a veteran who racks up strike outs and grounds outs — but he has said he may retire or return to Pittsburgh.)

Why not also look at other starters that could be had on one-year deals without giving up a draft pick: Scott Kazmir? Scott Feldman? Jason Hammel? Jake Westbrook? Paul Maholm? Mike Pelfrey? I’m not suggesting the Nationals sign them but they are average to below average options to consider if they nothing else pans out and they don’t feel completely comfortable with Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan in the rotation. It would likely take more than a one-year deal and more money to lure Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco or Bronson Arroyo. Rounding out the starting rotation will require a careful balance between weighing the Nationals’ window to win now/soon and the future of the young arms in the system (trade them for a bigger name or refrain from multi-year deals to veteran free agent starters that won’t block the prospects’ paths to the majors). The Nationals have the window and money to win now, so maybe they should make a very strong push for free agent options like Colon and Burnett, enough to entice them to come to Washington.

MBP1: Cano wants a 10 year contract worth $300 million. He’ll be 42 at the end of a 10 year deal and big contracts for over-30 players are risky, but Cano has been the best second baseman in baseball for the last 5 or 6 years and he is consistently healthy, playing about 160 games per season. Cano to the Nats to play 2nd would make the Nats the favorite to win the division. Are the Nats going to make an attempt to get him?

Kilgore: I believe Cano’s demands have decreased. As I understand it, Cano asked the Yankees for $300 million during the middle of the season as a Hail Mary – basically charging the Yankees a tax if they wanted to keep out of free agency. Now that he’s in free agency, he’s not demanding $300 million. I don’t think the Yankees mind that figure continuing to float out there, though. It’s scaring teams away, which deflates Cano’s market, which means less competition for the Yankees and, they hope, less money in the end.

I’m not sure the Nationals get involved. Rizzo has said he sees Anthony Rendon as a National in 2014. Ryan Zimmerman has a no-trade clause. Ian Desmond isn’t going anywhere. LaRoche, apparently, is coming back to play first. The signals Rizzo has sent are that the infield is set.

But there certainly would be some logic to the Nationals joining the fray. I’m going to delve further into this in a coming post. Mainly, the Nationals have a window to win now that will close sooner than it seems, and Cano is not only the available player who will most help them win right away, but also the kind of free agent who will not come along again anytime soon. The idea that they don’t have room for him doesn’t pass muster – it’s not like Anthony Rendon, at this point of his career, is above a bench spot or spending a bit more time in the minors. The Nationals have/will have the financial might to absorb his massive salary once he hits the decline phase, whenever that may come. The Nationals are positioned to take on a big contract for a player of Cano’s caliber and then worry about the decline years later.

I’m not necessarily trying to advocate the Nationals signing Cano, and the expectation is he will some way or another return to the Yankees. But you could make a good case.

baltova1: What’s the likely home in April 2014 of the various pitching prospects moving through the organization (Karns, Jordan, Roark, Cole, Ray, Solis, Purke, Giolito, Johansen, Mooneyham)? Of the guys who didn’t pitch in the big leagues last year, who’s the most likely to do so in ’14 and who’s the guy who could end up on the fast track, maybe even somebody not on this list?

Kilgore: Best guesses: Karns and Jordan start in the Syracuse rotation. Roark starts in the majors as a long reliever/swing man. A.J. Cole, Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray and Matt Purke start in the Harrisburg rotation (and that will be a heck of a rotation). Jake Johansen and Brett Mooneyham (who may or may not belong on this list) start at Potomac.

Among those who didn’t get to the majors last year, I would guess Solis has the biggest impact. Rizzo has already talked about him possibly pitching out of the bullpen. Plus he’s the oldest. He could give the Nationals’ the kind of relief weapon the Cardinals have made so much hay with over the past couple years: a young, hard-throwing starting prospect coming out of the bullpen to give multiple innings. The Nats have been really high on him for the past couple years, even after he underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2012.

mkim424: Does Danny Espinosa have any trade value at this point? Will he accept a bench role now that A. Rendon is clearly ahead of him on any depth chart?

Wagner: Espinosa certainly has trade value right now but a minimal one. The old adage of trading a player at their highest value seems to apply here and Espinosa is far from that right now. The Nationals, especially Rizzo, believe in Espinosa’s ability and potential; they just want him to improve on his flaws. And he has shown some of that potential, although not for long enough periods. He can hit for power (38 home runs in his first two full seasons in the majors at second base isn’t anything to laugh at) and plays stellar Gold Glove-worthy defense. But he is prone to strikeouts (432 in 1595 major league plate appearances) and doesn’t get on base enough (.303 career OBP). He is 26 and still hasn’t hit arbitration yet so his financial burden is very team friendly. Yet he is coming off a season of injuries.

So since the Nationals still see a lot of potential in Espinosa and others teams see a chance to nab a player at a cheaper trade cost, why should the Nationals deal him? It would make sense not to. The Nationals may not get the trade chips in return that they believe Espinosa will ultimately be worth. There is no harm in having Espinosa compete for the second base job in spring training. Anthony Rendon will have to compete for it, too, but he clearly has the advantage. And even if Espinosa’s hitting hasn’t improved enough, the Nationals may still be better off with him in the majors as a backup middle infielder. He could be a valuable defensive substitution, especially since the Nationals don’t have a strong backup shortstop.

jcj5y: I’m worried that losing Roy Clark is a big blow to the front office. Do you know anything about why he left, or about how the Nats will replace him?

Kilgore: Clark is a big loss. Far as we know, he followed Stan Kasten out to the Dodgers. Kasten gave him his first big role with the Braves and brought him to Washington. Clark may see a bigger future opportunity in L.A., working under someone in Kasten who considered making him GM in D.C.

The Nationals replaced him with Kris Kline, bumping their scouting director up to assistant GM. The Nationals bumped up six front office and scouting executives, all of them hard-working guys who have been around Rizzo for years. Another sign that the Nats are a Mike Rizzo Operation. Of all the hires the Nationals made this winter, all of them were internal except for Matt Williams and Mark Weidemaier, the defensive coach Williams brought with him from Arizona. That says that the Nationals had a chance, with Davey Johnson leaving, to change course a little bit, and they doubled down on what they’re doing. That’s not a bad thing, but it frames the way Rizzo will be evaluated.

artguydtd: Any report on Harper and Strasburg’s progress/recovery from surgery?

Wagner: Harper is a little more than two weeks into his rehab. On Nov. 7, if you remember his tweets, he had the stitches removed from his left knee and began riding a stationary bike. According to his agent Scott Boras, Strasburg is already working out again and doing well. Strasburg was expected to resume his offseason throwing routine relatively soon. The Nationals said the recovery period for both players would last between four to six weeks and that both players were expected to be ready for spring training. We hope to have more on their progress soon.

Strasburg is incredibly diligent about his workout regime during the season, so expect the same resolve as he recovers from this minor surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow. It sounds like Strasburg may have been dealing with the discomfort longer than just the last two starts that were skipped in September, as Boras said the right-hander pitched for a “good amount” of the season with the pain.

As far as Strasburg’s recovery, it’s worth remembering that Drew Storen had a bone chip removed from his right elbow in April 2012 and, although he returned in mid-July of that season, it took another month before he regained his true form. Strasburg will have the benefit of the offseason and spring training to recover and build up arm strength like everyone else. So even if he does take as long as Storen, he should be ready for spring training and the regular season.

Harper bulks up in the offseason and, in his own words, had grand plans of getting as big as a house this winter. But that was before the surgery. It’ll be interesting to see how much the recovering knee will limit — and has limited him — in building strength in the winter like he normally does.

revdrbuck: When Davey Johnson took over he changed the makeup of the bench to suit him. Will Matt Williams be given that sort of input and opportunity?

Kilgore: Williams will have input, yes. The Nationals have a one bench spot spoken for with Scott Hairston under contract. The Nationals will have Lombardozzi or Espinosa, too, assuming Rendon wins the second base starting job. Rizzo has made getting a left-handed hitter a priority. Williams may want more speed than Johnson preferred, given his penchant for aggressive base running.

WASports: I was wondering, which prospect is most likely to make an impact in the major leagues this year? And do you think Rendon will be able to go back to his torrid start of his big league career and have above a 300 avg this year?

Kilgore: Whoa whoa whoa, that’s two questions.

I would stick with Solis as the prospect most likely to make an impact this year, just because there’s a good fit for him and he’s close. As a bonus prospect to keep an eye out, Brandon Miller probably doesn’t get enough attention. He was a fourth-round pick in 2012. He struck out 164 times and drew 41 walks last year, which is a little frightening. But he also belted 20 homers, and it’s possible he has the best power tool in the Nats’ system. One Nats scout told me the ball makes a different, distinctive sound coming off the bat of two Nationals minor league hitters: Miller and Michael Taylor, the center fielder who the Nationals just placed on the 40-man roster even though he hasn’t played above Class A.

As for Rendon, I wouldn’t make a specific prediction about his batting average. Despite what I wrote above about him not being above a bench, I do think Rendon will have a fine season in the likely event he is the everyday second baseman. He’ll have less mental strain not switching positions. His swing cannot fail. An OBP between .365 and .390 isn’t out of the question.

Wagner: I’m going to weigh in, too, on the first question because it seemed like a fun challenge to predict what prospect could have the biggest impact this season. I agree with my colleague that Solis could turn out to be that guy this season. The Nationals have always been high on Solis and I saw him this season at Class A Potomac. He’s a lefty, is composed on the mound, throws hard and with enough sink to get plenty of ground balls. I think that if young pitchers are thrust into the major leagues with little experience those with power sinkers are among those most likely to succeed. Look at what happened with Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark last season. Both relied on command and sinking fastballs to thrive.

But as far as a dark horse prospects, I would suggest keeping an eye (or two) on two people: right-handed reliever Aaron Barrett and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. Both are green — neither has played above Class AA Harrisburg — and they’re at the age — 25 and 24, respectively — in which they should be moving up in the system. Souza has improved at every level of the minors and, despite a lack of playing time, had an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. Barrett is intriguing because he throws in the low to mid-90s and has the highest rated slider in the system. I could see them jumping higher in the Nationals prospect hierarchy this season.

dcnationals1: Is Bat Kid really Bryce Harper in disguise?

Wagner: I did some checking into this question. And, I’m sorry to disappoint, the answer is no. Bat Kid is an adorable 5-year old kid named Miles Scott whose leukemia is in remission. A slight tangent but, like scores of others, I was incredibly moved by Bat Kid’s story and the great lengths that the Make-A-Wish Foundation and those in San Francisco went to to fulfill Miles’s dream. Seeing peoples’ reactions make me wonder if Bat Kid did more for us than we did for him. His joy and excitement made so many people happy. Too often we huddle around our televisions and the water cooler because of tragic world events. This time, however, we could do so about a truly positive and encouraging story. (And in some way, sports, in its purist form, has that same power.) Thank you Miles Scott.

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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