2011 Baseball Preview

Meet the Washington Nationals

Ian Desmond

SS} Ian Desmond

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
25 6-2 210 R-R .269 10 65 .308

Shortly after players started trickling into spring training, Desmond pleaded insecurity. "I don't think I know that I made the team yet," he said. And then he pulled his head out of the sand, took off his blindfold and removed the blinders. The Nationals have earmarked for Desmond the territory halfway between second and third at Nationals Park for the next decade. This year, they just want him to cut down on errors — a league-leading 34 last year — and continue to produce the way he did once Manager Jim Riggleman removed Desmond from the eighth spot in the lineup. In 201 plate appearances batting second, Desmond hit .326/.359/.489. At 25 , in his second full year, Desmond has become a leader on a team that, no matter what he thinks, he'll never have to worry about making again.

Backup: Alex Cora

Jayson Werth

RF} Jayson Werth

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
31 6-5 220 R-R .296 27 85 .388

For a moment — or, better yet, for the next 162 games — forget the seven-year, $126 million contract. Forget the caveman beard and the rock-star hair. Forget the does-or-he-or-doesn't-he-hate-the-Phillies debate. Once the national anthem blares opening day, all of it will fade away and leave the most important fact in its place: Werth is a ballplayer to be reckoned with. Graceful in right (or center, if need be), powerful in the box and smart on the base paths, Werth made himself into a key component of the reigning National League East bullies. He carried the Phillies at times, but there will be more carrying to be done now that Werth shifted south on I-95, to the other end of the standings. Whether or not he can handle his new leading role — and he says he can — will be worth remembering.

Backups: Laynce Nix

Ryan Zimmerman

3B} Ryan Zimmerman

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
26 6-3 230 R-R .307 25 85 .388

The most stunning thing about Zimmerman is that he has not even entered his prime. It feels as if he has been around so long — he will become the only player to appear as a National during each of their seven seasons. And he's already so good — he ranked among the top 10 in the National League last year in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and Wins Above Replacement, and that's without mentioning his elite defense. So, yeah, it's easy to forget the first draft choice in team history is still just 26 years old. While you drool over a future that includes Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth and perhaps more big-ticket free agents, don't forget that one of the best players in baseball is getting better right before your eyes.

Backup: Jerry Hairston

Adam Laroche

1B} Adam LaRoche

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
31 6-3 205 L-L .261 25 100 .320

What is first base defense worth? The Nationals provided a test case this winter when they swapped Adam Dunn's homers and hard hands for LaRoche's slick glove and league-average bat. LaRoche will have to replace a fan favorite, but he'll soon become the BFF of Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, the trio of infielders he'll be turning errors into outs for all season. "The nice thing about first is you can help five other guys," LaRoche said. "I do pride myself on being able to save some guys some errors." He's not Dunn at the plate, but who is? Over the past six seasons, LaRoche has averaged 25 home runs and 87 RBI. Dunn hit 38 and drove in 103 last year. The Nationals aren't asking LaRoche to fill Dunn's shoes. They just want him to bring his glove.

Backup: Michael Morse

Michael Morse

LF} Michael Morse

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
29 6-5 230 R-R .289 15 41 .352

Morse has long wondered what would happen if he received 500 at-bats in one season. After taking the Nationals' open left field spot by force, Morse is about to find out. Morse received his first taste of playing every day last year when Josh Willingham missed the final two months with a knee injury. During that span, Morse's .930 OPS led the Nationals. He's not known for defense, but General Manager Mike Rizzo believes Morse has the athleticism to become a "two-way" player. The designation of everyday left fielder culminates a winding career path for Morse, who was drafted in 2000 by the White Sox as a shortstop and has been traded twice, including to the Nationals from Seattle for Ryan Langerhans . By the end of this season, that could look like Rizzo's best deal yet.

Backup: Jerry Hairston

Rick Ankiel

CF} Rick Ankiel

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
31 6-2 205 L-L .232 6 24 .324

Ankiel emerged as the starting center fielder — usurping Nyjer Morgan, the man he beat out — based largely on faith. Ankiel had a .298 on-base percentage with a .686 OPS over the past two seasons, and his on-base percentage hovered below .300 most of the spring. The Nationals are betting improved health and a close connection with hitting coach Rick Eckstein will restore his form from 2008, when Ankiel hit 25 home runs with a .506 slugging percentage. Sabermetricians loathe Ankiel; scouts love him. His home runs scrape the stars and his outfield arm, many say, is the best in the sport. This spring Ankiel blasted three titanic home runs and threw out a runner at the plate on a throw that, from right field, traveled some 300 feet on the fly. Seeing, apparently, was enough to make the Nationals believe.

Backups: Jerry Hairston, Laynce Nix

Danny Espinosa

2B} Danny Espinosa

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
23 6-0 190 S-R .214 6 15 .277

Before Espinosa arrived last fall as a September call-up, 24 men had stationed second base for the Nationals. The best, probably, was Jose Vidro. He had a .347 on-base percentage and 14 homers in 186 games. Yeah, we said "best." Into that void comes a 2008 third-round draft pick whose strikingly powerful bat and enormous range will earn him, the Nationals hope, the spot to Ian Desmond's left for the next 10 years. Espinosa, a shortstop for virtually his whole minor league career, learned the Nationals' plans for him while sitting in the clubhouse at Class AAA Syracuse. A coach walked up to him and told him, "You're playing second." Espinosa shrugged. Anything he could do to make it to the big leagues, Espinosa said, he would. Now that he's filling a hole at second base that's existed since baseball returned to Washington, it looks like he'll stay a while.

Backup: Alex Cora

Ivan Rodrigue

C} Ivan Rodriguez

age ht wt b-t avg. hr rbi obp
39 5-9 205 R-R .266 4 49 .294

Twenty years into his career and 183 hits shy of 3,000, the man called "Pudge" has earned the right to yank on his catcher's mitt — a black Wilson A2000 with "MVP #7" stitched in yellow on the back — and squat behind home plate on opening day. But what happens after that? Rodriguez produced a .294 on-base percentage last year, and since 2007 he has a .685 OPS. Rodriguez remains an above average defensive catcher, but for how long can the Nationals withstand, barring a sudden change, the offensive hole he creates in the lineup? Wilson Ramos will split time with Rodriguez at the outset of the season. And soon, the Nationals may face the unenviable task of letting a legend know there's a kid 16 years younger who, simply, is better.

Backup: Wilson Ramos

By Adam Kilgore - The Washington Post. Published March 29, 2011.