2012 SEASON REVIEW
The Nationals suffered their biggest injuries this season to the outfield. The opening day makeup was projected to be Jayson Werth in right field, Michael Morse in left and Rick Ankiel in center, but injuries claimed both Morse and Ankiel early. By mid-April, after Werth broke his left wrist, the outfield was an amalgam of Roger Bernadina and Xavier Nady, rookies Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Bryce Harper, and Ankiel.
Harper was called up from Class AAA Syracuse on April 28, far earlier than expected, a desperate move by the Nationals to add offense during a rash of injuries that also claimed Ryan Zimmerman. He would be sent back to the minor leagues if he struggled, but instead, Harper injected some life into the Nationals offense and forcefully dispelled the notion he may be sent back down. At 19, he hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs and 98 runs — and that’s without playing the season’s first month.
He formed a potent 1-2 duo atop the Nationals’ lineup with Werth. The 33-year-old had a disappointing first season last year, the first in his seven-year, $126 million deal. This year, he was more relaxed and comfortable. Even before he missed nearly three months, it showed. After he returned in early August, Werth morphed into a proficient leadoff hitter. He hit .312/.394/.441 in 54 games after his return.
Had he been healthy all season, Werth’s on-base percentage (.387) would have landed him in the top 15 in the majors. His knack for working pitchers deeper into counts was a valuable trait as a leadoff hitter; he averaged 4.37 pitches seen per plate appearance, which would have been third best in baseball if he qualified.
Morse returned in June after missing the first 50 games with a lat muscle strain. He endured another stretch of injuries over the season’s final month and a half, dealing with wrist and hand pains that sapped his power. While he carried the Nationals offense last season with 31 home runs, he wasn’t the same hitter because of the injuries. He finished with a slash line of .291/.321/.470 and 18 home runs, respectable numbers given all the nicks and pains.
Of all three outfield positions, the Nationals got the most production out of center field, finishing seventh in the majors in OPS and 10th in home runs thanks to Harper. It’s hard not to overstate the impact Harper’s historic rookie season for a teenager had on the lineup. Harper’s play, while hard to quantify, provided a spark. His aggressive base running and hustle, while on occasion reckless, forced opponents to act. His offense was valuable during a tough stretch of injuries. Per Fangraphs.com, Harper had the 12th best wins above replacement (4.9 WAR) among major league outfielders.
Lombardozzi, Moore and Bernadina were important pieces, too, shoring up left field while Morse was injured. Bernadina had a career year (.291/.372/.405), Moore smashed 10 home runs in only 156 at-bats and Lombardozzi, like Moore, had to learn left field to help. As the Nationals dealt with potentially crippling injuries, their farm system proved valuable.
The Nationals feared playing center field everyday would hasten the wear and tear on Harper’s muscular frame. But he made strides in how he tracked down balls, gliding to them instead of a choppy run. Manager Davey Johnson spelled Harper in center field, especially during his slump, with Bernadina and Werth. During the season’s final stretch, however, he was there every day and showed no signs of wear, finishing on an offensive tear.
If Harper can improve his weaknesses, such as offspeed pitches away and his cold streaks against left-handed pitching, Harper could soon be the Nationals’ most valuable player and among the best hitters in the majors. Long term, Harper projects as possible three-hole hitter with his power. And if his power continues to develop, it may be hard to continue batting him second.
Morse should return completely healthy next season, the root of his offensive slumps this season. Defensively, however, he can be a liability. It remains to be seen how much Werth’s body can withstand the rigors of the leadoff spot everyday. Bernadina, who is eligible for arbitration, is a vital piece as a fill-in at all three outfield spots, and can leadoff if needed. Moore and Lombardozzi are needed backup, too.
The makeup of the outfield could potentially hinge on first baseman Adam LaRoche. If he and the Nationals can come to agreement as they both have indicated they want, Morse stays in left field. But if the Nationals reach a deal with LaRoche and acquire a leadoff-type center fielder, Morse, a free agent after next season, would need to be traded away.
POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS
The talk has long been about the Nationals acquiring a long-term solution in center field, an elite defender who can leadoff. And Michael Bourn is the top free agent that fits that bill: a 29-year-old, two-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder who stole 42 bases for the Braves this season and has a career .339 on-base percentage. With age, Bourn has also developed more power, smashing nine home runs from the leadoff spot this season.
But Bourn is likely to have a long list of suitors and will come at a high price. He is represented by high-profile agent Scott Boras, whose clients also include Stephen Strasburg, Werth, Harper and others. And, with Harper’s quick development in center field, the Nationals may be able to buy time until one of their cheaper minor league options is ready in a season or two.
But, let’s imagine the Nationals sign Bourn, who would likely come at a hefty price. The most pertinent question would be: How would that affect their ability to offer inviting contract extensions to current coveted players such as Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, and Harper and Strasburg in the future?
PROSPECT TO WATCH
The Nationals have options in the outfield in the minor leagues, and their best prospect is Brian Goodwin. With his speed and arm, he projects as center fielder but can also play the corner outfield positions. In 216 at-bats at Hagerstown, Goodwin hit .324/.438/.542 with nine home runs and 15 stolen bases in 216 at-bats at Class A Hagerstown before bypassing high-A Potomac and jumping to AA Harrisburg, a move the Nationals felt his advanced offensive approach merited. There he struggled, hitting .223/.306/.373 in 166 at-bats.
Goodwin, the 34th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is playing in the Arizona Fall League and could likely begin next season with Harrisburg with a promotion to Syracuse on the horizon. He could be a call-up in September. His style of play is often compared to Bourn, but could likely project as a Curtis Granderson-type because he has shown more power. Other options: Eury Perez, Destin Hood and Michael Taylor.
Coming tomorrow: Catcher.