Nationals 2013: The best case and the worst case

Baseball is not as easy as the Nationals made it seem last year. The Nationals may be as great as they want to be in the coming years, capturing World Series trophies and raising pennants, and still never win 98 games again. The bitter end of 2012 shouldn’t obscure what a dominant team the Nationals had in the regular season. When they unveil the National League East championship banner today, keep that in mind.

On opening day, it is good to proceed with both optimism and caution. In only a few short hours, that banner will be revealed and Juan Pierre will dig in against Stephen Strasburg. It’s time for what’s become our annual exercise in silly extremes – the best case and worst case for every Nationals regular and starter, plus the bench and bullpen.

As always, these are not going to be all that realistic or, really, fair. In many cases, they are going to be quite ridiculous – it’s either complete elation or total doom and gloom. The only aim is pure, goofy fun. The Best Cases are too optimistic and the Worst Cases are unfair. Here they are:

Denard Span

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.

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post) (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Jayson Werth

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.

Bryce Harper

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.

Ryan Zimmerman

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.

Adam LaRoche

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.

Julio Cortez/AP Julio Cortez/AP

Ian Desmond

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?

Danny Espinosa

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.

Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki

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.

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Stephen Strasburg

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.

Gio Gonzalez

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.

Jordan Zimmermann

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.

Dan Haren

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.

Ross Detwiler

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.

Evan Vucci/AP Evan Vucci/AP

Bullpen

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.

Bench

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.

FROM THE POST

Davey Johnson isn’t so sure he wants 2013 to be his last year, but he’s not thinking about the future, anyway.

The Nationals are embracing the expectations, Boz writes.

Stephen Strasburg is ready for the first start of a mercifully full season, James Wagner writes.

On Sunday, Boz put some heat on Nationals ownership to extend Mike Rizzo’s contract.

Also on Sunday, Wagner looked at the Nationals’ success at signing risky, rehabbing pitchers.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Garcia cleared to throw

Nats officially set roster

Marlins’ lineup

The case for extending Desmond

NATIONALS PREVIEW

If you missed our special section in Sunday’s preview, here’s all of that content and more.

Cover story by Adam Kilgore | Talent without limits
Already, at the ages of 24 and 20, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper may form the most overpowering tandem in baseball.

Thomas Boswell column |  Let the good times roll 
Washington has unique baseball memories, unlike any other city — awful ones. D.C. baseball fans deserve the good ones they’re about to get.

Roster breakdown | The lineup, by James Wagner, and the pitching staff, by Harry Pavlidis

League preview | A look at every MLB team, by Barry Svrluga

Tracee Hamilton column | The curse of high expectations
It’s not the alleged Sports Illustrated cover curse that should concern the Nationals. It’s the curse of high expectations.

Baseball memories | Read others’ best-loved baseball stories and share your own.

George Will’s baseball quiz | Good luck.

Ready for the season | Six die-hard Nats fans, including Maury Povich, talk about how their lives revolve around their favorite teams.

Out of the park | Where the Nats like to hang out.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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James Wagner · March 31, 2013

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