Each day this week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals positional group. In Part 4 of 5 today, we’ll analyze the outfield.
And he hit — so much so that he will almost certainly be the National League’s Most Valuable Player after a stunning age-22 season in which he chased the batting title to the final day, fell an RBI short of 100, and homered 42 times. He led the majors in OPS (1.109), set a Nationals single-season record with 124 walks, and changed opposing game plans dramatically just by being in the lineup. Harper dominated, learned the importance of staying healthy through a full season, and will return to right field as a 23-year-old star in 2016.
Around him, injuries won out. Jayson Werth was supposed to play opposite Harper in left field, but battled back from shoulder surgery, broke his wrist in May, came back in August but didn’t return to form until September. He played in 88 games, fighting to find a rhythm, and experienced the worst statistical season as a National: a .221 average, 12 homers and a .685 OPS. He looked uncomfortable in left field, leading some to wonder if the 36-year-old had lost steps he would not get back — though a few games played in right field spotting Harper showed glimpses of his old self. He never had spring training to learn the position, so it is reasonable to believe he will improve there…if healthy.
Injury doomed Denard Span’s season, too. It started with promise when he hustled back from offseason core surgery and was hitting better than .300 with more power than usual by June. Then back spasms and core trouble derailed him, and sent him to the disabled list just before the all-star break. He returned for two games before deciding to shut it down, having played solid defense and solidified the top of the order when healthy.
Projected to spend the season in the minors, Michael A. Taylor instead filled the injury voids, becoming a key figure in the outfield. The rookie became a regular, played in 138 games and hit .229 — though his average climbed to .240 before a late-season slump — learning to reduce strikeouts and let big power play. He finished with 14 homers and 16 stolen bases, leaving the 158 strikeouts in 472 at bats as room for improvement at the plate next season. But he crafted big hits over and over, showed signs of defensive greatness in center field, and earned an extra year of experience.
Taylor’s high school teammate Matt den Dekker made a case for a spot on next year’s bench with a strong finish. Acquired from the Mets for Jerry Blevins just before the season, den Dekker shuffled between Syracuse and D.C. During his late-season stint with the Chiefs, he made adjustments to his swing that seemed to pay off: He hit .298 with three homers in 26 September games. He’d homered twice and played in 26 big league games in the first three months of the season combined.
Clint Robinson, a career first baseman, learned the outfield well enough to earn playing time against righties. Tyler Moore, who comes from a similar positional background, hit .203 in 200 plate appearances. After a torrid spring training in which he showed what could be if he plays every day, Moore struggled with sporadic at bats.
Denard Span will likely leave for free agency. While the Nationals are almost certain to make a qualifying offer for a year at more than $15 million, they would probably be reluctant to build a long-term deal given Span’s injury-riddled season. Span, on the other hand, will likely seek a few years of security, and is therefore likely to depart.
If he does, the Nationals return the starting outfield they used down the stretch, Werth, Taylor, and Harper. But if the Nationals decide to spend relatively vigorously this offseason — and they have not given a clear indication either way — the outfield may be a place where they add a big bat to protect Harper in the lineup, or a versatile, left-handed hitting outfielder to spell Werth and the rest.
Possible free agent targets
The most obvious target — obvious because the Nationals have expressed interest before — is Brewer-then-Oriole Gerardo Parra, a left-handed hitting, versatile outfielder who can hit in several spots in the lineup and play every day. He will be 28 to start next season, and was signed by the Diamondbacks as a free agent out of Venezuela in 2004, when Mike Rizzo was in the Arizona front office. Parra would bolster the outfield and allow Werth days off, but he does not solve the need for a big hitter to protect Harper, something Harper put on an impromptu wish list on the final day of the season. As for those players, the outfield class does not yield many natural fits.
Justin Upton, another former Rizzo draftee and a Virginia native, will be a free agent. He is a right-handed hitter, and therefore doesn’t diversify the lineup, but has hit at least 26 homers in five of his last seven seasons. His cost may be prohibitive. Jose Bautista — he of the most epic bat flip in the history of mankind — is another right-hander power hitter, though he is 35 and would not seem a natural fit, either. The Nationals may have to look to the trade market to find the left-handed power they may look for, should they hope to find it in the outfield.
Prospect to watch
The best outfielder in the system arrived in 2015: Taylor. But teenage center fielder Victor Robles impressed in the Gulf Coast League and New York Penn League, hitting .352 with 24 stolen bases in 61 games between the two. He will be 18 to begin the season, when he may hit low-A ball should his stock continue to rise.