Nationals 2011 Season Preview with Harper Gordek

Baseball is officially under way as pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training. Every team goes into spring training with hope as well as some pertinent questions. To get a feel for what other teams are looking for, I caught up with three SweetSpot bloggers: Peter Hjort for the Atlanta Braves blog Capitol Avenue Club, Joe Janish for the New York Mets blog Mets Today, and Harper Gordek for the Washington Nationals blog Nationals Baseball. As we don’t have a Marlins blogger, I also spoke with Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac. Those will be posted throughout the week once a day.

Today, we will learn more about the Nationals from Harper Gordek.

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1. How would you rate the off-season for the Nationals?

I’d rate it as fair to good. The problem is, when viewed from what it could have been it looks bad. The Nats got rebuffed by several free agents and were turned down in a deal for Zack Grienke. GM Mike Rizzo almost promised the acquisitiion of a #1/#2 type pitcher. Jayson Werth could have been had cheaper and/or on a shorter contract. In a different world the Nats are celebrating a fantastic offseason, and that makes this one seem poor in comparison. When you look at what they did get objectively however, you do see improvement. Letting Dunn walk was tough, but this is Rizzo’s new goal. He wants a defense first squad. Dunn doesn’t fit in. Jayson Werth will be at least as productive when it comes to offense and defense combined, and is the type of plate-appearance battler that they needed to replace the walk-master Dunn. (contract be dammed – it’s a bad deal but that doesn’t mean the Nats won’t get 3-5 good offensive seasons first. Worry about it becoming an albatross when it does – am I right Ryan Howard fans?) Adam LaRoche is a perfectly acceptable slightly above average placeholder first-baseman, who’s offense will replace the healthy 2/3rd of a season departed Josh Willingham was likely to put in. I would have rather had Derek Lee or Carlos Pena but objectively they aren’t really better. Laynce Nix and Rick Ankiel give the Nats 4 meh guys to run through in left field, but meh guys who are still capable of having that career year. Tom Gorzelanny gets one more chance at maybe being a solid starter. The bullpen is filled again with cheap talent. The Nats are almost certain to be a better team this year, not much better, certainly not .500 better even, but better.

2. What should we expect from Jordan Zimmermann this year? Despite some ugly results upon returning from injury last year, he actually pitched well. Is that indicative of what we should expect in the future?

You should see the best Jordan Zimmermann yet this season. What that means though is anyone’s guess. Like you note he could be due for a breakout season. He’s well underperformed compared to his xFIP (4.63 ERA to a 3.39 xFIP in ’09, 4.94 to 4.08 last year) and he’s the type of high K pitcher you love to have. The problem with Jordan is that he’s a flyball pitcher who gives up way too many long balls. That 22% HR/FB ratio from last year will surely drop, but his 12% in 2009 was also high, and it’s an issue that he had in the minors as well. Most likely he’ll significantly improve over the ERAs in his first two years by a combination of luck and experience but the homers will keep him from being a great pitcher. I look for an ERA of around 4.00.

3. Is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer, or is that role up for grabs during spring training?

It should be Storen’s job no matter what, but instead I think it’s merely his job to lose. If Storen looks a little shaky, I could see a Clippard or Burnett or Henry Rodriguez or even Todd Coffey taking that 9th inning role. I think Mike Rizzo is as interested as finding this year’s Matt Capps (who if you don’t remember he turned into Wilson Ramos) as he is trying to settle down the closer spot this season. I do think Storen will win and keep the job though.

4. The Nats have three capable catchers on their active roster: Wilson Ramos, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jesus Flores. How is the team going to handle that?

Rizzo is building a team defense first and Ramos is the better defender. Flores is likely to start the season “rehabbing” in AAA, while Ramos and Pudge split time behind the plate. Every at bat Pudge gets is a terrible, terrible mistake but the Nats want him around to tutor Ramos. If that means humoring him with a possibly futile chase for 3000 they’ll make fans suffer through it. Flores then becomes trade bait for the big deal Rizzo is dying to pull.

Flores can only get back to a starting spot if Ramos (and Pudge) are terrible at the plate and he forced the issue from AAA. This isn’t that far out a scenario. Ramos hasn’t shown any pop in the majors and doesn’t walk so he’s totally reliant on a high batting average. Flores on the other hand might have been putting together a break out offensive year before being injured. Still, if Ramos is merely passable, the Nats have another catcher they like, Derek Norris, in the pipeline and they can wait things out.

5. Are there any players we should be keeping an eye on during spring training?

Not in any interesting “young guy could win a position” sort of way. Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos are set in their roles (and ST stats are pretty meaningless so if they struggle or prosper I wouldn’t read much into it) LF is still undecided so keep an ear out for what they are saying about Roger Bernadina, Mike Morse, Rick Ankiel, and Laynce Nix. I think they’d like Bernadina to win the role, and a Morse/Ankiel or Morse/Nix platoon makes the most sense, but don’t rule out a Nix or Ankiel winning the role outright – especially if Rizzo likes their defense.

Keep an eye on the starting pitching situation, the Nats have 6 main contenders for starting roles. It’s a mix of injury returns, guys with little experience, and 4.50 ERA guys. It could break any number of ways. Personally I think Lannan is the most interesting because he was pitching an entirely different and more effective way after returning from injury. If he keeps that up he could sneak up on the league. But again – I don’t like to think anything is proven in ST. I’d also check to see how Henry Rodriguez is doing – I think Rizzo would love to push him into as important a role as possible to up his (or Storen’s) trade value.

6. If you had to guess on the Nationals’ final record and place in the standings, where would you put them?

Let’s say 74-88 and 4th place. Ahead of whichever of the Marlins or Mets self-destruct this season.

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Thanks to Harper for taking the time to answer some questions about the Nationals. Be sure to check back with his Nationals Baseball blog throughout 2011 for more information about the Phillies’ division rival.