2014 Nationals Q&A with Harper Gordek

This week, we’ll be previewing the Phillies’ NL East opponents for the 2014 season with a brief Q&A session with various team bloggers.

Harper Gordek runs the blog Nationals Baseball, which is a fellow member of ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog network. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few Nationals-related questions to help preview the upcoming season in the NL East. Give him a follow on Twitter @HarperGordek.

1. The Nationals appeared to steal Doug Fister away from the Tigers over the winter, but now he’s dealing with an elbow problem. If he isn’t ready for the start of the season, how big of a blow is it for the Nationals, and who takes his place in the rotation?

Well it looks like that’s water under the bridge now, but if he suffers a setback, it’s a pretty big blow. Not to say the Nats would be crippled or anything, they’d only go from having perhaps the best Top 4 to perhaps the best Top 3, but this was the big move during the offseason to help the Nats get back to where everyone thought they would be. Without Fister they are essentially the same starting team as last year. That’s not a bad thing, but if coupled with a slow start it could have some psychological effects on the team.

He’d likely be replaced with Roark (I favor Taylor Jordan to win the 5th spot currently). I doubt they’d re-introduce Detwiler so soon after relegating him to a pen position. In terms of “ready for a try” guys that’s pretty much it so it would leave the Nats with no margin of error with that last rotation spot. If (when?) one of these two don’t pan out, they’d be scrambling.

2. Is there any concern about closer Rafael Soriano who, like Jonathan Papelbon, had velocity and strikeout rate declines last season?

Yes, definitely. When the Nats brought him in they expected a dominant closer and while he was good, he certainly wasn’t shut down. Everyone noted the loss in velocity (which has pretty much been going on for years now) and are very cautious about how he will perform. It’s not even really about the closer role, if you put much importance in that. The Nats have a couple arms, in Clippard and Storen, who have handled the role before. It’s more about how Soriano would react to losing the position if he does start to pitch poorly. He’s could easily go from closer to malcontent throwing out a 4.50ERA in the space of a couple months.

3. Manager Matt Williams is holding a position battle at second base between Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa. Who would you like to see win the job?

No one really thinks their is a position battle. You can make the argument there should be (Espinosa is a top-flight fielder) but most Nats fans and such think it’s all part of a snow job to increase Danny’s value for a potential trade. Accepting that – I can see favoring either outcome. Rendon has the potential and is warming to 2nd, so you’d like him to win for 2014. However if Danny wins it while Rendon performs well, that means 2015 and beyond could be set up with Danny back at 2nd, Rendon at 3rd and Zimm, who’s trying out 1B here and there this year, over at 1st. Of course what kind of answer is “I want everyone to be great!”? Rendon. At this point I believe in Rendon more and would like to (and expect to) see him win.

4. Former Phillie Jayson Werth had a great 2013, hitting .318 with a .931 OPS. He’ll turn 35 in May. How long do you think he can keep up this level of production, if he can at all?

About a couple weeks, maybe a month. How long does small sample size come into play? Factoring declining offense and if you project his 2013 stats out for the whole year it’s his best offensive year ever. At 34. Recovering from injury. I just don’t buy it. I do think though that those lean years are behind Weth now so something like his age 29-30 years wouldn’t be out of line. .280 25 homers with good patience. Given his recent production you just can’t predict a great fall yet. I could see that for a couple of years. The biggest issue with Werth, besides waiting to see when the production drops, is the fact he’s becoming a statue in RF. With no DH, 1B looks like a potential landing spot but the Nats don’t seem to be considering it.

5. What’s more likely in 2014: Bryce Harper wins the NL MVP or Stephen Strasburg wins the NL Cy Young?

Bryce wins MVP. In part that’s because of how MVP voting is more about teams winning that Cy Young. You generally have to earn the Cy Young (though luck with your personal win total certainly helps) where as for MVP if you are simply in the conversation and your team has a very good season, that can put you over the top. It’s also because of the competition. Give Bryce a full healthy year and he’s Top 10 NL in WAR with no improvement. Factor in a modest level of positive adjustment with age and he’s likely Top 5. So already without really trying he’s in the discussion. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a better improvent. McCutchen stand out as the standard bearer in the NL right now. He’ll be hard to catch, but everyone else is doable. Bryce’s worst enemy might be Matt Williams, if he decides to drop Bryce in the order.

I really like Strasburg and expect him to have a much better season, but the competition is stiffer. Kershaw, Wainwright, Lee. Any of them can win 20 with an ERA under 2.50 next year. Jose Fernandez has scary potential, and I wouldn’t count out Bumgarner or Greinke. Being a a team that should win a bunch of games helps, but it can also hurt. The Nats have three very good other pitchers in Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Fister who could also rack up wins. Strasburg could put up a 2.50 ERA and 17 wins but how would it look if one of those guys wins 21 with a 2.90 ERA?

6. Drew Storen struggled early last season, but made some adjustments after a demotion to Triple-A. Do you believe his changes will lead to more success, or was it a small sample size fluke?

I think the struggles were the small sample size fluke actually. 160+ games from 2010 says he’s a good pitcher. He put up a 1.93 ERA from May 27th through July 1st, and a 1.40 ERA from August 16th to years end after being demotedJuly 26th. Yet a slow start and a bad July have people questioning him. 30 games say bad, 200 say really good. I’ll go with 200.

I do think there are some… let’s say psychological issues at play with Storen though. He was put in a position to fail in the 2012 NLCS by some shoddy managing and then did so and got the brunt of the blame for it. Soriano was then brought in to account for what was one bad game (he’ll he saved two games in that very NLCS). The team gave up on him and it took a while for him to get over that. When struggles came about again in July, not particularly odd for a relief pitcher to have a couple bad games midseason, the fans were ready to turn on him and I thnk that fed whatever issues he was dealing with. I think he’s over all that now though. I think he’s ready to just pitch well (and frankly get the hell out of DC when he gets the first chance)

7. Storen has popped up in trade rumors from time to time. Do you see the Nationals trading him this year? He has two more years of arbitration eligibility left but he’ll earn $3.45 million this year, which means he’ll only get progressively more expensive.

No, as a non-save guy the jumps in salary won’t be huge. They are going to part with Soriano this season, and Tyler Clippard, older and closer to FA, has a much higher salary. I could see them dealing Clippard first. This makes Storen necessary to keep around. They like some of the young arms they have for the pen in the future, but I wouldn’t say they love them.

That being said I think they would do it, for the right price. I’m just not sure that’ll come up this year.

Bold prediction: Will the Nationals reclaim the NL East from the Braves? How many games will they win?

Yes. As long as you don’t hold me to this unofficial prediction I’ll say 94 wins. No comeuppance.

Thanks again to Harper for making the time to answer some questions for us. Check out his work at Nationals Baseball throughout the season and make sure to follow him on Twitter @HarperGordek.

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