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Playing Pepper 2012: Washington Nationals

Posted on March 29, 2012 at 3:30 PM
Filed Under: Playing Pepper | Washington Nationals
In 2009, I decided to get a feel for other teams around baseball by asking bloggers for those teams some questions about their squad.  Not only has this series been very popular, but it spawned the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  With camps opening up again and spring training getting into gear, it's time once again to play a little pepper.

Washington Nationals
80-81, third in the NL East

You know the old baseball saying, of course.  "Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."  Leaving the first two for discussion on political blogs, there's nothing accurate about that last part anymore.  Obviously the Nationals are in the National League and it seems clear they aren't going to be seeing last place any time soon.

With an aggressive ownership and a farm system that is paying off in a big way, any jokes about Washington are soon going to cease.  But are they ready to take the big jump this year and start playing in October?  That's what this series is for.

This time around, I talked to a number of National bloggers.  Dave Nichols writes for District Sports Page and is the president of the Washington chapter of the BBA.  Dave's got a number of irons in the fire when it comes to Washington sports and is credentialed to cover the Nats.  You can find him on Twitter at DaveNicholsDSP.

Tom Bridge can be found covering the Nationals and other things Washington over at We Love DC.  You can follow the site's sports coverage at welovedcsports.

If you are a podcast listener, you know the name Aaron Somers from the latest episode.  He writes about the Washington squad at District on Deck and can be found on Twitter at BlogFTBleachers.

Finally, we have someone who probably really appreciates this entry's intro, Mark Hornbaker of DC Baseball History.  You can find him on Twitter at ezmark.

Stick around to find out about when we'll see the next great Nationals phenom and whether an outburst from last year could be repeated.

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C70: What was your opinion of the team's off-season?

DSP: The moves to address the pitching staff were strong, though the price for Gio Gonzalez was steep. Edwin Jackson might be the best No. 4 starter in baseball. The Nats did nothing to address their offensive deficiencies and will have to hope for improvement from within. A return to health for Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche and return to career norms from Jayson Werth would help in that regard. They really needed a leadoff/center fielder type and didn't find one.

WLDC: Solid. Not the best in baseball, but given the heady competition, the Nationals did well. They only missed out on Prince Fielder, but given the cost? Detroit can have him. The pickup (and more important, the extension) of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, adding in Brad Lidge into an already talented bullpen? How can you not love this off-season?

DOD: Bottom line, I'm pleased with the the team did this winter. They viewed the starting rotation as an area that needed to be addressed and successfully did so when they completed a trade to bring Gio Gonzalez to town. While I believe the bounty given up was high, I do see Gonzalez becoming a vital piece to this team's success in the coming years and he'll hopefully help take some pressure off of the young shoulders of Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. Later adding Edwin Jackson to an unexpected one year deal just rounds out the rotation. However, the rotation wasn't the only need this team facEd Heading into the offseason, and there still seems to be no true option to resolve the center field hole. Until that problem is addressed, this cannot be considered a complete team.

DCBH: A very good offseason. The Nats added two quality starters (Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson) to the rotation.

C70: What's the earliest that we'll see Bryce Harper and when do you actually expect him to be in Washington? (Note: This question was posed and many of the answers came back before Harper's demotion.)

DSP: Harper needed to be the best player in Nats camp to make the opening day roster and he just wasn't. He needs work on managing at bats and pitch recognition and will get some time in AAA to work on that. He'll also be predominantly playing center field, which the Nats now think he can handle after watching him there extensively this spring. The earliest he'll resurface at this point is around Memorial Day, when his Super Two status would be exhausted, but I think mid-season or September more likely at this point.

WLDC: I'd say the odds are not good that he starts the year with the big club, but they're not zero, either. I would expect to see Harper up with the Nationals in May or June. Remember that GM Mike Rizzo wants Harper to play at every level of the minors, and he didn't make it to Syracuse last season. I'm inclined to agree with Rizzo, but given the current candidates for outfield positions, it's hard to think that Harper might not be a worthwhile option if they slide Werth to CF.

DOD: May 1st. The only way that Bryce Harper breaks camp with the team in April is if he absolutely tears the cover off the ball during Spring Training. And even then I don't know that it's a certainty. He's only 19 years old and could benefit from some additional minor league seasoning. Plus, should the team keep him in the minors for the season's first month then they'll delay his arrival at free agency by a full year.

DCBH: I think you will see Harper in a Nats uniform in June.

C70: Is Michael Morse for real?

DSP: His power is legit, no doubt. Most of his average and on-base production is driven by his unusually hit hit rate though, so unless he develops some patience his OBP will likely suffer. His big problem is avoiding nagging injury, and his lat strain this spring is starting to be a real concern.

WLDC: This has been the topic of discussion all winter for our baseball writers group. My jury is still out - the sample size is just too small. I lean toward the side of "For Real," but I can see it just as easily going the other direction if Morse struggles early this year and it affects his mental state. I have to hope that he's ready for the big stick role.

DOD: Morse hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 HR and 95 RBI. Can he repeat such numbers? Yes, I don't see why not. Will he? That remains to be seen. Part of the answer to this question may be how the rest of the lineup hits around him. Should the top of the lineup (Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Zimmerman) get on base with regularity in front of him, the RBIs could be easy to repeat. We don't know yet what his power output will look like. Last year was a first for Morse, as he set career highs in nearly every offensive category. There's no way of knowing if that was his breakout season or just his career best season.

DCBH: Yes, Michael Morse will be in Beast Mode again in 2012.

C70: Is there a prospect that will make an impact on the team this season?

DSP: Other than Harper, probably not. The Gonzalez trade left the Nats pretty barren at the top of the organization for impact prospects this season. Most of the talent is now in the lower minor leagues. One player that could see time in Washington is Steve Lombardozzi, son of the former big leaguer of the same name. Lombo is a second baseman by trade but will probably end up as a utility guy in the big leagues. He's always had good OBP skills and good defense, but he doesn't have any power and is more of an "effort" guy than "skill" guy, limiting his ceiling.

WLDC: Well, you have to count Bryce Harper here, but since we've already talked about him, let's look at a few of the Nats young guns. There's a reason the Nationals have the number one minor league program in baseball, and that's the results of the last few drafts. Looking at young arms Matt Purke and Robbie Ray, there's some potential for another good starter in the AA range, but they won't make the big club this year. Anthony Rendon has the chance to be a phenomenal addition to any team at the hot corner. There's potential there, but I'm not sure the Nationals are in any hurry to push him to the bigs.

DOD: Aside from Harper, the only one with significant promise to have an impact on the team in Washington is Anthony Rendon. A number of things will have to happen first, for this to be realistic. Rendon has yet to make his professional debut, having signed so late last summer, so there's no need to rush him to the Majors just yet. He should spend most, if not all, of the coming season in the minor leagues gaining experience and fine tuning some of his abilities. Presuming he hits minor league pitching as he's expected to, it still may take an injury before he's called up to Washington. Where Rendon will play is a big factor when addressing his future.

DCBH: Ross Detwiler could be a very pleasant surprise for the Nats starting rotation.

C70: Where will the team finish in their division and what are you most excited about for 2012?

DSP: Despite rosy forecasts in some corners, I still think this team doesn't have enough offense to seriously compete for the playoffs yet. The pitching should be good enough to keep them in the conversation though. I'll say third place in the N.L. East but if Philly's injury problems catch up to them, the Nats could sneak into second place. I'm excited to watch Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez at the top of the rotation.

WLDC: The Nats won't take top honors in 2012 in the NL East, but they'll take the #2 slot, and if the stars align, the wild card. I'm excited to see the new rotation in action, most of all. The Nats were already in good shape with Strasburg and Zimmermann coming back, but adding in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, they've got as good a rotation as any other squad in the National League - Philadelphia included. Let's see them combine that with the stellar defense they've built the team around, and you're going to see a team that's just not going to give up runs the way they used to. Look out, world, here come the Nationals.

DOD: Realistically, as much as I'd like to see this team make the Playoffs in 2012 I think they just fall short. I could see a strong record (86-76), but still a third place finish in the NL East behind Philly and Atlanta. I think Washington is nearly ready to be a serious contender but they could use one more year of development and maturation across the roster.

DCBH: The Nats will win 88 games and will battle with the Braves and Marlins for second place in the NL East. I am most excited about the Nats having a real opportunity for a possible playoff spot in 2012.

My appreciation to all of those that participated.  I'm quite excited about seeing this team via, even if I'll take precautions to make sure Strasburg doesn't destroy more of my electronics.

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Thanks for including us in such lofty company!

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