5. Jayson Werth, Year Two: Remember last Spring when Jayson Werth was standing behind the batting cage with D.C. GM Mike Rizzo joking about their feelings for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nats' NL East "rivals"? Then they weren't doing that. Remember the first time the Nats' new $126M dollar outfielder stepped in against closer Drew Storen for some live BP and got thrown at by the Nationals' then-23-year-old closer, who wanted to let the former Phillie know he didn't forget the previous September's walk-off HR in Philadelphia. Things were different then. People are still trying to figure out what went wrong with Werth in the first year of his seven-year deal. In a report last night on the MLB Network Show Clubhouse Confidential they pointed to Werth's splits against left-handed pitchers, with Werth down from a .278/.382/.526 career line to .184/.307/.368 last season and his BABIP, which fell from .324, .304 and .352 from '08-2010 to a career worst .286 in 2011. A report by ESPN.com's Mark Simon yesterday looked deeper into Werth's struggles against left-handers pointing to the drop in his line drive percentage against LHP which was down from 19% in 2010 to 10% in 2011 and his issues in two-strike counts on the year...
Werth finished the 2011 campaign at +2.4 fWAR with a .232/.330/.389 line, 26 doubles and 20 HRs after a career-high +5.3 fWAR 2010 season in which he had a .296/.388/.532 line, 46 doubles and 27 HR's in his last year with the Phillies. Over four years in Philadelphia, Werth had a combined .282/.380/.506 line. Though he struggled at the plate, there were more than a few Nationals who said the right fielder played a big part in "changing the culture" in the nation's capital. Bill James is projecting a .259/.360/.451 line with 26 doubles and 23 HR's in 2012, and there's talk that Werth might end up in center when Bryce Harper eventually comes up. The Nationals need Werth to be the outfielder they thought he was when they signed him and still think he can be, or no one will ever stop talking about that contract...
4. Adam LaRoche's Shoulder: Rough as Jayson Werth's first season in D.C. might have been, Adam LaRoche's 2-year/$16M dollar deal with the Nationals got off to an even rougher start. Just days into Spring Training the left-handed hitting HR threat and plus defender felt soreness in his shoulder which reports at the time said was different than the usual pain a player dealt with when starting back up. The soreness turned out to be a slight tear of the labrum in his left shoulder. LaRoche tried to play through it but eventually admitted that he couldn't continue. When his first year in the nation's capital ended, the then-31-year-old first baseman (who turned 32 in November), had a .172/.288/.258 line, four doubles and three home runs in 43 games and 177 plate appearances a year after he'd posted a .261/.320/.468 line and hit 37 doubles and 25 HR's for the D-Backs.
LaRoche eventually underwent surgery to repair what was by that time a significant tear of the labrum and rotator cuff damage in his left shoulder. The first baseman is expected to be 100% when Spring Training begins. The Nationals entertained the idea of signing Prince Fielder in spite of the fact that LaRoche was under contract for another year and owed $9M of the $16M he signed for last winter. All the while, however, the Nats' GM maintained that the team was perfectly comfortable going into the season with LaRoche at first and Michael Morse ready to step in if necessary. When Fielder signed with Detroit, the Nationals' general manager reiterated that they expected to have a healthy LaRoche back in 2012. "We think Adam LaRoche is the player that we signed two years ago," Rizzo said, and, "That's 25 [HR's] and 85 [RBI's], Gold Glove-caliber first baseman." If LaRoche isn't healthy, the Nats know Morse can step in, but it opens up another hole in the OF. Will the shoulder be fully healed? Will the power be back? How Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth bounce back could go a long way in determining just how competitive the Nationals are in 2012.
3. Steve Lombardozzi? Just Me?: Since the moment, during a late-season conversation with the press, when Nats' skipper Davey Johnson talked about Stephen Lombardozzi's September call-up and told reporters, "I'm very comfortable with the guys that we have up the middle," referring to Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa and then talked about what role the top infield prospect in the organization might play in the Nats' future, saying, "As far as I'm concerned, could [Lombardozzi] be an every day second baseman? Yeah, [but] could he fill a utility role? That's what he's up here to see," I've been wondering whether or not the Nationals' manager would really keep the 23-year-old '08 19th Round pick on the 2012 roster to play a utility role and push the incumbent second baseman and shortstop for playing time?
Desmond and Espinosa were given an opportunity to compete for playing time and were able to outplay their veteran competitors. With Lombardozzi it's different, however. Desmond and Espinosa are just establishing themselves at the major league level, a point which the 24-year-old Espinosa made in a Washington Times' article last September.
Lombardozzi made two stops in the Nationals' system on the way up last year, (playing near-flawless defense wherever he was and) posting a .309/.366/.454 line in 65 games and 291 PA's at Double-A Harrisburg before moving on to Triple-A Syracuse where he had a .310/.354/.408 line in 69 games and 325 PA's before he was called up to the big league club at the end of the season. Lombardozzi was 6 for 31 with a double and a walk in his first 13 MLB games. Is Lombardozzi headed back for more time at Triple-A Syracuse? Will Carlos Rivero beat Lombo out for the utility role? Andres Blanco? Maybe it's just me, but I'm really interested to see if Lombardozzi ends up winning a spot on the Opening Day roster.
2. 5th Starter?: Before the Edwin Jackson signing, it was a three-pitcher battle for the 4th and 5th spots in the Nationals' Opening Day rotation with Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler expected to fight it out this Spring to decided which pitchers would end up starting at the start of year and which one would end up in the bullpen. With the 28-year-old Jackson signed, one of those two spots was immediately filled. Chien-Ming Wang and his surgically-repaired shoulder aren't ideally suited to a relief role. Ross Detwiler has no options. John Lannan's name has been the subject of trade rumors since the Edwin Jackson-to-D.C. talk started right before he signed. Something's got to give, right? Not really.
The Nationals, as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained after signing Edwin Jackson to a one-year/$11M dollar deal, felt they had an innings-shortage and they addressed it this winter by adding two pitchers (Gio Gonzalez and Jackson) who've shown that they can throw 200+ innings in a season which gives the Nats some room to work with Wang, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, all of whom have dealt with injuries over the last few seasons. Who opens the season in the rotation is not that important, of course, the Nationals will use more than five starters this season, but the depth the've assembled, even before the Jackson signing, the Nats' GM said, "... is in the realm of something that we've never had here before."
"We've got [Stephen] Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler [and] John Lannan," the general manager said, and now Edwin Jackson too, and, Rizzo continued, "We also have guys who can start and compete for a starting job, there's Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen." It's a significant improvement for a team that just a few years back had to cast a wide net just to find the pitching to fill out their rotation each Spring.
(ed. note - "One other thing, though he doesn't explain the thinking behind his opinion, MLB.com's Peter Gammons wrote that all the additions Washington's made to their rotation and bullpen this winter provides them with, "... another safety net to help insure that if Washington has to beat Philly, Atlanta or Miami come September, Strasburg will be physically able to compete." The Nationals have said nothing publicly to support this opinion, to be clear, but Mr. Gammons said it, not me, and that should keep the, "There's No Way You Shut Down Strasburg In A Playoff Run"-gang going in spite of all of the Nats' GM's comments to the contrary.")
1. Bryce Harper, Nats' RF?: The Twitter, the new whip, the Yankees, Cowboys, Duke, the Lakers, all of that off-field nonsense will likely take a back seat to the story of the Nats' 19-year-old 2010 no.1 overall pick attempting to make the Nationals' Opening Day roster once Spring Training begins. (Hopefully?) The MLB Network Show Clubhouse Confidential spent two-thirds of their 30-minute program last night examining Harper's chances of claiming the right field job on Opening Day. Davey Johnson wants Bryce Harper in right field on Opening Day. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo has promised to keep an open mind. Bryce Harper thought he was ready last Spring. Widely-regarded as one of the two, if not the best, outfield prospects in baseball, Harper is likely to be the best option the Nationals have in Spring Training to fill the right field role, but the decision will be based on what he's accomplished so far in the minors and what he's able to show the team this Spring.
The GM said it won't be based on contract and service-time issues, but instead based on his performance this Spring and developmental concerns. Harper (as Stephen Strasburg's said before him) believes he has a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster. The problem with continuing to say that Harper will be given a chance to win the right field job, as CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman said recently is that, "... by saying publicly he can play his way onto the team, that also, puts pressure on them to make good on the promise," if Harper has a big Spring. No one's likely to complain, however, if the 19-year-old's good enough this Spring to force the Nationals' hand.