Which Nationals will pleasantly surprise us in 2012?

One of the best — and sometimes worst — things about baseball is its unpredictability. Every season, teams and players defy experts’ predictions. Take 2011, for example. Who foresaw a Arizona Diamondbacks division title? A back-from-certain-death St. Louis Cardinals World Series victory? The unforgettable September comebacks and collapses?

For the Washington Nationals, few expected an 80-win season and third place finish in the National League East. No one thought Davey Johnson would become the manager. After his abysmal start, few fans thought Michael Morse would become of the NL’s top sluggers. While his 2010 rookie year foretold great promise, almost no one thought Drew Storen would save 43 games in 2011. Catcher Wilson Ramos has unlimited potential, but not many predicted he would play so well so quickly. Only the most optimistic fans expected to see Chien-Ming Wang on a pitching mound in D.C., let alone perform well enough to earn a new contract.

So, which players on the Nationals’ roster will surprise us in 2012?. Here are my top candidates.

Ian Desmond — Desmond resolved his fielding woes last season, but, until Johnson arrived, seemed to have regressed as a hitter. Johnson told him to junk the banjo hitting and his power and batting average improved. Desmond needs to increase his walk totals, especially if he bats leadoff. Still, he could duplicate or improve his .289/.338/.417 slash line he turned in during the second half of 2011 to complement his already solid defense and excellent base stealing ability.

Jesus Flores — Now fully healed from shoulder injuries, Flores hammered the ball in the Venezuelan Winter League (.330/.368/.514; 8 HR in 56 games). I foresee him as a good hitting back-up catcher who will also give Johnson a power hitting pinch hitting option late in close games. When healthy, he displayed a knack for driving in runners in scoring position, one of the Nats’ big weaknesses last season. While his defense remains a question mark, he has always hit well when healthy.

Roger Bernadina — He has all the tools — strength, speed, and power — but has never been able to overcome a much too impatient approach at the plate and an overall lack of baseball savvy. Nevertheless, I have an inkling this is the year things fall into place for “The Shark.” Johnson will platoon him, minimizing exposure to left-handed pitching. I expect to see double-digit home runs and stolen base numbers and improved on-base and slugging percentages. He solves a lot of the team’s problems if he becomes a good fourth outfielder (once Bryce Harper arrives) and has a strong first half.

Stephen Lombardozzi — He disappointed at the plate during his September call-up, but the local product (Atholton H.S., Columbia, MD) did everything else well, including playing 2B, SS and 3B. Looking at his minor league statistics (.293/.361/.402 in more than 1300 plate appearances), a much larger data sample and a better predictor of major league performance, Lombo projects to be a solid second baseman with a .340 or better on-base percentage. Even if he falls short of his minor league numbers, the Nationals could have a rock solid utility infielder in the mold of 2005 Jamie Carroll or Jerry Hairston last season. (A tip of the cap to reader and friend Corky who helped me see Lombardozzi’s potential)

Ross Detwiler — The former first-round draft pick teases fans with his potential every season, then regresses or gets injured. Maybe 2012 is the year Detwiler stays healthy and becomes a solid pitcher. He has the ability to turn in a .500 or better record and a sub 4.00 ERA as a starter or to become a reliable southpaw long reliever for the Nationals. He will be one of the top Spring Training stories.

Tom Gorzelanny — The southpaw seemed to relax and pitch better as a reliever after surrendering far too many home runs as a starter. Fans forget he battled injuries last season. When he’s on his game, he can be a dominant strike out machine, but he has always been inconsistent. I see him returning to a long relief role in 2012 and pitching well. Perhaps just as important, he provides major league ready starting pitching depth, something the Nationals sorely need in the wake of the Gio Gonzalez trade.

Craig Stammen — He pitched off-the-charts good in his brief 2011 appearances, but has seemed to disappoint in earlier seasons, especially as a starter (4.94 career ERA). Advanced metrics tell a different story. Stammen has a respectable WHIP of 1.37, especially considering the atrocious defense behind him in 2009 and 2010. He has a good K-rate of 5.3. His 2010 batting average for balls in play (BABIP) was .331, 34 points above average (Source: Baseball-Reference.com). An additional bonus? He’s an excellent hitter and a fine baserunner. He turns 28 this March. While others garner the attention, Stammen could be a hidden gem, poised to shine in long relief if given the chance.

As a bonus, I offer three players in the Nationals farm system, excluding Harper, that I expect to perform well at the major league level at some point in 2012.

Anthony Rendon — A Ryan Zimmerman-like hitter and fielder in college, he could rocket through the Nats system like Zimmerman did. The only question with Rendon is his health. If Desmond, Espinosa, or Lombardozzi struggle or get injured, the first round draft pick from Rice University could be in the major leagues before September.

Chris Marrero — Half of his 2012 season is already shot thanks to a severe hamstring injury. However, he could provide a late-inning bat for the Nationals or step in for Adam LaRoche in August or September if the Nationals’ regular first baseman struggles with his hitting or his health again.

Alex Meyer — Meyer is a long shot given his reported mechanical problems and inexperience. Still, if he can really throw 100 MPH and dominate the minor leagues, the Nationals may have to find a spot for him. Since injuries to pitchers are a near certainty and Stephen Strasburg will be limited to 160 innings, Meyer might get a spot start or two for the Nationals before a September call-up.

What do you think? Which Nationals players will surprise us in 2012? Leave a comment here or on my facebook page (Search: Stephen Walker, Washington, DC, my icon is a picture of Ted Williams on Opening Day, 1969) or on Twitter (@69Nats_Fan).

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Tags: Alex Meyer Anthony Rendon Chien-Ming Wang Chris Marrero Craig Stammen Drew Storen Ian Desmond Jesus Flores Michael Morse Roger Bernadina Ross Detwiler Stephen Lombardozzi Tom Gorzelanny Washington Nationals Wilson Ramos

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