We live in an era where teams that fail to meet lofty expectations often get blown up in the offseason. Whether it’s because of a rabid fan base (last year’s Red Sox), a new ownership group (last year’s Dodgers), or one that values money over respect (virtually every Florida Marlins team ever), today’s knee-jerk reaction seems to be to perform major surgery on rosters that might only need some Neosporin and a band-aid to recover.
Going into 2013, the Washington Nationals were saddled with the dubious honor of being crowned World Series Champs in the preseason. So, when they failed to reach the playoffs, many pundits wondered how Mike Rizzo would reload this winter. Bucking the aforementioned trend, the Nats GM strengthened his two most glaring individual weaknesses (by trading for Doug Fister and signing Nate McLouth) without sacrificing a single player in the big club’s top twenty. Essentially, the Nats will be the same team that finished ten games over .500.
The question then becomes: can these two new guys give the Nats the six extra wins they would need to all but assure at least a Wild Card spot in 2014? The answer: probably yes. Fister alone could pitch six games better than a shaky Dan Haren did a season ago. McLouth has an expected WAR of slightly over one game. When you lump in these additional wins with whatever magic a redemption-motivated Bryce Harper and a contract-motivated Adam LaRoche brings to the equation, the postseason seems all but certain (and that doesn’t even factor in 2013’s super low win totals for Gio and Strasburg)…
But what if Jayson Werth returns to Earth and hits closer to .290 than .320? What if Ian Desmond isn’t there for a few weeks to give the lineup thump from 1 to 8? And how will anyone replicate the completely unexpected seven wins Tanner Roark amassed, including the man himself? To be fair, the fickle pendulum of luck still seems to be swinging in the Nationals favor. Still, is there anything new manager Matt Williams can do to give it an extra push?
I would argue that who Williams chooses to have on his bench will be the ultimate bellwether for the team’s fortune. Nationals bench players’ bats were responsible for 3.5 losses over replacements in 2013. What’s worse is that not a single guy who received more than 15 plate appearances had a positive win-share impact on the team’s offense. I’m no Jayson Stark, but I doubt that happens very frequently on winning teams!
Things have to get better this season. How much better depends on who is spitting seeds in the dugout. We’ve already seen that McLouth should do enough to cut that eWAR in half. On a more holisitic level, he has enough power, speed, and contact to be Williams’ ace-in-the-hole. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a virtual given there as well, barring an abysmal spring. The fact that he’s a switch hitter doesn’t hurt either.
My next choice might shock a few folks, but I’m going to have the two-headed monster of Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa take up one spot on the Goon Squad as well. Hear me out. Did you know that in almost the same number of right-handed at-bats, both men are hitting the exact same .265 and that Espinosa has an OPS that is .49 higher? Espinosa is also a natural middle infielder who can easily spot Desmond at short when needed. To not have him on the team because of his obvious struggles hitting left-handed seems ridiculous to me. The solution is to have Espinosa bat against lefties normally and have Rendon face righties (his average in R-R matchups is only .12 lower than his overall average). In games where Rendon is coming off the bench, Williams has a “professional hitter” at the ready. When Danny isn’t starting, Williams has a great defensive replacement that also has pop and can theoretically hit from both sides. I’m convinced.
That probably leaves two spots for everyone else in camp right now. No doubt, there’s a whole slate of games in and around Viera that will determine the eventual decision… however, I’d be surprised if we don’t see Scott Hairston and Tyler Moore at Citi Field on the last day of March. Both have game-changing power without sacrificing significant contact. Both are used to being thrust in the starting lineup if need be. Sure, both are righties; but, there will be at least two, and possibly three, other guys to hit left-handed in situations that warrant it. Moore might have the slight edge just because he has played some 1B, unlike anyone else I’ve mentioned. Other than that, I think they are interchangeable and integral to team success despite subpar 2013s.
Just missing out are Jamey Carroll and Zach Walters, or at least until the infield suffers a setback. My guess is that Carroll gets called up first, for contractual reasons (relating to Walters’ arbitration eligibility). I’d be lying if I said I could fully explain the dollars and cents/sense of this move.
With this Murderer’s Row in tow, I think MASN nation will witness the Nationals piling it on again and again in the late innings. Rest assured that the only things getting blown up in Washington in 2014 will be the collective minds of Nats fans as they watch their team cruise to the playoffs!