The vast majority of the conversation during the Washington Nationals’ offseason has been about the pitching staff. First it was the dismissal of Rafael Soriano fallowed shortly by the trade possibilities for Jordan Zimmermann. Max Scherzer’s monster contract garnered plenty of talk nationwide, while the trade of Tyler Clippard and signing of Casey Janssen moved everyone’s attention to the bullpen.
Lost in all of this has been the state of the Nationals offense and what’s being done to remedy what was clearly the Nats’ Achilles heel during the NLDS, a series in which the Giants won their three games by a total margin of three runs and everyone not named Harper or Rendon looked inept at the plate.
To be fair, for the regular season, offense was actually a strength for the Nationals. They averaged 4.23 runs per game, good enough for third in the National League. Only the Dodgers scored more runs among NL teams that made the playoffs.
The problem is that the Nationals haven’t really done anything to upgrade at the plate. In fact, if anything, they’ve gotten a good deal worse.
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First, one of their biggest producers, Adam LaRoche, was allowed to leave for Chicago in order to make room for Ryan Zimmerman at first base. As the steady cleanup hitter for Washington, LaRoche drove in 92 runs, hit 26 homers, and scored 73 runs. Those aren’t monster numbers, but they’re big enough to be problematic when you have to try and replace them.
Also gone will be Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera was acquired via trade from Cleveland last July to replace the offensive vacuum that is Danny Espinosa, Cabrera drove in 21 runs, scored 20 runs, and hit five homers in 49 games in Washington.
The Nationals may have already acquired their replacement for Cabrera in Yunel Escobar, who they got in the Clippard deal. At first glance, Escobar and Cabrera might look about the same: neither hits for much power or steals a lot of bases. But actually, Cabrera is three years younger, and he supplied plenty of clutch hits down the stretch. Maybe, Escobar can produce at a higher level in DC, but the more likely result is Escobar is actually a marginal downgrade.
As for LaRoche, it’s likely that Washington is hoping Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman can replace the former first baseman’s production, but that seems unlikely. Between the pair of them, Harper and Zimmerman missed a full season’s worth of games in 2014. In the 161 games they did play, they combined for less offense (70 RBI, 67 runs, 18 HR) than LaRoche.
Harper will likely be moved up into the top third of the order in 2015 and that alone should boost his numbers. Health will play an even bigger role and that goes for both players. The move to first base will help Zimmerman there; Harper, on the other hand, will hopefully refrain from maiming himself or getting into an ego contest with his manager. That would go a long way toward keeping the Nationals offense near the top of the league.
The other issue here will be Jayson Werth. The five day stint in jail isn’t exactly what you’d like your three-hole hitter doing during the offseason. Then, there’s the shoulder surgery. It’s bad enough that Werth’s status for Opening Day is in doubt. There’s also the likelihood that this surgery could leave Werth sapped of some of his power.
Add in the fact that Werth will be 36 in late May, and the Nationals have themselves a recipe for trouble. Werth’s power may have already taken a hit (he hit 16 homers last season), but it remains to be seen just how far his body has fallen.
If Werth does falter, the Nats will likely count on outfielders Michael Taylor and Nate McLouth to replace his production at the plate. For all of the potential there, especially for Taylor, it’s hard to see them providing much more than the occasional boost.
Hopefully, the Nationals won’t have to worry about these issues. If all goes right, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman will only take games off for a little rest, Jayson Werth will arrive ready for Opening Day, and Yunel Escobar will find at least a semblance of his 2011 form when he hit 11 homers.
On the other hand, if the wheels fall off and everything ends up going awry, the Nationals are going to need every bit of that potent pitching staff to win games.