The Washington Nationals were busy this off-season, collecting and discarding real-life players like a 12-year old collects baseball cards (If 12-year olds still collected baseball cards).

With pitchers and catchers reporting date only a few weeks off, let's take a look at how the lineup shapes up at this point.  Granted, GM Mike Rizzo might not be done tinkering with his roster, but we're far enough along in the process to get a good idea.

The position players are pretty well set, so I'm not going to dwell on them that much for this exercise.  We'll get into projections a little later in the spring.  The most fascinating battles will be on the pitching staff, both rotation and in the pen.

***Caveat: The Nats still have several moves to make to reduce their 40-man roster to 40.  Several of the most recently reported transactions have not been processed by MLB, and as such, corresponding moves have not been announced yet.

***NRI stands for Non-roster invitee.  This is a player that signed a minor league contract with the Nats with an invitation to Major League spring training.

OUTFIELD

Jayson Werth is the only 100% mortal lock to play every day, manning right field.  There was some noise about his playing center against left-handers, but that only opens up more problems. 

Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse will be a pretty strict platoon in left field, maximizing the potential out of each.  Bernie is obviously the better defender, Morse has more pop.  Both are a pretty attractive bench option when he isn't starting.

Nyjer Morgan returns in center field, barring a last-minute change of heart from Rizzo.  He'll be spelled by new acquisition Jerry Hairston, Jr. against "tough lefties" according to Rizzo.  Let's hope "tough lefties" means every left-handed pitcher, because Morgan's lifetime .200/.292/.269 split is akin to batting a second pitcher.

Rick Ankiel will be the fifth outfielder, assuming he looks like he can contribute in spring training.  The left-handed hitter once hit 25 homers for St. Louis, but last year managed just 240 plate appearances between Kansas City and Atlanta, hitting .232/.321/.389 with just six homers.

Other options:  The only other outfielders on the 40-man are Corey Brown, holdover Justin Maxwell, and phenom Bryce Harper. 

Maxwell is no longer young, as he turned 27 in November and he's still unable to generate enough contact to hold a big league job.  Brown, acquired from Oakland in the Josh Willingham deal, has an interesting power/speed combo, but strikes out a lot and isn't an elite fielder in center. 

Harper will be exciting to watch this year in places like Hagerstown, Woodbridge and Harrisburg, but unless he completely dominates, I wouldn't expect the Nats to start his arbitration clock any earlier than they have too.  He may just force their hand though.

NRI:  Jeff Frazier and Jonathan VanEvery are organizational depth with some big league experience.  Frazier is a 28-year old righty, VanEvery a 31-year old  lefty.  Neither are much to get excited about.

INFIELD

The starting infield is set in stone.  Ryan Zimmerman anchors this group, and as he approaches his baseball prime his power numbers could still develop further.  Coupled with his stellar defense, a few more home runs could raise him into the upper echelon of all-around players in all of baseball.

The double play combo will begin the season like it ended, with youngsters Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa at short and second, respectively.  Desmond will need to cut down on his errors (primarily throwing) and Espinosa his plate discipline, but both should provide double digit homers and steals in the middle infield.

Adam LaRoche was signed to man first base.  He provides 25-homer pop and a decent-to-good (but not elite) glove at first.  He's a lefty bat to break up the predominantly right-handed power in the middle of the Nats batting order.

Alberto Gonzalez and Hairston should serve as the backups.  Gonzo has an elite arm from anywhere in the infield but isn't an attractive pinch-hit alternative.  Hairston has played every position except pitcher and catcher.

Other options:  1B Chris Marrero is the only other infielder on the 40-man, but the 22-year old is still nowhere near ready to make his Major League debut.  He had a decent year for Double-A Harrisburg last season (.294/.350/.450 with 18 homers and 28 doubles), and if he can make that much progress this year in Syracuse we could be talking about him seriously next season.

Veteran INF Alex Cora was signed to a minor league contract and will battle for a reserve role, but the signing of Hairston just a day later really stunts his opportunity.

Matt Stairs was signed to a minor league contract and may compete for lefty at bats off the bench.  Is MLB's all-time leader in pinch-hit home runs.

NRI:  1B Michael Aubrey was a high Cleveland draft pick that stalled, got a cup of coffee with Baltimore, and signed here in the off-season.  He's a 28 year old with six home runs in 46 Major League games to his credit.

INF Brian Bixler comes from the Pirates organization.  He's a very light hitting defensive middle infielder and hopefully will spend the entire season in Syracuse.

CATCHER

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez signed in D.C. for two reasons:  1) No one else gave him a two-year contract; and 2) He wants to reach 3,000 hits.  He needs 183 at the start of 2011, a number he's reached only four times in his career, and not even close since his MVP year of 1999.  But he'll start out as the opening day catcher at age 39, despite a .294 OBP last season.

The fun battle to watch in spring is for backup catcher.  Jesus Flores and Wilson Ramos have both pounded the ball in winter leagues and looked good behind the plate.  Flores' injury history is well documented, so just having him healthy is a revelation in and of itself.  Ramos, the prize of 2010's trade deadline, lacks plate discipline but has good pop.

It would be great at some point this season if these two were sharing the job.

STARTING PITCHER

Here's where things get dicey.

You can pencil in Livan Hernandez as Opening Day starter, unless he hurts himself playing racquetball in February.  He's Mr. National, last year's "ace", and has that veteran leadership thing that Jim Riggleman loves so much.

From there?  Who knows?  There's certainly no shortage of candidates.  And Rizzo may not be done trying to acquire that "Top of the Rotation" pitcher he indicated was his No. 1 off-season priority.

Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny almost have to be certainties.  Marquis has another year on his contract, and the Nats have to hope he rebounds to show some value to a perspective trade partner.  Gorzy cost Rizzo three prospects 24-years old or younger, so he'll be given every opportunity to earn a slot.

John Lannan has been a good soldier for the Nats the last four years, and upon his return from minor league exile last season went 6-3 with a 3.42 ERA.  You have to think he'll have to pitch his way out of a job.

Jordan Zimmermann, the presumptive No.2 to Stephen Strasburg's No. 1, will have to prove he's healthy and regained his control and command after an off-season getting ready for the upcoming season instead of rehabbing an injury.  Z-mann showed flashes last September, hopefully he can show it more often in the spring.

Other options: Plenty.  Yunesky Maya was the Dominican Winter League's Pitcher of the Year, which bodes well that he's competing after getting roughed up in his Major League debut.  Rizzo said recently he may have rushed Maya to the bigs last summer.

Ross Detwiler.  The No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft has yet to live up to his lofty expectations.  Chronic hip problems, cause by his extreme cross-body delivery, have limited him to 24 starts the last two seasons.  Will be 25 in March, so he's not that young anymore. Now is his time to show what he's got.

Chien-Ming Wang.  30 in March, the right-hander hasn't thrown a pitch in the bigs since July 4, 2009.  He spent all of the 2010 season rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Rizzo said recently Wang is no longer rehabbing, but preparing for spring training.  Still a crapshoot whether the two-time 19-game winner will ever put on a Nationals uniform in real competition.

Garrett Mock.  Many in the organization think Mock has the second best "stuff" on the roster, but has never been able to put it all together.  Career K/9 rate exactly 8.0 in 55 games (19 starts), but also walks 4.8 per nine.  Fully recovered from cervical spine surgery that cost him all but one start in 2010.

Brian Broderick is a Rule 5 player selected out of the St. Louis organization.  He's a real long shot to make the team out of spring training.

As of this post, Luis Atilano is still on the 40-man roster, but could be released or DFA'd to make room for acquisitions. Atilano was pressed into duty last season (6-7, 5.15, 1.49 WHIP) but doesn't have any special pitch, has a Lannanesque low K/9 rate (4.2) and just has a very low ceiling. 

Stephen Strasburg.  Sigh.  See you in September, hopefully.

NRI:  Chad Gaudin is a 28-year old righty that has bounced around to his seventh organization now in his eight big league seasons.  Owns a lifetime 35-39 record, 4.61 ERA and 1.514 WHIP.  He's got a decent, but not elite 7.0 K/9 rate, but walks 4.2 per nine.  Could show as a swingman.

Ryan Mattheus is a 27-year old righty that has never made a big league appearance, obtained from Colorado in the Joe Beimel deal in 2009.  He was waived from the 40-man roster earlier this winter, cleared waivers, and was invited to spring training.  Not a factor.

RELIEF PITCHER

The bullpen was one of the Nats strong suits last season, and could be even stronger in 2011.  There are plenty of hard throwers, several good lefty options, and quality long relief candidates as well.

One thing that is not there:  Proven Closer.  My personal opinion is that is not that big of a deal, especially for a team that is nowhere near ready to compete for a division title.  Closers aren't born, they're made of opportunity.  If you can strike someone out, you're capable of the job. 

It's much better to fill that job with someone that's cost controlled for several seasons, as opposed to spending a quarter of your player budget on a pitcher that only throws 60 innings a season.

Anyway, there are several candidates to earn save opportunities in the Nats pen, and manager Jim Riggleman has shown a penchant for not establishing set roles for relievers in the first place.

Let's start with the incumbents.  Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett were the trio of late inning relievers last season after Matt Capps was dealt at the trade deadline. 

Hard to imagine Storen only made his debut last season in late May, but he stepped right in after blazing through the minor leagues and was terrific for the most part.  A couple of isolated flameouts had Riggleman questioning his confidence in the young hurler, but Storen was drafted and groomed as this team's closer.  He's also been mentioned anytime a trade rumor pops up around NatsTown.

Clippard and Burnett both had career years and were dominant at times, and will both be counted heavily in the back of the bullpen.

Collin Balester showed a good power arm after he was recalled last summer.  The converted starter had a tough time adjusting to the pen at first in the minors, but his stuff (96 MPH, 12.0 K/9 in 2010) is intriguing at the back of a bullpen.  He's one of the few in the pen that has an option left though, which might make the difference on who makes the team out of spring.

Doug Slaten and Craig Stammen return as "long men" in the bullpen.  It's not the most glamorous of jobs, but someone's got to be able to pitch when the starter can't get out of the fourth inning.

On to the new guys.  Veteran Todd Coffey was recently brought in and may very well end up closing to start with.  He only has 11 career saves, but he's been around for ever and Riggleman loves him some veteran presence.

Henry Rodriguez, the other part of the Willingham deal, is a 100 MPH flame-thrower, but has continually battled control issues.  But power arms like his are a rarity.  And, he's out of options.  He's a lock to make the team.

Elvin Ramirez was the Nats first selection in the Rule 5 draft, so if he makes the team he's have to stay on the roster all season or be offered back to the Mets.  Another live arm, but again, big control problems.

Other options:  Adam Carr, Cole Kimball and Atahualpa Severino are all on the 40-man, though the slight Severino (5'9", 170) is a strong candidate to be removed due to rostering issues.  Carr and Kimball were both very productive in the minors last season and will anchor the Syracuse pen until needed in D.C.

NRI:  Joe Bisenius got a look at the end of 2010 with the Nats.  Again, a hard thrower with control issues.  Tim Wood got stints with the Marlins the last two season, but can't strike anyone out (4.7 per nine) and walks too many (4.5 per nine).  Not a good combo.

4 comments

  1. souldrummer // January 25, 2011 at 2:05 PM  

    Real thorough analysis. Especially appreciate your quick take on the non-roster invitees, many of whom aren't talked about on some of the other sources of information in Natstown.

    What was your take on the Coffey signing? Personally, I wasn't that big on it as a major league deal given the youth we have and our slim chances for contention. Hopefully Rizzo's seen something beyond the numbers in scouting him.

  2. Dave Nichols // January 25, 2011 at 2:29 PM  

    SD: i think they (RZO and Riggs) wanted a "veteran" in the bullpen, simple as that. Coffey fits. and I do think he's going to be given an opportunity in the ninth inning from the folks i've had a chance to talk to.

  3. Piero // January 25, 2011 at 3:00 PM  

    Me thinks that Henry Rodriguez could end up as your closer given how Riggleman raved about him.

    I don't see Coffey in that role ever. Over Sean Burnett? Even over Balester or Slaten for that matter. He will have to prove a lot. And he's against 3 guys who throw close to 100 mph.

    They may just have edged Storen out into the long relief / spot starter -> top-of-the-rotation starter. Better than Fausto Carmona I bet.

  4. Dave Nichols // January 25, 2011 at 3:14 PM  

    Piero, thanks for the comment. I don't think they're even remotely considering moving Storen into the rotation. But he does have all his options, so beginning the season in the minors is not completely out of the question should he not have a good spring.