>3 Questions: Washington Nationals

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By The Common Man

With Stephen Strasburg on the DL for what should be all of 2011, the Nationals could have been forgiven for sitting out much of this offseason. Instead, they went all in and signed free agent Jayson Werth to a huge contract, and were allegedly players for guys like Cliff Lee, Javier Vazquez, and Carl Pavano as well. They’ve got an eye toward being competitive in 2012 and 2013, but it will be an uphill climb and there are still many questions that need answering. Here are three of them. (As always, you can click here to find more 3 questions previews for your favorite MLB teams.)

Question 1: Was signing Jayson Werth a masterstroke or major mistake?

First of all, Jayson Werth has become a fine baseball player in the last four years, going from a platoon outfielder to a star, despite not really getting his career on track until he was 28. He got good mobility, and has shown impressive durability over the last two years. He’s a fine defensive player (provided he stays in an outfield corner), has good power, and is generally seen as a good teammate. Plus, he’s a bonafied postseason hero. Taking him away from the Phillies weakens the defending division champs, while strengthening the Washington lineup in the short term.

The problem is that this is not a short term contract. It’s seven years. At $18 million per season. The question, unfortunately, is not whether the contract is going to a millstone around the necks of the Nationals but when. Because Werth is already going to be 33 next year and will be 39 before the contract runs out. Werth’s deal ranks with Vernon Wells’ (whose contract it conveniently matches dollar-for-dollar and year-for-year) among the worst contracts ever handed out to an outfielder.

Why? Because the Nationals paid for the Jayson Werth of 2010, a dynamic game-changing hitter who clocked 46 doubles in addition to his 27 homers. A player who was worth 4-5 wins above replacement level. But that’s not the real Jayson Werth. The real Jayson Werth is more of a 3-4 win player at his peak. He’s a championship caliber player, but does not have the ability to be the centerpiece of a franchise, as the Nationals seem to be expecting him to be. Werth benefitted tremendously from good fortune in 2010, as his BABIP jumped to .352, well above his previous mark of .327. That means that more of Werth’s line drives and fly balls dropped in than ever before. Unless you believe that he has learned a new skill and found a new level of performance at 32, there is no way to describe his jump in performance in any way other than “lucky.”

Werth will make the Nats better in the shortterm, and if they make the playoffs in 2012 or 2013, the deal might be considered a success. But there’s no way this plays out well in years 5, 6, and 7, when the Nats will be strapped to put a competitive club on the field.

Question 2: Can Ryan Zimmerman carry this team?

There is no doubt that Ryan Zimmerman is good enough to lead a championship caliber team. He is an incredible player both in the field and at the bat. In fact, if you believe FanGraphs’ WAR system, he’s within spitting distance of being the best player in the National League. He has grown incredibly as a player since debuting as a 20 year old defensive wunderkind in 2005. He’s only 26. And he’s signed at reasonable prices through the team’s alleged competitive window, until 2013.

Despite playing only five seasons, he’s already one of the top 40 defenders at 3B of all time, and has years of productivity ahead of him. And unlike Scott Rolen, of whom he seems to be a carbon copy, he has none of the nagging back problems and impressive durability. Zimmerman could serve as the cornerstone for the Washington franchise for the next seven years. So it’s unfortunate that the Nats will have to stretch the payroll to keep him and Werth beyond 2013. It’s entirely possible that the Werth deal will ultimately be Zimmerman’s ticket out of the nation’s capital.

Question 3: Can this team legitimately be competitive in 2012 and 2013, or is Mike Rizzo fooling himself?

The Nationals lost 93 games last year, which was a 10 game improvement by them. While they gained Werth this year, they also lost Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, their second and third best hitters. Recently acquire Adam LaRoche will cover some of that difference, but the players they lost will probably outproduce Werth and LaRoche. Mike Morse (the fourth best hitter on the club last year) is not guaranteed a starting role in 2011. Ian Desmond should see some continued development at SS, and Danny Espinosa will be an upgrade at 2B. And if Wilson Ramos starts taking starts away from Ivan Rodriguez, that’s probably a good thing.

TCM’s point, though, is that the club has not improved significantly for the coming year, meaning they’ll need a huge jump in 2012 to push into contention for the NL East or the Wild Card. They’ll need upgrades in LF, CF, and 1B in particular. And they’ll need Desmond, Ramos, and Espinosa to develop as expected. Bryce Harper shooting through the minors would probably also help as well. And Stephen Strasburg has to come back strong. That’s a lot that has to go right in the next year, to say nothing of the starting rotation, which would need upgrades from Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, and Jason Marquis. So 2012 is probably out.

2013 might be a reasonable goal, again if players develop as expected. By then, Harper could be legitimately knocking on the door, which would move Werth and his declining mobility to LF, and Strasburg should be fully back to form. But that’s a long way away. And there’s still a lot that needs to go right between now and then. And Werth’s contract, which now dominates this franchise, doesn’t give them a lot of room for error.

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