Saturday, April 12, 2014

2014 MLB Preview: NL East

And so here we come to the last entry in our preview series, the NL East. This looks like a battle between two very good and very deep teams, with the other three cleaning up the scraps. The Marlins are on the seventeenth rebuilding project in franchise history before they once again dump their young stars the moment they start to threaten eight figures in the salary department. The Phillies will attempt to fight the undefeated Father Time with the oldest group of regulars in the National League. Mets GM Sandy Alderson may talk about 90 wins, but it's hard to see that coming this year with Matt Harvey on the shelf thanks to Tommy John surgery. The Braves and Nationals are both loaded and looking for bounce-back performances from a couple of key players (Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton for the Braves, Adam LaRoche and Ross Detwiler for the Nationals), although the Braves are also dealing with a rash of pitching injuries.

Previous previews: AL West, NL West, AL Central, NL Central, AL East

Glossary of stats: .275/.350/.475 = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, HR = home runs, SB = stolen bases, wOBA = weighted on-base average, WAR = wins above replacement, IP = innings pitched, K/BB = strikeouts/walks, ERA = earned run average, FIP = fielding independent pitching.*

*All 2014 statistical projections are courtesy of Fangraphs, along with my bet whether the player in question will exceed or fall short of that projection. When WAR is mentioned in a written paragraph, it typically refers to the Baseball-Reference version.

5) Miami Marlins

Lineup
2B   Rafael Furcal (age 36, .252/.321/.340, 6 HR, .297 wOBA, 1.5 WAR) - under
LF   Christian Yelich (age 22, .285/.358/.417, 12 HR, .343 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - over
RF   Giancarlo Stanton (age 24, .270/.373/.546, 36 HR, .393 wOBA, 5.2 WAR) - over
1B   Garrett Jones (age 33, .251/.305/.403, 14 HR, .310 wOBA, 0.0 WAR) - under
CF   Marcell Ozuna (age 23, .261/.303/.407, 13 HR, .311 wOBA, 2.1 WAR) - over
C     Jarrod Saltalamacchia (age 29, .248/.315/.414, 16 HR, .320 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - over
3B   Casey McGehee (age 31, .249/.332/.408, 18 HR, .325 wOBA, 2.2 WAR) - under
SS   Adeiny Hechavarria (age 25, .253/.292/.345, 6 HR, .281 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Jose Fernandez (age 21, 201 IP, 217/64 K/BB, 2.83 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 4.2 WAR) - over
RHP Nathan Eovaldi (age 24, 171 IP, 131/59 K/BB, 3.65 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
RHP Henderson Alvarez (age 24, 164 IP, 83/41 K/BB, 3.69 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 0.9 WAR) - over
RHP Jacob Turner (age 23, 161 IP, 107/64 K/BB, 4.36 ERA, 4.58 FIP, 0.2 WAR) - under
RHP Tom Koehler (age 27, 156 IP, 113/77 K/BB, 4.89 ERA, 5.02 FIP, -0.8 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
IF Jeff Baker, C Jeff Mathis, IF/OF Greg Dobbs, IF/OF Donovan Solano, OF Brian Bogusevic, RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Carlos Marmol, RHP Carter Capps, LHP Brad Hand, LHP Dan Jennings

Best Offseason Move - Since this is the Marlins and all, it wasn't exactly earth-shattering news, but taking a three-year flier on Saltalamacchia was a good move by the team, because he will actually look really good next to Mathis and Rob Brantly and the rest of the banjo-hitting crew that caught for the them last year. Of course, it's also never a good sign when Jarrod Saltalamacchia is your highest-paid player at $6 million (true story).

Worst Offseason Move - Sure, the team might promote another prospect directly from A-ball (as they did last year with Fernandez), but would it have killed Jeffrey Loria to spend a few million bucks to bring in Bronson Arroyo or Mike Pelfrey to eat innings? Wait, don't answer that. Seriously, though, the back end of this rotation is awful, unless Miami has another ace or two up their sleeve in the minors.

Key Player - Can you believe that Stanton is still just 24 years old? He cracked the majors as a 20-year-old in 2010, and already has 117 career home runs. He has also missed 97 games over the past three seasons, including 46 last year. When healthy, there is quite simply no stronger hitter in baseball, and he's not bad with the leather either. I would love for him to put up a big first half and get invited to participate in the home run derby. His mere presence over 150+ games should give the Marlins six extra wins.

Most Exciting Player(s) - This is the one category where the Marlins are the equal of any other team in baseball. Not only do they have Stanton and his moonshots, they have quite possibly the second-best pitcher in the National League in the 21-year-old Fernandez, a former Cuban refugee who chops down trees to train his shoulder muscles and saved his mother from drowning in the Caribbean during their escape to Mexico. He's plenty brash on the field, and has an absolutely wicked arsenal of filthy pitches. Do not be surprised if he upends Clayton Kershaw for a Cy Young in his second season.

Possible Breakout Star - For as cheap as this franchise is, they're doing something right on a developmental level. Yelich was the team's first-round pick back in 2010, and upon getting called up hit .288/.370/.396 over 62 games. Not bad for a guy who looks like an overgrown eighth-grader. I think he's going to provide an excellent lefty complement to Stanton in the Marlins' lineup.

Achilles Heel - Obviously, the big problem here is that the execrable Jeffrey Loria is still allowed to own a baseball team. The Marlins are spending a mere $42 million on payroll this year, will rake in more than half that much from the new national television contract ($26 million for each team), and oh yeah, weaseled a $600 million boondoggle of a stadium out of Dade County taxpayers. Now that Donald Sterling is actually trying to win games, Loria has to be considered the worst owner in North American professional sports.

Hidden Strength - I referenced it earlier, but the Miami development machine keeps humming along. They've pumped out three possibly transcendent talents in the last four years (Stanton, Fernandez, and Yelich), with a few quality pieces behind them. And for all that they're accused of being cheap (true), they've shown that they're never afraid to promote a guy whom they feel is ready for The Show.* Who knows? They might debut another couple potential stars this season, and then maybe they won't lose 100 games again.

*Note to Matt if you're reading this; I'm not talking about your knuckleball.

4) Philadelphia Phillies

Lineup
CF   Ben Revere (age 26, .305/.338/.355, 0 HR, .308 wOBA, 2.8 WAR) - under
2B   Chase Utley (age 35, .279/.364/.459, 18 HR, .358 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - over
RF   Marlon Byrd (age 36, .271/.312/.420, 13 HR, .319 wOBA, 0.9 WAR) - under
1B   Ryan Howard (age 34, .254/.321/.462, 18 HR, .334 wOBA, 0.9 WAR) - under
LF   Domonic Brown (age 26, .271/.334/.470, 25 HR, .347 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) - over
SS   Jimmy Rollins (age 35, .254/.318/.372, 11 HR, .304 wOBA, 2.2 WAR) - under
C     Carlos Ruiz (age 35, .275/.344/.375, 7 HR, .317 wOBA, 2.8 WAR) - under
3B   Cody Asche (age 24, .266/.324/.410, 13 HR, .322 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) - over

Rotation
LHP Cliff Lee (age 35, 228 IP, 219/32 K/BB, 2.86 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 5.0 WAR) - over
LHP Cole Hamels (age 30, 218 IP, 206/52 K/BB, 3.30 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.3 WAR) - over
RHP A.J. Burnett (age 37, 170 IP, 165/60 K/BB, 3.69 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - under
RHP Kyle Kendrick (age 29, 174 IP, 106/45 K/BB, 4.32 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.1 WAR) - under
RHP Jonathan Pettibone (age 23, 142 IP, 85/46 K/BB, 4.06 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 1.1 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
OF/1B John Mayberry, C Wil Nieves, IF/OF Darin Ruf, IF Freddy Galvis, IF Kevin Frandsen, RHP Jonathan Papelbon, RHP Mike Adams, RHP Roberto Hernandez, LHP Antonio Bastardo, RHP Michael Stutes, LHP Jeremy Horst

Best Offseason Move - Considering that Plan B was Ethan Martin, who can't find the plate with a Garmin, signing Burnett to bolster a weak rotation after the two lefties at the top was a smart move. Still, Burnett benefited hugely from Pittsburgh's aggressive shifts and quality infield, and now he'll be in front of a conventional defense that has two poor gloves in Howard and the rapidly aging Rollins. So Phillies fans shouldn't get too ecstatic about this one.

Worst Offseason Move - This is a team with a weak overall farm system that is going nowhere in 2014, yet they put their blinders on and refuse to believe the obvious. The smart move would have been to trade Papelbon to a team that a) needs a Proven Closer (TM), b) has the budget to accommodate his salary (two more years at $13 million plus a vesting option for 2016), and c) felt like they needed an upgrade at the back of the bullpen (Detroit? Baltimore? Arizona? Seattle?). Teams are always willing to overpay for Proven Closers (TM), and Philly really could have used a chance to get some young talent back for a team that will probably be the oldest in the majors this year. Wait a minute, I'm a Mets fan! Keep up the good work, Ruben Amaro Jr.!

Key Player - If Utley can stay on the field for a full season, he's still one of the elite second basemen in baseball, even at age 35. He's also the only plus glove in the infield, and his presence on the bases helps Howard get enough ribbies to justify a quarter of that obscene contract (only $85 million left, Phillies fans!...unless they exercise the 2017 team option, and then you can add another $13 million). If Utley gets hurt again...well, would you pay to watch an infield of Howard, Galvis, Rollins, and Asche? Didn't think so. Hamels also deserves mention here because he entered spring training with a minor shoulder injury (if there is such a thing as a "minor" shoulder injury). If he misses any significant time, the backup options are, as mentioned earlier, extremely limited.

Most Exciting Player - There are few spectacles in baseball more fun to watch than when Lee is slicing through opposing lineups in two hours. His games move so fast that it's almost like you're watching another sport, and he probably still has the best command of any pitcher in the game. He's going to throw about one hundred pitches over eight innings, strike out seven, maybe walk a guy, and leave opponents scratching their heads because they feel like they were thisclose to squaring up the ball.

Possible Breakout Star - Is "none of the above" an option? Fine, I'll pick one. Brown was an All-Star last year after a hot first half that had him leading the NL in home runs at one point, but he still has room to develop a little (such as his plate discipline, which seems to borrow heavily from strikeout machine Howard). If he even becomes a mediocre outfielder and takes a few more walks, he'll be a four-or-five-win player.

Achilles Heel - Look at the age of that roster again. Just three everyday players under 34 and two starting pitchers under 30, and even their bench is kind of old. They even have The Artist Formerly Known As Fausto Carmona (Hernandez), who was like an adult version of Danny Almonte in 2007 with the Indians. This team is ancient, and all of those guys except for Lee and Utley are starting to show it. Also, their biggest Achilles heel might be Amaro, the general manager, who somehow thinks he has a team that can compete with Washington and Atlanta. Maybe if this was 2010.

Hidden Strength - Citizens Bank Park can turn mediocre hitters into semi-stars with its cozy dimensions, and there's a slight chance that one or two of the role players on this team catch fire for a couple homestands and bang out enough home runs to win a few extra games here and there. On the other hand, it has the capability to destroy young pitchers' confidence, particularly if those pitchers are prone to giving up fly balls.

3) New York Mets

Lineup
LF   Eric Young, Jr. (age 29, .250/.312/.319, 1 HR, .286 wOBA, 0.6 WAR) - under
2B   Daniel Murphy (age 29, .292/.327/.413, 11 HR, .327 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - over
3B   David Wright (age 31, .305/.390/.500, 22 HR, .384 wOBA, 6.9 WAR) - over
RF   Curtis Granderson (age 33, .244/.331/.454, 25 HR, .342 wOBA, 3.7 WAR) - under
1B   Lucas Duda (age 28, .247/.349/.416, 14 HR, .338 wOBA, 0.9 WAR) - under
C     Travis d'Arnaud (age 25, .268/.340/.424, 14 HR, .336 wOBA, 3.9 WAR) - over
SS   Ruben Tejada (age 24, .263/.322/.339, 2 HR, .296 wOBA, 1.7 WAR) - over
CF   Juan Lagares (age 25, .258/.296/.369, 6 HR, .292 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Bartolo Colon (age 41, 170 IP, 105/25 K/BB, 3.40 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - under
RHP Zack Wheeler (age 24, 178 IP, 169/70 K/BB, 3.59 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 1.7 WAR) - over
LHP Jon Niese (age 27, 183 IP, 150/55 K/BB, 3.62 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 1.8 WAR) - over
RHP Dillon Gee (age 28, 198 IP, 148/49 K/BB, 3.83 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.6 WAR) - under
RHP Jenrry Mejia (age 24, 122 IP, 113/33 K/BB, 3.41 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 2.0 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
1B Ike Davis, OF Chris Young, C Anthony Recker, OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis, IF Wilmer Flores, RHP Bobby Parnell, RHP Carlos Torres, RHP Jeurys Familia, LHP Josh Edgin, LHP Scott Rice, RHP Gonzalez Germen

Best Offseason Move - There were times last season when I thought that maybe I would be a better option in the outfield than some of the flotsam and jetsam that Terry Collins had to run out there. He may no longer be a force with the bat or glove after a lost 2013 and some steep declines in everything apart from Yankee Stadium short porch power, but I am thrilled that the Mets signed Granderson this winter. He's one of my very favorite people in the sport, and it pained me to see him in pinstripes the past four years. His power will undoubtedly nose-dive now that he's playing half his games in Citi Field, but perhaps that will lead him to stop lunging for the fences and get back to a lesser version of the all-around stud he was in Detroit. Kudos also for signing Colon to eat the innings (not to mention the post-game spread) that were lost to Matt Harvey's UCL tear.

Worst Offseason Move - Well, the Mets will go into spring training with either Duda or Davis at first base, neither of which are what you might call even satisfactory options. Davis has looked mostly lost after an injury cost him most of 2011, and last year's .205/.326/.334 slash line would be acceptable from a backup catcher, but not from a starting first baseman. Couldn't they have thrown a couple lottery tickets at the Nationals for Adam LaRoche, or made a bigger play for Cuban rookie Jose Abreu (now of the White Sox)? Oh, I forgot that Bernie Madoff is running this team from Butner Prison in North Carolina. Damn it.

Key Player - Is d'Arnaud seemingly always injured because he's a catcher, or is he made of porcelain? I think he holds a tenured position on Keith Law's annual top 100 prospects list; I'm pretty sure he's been on it every year since 2008, the year after he was drafted by the Phillies. He has played 100 games or more twice in his professional career, most recently in 2011 for Toronto's AA affiliate. If he can finally fulfill on his promise, then great, I'm all for it. I just hope he has better walk-up music than his brother did in college.

Most Exciting Player - Man, with Harvey on the shelf all year, this is a really difficult question. I mean, umm.....oh wait, no it isn't. Poor Wright is wasting away his prime on some cobbled-together teams, but he remains one of the five best all-around position players in the league. Last year he was good for six wins above replacement, despite missing FIFTY games. He hits for power (lots of doubles), runs the bases well, and has a good and occasionally stellar glove. Wheeler is the most entertaining pitcher on the staff, and if he can rein in his stuff, he has an excellent chance to be an outstanding number two. Conversely, if you're a big fan of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives who occasionally turns on a baseball game, then Colon is probably right up your alley, although you might need a special access pass to the clubhouse to watch him put away the food there.

Possible Breakout Star - This is a stretch, but Lagares was a revelation last year with the glove, saving 25 runs in just 121 games. For a guy who didn't come particularly close to making last year's preseason top twenty organizational prospects list, that's pretty great. He didn't hit at all at the major league level (.242/.281/.352), but his minor league stats from 2012 and 2013 are encouraging, and if he can at least work up to something like .260/.330/.390 his glove will make up for everything else (and help a young pitching staff immensely).

Achilles Heel - I think it's a bad sign that I'm a big Mets fan and I don't recognize more than two of the names in that putative bullpen (Parnell and Familia). There's also the specter of Granderson, Lagares, or Young getting hurt and forcing Nieuwenhuis or Matt Den Dekker into a major role. No, thank you.

Hidden Strength - Harvey, and to a lesser extent Wheeler, get all the accolades among the pitchers, but the Mets are quietly putting together a solid staff from top to bottom. Niese is no worse than league average, Gee is getting there, and Mejia has the talent. Plus, top prospect Noah Syndergaard looms as a mid-season call-up in Binghamton.

2) Atlanta Braves

Lineup
RF   Jason Heyward (age 24, .275/.362/.472, 25 HR, .362 wOBA, 5.8 WAR) - over
LF   Justin Upton (age 26, .279/.364/.491, 28 HR, .370 wOBA, 4.1 WAR) - over
1B   Freddie Freeman (age 24, .301/.376/.496, 25 HR, .377 wOBA, 4.6 WAR) - over
C     Evan Gattis (age 27, .252/.315/.474, 26 HR, .341 wOBA, 3.4 WAR) - under
3B   Chris Johnson (age 29, .291/.333/.428, 13 HR, .331 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
SS   Andrelton Simmons (age 24, .268/.323/.412, 14 HR, .322 wOBA, 5.1 WAR) - over
2B   Dan Uggla (age 34, .219/.336/.380, 14 HR, .321 wOBA, 3.2 WAR) - under
CF   B.J. Upton (age 29, .241/.316/.410, 18 HR, .319 wOBA, 2.6 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP Julio Teheran (age 23, 206 IP, 191/51 K/BB, 3.26 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.1 WAR) - over
LHP Mike Minor (age 26, 210 IP, 187/53 K/BB, 3.35 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 2.9 WAR) - over
RHP Ervin Santana (age 31, 200 IP, 149/58 K/BB, 3.85 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 1.8 WAR) - over
LHP Alex Wood (age 23, 154 IP, 147/49 K/BB, 3.27 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 2.9 WAR) - under
RHP Brandon Beachy (age 27, 132 IP, 114/40 K/BB, 3.62 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 1.1 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
C/OF Ryan Doumit, C Gerald Laird, OF Jordan Schafer, IF Tyler Pastornicky, IF Ramiro Pena, RHP Craig Kimbrel, LHP Johnny Venters, RHP Jordan Walden, RHP Gavin Floyd, LHP Luis Avilan, RHP David Carpenter, RHP Cody Gearrin

Best Offseason Move - The Braves handed out a boatload of extensions last month to several of their young players, but the two best ones, in my humble opinion, were the six-year, $32 million deal-plus-team-option for Teheran, and the seven-year, $58 million pact for Simmons. Teheran, who only seems like he was the Braves' best prospect from the time he was twelve, had an outstanding rookie season that got lost amid the otherworldly brilliance of Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig. Five million and change a year for a possible ace through his age-28 season? Sign me up, please. Simmons, meanwhile, is already the best defender in baseball, worth five or six wins with his glove alone, never mind the fact that he started flashing some power last season and hasn't filled out yet. The Braves are getting a perennial MVP candidate at just $8.5 million per year, and paying him through his age-30 season. That is a steal.

Worst Offseason Move - This has to be letting Brian McCann walk and not finding a better replacement than the Gattis/Laird combo behind the plate. Gattis has power, sure, and a great story, but is a hacker who's pretty useless against righties and fizzled after a big first month. Plus, he's not a great catcher (and he's worse in the outfield). The Braves would have been better served to go after Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Ruiz, or Dioner Navarro.

Key Player - Heyward has to stay healthy and use his superb on-base skills to set the table for a lineup that's got plenty of all-or-nothing hitters (Gattis, Uggla, B.J. Upton). He's also an outstanding right fielder who can play a capable center if the elder Upton's career stays in the toilet. Granted, the injuries he suffered last year were of the freak variety (appendicitis and a broken jaw thanks to an HBP), but without him in the lineup, the Braves will struggle to score runs.

Most Exciting Player - Simmons is simply the best infielder in baseball, with immense range and a rocket arm (he threw 96 mph as a pitcher in junior college). He makes any pitching staff better, especially guys who induce tons of grounders. Among pitchers, Kimbrel is now the best closer in baseball, with a CAREER K/9 ratio of 15.1 and a 1.39 ERA. He brings 100-mph heat and a wicked slider, and hopefully his max-effort delivery doesn't cause him trouble down the road.

Possible Breakout Star - There are a ton of talented young pitchers in the National League, and Teheran should soon join the ranks of the elite with Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and Stephen Strasburg. I expect him to become more of a household name this year. He should get an opportunity to be the leader of this staff in his second season thanks to all of the injuries suffered by the Braves' other starters (see below for more).

Potential Achilles Heel - For starters, this is a whiff-tastic lineup. Uggla, the Uptons, Johnson, and Freeman all struck out well north of 100 times last year, and Gattis had 81 in just 382 plate appearances. A good pitching staff, particularly one full of right-handers that is careful with Heyward and Freeman, can carve these guys up in the playoffs, especially if Uggla and B.J. Upton don't bounce back from atrocious seasons. On a more concerning note, good luck finding a healthy pitcher in their rotation. Kris Medlen recently went down with an elbow injury that will in all likelihood require his second TJ operation in four years. Beachy is still recovering from HIS second TJ surgery, and Minor hasn't pitched yet this spring due to a sore shoulder. The Braves were so desperate for a healthy arm that they coughed up a draft pick (typically a no-no for this organization) in order to sign Santana, who can be really good but is also prone to gopheritis. For more analysis on Braves pitchers and their mechanics (specifically Beachy and Kimbrel), I will refer you to my friends at Baseball Rebellion. In any case, this looks like a disturbing pattern for the pitching development staff in the organization; maybe they need Leo Mazzone back?

Hidden Strength - The return of Venters sometime this spring from Tommy John surgery makes the Atlanta bullpen even more dangerous. Avilan can handle the LOOGY duties while Venters and Walden serve as Kimbrel's set-up crew, and the Braves have an armada of flamethrowers waiting in the wings.

1) Washington Nationals

Lineup
CF   Denard Span (age 30, .280/.333/.364, 2 HR, .311 wOBA, 3.2 WAR) - over
RF   Jayson Werth (age 35, .293/.379/.477, 21 HR, .373 wOBA, 3.8 WAR) - under
LF   Bryce Harper (age 21, .287/.379/.526, 29 HR, .390 wOBA, 5.8 WAR) - over
3B   Ryan Zimmerman (age 29, .283/.355/.479, 23 HR, .362 wOBA, 4.1 WAR) - over
SS   Ian Desmond (age 28, .287/.337/.469, 22 HR, .350 wOBA, 5.3 WAR) - over
1B   Adam LaRoche (age 34, .255/.338/.433, 20 HR, .335 wOBA, 1.7 WAR) - under
2B   Anthony Rendon (age 24, .282/.357/.442, 13 HR, .350 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
C     Wilson Ramos (age 26, .273/.328/.443, 18 HR, .333 wOBA, 3.2 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Stephen Strasburg (age 25, 202 IP, 220/59 K/BB, 2.86 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 4.1 WAR) - over
LHP Gio Gonzalez (age 28, 198 IP, 192/79 K/BB, 3.23 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 2.8 WAR) - over
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (age 28, 214 IP, 161/41 K/BB, 3.25 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 3.3 WAR) - over
RHP Doug Fister (age 30, 203 IP, 160/42 K/BB, 3.49 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.4 WAR) - over
LHP Ross Detwiler (age 28, 142 IP, 85/34 K/BB, 3.95 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 1.6 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
OF Nate McLouth, C Jose Lobaton, IF Zach Walters, OF/1B Tyler Moore, OF/IF Scott Hairston, RHP Rafael Soriano, RHP Tyler Clippard, RHP Drew Storen, LHP Xavier Cedeno, LHP Jerry Blevins, RHP Craig Stammen, RHP Ryan Mattheus

Best Offseason Move - Stealing Fister from the Tigers for some spare parts (a utility infielder, a lefty specialist, and an A-ball lottery ticket) has to rank as one of the best moves of the winter. Fister is in his prime, and has been one of the ten most valuable pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons. Better yet, he a) moves from the American to the National League (where he gets to face pitchers), and b) gets a huge bonus as a ground ball pitcher (51%) by switching from the statuesque (not in a good way) infield of Fielder, Infante, Peralta, and Cabrera to an at least average group (and maybe better than average) that has miles more range than those guys.

Worst Offseason Move - I mean, I don't know that I can find one. I guess I might say that their worst move would be the road not taken, in that they didn't try and trade LaRoche away and reshuffle the infield, moving Zimmerman to first, Rendon to third, and Walters or Danny Espinosa to second. All in all, I think GM Mike Rizzo had an excellent off-season.

Key Player - The Nationals looked like they might build on the promise of 2012 until Harper started running into walls and nobody picked up the slack (Werth also missed a month around the same time). Before the crashes, Harper was playing like the MVP candidate everyone eventually thought he would be, only he was doing it as a 20-year-old. When he returned, he was essentially an above-average player for the remainder of the season. A healthy Harper, with his ability to murder righties and serve as a stellar defender with a cannon arm, is probably a seven-win player and makes the Nationals a major contender. Behind Door B? McLouth, a serviceable veteran, but nothing more than that, or the largely unproven Moore.

Most Exciting Player - Would you prefer a pitcher or a hitter? Harper is explosive in the batter's box, on the bases, or in the field (especially when unleashing 300-foot missiles with his arm). Strasburg, meanwhile, is good for 3000 or so extra butts in the seats every time he pitches, because every start brings the possibility of fifteen or more strikeouts, especially now that the team is letting him pitch into the later innings. Assuming both stay healthy, do not be the least bit surprised to see both of them in the conversation for MVP and Cy Young, respectively, all season long.

Possible Breakout Star - Rendon was regarded as the most polished college bat in the 2011 amateur draft, and only a pair of ankle injuries caused him to slide to Washington with the sixth pick. Another injury as a professional limited him to just 43 minor league games in 2012, and he only got 36 more last year before Danny Espinosa's impotent bat and a lack of viable bench options forced the Nationals to call him up in late April. He hit a fairly pedestrian .265/.329/.396, but when you remember that the team had to rush him a little AND that he was learning a new position (second base) on the fly, that slash line doesn't look too bad. Regardless of the results, he has some of the best at-bats on the team, with good patience and the ability to spit on pitches juuuuust off the plate. I think he's headed for a .290/.360/.480 season, and new manager Matt Williams may not be able to keep him in the seventh spot for long.

Potential Achilles Heel - Speaking of Williams, this is his first major league managing gig, and that means there will be some adjustments to make, for both him and the players. If he's anything like his former boss in Arizona, he might be a lot less of a "players' manager" than the retired Davey Johnson, and he might struggle out of the gate to do things like manage his pitchers' workload (especially the bullpen). I'm sure he will be fine, but it might take a few weeks to sort out. Other than that, the only possible concern is that the bullpen implodes, as bullpens are wont to do occasionally.

Hidden Strength - Detwiler was limited to thirteen starts last year, and the Nats unearthed a trio of minor leaguers (Nate Karns, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark) who filled in admirably, particularly Roark, who gave the Nats a 1.51 ERA and 0.913 WHIP in 53.2 innings. Karns was traded over the winter, but should Detwiler or one of the other starters go on the shelf (Strasburg in particular is somewhat fragile), the Nats have two capable fill-ins to hold down the fort.

That wraps up my series of previews for this season. I hope you enjoyed them, and check back throughout the year for more columns!