SweetSpot: Jayson Werth

When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2011 season, the deal was widely criticized. It was made out to be symbolic of the further decline of baseball or something like that.

The criticism was certainly understandable. Werth, while an excellent player, was hardly a household name, had never hit .300 or knocked in 100 runs, and had made one All-Star team. He was also entering his age-32 season. So even though he was coming off his best season, giving a seven-year deal of that amount to any player from ages 32 to 38 is usually a bad idea. And $126 million for Jayson Werth seemed a little insane.

And it looked bad in 2011, when Werth hit just .232 with 20 home runs, his wins above replacement (WAR) dropping from 4.5 to 1.3. In 2012, he broke his wrist and played just 81 games. The injury sapped his power, but he did hit .300 with a .387 OBP, and the Nationals won the NL East. Still, at that point, the contract wasn't looking good, with five years and $99 million remaining.

But Werth was excellent in 2013, hitting .318 with 25 home runs -- even with the lingering effects of his broken wrist. "I’ve got one plate, three screws and eight pins in there," he told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post last August. "It's never going to be 110 percent again. But I'm hitting as well as I ever have."

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
G Fiume/Getty ImagesIf Jayson Werth helps keep the Nationals playing well into October this year, that contract will look even better.

Despite playing through a shoulder issue, he's been very good again in 2014, hitting .283/.381/.446, ranking fifth in the NL in OBP and 10th in wOBA -- ahead of, among others, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, two players mentioned as MVP candidates, as well as teammate Anthony Rendon, also mentioned as a down-the-ballot kind of guy. The Nationals are going to win their second NL East title in three years, and Werth has been a key reason why.

So how does that contract look now?

Let's value each win above replacement at $6.5 million -- that's about the going rate on the free-agent market. Maybe it was a little lower in December 2010 and a little higher now (or trending higher), but $6.5 million serves as a rough proxy. At $126 million, Werth would have to earn about 19.3 WAR to justify the value of the contract.

Right now, he's at 9.9 WAR in his three-plus seasons, via Baseball-Reference.com (3.0 in 2014), and 11.2 via FanGraphs (3.7 in 2014). In other words, he has a chance to come close to reaching the 19.3 total WAR over the life of the contract. That doesn't necessarily mean it was a sweetheart of a deal for the Nationals. Back in March, when Miguel Cabrera signed his mega-extension, Buster Olney tweeted that he hadn't heard such disgust from executives since the Werth contract. The implication being that the Nationals went much, much higher for Werth than any other team had been willing to go.

So they did overpay at the time, which can't be ignored. But it's also not looking like a disaster of a contract, either. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Werth has aged well; he's a good athlete, a minor league catcher converted to the outfield due to his speed. His walk rates have always been excellent, and that's a skill that generally holds up well. (Not always: See Albert Pujols.) Werth has actually cut down on his strikeout rate the past three seasons, which has helped him maintain his good batting averages.

Compare Werth to Josh Hamilton. Maybe Hamilton had the higher peak value, but his biggest weakness -- strike zone control -- is Werth's strength. Hamilton hasn't been the same player at ages 32 and 33 with the Angels that he was earlier with the Rangers. Or compare Werth to the more one-dimensional Prince Fielder, whose value is all wrapped up in his bat (same with Cabrera). Werth is still a plus on the bases, and while his defensive metrics aren't what they were during his best years with the Phillies, he's not a big liability in right field.

Werth's contract might have been a joke in December 2010. But the Nationals may yet get the last laugh.

Nationals' multiple mistakes prove costly

July, 29, 2014

The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.

Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.

OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyIt wasn't Rafael Soriano's night, but he wasn't the only National with a game to forget.

So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.

Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?

Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.

Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.

But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.

It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.

After badly underachieving for the first four months a year ago and playing themselves out of postseason contention, the Washington Nationals were looking forward to a fresh start and some more positive karma under new manager Matt Williams.

Other than leading the major leagues in errors and devastating thumb injuries, they have yet to distinguish themselves in a way they might have hoped.

The Nats suffered a blow two weeks ago when All-Star Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff play against Atlanta. Zimmerman’s thumb is in a splint, and the Nationals say the original four- to six-week prognosis still applies, which means he’ll probably be back sometime in mid- to late May.
[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
AP Photo/Jason GetzWhen Ryan Zimmerman returns from the DL, he'll come back to a lineup without Bryce Harper.

He’ll return to a lineup without Bryce Harper, who will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and is expected to be out until at least early July.

All the Nationals need now is for Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond or Adam LaRoche to hurt a thumb sliding into first base, and they’ll be three-fourths of the way to a cycle.

The injury is yet more fodder for critics who say Harper is “all hype” and doesn’t belong on the same planet with Mike Trout. That’s unfair, of course, but it’s still been a strangely off-kilter spring for Harper. After looking ready in the Grapefruit League, he struck out 10 times in his first 21 regular-season at-bats and pronounced himself “pretty lost right now.” Then Williams benched him for jogging out a ground ball, of all things. And there was that surreal moment last week when Harper smoked the ball in his first two at-bats only to gift-wrap an out for the Angels by trying to bunt for a hit in a big spot with a man on base.

Regardless of Harper’s meager power numbers at the time of his injury, his absence will hurt a Washington lineup that’s off to a strong start. The Nats rank second to Colorado in the National League with 115 runs scored and a .731 OPS, and Harper looked as if he might be poised to go on a roll with a season-high four RBIs Friday against San Diego. Now he’ll be replaced by Nate McLouth, a handy guy and a solid defender who won’t provide much thump.

The injuries will test the Nationals' fortitude and resilience, but any team with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation is going to win its share of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Tanner Roark has been a revelation, and Doug Fister will complete his rehab assignment shortly and make it an even stronger contingent.

But this season clearly isn’t going to be the joyride that everyone expected when the Nationals were anointed as the clear NL East front-runner in spring training. For starters, the division is stronger than a lot of people expected. The Braves are off to a terrific start, and they’re about to get a boost from the return of Mike Minor to the rotation. They’re also 18-7 against Washington since the start of the 2013 season, and some people think they’re in the Nationals’ heads.

The Phillies just returned from a 6-4 West Coast trip, and Chase Utley is looking awfully spry. Terry Collins always gets the best out of the Mets, who have a solid rotation from the first through fifth slots. And the Marlins have a chance to be trouble, as well, if they can figure out a way to improve upon that 2-10 road record.

In late March, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, 40 of the 44 folks surveyed picked Washington to win the NL East (with only four prognosticators going with Atlanta). Twelve of those 44 picked the Nationals to win the World Series.

Suddenly, Williams has to deal with the absence of Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and Harper and the potential for some flagging morale in the clubhouse. It might be time for him to deliver a pep talk to ensure the Nats don't fall victim to a case of “here we go again”-itis.

And while Williams is at it, he might want to mix in some remedial sliding lessons.
There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).
Using wOBA from 2013, here is the ranking of the Washington Nationals' hitters in the lineup manager Matt Williams used on Wednesday:

1. Jayson Werth (R)
2. Bryce Harper (L)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Ian Desmond (R)
5. Adam LaRoche (L)
6. Anthony Rendon (R)
7. Jose Lobaton (S)
8. Denard Span (L)

OK, 2013 is ancient history. Here are those players ranked by 2014 projected wOBA from ZiPS:

1. Bryce Harper (L)
2. Jayson Werth (R)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Anthony Rendon (R)
5. Ian Desmond (R)
6. Adam LaRoche (L)
7. Denard Span (L)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)

By any way you measure it, Bryce Harper is one of the best hitters on the Nationals; it's hard to argue against that. Even while playing through some injuries last season he had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage than Zimmerman. It wasn't a huge advantage (23 points in on-base, 21 points in slugging) but it was still an advantage. Plus he's faster than Zimmerman, which isn't accounted for in wOBA. So either he or Werth would logically be considered the best hitter on the team.

Here was the lineup Williams ran out there against Mets starter Bartolo Colon:

1. Denard Span (L)
2. Anthony Rendon (R)
3. Jayson Werth (R)
4. Adam LaRoche (L)
5. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
6. Bryce Harper (L)
7. Ian Desmond (R)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)

From Adam Kilgore's story in the Washington Post on why Harper hit sixth:
"We want to continue to open Bryce’s game up," he said. When asked about what that meant, and why Harper needs to hit lower in the lineup in order open up his game, Williams expanded on his reasoning.

"One, I think it takes a little bit of pressure off of Bryce," Williams said. "It allows him to use his legs, and I think that’s important, when he wants to use his legs. Now, we look at tonight as an example. [Mets starter Bartolo Colon] is really quick to the plate, so will there be opportunities to do that? You never know. But we want to give him the option to do. ...

"Now, from a managers’ perspective you say 'If I hit him second or third in front of Jayson [Werth] and [Ryan Zimmerman], do I really want him trying to steal second when we're one swing away from a two-run homer or a three-run homer?' That's the logic. Most of all, I want him to be free and play and not have those boundaries on him. And I think, for me, over the long run he will drive in big runs for us."

OK, so from that we gather that Williams hit Harper sixth to take pressure off him and to possibly allow him to steal a base. Harper hit fifth on Opening Day, when the lineup went Span-Zimmerman-Werth-Wilson Ramos-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Rendon (also against a right-hander).

Look, managers obsess over lineups -- probably too much. But they are a little important, even if the gains from a statistically optimal lineup are small. Studies show that an optimal lineup would have your best hitters batting second and fourth. Williams hit his two best hitters sixth and third. Some of that could have been matchups. Maybe he thought LaRoche was a good matchup for Colon, or that LaRoche will bounce back from a bad 2013 (although he hit him seventh on Opening Day). It's possible that Williams wanted to go left-right-left, although he hit three righties in a row against Dillon Gee. Maybe he really does think a stolen base from the No. 6 batter is more important than having Harper get more plate appearances than Span. Maybe he thinks Harper doesn't "deserve" to hit third or fourth, in deference to his more veteran teammates.

The biggest flaw here is that Span is hitting leadoff and he's clearly one of the weakest hitters on the team. He's not terrible, so it's far from the worst lineups we've seen, but he doesn't bring a high enough on-base percentage to offset his lack of power (.279/.327/.380) and he's not a big enough base thief to create many extra runs that way (20 steals in 2013). He is, however, probably the fastest guy on the team and that's why he's hitting leadoff. So Williams has elected -- for now -- to give an inferior hitter more plate appearances.

For all the sabermetric advances in the game, such as the increased use of infield shifts, a lot of managers still use sub-optimal batting orders, failing to realize you're better off getting one of your best hitters higher in the order instead of worrying about having an RBI guy batting fifth or sixth. It's early, so I don't want to bash Williams too much here. Other than hitting Span first and Werth third, it appears he's going to move guys around. Harper is batting second in Thursday's game, although that may simply be because Danny Espinosa is playing instead of Rendon.

And bottom line: If Harper hits like most of us expect him to, he'll move up in the order. (I think.)

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.

Umm, yeah, here come the Nationals

September, 17, 2013
Quick thoughts on the Nationals' ninth-inning 6-5 comeback win over Craig Kimbrel and the Braves in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader ...
  • How rare of a blow-up was it for Craig Kimbrel? It was the first time he'd allowed three runs in game in his career and just the third time in two seasons he's allowed more than one run. He'd walked two batters in a game just three times previously in 2013, and in one of those appearances one of the walks was intentional.
  • So great job by Adam LaRoche to start the inning by working the walk on the 3-2 fastball. A little surprising that Kimbrel didn't go to the slider there. Lefties were hitting .068 against the slider -- with 33 strikeouts and no walks in 44 plate appearances ending with that pitch. Basically, when Kimbrel gets to two strikes, the slider is unhittable.
  • From there, an infield single, another walk, an RBI groundout and the rare error from Andrelton Simmons that allowed the winning runs to score.
  • Where is Jayson Werth on your MVP ballot? He had an RBI double off Mike Minor in the Nationals' three-run first inning and is hitting .322/.398/.536 with 23 home runs and 74 RBIs. Certainly he's been a huge key in keeping the Nationals from disintegrating with a monster second half in which he's hit .352 with 41 RBIs in 52 games. Still, he missed all but one game in May, and those 30 missing games count against him. He's been Washington's most valuable position player, but I'm not sure he'd crack my top-10 MVP ballot due to the injury.
  • The Nationals' chances to catch the Reds are still pretty slim, sitting 4½ games back heading into Tuesday night's games. Put it this way: If Washington goes 10-2 in its final 12 games, it needs Cincinnati to go 5-6 over its final 11 to match the Reds at 90 wins. Now, that's possible; the Reds do play the Pirates in six of those games, but they also get the Astros twice more and the Mets three times next week. The Nationals face the Marlins after the Braves but finish up with a six-game road trip to St. Louis and Arizona. The Cardinals will still be fighting for the division title, although Arizona may be thinking about golf by then. Our playoff odds from coolstandings.com gives the Nationals a 4 percent chance of making it. Things will look a lot more interesting after Tuesday night, however, if Washington wins again and Cincinnati loses.
  • What's been the big turnaround for the Nats? On Aug. 19 they were 60-64. Since then they've gone 20-6. Well, the schedule has been key. Twenty-two of those 26 games have come against sub-.500 teams (thank you, NL East). They've hit .293/.359/.479 over those 26 games. Thank you, bad pitching. OK, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman finally got going.
  • Washington starts rookie Tanner Roark in the nightcap against Freddy Garcia -- yes, that Freddy Garcia -- so it's a good opportunity for another win since Freddy Garcia is Freddy Garcia. Roark is making his third start, but he's kind of been a good-luck charm of late with a 6-0 record. I'm guessing Kimbrel is unavailable, and maybe Luis Avilan as well. Kimbrel threw 27 pitches, Avilan 13, and there's little incentive for Fredi Gonzalez to burn through his best relievers with division all but clinched.
  • The Reds start Mike Leake in Houston against Jordan Lyles. The Nats' chances may be slim, but at least they've given their fans a reason to watch that out-of-town scoreboard.
You may not realize this about Jayson Werth since he's not listed among the National League batting leaders, but that will change in a few days. Entering Tuesday, Chris Johnson of the Braves was hitting .335, Yadier Molina .334 and Michael Cuddyer .323.

Werth was hitting .330 but was nine plate appearances short of qualifying (you need 3.1 PAs per team game played). Once Werth qualifies it should be a fun race down the stretch ... if you're still into batting titles (or, more accurately, the batting average title).

Werth is hitting .408 since the All-Star break, best in the majors, and is second to Miguel Cabrera in OPS since the break. The Nationals are having a disastrous year, but Werth has been one of the few bright spots.

Comeback trio are post-break HR leaders

August, 11, 2013
Who has the most home runs since the All-Star break? After Saturday night’s action, three guys were tied with seven apiece: Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, Jayson Werth of the Nationals and Justin Morneau of the Twins. In other words, neither of the league leaders (Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt), and a couple of guys you might well have already left for dead if you weren’t a die-hard fan of the also-ran Nats or still-buried Twinkies. And, speaking as a fan, I’m glad to see all three of them getting back in the swing of things, not least because all three of them are making comebacks against injuries and expectations.

Bautista’s “comeback” might seem like a bit of a stretch, in that he has 27 home runs this season. You might say that his skills never did go away. It’s just that he did, after losing almost half of his 2012 campaign to a wrist injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. You’d be forgiven for thinking everything has been great for him because he did come out of the gate pretty hot to make a quick case that he would still be one of baseball’s best sluggers.
[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJustin Morneau's recent power burst is a reminder of better days for the Twins slugger.

However, Bautista is coming off a rough pair of months, and he very clearly has not been the same guy: He’s hitting more grounders while putting more balls in play, and his rate of home runs per fly ball has come down to 15.9 percent, its lowest mark since 2009. Maybe some of that is a matter of shaking some post-surgical rust off the wrist, and maybe some of it is Father Time taking his cut. If you enjoyed watching Bautista bash 97 home runs in 2010-11, you can take his postbreak run as a positive indicator that maybe he really is back.

You don’t have to be that much of an acid-washed skeptic to suspect that Werth’s recent bit of sluggery probably makes for the shortest comeback. Werth has been demonized ever since he took the Nationals’ offer of ludicrous amounts of cash before the 2011 season, but why blame him for that? There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t have taken a nine-figure offer.

Werth’s checkered health history was an even bigger red flag than his already being beyond age 30 at the time the Nats handed him $126 million, and injuries have certainly undermined his seasons in D.C. His first season, 2011, was sapped by getting hit by pitches in three straight games in early June; whatever Werth’s reputation for fragility, he played through it, but his midseason clip of .175/.307/.277 until his bat came around at the end of July suggests he was far from his best. A fractured wrist in 2012 cost him almost three months, and this season, a hamstring strain took him out for a month.

Werth’s second-half run is quietly helping him produce his best season yet for the Nationals. In his age-34 season, he’s perhaps as healthy as he’s ever been as a National, and his seven postbreak homers are providing a small reminder of one of the reasons GM Mike Rizzo gave him the big bucks. This latest streak provides a small suggestion that maybe there are a few chapters left to write in his already unusual career.

But the guy you really have to feel for is Morneau, the former AL MVP and one of the two towers the Twins were supposed to be able to build an offense around. But ever since his best season was cut short in 2010 by a concussion, his career has not been the same, as he struggled through an injury-abbreviated 2011 and a 2012 season best celebrated for his ability to play daily once more than for his feats at the plate, with just a .773 OPS. He’s been able to keep that up this season, but his bat’s gotten worse.

I’m not going to pretend that Morneau is going to put the Twins back in the headlines any time soon. Nor is Morneau really hitting all that well since the break: .237/.290/.505 with those seven homers and very little else, and they’re being hit against the Mariners, White Sox and Astros. But if anyone playing today deserved a few weeks to enjoy at least an echo of what he once had going for him as one of the game’s top sluggers, I’d agree it ought to be Morneau. This might not be a comeback, but at least it’s a reminder of what was. More power to him.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The Washington Nationals reached the 100-game mark in the season with a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. Actually, “reached” might be a charitable way to describe it. Failed, flailed, struggled, stumbled, scuffled and slouched are more appropriate and creative verb choices that immediately spring to mind.

Several days of rest, relaxation and time away from the field at the All-Star break haven’t had the desired therapeutic effect on the Nats’ collective psyche. They’re winless in five games since the break, and their overall record has dropped to 48-52 after 10 losses in their past 12 games.

The Chicago Cubs (minus-19) and New York Mets (minus-24) have better run differentials than Washington’s minus-29, and Coolstandings.com gives the Nationals a 5.9 percent chance of making the playoffs after they managed a feeble three hits against Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates' bullpen. Realistically, the Nationals' chances of winning the NL East are just a hair better than Ryan Braun’s chances of capturing the Milwaukee Brewers’ Good Guy Award for 2013.
[+] EnlargeDenard Span
AP Photo/Alex BrandonDenard Span has yet to hit his stride with the Nationals.

Some themes naturally linger for ill-fated teams. Last year, Stephen Strasburg and Operation Shutdown were the focus of a national debate over the merits of protecting (versus coddling) young franchise pitchers. This year, manager Davey Johnson put a target on his team’s back with his “World Series or bust” proclamation at the winter meetings in December. Almost eight months later, the Nationals are taking the “bust” portion of Johnson's statement to the extreme.

“They’ve been a huge disappointment,” said a National League scout. “They haven’t handled the success of 2012, and now being the hunted, they haven’t responded to that challenge.”

The Nationals are making an army of prognosticators look bad. In February, ESPN.com surveyed 43 baseball “experts” on the respective league races, and 29 predicted the Nats would make the World Series and 16 picked them to go the distance. (Full disclosure: I picked the Nats to win the division and lose to Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series).

While Ross Detwiler’s injury issues and Dan Haren’s home run-itis have been a problem at the back end of the rotation, the Nationals’ offense has been almost bafflingly dreadful. They’re 14th in the league in runs (367), 14th in on-base percentage (.300) and 11th in slugging percentage (.385). They don’t walk much as a team, they’re middle-of-the-pack in stolen bases, and they’re hitting a mere .236 with runners in scoring position.

Shortstop Ian Desmond is the only Washington position player who has statistically performed above his positional peer group from Day 1. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper both have OPSes above .800, but they’ve missed a combined 68 games because of injuries. Since his return from a knee injury on July 1, Harper is hitting .212 with one home run in 66 at-bats and hasn’t remotely resembled the player who was gunning for MVP consideration in April.

The biggest drag on the Washington offense has been Denard Span, who hasn’t even been the best former Minnesota Twins center fielder in the NL East this season. That honor goes to Philadelphia's Ben Revere, who was raking at .305 when he suffered a broken foot before the All-Star break. Span, in contrast, is hitting .263 with a .319 OBP, and was recently dropped to the seventh spot in the order when Johnson moved Harper to leadoff to try to jump-start the lineup. It's getting awfully tiresome for Nats fans watching Span roll over balls and hit weak grounders to second.

“There’s a guy that runs well as a leadoff hitter who pulls the ball,” an AL scout said of Span. “He kind of mistakenly hits the ball the other way or up the middle once in a while. But he drags the bat through the zone -- he doesn’t have a lot of bat quickness -- and offensively he just doesn’t get a lot of things going for that club.”

The mood at Nationals Park hit a season-low Monday when general manager Mike Rizzo sought the first refuge of the offensively inept, firing hitting coach Rick Eckstein and replacing him with Rick Schu. Johnson opposed the move, which led to the inevitable speculation that there might be some tension in his relationship with Rizzo. If there was even a smidge of a chance that Johnson might return for one more go-round in 2014, the strain of this season probably scotched that possibility.

Realistically, the Nationals are just going to have to play out the schedule, reassemble in Viera, Fla., in February and chalk this up as a bad year. They have several young core players (Harper, Strasburg, Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Wilson Ramos) who make up the team’s long-term foundation. And Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are signed to long-term deals for a total of $226 million, so they’re not going anywhere, either.

Speculation about the pending free agency of Haren and Kurt Suzuki isn’t exactly a riveting topic of conversation in Nationals-land. And while there have been rumblings that reliever Drew Storen might be available in the right trade, he has had a disappointing year and the Nationals would be selling low on him.

Barring a sudden, inexplicable surge of energy and offensive fervor, the Nats will officially descend to afterthought status when Robert Griffin III and the Redskins begin training camp this week in Richmond, Va. Two more months of baseball remain to be played this season in Washington. In all likelihood, it will not be meaningful baseball.

Lessons from Stephen Strasburg

May, 31, 2013

It's entirely possible that Stephen Strasburg's latest injury is no big deal.

The Washington Nationals' right-hander left his start Friday in Atlanta after two innings, and word from manager Davey Johnson is that it's a strained right oblique. He's headed back to D.C. to be examined by the team doctor, so we won't know the severity of the injury until at least tomorrow. One hopes Strasburg won't have to miss any time.

Of course, there is a chance he misses a start (or more), which would put the Nationals further behind the eight-ball in a season in which everyone (including the Nationals) assumed they would cruise to the playoffs. And while no one is wishing poor health for Strasburg, I'd guess there are more than a few people in the industry who would get a quiet kick out of the Nats missing out on October.

Whether it was intentional or not, there was a healthy dose of hubris in the Nationals' decision to shut down Strasburg at the end of last season. It was as if they were saying to the league, "It's cool, we're so good we'll be back a few more times with this squad."

That could still be the case -- the Nats did win 3-2 tonight -- but it fails to account for the fact that the stars were aligned for Washington last season. Not only was Strasburg dominant, but so too was Gio Gonzalez. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond had career years and Jayson Werth had a bit of a renaissance. And that Harper kid had an impressive debut to boot.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesStephen Strasburg talks with Nats manager Davey Johnson after he came out of Friday's game.
Of that group, only Bryce Harper is playing better this year, but he, like Werth, has spent a lot of time on the shelf, while LaRoche and Gonzalez have not been nearly as impressive. There are no guarantees in baseball, and the Nationals decision to not go all-in on the 2012 season could haunt the franchise for years.

Furthermore, we should know by now that pitcher injuries are incredibly unpredictable, and you can only do so much to prevent them. While the Nationals had the best interests of Strasburg and the organization in mind when they shut him down last season, they had no way of knowing if they could prevent an injury. He could end up on the disabled list because of the injury he suffered tonight -- and that could cost them a playoff spot.

(Another perfect example of this phenomenon is Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy. The O's could not have been more careful with him last year, limiting him to outings of fewer than five innings for most of the season. Yet he's suffered arm soreness this year and has yet to pitch an inning.)

It would be a bit depressing if Strasburg ends up hurt, as the game is always better when the best players are on the field, so let's hope that he doesn't have to miss any time. However, even if he's fine, we shouldn't forget the fact that you can't take anything for granted. Frankly, it's part of what makes this game so interesting.
Quick thoughts on Tuesday's games …

  • Ahh, just a few short days ago the New York Yankees were 1-4 and the butt of jokes across baseball land. Now they've won three in a row after beating the Cleveland Indians 14-1. Andy Pettitte allowed just an Asdrubal Cabrera home run in his seven innings. He's 40 and looks as good as ever. Remember when Robinson Cano was hitting .130? This is why you should never look at first-week statistics unless you're Chris Davis' agent. In his past two games, Cano has seven hits, including three doubles and three home runs, and is now hitting .303. For the Indians, the rotation shuffle might already be starting. Carlos Carrasco made his first start since Tommy John surgery in 2011, wasn't effective and got ejected after hitting Kevin Youkilis. Brett Myers, Cleveland's scheduled starter for Wednesday, pitched the final 5.1 innings Tuesday, so Terry Francona will need to find a different starter, which maybe isn't the worst thing since Myers has already allowed seven home runs.
  • [+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
    AP Photo/Jeff ChiuTim Lincecum had another bumpy outing, but the Giants comeback got him off the hook.
    Tim Lincecum had another shaky outing. After walking seven in his first start, he walked four in this one but did manage to scuffle through six innings. Through four innings he had thrown 71 pitches -- 37 strikes, 34 balls -- and had twice walked opposing pitcher Juan Nicasio. He was, as the ball/strike ratio indicates, all over the place. He was a little better his final two innings -- 33 pitches, 24 strikes -- but he certainly didn't placate any concerns. It ended up being a tough loss for the Colorado Rockies, off to a nice start, as the San Francisco Giants rallied from a four-run deficit.
  • Caught a little bit of Nick Tepesch's debut for the Texas Rangers, a 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing four hits, walking three and striking five, flashing a low-90s fastball, slider and a curveball that worked on this night (the Rays went 1-for-8 with four Ks in plate appearances ending with the curve). Tepesch was the surprise winner of the No. 5 slot in the rotation, but it appears he knows what he's doing out there. Todd Wills of ESPNDallas.com has the reaction from Tepesch's teammates.
  • Wild 8-7 victory for the Washington Nationals over the Chicago White Sox on a hot April night in D.C. Jake Peavy and Gio Gonzalez were locked up in a 1-1 duel through four innings, but then Ian Desmond homered in the fifth and Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche homered in a four-run sixth. LaRoche later added another home run off Matt Thornton (his first two hits of the year after an 0-for-15 start). Peavy said he ran out of gas in the sixth; game-time temperature was a humid 81 degrees. Gonzalez labored through 99 pitches in his five innings, but escaped with just one run. The biggest takeaway from this game, however, is that Rafael Soriano struggled again, giving up two runs in the ninth on Alex Rios' two-run homer, although still absurdly getting credit for the save. Just something to watch. One more thing to watch: Bryce Harper is hitting .379 but hasn't drawn a walk. Let's see if pitchers can take advantage of that aggressiveness (and then see how Harper adjusts).
  • Kudos to the Houston Astros for their 16-run explosion against the Seattle Mariners. They even limited their strikeouts to 10! (They went 22-for-37 when putting the ball in play.) The eight combined home runs at Safeco were the third-most ever in a game there; there were nine twice in 2004. Mariners rookie starter Brandon Maurer was terrible, giving up seven hits and a walk while retiring only two batters. As good as Maurer looked in spring training to win a rotation spot, it's a reminder that he wasn't exactly dominant last year in Double-A, striking out 117 in 137.2 innings with 48 walks. His slider has been up in the zone and batters are 7-for-12 against it.
Ryan ZimmermanBrad Mills/USA TODAY SportsThe Nationals will be counting on the slugging of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman this season.
In the past 30 years, five teams have won at least 105 games. I've gone on record as saying the Washington Nationals have an excellent chance of joining that exclusive company.

While we've analyzed the Nationals previously, I was interested in looking at what went right for these five clubs. Looking at their history might give some insight on what needs to go right for the Nats to win 105 games.

First, a snapshot of the five teams:

2004 Cardinals: 105-57
855 runs (1st in NL)
659 runs allowed (1st in NL)
Run differential: 196
29-20 in one-run games
32-13 in blowouts
Beat up on: 14-5 against Reds

2001 Mariners: 116-46
927 runs (1st in AL)
627 runs allowed (1st in AL)
Run differential: 300
26-12 in one-run games
34-10 in blowouts
Beat up on: 8-1 against Twins and Orioles

1998 Yankees: 114-48
965 runs (1st in AL)
656 runs allowed (1st in AL)
Run differential: 309
21-10 in one-run games
42-13 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 10-0 against Royals, 11-1 against Rays

1998 Braves: 106-56
826 runs (4th in NL)
581 runs (1st in NL)
Run differential: 245
23-21 in one-run games
35-8 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 8-1 against Dodgers and Diamondbacks

1986 Mets: 108-54
783 runs (1st in NL)
578 runs allowed (2nd in NL)
Run differential: 205
29-20 in one-run games
27-9 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 17-1 against Pirates

What can we take away from this? It shouldn't be surprising, but you have to dominate both sides of the ball. Even the Braves, while ranking fourth in runs, were just 19 runs behind the No. 2 team (although a more distant 48 runs behind the Astros). A year ago, the Nationals won 98 games while finishing fifth in runs scored and second in runs allowed. Their run differential was 137, so they're going to have to improve by about 70 runs to have a chance at 105 wins. That probably means adding about 50 runs on offense (doable with an improved Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman hitting all season like he did in the second half, a healthy Jayson Werth and more production from catcher) and allowing about 20 runs less on the defensive side.

The one problem area is the Nationals may not have an easy team to beat up on. The Mets had the Pirates (64-98 that year) while the Braves and Yankees took advantage of expansion opponents in Arizona and Tampa Bay. The Nationals have to play the Braves and Phillies 19 times each, and both of those could be 90-win clubs. For the Nationals to reach 105, they're going to have do exceedingly well against the Mets and Marlins.

Pitching rotations
It's not a big surprise that all five of our teams had excellent health in the rotation. Here are the number of starts from each club's top five starters:

Cardinals: 154
Mariners: 144
Yankees: 142
Braves: 153
Mets: 148

From what I can tell, the only significant injuries were Chris Carpenter went down in September for the Cardinals (and missed the playoffs) while John Smoltz made just 26 starts for the Braves. The Yankees promoted Orlando Hernandez during the season and the Mariners put rookie Joel Pineiro in the rotation late in the season.

So the Nationals likely need their five guys to remain healthy -- especially since there isn't an obvious No. 6 guy right now on the 40-man roster.

Surprise players
Do you need a surprise player or a guy or two having a career year? Not necessarily. Let's look at each club.

Cardinals: Offense was built around three guys with a 1.000+ OPS: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Those three certainly had other big years. The rotation wasn't actually that dominant -- Carpenter led with a 3.46 ERA and Matt Morris, Woody Williams and Jeff Suppan all had ERAs over 4.00 (but about league average for the time).

Mariners: The big surprise for Seattle was second baseman Bret Boone, who had a monster .331/.372/.578 season. He had other good seasons but that was a career year. Starter Paul Abbott went 17-4.

Yankees: More than anything, the Yankees relied on extraordinary health. Four position players played 150-plus and two more played 142 and 149 games. Nobody really had a career year -- Scott Brosius hit .300 (and hit .247 in 1999), but he had hit .300 with the A's in 1996 so it wasn't a complete fluke. El Duque certainly was a surprise at the time (12-4, 3.13 ERA) but he proved to be a good pitcher.

Braves: The Braves did have a huge season from 37-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga (.305, 44 home runs) and 30-plus home runs from Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones, but the only real surprise was rookie closer Kerry Ligtenberg (30 saves, 2.71 ERA).

Mets: The Mets had one obvious career year from starter Bobby Ojeda (18-5, 2.57 ERA) and Ray Knight had a good season after two miserable ones, but most of their stars -- Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez -- had just a typical year for them.

You can win 105 games and still have flaws -- or at least minor ones.

Cardinals: As mentioned, the rotation was solid more than great, ranking tied for fourth in the NL in ERA and lacking a true No. 1. They didn't receive much offense from catchers Mike Matheny and rookie backup Yadier Molina.

Mariners: Never had a regular left fielder (Al Martin received the most playing time and he wasn't very good) and shortstop Carlos Guillen and third baseman David Bell were both below average with the bat.

Yankees: The bullpen depth was actually a little thin as Mike Stanton had a 5.47 ERA that year and Jeff Nelson pitched just 40 innings. But Mariano Rivera was great and Ramiro Mendoza was the secret weapon, posting a 1.93 ERA in 42 relief innings.

Mets: The team defense wasn't great, with second basemen Wally Backman and Tim Teufel both subpar defensively, Kevin Mitchell and Howard Johnson both seeing significant time at shortstop, and George Foster spending part of the season as the team's left fielder. Rafael Santana was the regular shortstop and hit just .218

All five teams had excellent benches.

Cardinals: John Mabry was the top reserve, slugging .504, while So Taguchi and Roger Cedeno backed up in the outfield. The team acquired Larry Walker for the stretch run and he slugged .560.

Mariners: Mark McLemore was the team's supersub, playing infield and outfield and posting a .384 on-base percentage with 39 steals in 487 plate appearances. Stan Javier was a solid fourth outfielder (.375) and pinch-hitter Ed Sprague hit .298.

Yankees: Tim Raines (.395 OBP) and Joe Girardi were the main subs, but Chili Davis came off the DL late in the year to replace Strawberry, who had colon cancer, as the team's DH.

Braves: Platoon outfielder Gerald Williams hit .305/.352/.504 and backup catcher Eddie Perez hit .336/.404/.537 in 167 PAs. Ozzie Guillen filled in at shortstop when Walt Weiss was injured and hit .277.

Mets: Mitchell played all over and hit .277/.344/.466, Johnson played third and short and slugged .445 and Danny Heep hit .282/.379/.421. Even pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli had a .417 OBP.

This is an area where I think the Nationals can also excel. They have solid backups in Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and Steve Lombardozzi, two quality catchers in Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos and a pinch-hitting specialist in Chad Tracy. The bench would have been even stronger if they'd kept Michael Morse as left field/first base insurance, but Moore can fill the same role.

In listing the five keys for the Nationals to win 105 games, I'd go something like this:

1. All five starting pitchers remaining healthy.
2. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman putting up bigger numbers.
3. Maybe one surprise/career year. Best candidate: Danny Espinosa.
4. Bullpen depth + quality. (Check.)
5. Don't screw it up. (Check. Davey Johnson has been here before.)

It can be done. As I said, the toughest road will be all the games against the Braves and Phillies. But even that can be overcome. The 2004 Cardinals went 8-10 against the Astros and 9-8 against the Brewers. The '98 Braves went 3-6 against the Cubs, 4-5 against the Astros and 1-3 against the Yankees. The '86 Mets went 8-10 against the Phillies.

Anyway, it should be a fun ride. That's how good I think the Nationals can be: We could be seeing an all-time great team.

Vote: Who has baseball's best outfield?

January, 27, 2013
Justin Upton has been in the news all offseason, especially once the Arizona Diamondbacks needed to fix their outfield logjam after signing free agent Cody Ross. Rumors throughout the winter included both Upton and Jason Kubel, but Braves acquired the 25-year-old to improve their already strong outfield.

There is no debate: Upton has been one of baseball's best outfielders over the past four years. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Upton has compiled the 10th-most Wins Above Replacement among corner outfielders since 2009, at 13.0. He ranks ahead of players like Giancarlo Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth. Now part of an outfield that already includes brother B.J. Upton and another young phenom in Jason Heyward, the Braves arguably lay claim to one of baseball's best outfields.

That leads us to the obvious question: Which teams are in the mix for baseball's best outfield right now? I've come up with four candidates that could challenge the Braves:

Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout carries most of the weight here, as he alone gives the Angels one of the best outfields around. His 10.7 WAR last year was the most in a single season since Barry Bonds' 11.6 in 2002 and one of only 47 seasons of 10-plus WAR in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference (but not good enough for the AL MVP award, somehow). Trout does it all: hit for average (.326), hit for power (.238 isolated power), run (49 stolen bases in 54 attempts) and play incredible defense (he robbed hitters of at least three homers last season by my cursory research).

If this is starting to sound like an infomercial for the Angels' outfield, let me do my best Billy Mays impression: But wait, there's more! The Halos signed mercurial Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract during the offseason. Hamilton has been one of baseball's most feared hitters since joining the Rangers in 2008. Among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances over the last five years, Hamilton's .386 weighted on-base average is 10th best, just a hair behind players such as Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday. The AL average wOBA in that span ranged between .315 and .330, showing how truly prolific Hamilton's bat has been. While Hamilton isn't much in the field or on the bases, he more than makes up for it with his offense.

Peter Bourjos will be splitting Trout and Hamilton in center field. While many think Trout should have remained the Angels' center fielder, no one denies Bourjos has the athletic tools to thrive as the captain of the outfield. In limited playing time, the speedster has already stolen 35 bases and showed offensive potential during the 2011 season in which he finished with a .271/.327/.438 slash line. In a full season, Bourjos projects to be an above-average player with a very high ceiling. Should he realize his potential, the Angels could very well have an outfield that combines for 15 WAR.

St. Louis Cardinals
Hard to argue against an outfield that has two potential Hall of Famers in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, and one of the United States' founding fathers in Jon Jay. Holliday hasn't finished a season with an adjusted OPS under 138 since 2005 in Colorado. The only other player with a 135 or better adjusted OPS in every season since 2006 is former teammate Albert Pujols.

Beltran had problems staying healthy in 2009-10, but has logged 500-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35. Beltran's 128 OPS+ last season was one of only eight such seasons in the past four years by a player 35 years old or older. Beltran isn't close to finished yet, and along with Holliday will make up not only one of the most fearsome corner outfield combos, but also one of the most fearsome 3-4 duos as well.

Jay has turned into one of the game's better contact hitters. In three seasons, he has hit .300, .297, and .305, which has led to an aggregate on-base percentage of .359. He has also stolen 27 bases, 19 of which came last season. While he may not have the power of his outfield compatriots, he complements them perfectly and plays a solid center field, giving the Cardinals one of the more formidable outfields in the game.

Let's say Beltran can't stay healthy, or an unfortunate injury keeps Holliday or Jay out of the lineup. Then 20-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will be ready to step in and provide help. Last year with Double-A Springfield, Taveras posted a .321/.380/.572 slash line with 10 stolen bases, 23 homers and 94 RBIs. While there is no guarantee that Taveras would enjoy the same amount of success facing major league pitching, he is looking like one of baseball's few can't-miss prospects.

Washington Nationals
List of 19-year-olds to post a 5-WAR season in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference:

Bryce Harper.

Yes, Harper is the only player to have had such a productive season at such a young age. Expand the age threshold to 20 and he is joined by a plethora of current and future Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. The sky isn't even the limit for Harper; the expanse of the Milky Way galaxy seems to be, in much the same way it is for Trout. Like Trout, Harper does it all, and he does it all very well, which is why he went home with the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Werth, the $126 million man, works opposite Harper in right field. In the first year of his deal with the Nats, his production declined precipitously, leading many to declare his contract a failure. When he was healthy last season, he was extremely productive, finishing with a .300 average and a 125 adjusted OPS, numbers similar to those that made him such a good player in Philadelphia from 2007-10. While the days of him being a 35-plus homer threat, as he was in 2009, may be over, he still provides more production than most corner outfielders, which should make the Nationals plenty happy.

Rounding out the trio of outfielders in Nats Town is the recently acquired Denard Span, who will push Harper out of center field. Like Cardinals center fielder Jay, Span doesn't have the aesthetically-pleasing offense of his corner outfield teammates, but complements them well simply by getting on base, running the bases well, and playing competent defense. Span has finished with 3 or more WAR in three of his five seasons, making him one of the more valuable -- and underrated -- center fielders in recent years.

Oakland Athletics
Believe it or not, Athletics outfielders combined for the second-most home runs in the AL last season, trailing the New York Yankees 89 to 83. Josh Reddick led the way with 32 dingers as he broke out at the age of 25. He was one of nine players with 30-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases, joining the likes of Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. While his low average and plethora of strikeouts depressed some of his offensive value, there was not much more the A's could have asked of him.

The Athletics were the surprising victors in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes last offseason, signing the Cuban phenom to a four-year, $36 million deal. It looks like a mighty bargain right now. The 26-year-old finished with a 137 adjusted OPS, making him one of the game's most valuable hitters. Of course, Cespedes lost value spending 26 games at DH, spending a couple weeks on the DL and playing below-average defense when he was in the field. As he becomes ever more familiar with AL pitching, he will become better with age and he should develop into a consistent All-Star talent.

Coco Crisp patrolled center field at O.co Coliseum last year, but that position may fall to Chris Young, acquired from the Diamondbacks. Crisp has developed into a consistent 2-3 WAR player since coming to Oakland in 2010. In those three years, he has stolen 120 bases in 136 attempts (88 percent), hit at about the league average (which is great coming from a premium position), and played above-average defense in center field. Young missed time last year with a shoulder injury, but averaged 4.8 WAR in 2010 and 2011, when he hit 47 home runs and played a great center field. Look for Reddick and Cespedes to play every day, although they could be rotated through the DH spot as well.


Which team has baseball's best outfield?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,558)

With the Upton brothers and Heyward, where does Atlanta's outfield rank among the other four listed above? I'd put Atlanta's outfield at No. 2, behind the Angels.

1. Angels
2. Braves
3. Cardinals
4. Nationals
5. Athletics

The Dodgers' outfield (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier) was omitted because of health concerns. Due to defensive concerns, the Cincinnati outfield (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce) was also omitted, and the Milwaukee outfield (Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki) was a close runner-up to the A's.

How would you rank baseball's best outfields?

Hey, why not? Let’s play another fifth game. There’s no such thing as too much baseball.

Jayson Werth saw 13 pitches from Lance Lynn leading off the bottom of the ninth. After taking the first two fastballs for strikes, he fouled off seven pitches and worked the count full. On the 13th pitch, Lynn fired a 96 mph fastball down the middle and Werth crushed it into the bullpen in left-center for the game-winning home run. It was a 2-1 victory for the Washington Nationals and the first home playoff win for a team in our nation’s capital since Earl Whitehill pitched a shutout for the Senators in Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.

That Washington team featured guys named Buddy, Goose, Heinie, Ossie, Lefty and General. This one features guys named Jayson, Jordan, Bryce and Ian. It’s a different generation and this club wants to leave its mark. It believes it’s the best team in baseball, but in the previous two games had looked more like the 2009 Nationals than the 2012 version.

The Nationals would get only three hits in this game, but two were home runs -- Adam LaRoche hit one in the second inning off Kyle Lohse. With Jim Joyce’s rather liberal strike zone behind the plate, pitchers on both teams dominated. The Cardinals had only three hits of their own and Nationals relievers struck out eight batters in a row at one point. When Matt Holliday was called out on a pitch several inches outside the strike zone in the eighth, he simply turned around and laughed as he headed back to the dugout.

It came down to Werth versus Lynn -- pitching out of the bullpen after winning 18 games as a starter. As a starter he works 91-94, with two fastballs, a curveball and an occasional changeup or slider. Out of the bullpen, where he pitched in last year’s World Series run, he mainly works fastball/curveball.

He threw 10 fastballs in the showdown, three curves. He missed outside the zone with two curves; Werth fouled one off. Maybe he could have pulled the string with a 3-2 changeup, but you also don’t want to walk the leadoff man. Lynn challenged him. Werth delivered.

"I felt pretty good going into the at-bat," Werth said. Referring to his former teammate with the Phillies, he added, "Watching my boy Raul Ibanez do it last night, he gave me something tonight."

Werth began the season batting in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup but then broke his left wrist in early May. Returning in August, he eventually settled into the leadoff position, filling a void the team needed. Werth’s .387 OBP led the team and while he hit only five home runs -- the wrist injury may have affected his power -- he hit .300, got on base and cut down on his strikeouts. After whiffing 160 times in 2011, he cut his strikeout rate from 24.7 percent to 16.6 percent. You saw the ability to hang in during at-bats against Lynn.

The Nationals got a terrific effort from Ross Detwiler, who threw 104 pitches and allowed just an unearned run over six innings, after throwing 100 pitches in a game just once all season. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann struck out the side in the seventh, Tyler Clippard struck out the side in the eighth and Drew Storen got two more in the ninth, with Ian Desmond making a nice running catch of a blooper in the Bermuda Triangle area near the left-field line to retire the side.

You can question whether Mike Matheny should have gone to Lynn. Mitchell Boggs, in relief of Lohse, had thrown just 14 pitches in the eighth. Lynn had thrown 50 pitches on Tuesday and gave up two home runs. In a game where runs were nearly impossible to come by, perhaps Matheny should have soaked one more inning out of Boggs and then turned it over to closer Jason Motte in the 10th, leaving Lynn for later in the game if it stretched out that far.

We now get a Game 1 rematch of Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez. Obviously, Gonzalez can’t walk seven batters again. He’ll have to get through all that right-handed power in the St. Louis lineup, but Gonzalez’s curveball makes him a tough reverse platoon lefty -- right-handers hit just .199 off him this season. All hands will be on deck. Zimmermann threw just 12 pitches, Clippard 16. Storen threw 26, so he’s probably available for just one inning. The Cardinals are similarly well-rested. Don't be surprised to see rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who was throwing 99 mph cheese on Wednesday, at some point.

More baseball? Let's do it.