Spring Training Report: A Look Back at the Offseason

Let me start by saying that I am excited to join Citizens of Natstown, and not only contribute but help this blog grow.

It is finally baseball season.  Well, almost. Washington’s third Grapefruit League game is today, so we certainly can say the offseason is over. What better to do than examine the National’s moves this past offseason, and it is hard to not like them.

Across the National League landscape, it is hard to find teams that got significantly better other than the Nationals.  Several teams added new faces, with New York, Colorado, and San Diego all making significant changes, but none of those three made a run at the postseason last year.  The 2013 National League East champions Atlanta Braves secured their long-term interests by extending several key members of their young core, but it remains to be seen how they will respond to the loss of veterans Tim Hudson and Brian McCann.

Washington added starting pitcher Doug Fister, bench outfielder Nate McLouth, catcher Jose Lobaton, relief pitcher Jerry Blevins, and most significantly, the hiring of rookie manager Matt Williams. Each move addressed a glaring need exposed over the course of the 2013 season.

Fister, 30, acquired from the Detroit Tigers for a bench player and non-roster pitchers, will headline Washington’s newest players this year, and why not?  The Nationals are adding a bona fide starter who could lead the pitching staff on more than a handful of clubs right now.

Fister was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 32 starts for the Tigers last year and could be even better in 2014.  While defense was one of Washington’s faults last year, the Tigers infield defense for most of 2013 featured Jhnonny Peralta at shortstop, Miguel Cabrera at third, and Prince Fielder at first; leaving Omar Infante the only plus defender in the Tigers infield.  The Nationals defense is far more athletic, and will benefit from the hiring of Mark Weidemaier for the newly created defensive coordination and advance coach.  Williams intends to utilize defensive shifts more than Davey Johnson did, which will benefit the pitching staff.

After an offseason where Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, and Ubaldo Jimenez all earned at least $40 million in free agency, Fister, who posted the 13th best WAR amongst starting pitchers over the last three seasons, better than Max Scherzer, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and CC Sabathia, the acquisition of Fister, who replaces Dan Haren and his negative WAR in 2013, looks like grand larceny.

The second move of the offseason was the of signing Nate McLouth to a two year contract worth $10.75 million only days after trading for Fister. McLouth, 32, hit .258/.329/.399 with 12 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 146 games last year as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.  The contract is rich for a bench player, but McLouth, an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner in 2008, will be the first named called off a revamped bench and provides insurance in case of injury to a starter.

When courting McLouth, general manager Mike Rizzo pointed out that Nationals outfielders have missed an average of 80 games a season over the last three seasons.  Barring injury, McLouth will start roughly 40 games and will be the primary left handed hitter off the bench.  He is at an age where players start to lose their speed, but should still be able to be an effective pinch-runner and defender. McLouth will likely not play enough this year to replicate last year’s numbers, but can be counted on for league average or better on-base numbers, 20 stolen bases, 100 games played, and double-digit home run power.

In trading for Lobaton and Blevins, Rizzo remedied two glaring weaknesses from 2013. Lobaton, 29, acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in a four-player trade, will backup Wilson Ramos this year.  While the Nationals could have let Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon, and minor league signing Chris Snyder contend for the job, Lobaton has moderate experience at the major league level, which is more than Solano or Leon have and a safer bet than journeyman Snyder. Lobaton, a switch hitter, will not regularly be counted on to come in off the bench, but should be able to make 40 starts at catcher and provide better game-calling than his predecessor, Kurt Suzuki was able.

Blevins, 30, coming from the Oakland Athletics, will not light up the radar gun, but is a steady left handed reliever.  Acquired for double-A outfielder Billy Burns, Blevins should be counted on to face batters from both sides of the plate, not just lefties, in late innings and reduce the workload for primary setup pitchers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

There is of course no new face more prominent than new manager Matt Williams. Williams has been awful quiet about how he intends to manage this team, but nicknamed “the big marine” during his playing days, has brought a seemingly new intensity to the club during spring training. If all that is needed to jumpstart the Nationals after 2013 is a new presence, then Williams will work wonders for the club.  In addition to the aforementioned Weidemaier, Williams brings a sense of attention to details that now-retired Davey Johnson did not. Out along with Johnson and his “well get them tomorrow” attitude is the sense of entitlement that may have plagued this team last year. Jayson Werth admitted this past offseason that the team may have taken a breather early last year, but that they will not replicate that performance in 2014.

Five new faces and several weaknesses seemingly solved. One could argue that it is a new era for Washington, but there is still an entire season to be played.  That being said, the Nationals are going to a significantly better team than they were last year, and should, at the very least contend for first place in the division, if not the pennant.

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