It seems like yesterday that Livan Hernandez, Brad Wilkerson, Nick Johnson, Chad Cordero, and the rest of the 2005 Nationals were playing baseball in DC for the first time in my life. 2005 will always be a special season for me, and it is about to enter our collective conscience even more. 2014 is the tenth season that the Washington Nationals have been in town. That is cause enough for me to look back and name the Nationals best line-up.
The rules for this are simple. One player at each position, including starting pitcher, and then one relief pitcher. As far as who those players will be I am going to use a combination of stats, sentimentality, and personal judgment. There are some positions with a clear cut statistical leader, but there are others where that person just isn’t someone we’d want as a part of an all time line-up. That is enough for the introduction. It is time to get to the list which I am putting in the order I would bat the players. Not their fWAR ranking or personal measure of greatness.
Right Field: Jayson Werth
This one was fairly easy. By fWAR the entire outfield should be Bryce Harper as he has played all three positions and is counted as such, but as I would like this list to have some amount of realism Bryce Harper cannot be cloned and placed in all three outfield spots. Werth is second in fWAR with 7.6. The wOBA leader with over 100 games is Michael Morse at .369, but Werth isn’t too far off of that at .358 and if anyone has seen the two play defense or run the bases there should be a clear understanding of why Werth is in this position and Morse isn’t. Jayson Werth also happens to be the Washington Nationals biggest free agent signings and had the best offensive season of any Nationals player in the history of the franchise in DC in 2013 when he put up a .403 wOBA. I give him a slight edge over Nick Johnson’s 2006 wOBA of .404 due to the offensive impact of Werth’s base running.
First Base: Nick Johnson
When it comes to first baseman for the Washington Nationals they have never replaced Nick Johnson. His 11.2 fWAR is only 0.2 points lower than the combined fWARs of Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche, and Michael Morse. Nick Johnson was an offensive force when he was with the Nationals, but not in the way most people think of a first baseman as an offensive force. Nick Johnson was Joey Votto before there was a Joey Votto. His slash line with the Nationals was an impressive .286/.416/.471. Not the level of power associated with the typical first baseman, but Nick Johnson got on base. Not only was he an on base machine he could play solid defense at first base and is the best defensive first baseman the Nationals have ever had. He also happens to be one of the originals and it can be argued that his heel injury he suffered when scoring a run against the Blue Jays is what lead to the 2005 Nationals late season collapse. He was the offense for that team and without him getting on base there weren’t many other ways for that team to score.
Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman
How much really needs to be written about this choice? Zimmerman isn’t just the fWAR leader for third base, his 34.5 career fWAR is the franchise leader well ahead of second place Ian Desmond at 12.5. When it comes to players that people think of when they thing of the Washington Nationals franchise Ryan Zimmerman should be one of the first two that comes to mind. He was the team’s first draft pick, he hardly played in the minors and then almost won the Rookie of the Year in 2006, and he has a penchant for hitting walk-off homeruns and sending Washington Nationals fans home happy. He even christened Nationals Park with one in 2008 when he took Peter Moylan deep in the ninth inning of the opening game of the 2008 season. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper may be who baseball fans outside the beltway think of when they think of the Nationals but for most Nationals fans Ryan Zimmerman is and will always be the face of the franchise.
Center Field: Bryce Harper
As I stated earlier Bryce Harper is the fWAR leader for all three outfield positions and as he can only play one and I actually want this to be the best line-up possible he is playing center field. He did an excellent job at the position in his rookie season and the baseball bias of having a power hitter at a corner position is as much a reason he was moved off of it as any. Harper is also one of two Nationals that is a product of back to back 100 loss seasons and while those seasons aren’t good memories they did help to shape the Nationals into what they are today. Bryce Harper is not only the fWAR leader in center he is also the wOBA leader among players with over 100 games at .361. The only player ahead of him is Alex Escobar who is one of the sadder stories from the early years of the Nationals. He was a five tool player like Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge but he didn’t waste his talent. Injuries prevented him from ever displaying it.
Short Stop: Ian Desmond
As mentioned before Ian Desmond isn’t just the fWAR leader for short stops he also is number two for the franchise in DC behind only Ryan Zimmerman, and number two behind him at short stop is Cristian Guzman at 4.4. Ian Desmond’s road to stardom wasn’t an easy one, and it looked like he may never get there. Desmond was touted in 2005 by then GM Jim Bowden as the second coming of Derek Jeter, and was the team’s top position player prospect. Desmond even made a couple nice defensive plays in Spring Training of 2005 and with Guzman struggling some fans were calling for Desmond to be promoted immediately. Desmond wouldn’t make his major league debut until September of 2009, and what a debut it was. In his short time in the majors that season he hit .280/.318/.561. It was the best September call-up Nationals fans had seen since Ryan Zimmerman in 2005. Desmond would then go on to have two miserable seasons with the bat putting up a .306 wOBA in 2010 and a .289 wOBA in 2011. But when Jim Riggleman left in the middle of 2011 Ian Desmond’s career turned around. Davey Johnson expunged the notion that opposite field hitting is the only hitting and Ian Desmond started to pull the ball, and his power returned. For the last two seasons there hasn’t been a short stop with a higher SLG than Desmond’s .480, and his transformation happened just in time as he is two years away from free agency and due a big raise and extension from the Nationals.
Left Field: Alfonso Soriano
When first putting this list together I had Josh Willingham in this spot, but it was then pointed out to me that Alfonso Soriano existed. They both have identical 5.0 fWARs as Washington Nationals, but Soriano did it in one season whereas Willingham did it in two. Soriano was also much more of an offensive force batting .277/.351/.560 while hitting 46 homeruns and stealing 41 bases. It is one of only four 40-40 seasons in baseball history, and the only one by a player not linked to PEDs. The other three are Jose Conseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Watching the 40-40 season unfold live was something to remember and it is one of the finest offensive seasons in Nationals history. It was more glitzy than Werth’s 2013, but while Soriano hit for more power than Werth, Werth bettered him in on base skills and the 41 stolen bases actually counted as a negative because Soriano was thrown out attempting to steal 17 times in 58 attempts giving him a success rate of 70.7%. Still Soriano was a fun player to watch and one of the best the Nationals have ever had.
Catcher: Brian Schneider
This is where we go against the statistics. By fWAR and by wOBA this spot should go to Wilson Ramos, but Ramos simply hasn’t been healthy enough to earn it. In my opinion this wouldn’t be all that great of a best of list if it included a player that has never managed to stay on the field. Hopefully 2014 can be different for Wilson Ramos and he will be one of those cornerstone players like Zimmerman and Desmond are to the Nationals franchise, but he isn’t that right now and sentimentality gets to win out on this one. Schneider was one of the original 2005 Nationals and in many ways represents them well. He couldn’t hit, and in his time with the Nationals managed a below average batting line of .253/.325/.356, but like the 2005 Nationals he wasn’t known for his offense. Schneider was an excellent defensive catcher. He handled a pitching staff and threw out 33.8% of runners attempting to steal. The advanced catching stats like him too giving him a 33.4 rating in his time with the Nationals. As catcher is primarily a defensive position Schneider edges out Ramos because of that as well.
Second Base: Anthony Rendon
When health and defense are what wins someone a nod in the all-time line-up you know a position is thin, but when it is due to potential then depth is nearly non-existent. The fWAR leader for second base for the Washington Nationals is Danny Espinosa at 6.5, the wOBA leader is Ronnie Belliard at .337, the sentimentality nod should by all rights go to Jose Vidro but he was injured for most of 2005 and simply wasn’t very good when he did play in Washington, and fourth on the list by fWAR is Anthony Rendon. There are reasons to not include those listed above him. Danny Espinosa is still a member of the team and won’t be a part of the actual line-up. How can he be part of an all-time line-up given that reality? Ronnie Belliard was the best offensive second baseman the Nationals have ever had, but he is also Ronnie Belliard and his time with the Nationals corresponds with their worst seasons. Belliard arrived in 2007 and was traded away in 2009. It is best to not keep reminders of that time period around. Jose Vidro was one of the best second basemen in baseball when the Nationals moved to Washington, but then he simply lost it. His defense eroded and his line drive doubles power vanished and he became an empty singles hitter. Rendon’s career slash line of .265/.329/.396 doesn’t compare well to Vidro or Belliard, and Danny Espinosa has them all beat when it comes to defense, but Rendon is the future, and sometimes when the past isn’t very good all that is left to do is embrace the future and hope for the best.
Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasburg
This is an easy one. Jordan Zimmermann is the fWAR leader at 11.7 compared to Strasburg at 10.8 but Zimmermann has had 113 games to amass his fWAR whereas Strasburg has had 75. By FIP Strasburg is the best at 2.79, by ERA he is the best at 2.96, he strikes out the most batters, and he has the best overall stuff. If you were choosing one Nationals starter to pitch a make or break game the choice is Stephen Strasburg. He is the best they’ve ever had. The sentimental pick here would have been Livan Hernandez. To me he is still Mr. National, but when comparing his stats to Strasburg it isn’t even close. Stephen Strasburg is an Ace and at his best Livan Hernandez when he was on the Nationals was a number two or three, and for most of his time in Washington he wasn’t even that. Livan Hernandez was just as likely to take the mound and throw batting practice as he was a complete game shutout, but when he was in the midst of twirling the latter there wasn’t a finer pitcher to watch. Still Strasburg is the choice. He, like Harper, is also a positive product of the two 100 loss seasons and is the head of one of the most dominant pitching staffs in baseball, and when he is at the top of his game it isn’t simply a fun game to watch it is a possible historic occasion.
Relief Pitcher: Tyler Clippard
From 2009 through 2013 there have been 20 relief pitchers to have thrown at least 300 innings. Of those Tyler Clippard is second in ERA and he is one of only two that have done it to still be members of the team they did it for. Tyler Clippard isn’t just the best relief pitcher the Washington Nationals have had he is one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball. It is rare to find a pitcher with the consistency and durability that Clippard has shown year after year. Think of all the pitchers on the Nationals that have come and gone since Clippard has been a Washington National. He debuted as a starter with the team in 2008. From that team only he and Ryan Zimmerman remain. He became a relief pitcher in 2009 and in his time as a Washington National 57 other pitchers have made appearances out of the bullpen. Clippard is the one constant. It is rare to see a relief pitcher as part of the backbone of a team, but that is what Clippard has been and only Jon Rauch and his 3.3 fWAR as a Nat even comes close to Clippard’s 4.5. Tyler Clippard has only briefly been a closer and will never come close to Chad Cordero’s 113 saves or even Drew Storen’s 55, but it is an easy argument to make that he has been more important than either of them when it comes to the Washington Nationals bullpen.
There you have it. There is my list of the Nats all time line-up as we head into the tenth season of baseball in DC. I am sure there are exceptions to be made and there are people angry that I left off Ryan Church, Jamey Carroll, Michael Morse, or Steve Lombardozzi. This is my list and you’re allowed to disagree with it. I made the best statistical arguments for the players as I could and included a couple others due to sentimentality and lack of historical depth. It has only been nine seasons so far and the Nationals have only recently started to put winning teams on the field, but 1-6 this is as good a line-up as any with some pretty good pitching. I at least hope you had as much fun reading it as I did researching and writing it. The Washington Nationals have provided some good memories through their first nine seasons and here’s to hoping the tenth is something truly magical.