Nats Spring Training Preview: The Outfield

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Updated: January 21, 2014
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The Washington Nationals are 23 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Viera Beach for the commencement of spring training.  Position players will follow on February 18.  That being said, we begin out Spring Training Series preview with the Outfield.

The outfield is likely one of the most set areas of the Washington Nationals 2014 roster.

Projected Starters:  LF:  Bryce Harper, CF:  Denard Span, RF:  Jayson Werth

Reserves:  Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston, Tyler Moore

In the Wings:  Brian Goodwin, Eury Perez, Jeff Kobernus, Michael Taylor, and Steve Souza

Departed:  Chris Brown

Don’t look for any change in the original three starters.  Bruce Harper and Jayson Werth will anchor the corners and Denard Span will patrol the middle.  The Nats are hoping for a repeat of production from Werth, at least from the second half of the 2013 season.  Werth returned to the lineup from a 2012 broken wrist injury and responded with a strong second half and ended the 2013 season batting .318 with a .532 slugging percentage and a .398 on base percentage.  Werth added 24 doubles, 25 home runs, and 82 RBI in 129 games.  The Nats surged at the end of the season,  but fell short on a rally for the playoffs.  Werth was a big part of that surge.  The Nats will be looking for the thirty-four year old right fielder to maintain that 2013 momentum.

Harper had an off-2013 season mostly due to playing injured for nearly four months.  It cost him 31 games starting on May 26.   He missed an additional 10 games in September with a sore hip.  Despite those missed games, Harper still added 20 doubles, 24 home runs, had a .468 slugging percentage with a .368 on base percentage in 119 games.    Imagine what damage Harper could provide if he can stay healthy.  That’s a big question mark.  Harper did have knee surgery in the off-season but, according to Nats GM Mike Rizzo,  Harper is expected to be fully healthy for spring training.  If Harper can maintain health in 2014, we expect big production from the left fielder.

Span’s issue since being in Washington is consistency.  Toward the end of the 2013 season, Span put together an impressive 29 game hitting streak.  However, in the first half of the season, as the Nats premier lead off hitter, Span posted just a .316 on base percentage and batted .258.  He struggled in adjusting to National League pitching.  Span turned it on the second half of the season, lifting his second half batting average to .302 and on base percentage to .337.  For confidence purposes, it will be critical for Span to get off to a decent start in 2014, offensively.  Defensively, Span was not a problem, putting together excellent defense as expected.  Span will be owed $6.5 million in 2014.  It will likely be his last season in DC.

Depth wise, the Nationals were willing to spend to upgrade the depth in the outfield, after a significant drop in production from 2012.  They did that by spending starting money on former Oriole starting outfield Nate McLouth.   The Nats handed McLouth a $10.5 million deal for two years.  McLouth will serve as the primary fourth outfielder and the premier lefty off the bench.   McLouth had an good 2013 season in Baltimore, batting .258 with a .329 on base percentage.  He added 31 doubles, 4 triples, and 12 home runs to the Baltimore offense.  The speedy left-hander also swiped 30 bases in 2013.   If Span struggles, he could be supplanted by McLouth.  Regardless, the Nationals are insistent upon keeping the starting outfield fresh and healthy, which means plenty of plate appearances for McLouth.  That’s why the Nationals were willing to spend bigger bucks for outfield depth.  Given the Nats struggles with consistent health in the outfield the past two seasons and the poor bench production in 2013, at least on paper, the McLouth signing looks well warranted.

Tyler Moore will serve a depth role, at least initially, for the Nationals.  He will provide depth in the outfield and depth at first base.    Despite a down 2013 season, the Nationals are hopeful that Moore will return to 2012 production.  They were a stark difference.  In 2012, Moore impressed the Nats’ brass by batting .263  with 10 home runs and a .840 OPS.  However, his production dropped in 2013, batting just .222 with 4 home runs and a .607 OPS.  Still, the Nats brass believe that Moore’s actual capabilities reflect more in the 2012 production.  He is still highly regarded as a potential replacement at first base when Adam LaRoche will likely depart after this season.  The prospects were elevated in the off-season when the Nats released former first rounder 1B Chris Marrero.

Scott Hairston added to the Nats’ 2013 bench woes.  Hairston struggled with a .224 batting average and a .246 slugging percentage and a .379 OPS.  In 58 plate appearances, Hairston provided just five extra-base hits.  Adding to the woes, he fanned 19 times while forcing just 2 walks.  Over his career though, Hairston has proved to be a reliable pinch hitter.   We suspect that Hairston will be on the 2014 roster as bench depth and will put up better numbers than his poor 2013 season.

Eury Perez could see time in DC if the Nats outfield can’t stay healthy.  The 23 year old right handed batter hit .300 at AAA last season with a .758 OPS.  He added 18 doubles, 5 triples, and 7 home runs.  He swiped 23 bases for Syracuse.  Perez is blocked due to the current roster.  he will likely begin his 2014 season back at Syracuse.  Steve Souza had an excellent 2013 season at AA Harrisburg ending the year hitting .297 with a .396 on base percentage and a 548 slugging percentage.  Souza smacked 15 homers and added 22 stolen bases.  The Nats like his ability to hit for power, average, and he combined that with good speed.   In 11 games at the Arizona Fall League, Souza batted .357 with 2 doubles, a home run, and 8 run driven in through 11 games.

Brian Goodwin is the top outfield prospect for the Nationals.  The Nats are hopeful that Goodwin could be ready to start in center field in 2015, after the expiration of Span’s contract.    In 2013, he improved his hitting with a .252 batting average with 10 homers.  He led the Nats minor league system with 11 triples.  Consistency at the plate will be critical for his development in 2014.  He has to cut down on fanning at the plate.  Last season he racked up 121 strikeouts over 457 plate appearances.   In the Arizona Fall League, Goodwin batted .296 with 4 doubles, a triple, 2 homers,a nd 12 RBI in 19 games.   Baseball America ranks Goodwin as the third top prospect in the system.   He needs to concentrate on cutting down the strikeouts and playing better defense in 2014.