Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Washington

There are a few teams that, at least in the last few years, have made a few large signings in free agency. It's to be expected--the Yankees and Phillies, as well as the Red Sox, Mets, and Cubs, have millions of dollars to spend. The teams are mostly successful, with loyal fanbases, huge advertising revenues and massive merchandising sales, allowing them to spend over $130 million/year in salary. Each year, as free agency approaches, those same teams are always the ones first mentioned when the top free agents hit the market, so it's the rare free agent who takes big money to go to a bad team--usually, they just don't have the money to spend, and if they do, it's usually not as much fun to lose. So, when Jayson Werth signed a $126-million deal with the Washington Nationals this offseason, you could say it served as a bit of a shock to some in the baseball community. Add in #1 draft pick Bryce Harper, and the Nats actually had an aura of interest around their spring training facility in Viera Beach, Florida. Hit the jump to see how life is going in Nats camp:

The look of a man being paid $126 mil. to lose for a while
As we've said a few times already this spring, sample sizes are still small. We know this, you should know it, so Nationals fans, before you read this, calm down: thus far, Werth is off to a .129/.324/.250 start in his first 28 at-bats. Now, slow springs aren't a new thing for Jayson--last year, he only hit .203/.299/.407 before hitting .296 for the season with the Phillies. But, the outfielder did get a 7-year deal that he'll be 38 at the end of, so you can judge the soundness of that decision for yourself. Either way, Werth does give the Nats a viable option in the middle of the lineup. He'll steal bases for them (53 over the last 3 seasons in Philly), and provide veteran leadership who comes from a winning clubhouse. All of those factors are important, especially on a young Nationals squad.

But, as kidding as I am in my hilarious photo captions, the fact is that the Nationals are at least a year away from being a serious contender in MLB games, as the team still has too many holes to fill to do so in one offseason. The model for continued success in professional sports has come through slow development, just as the Phillies improved steadily from 2002-2006 before finally breaking through with a division title in 2007. The Nationals have talented prospect Stephen Strasburg returning potentially by the end of the season, so the focus this year was on wunderkind hitter Bryce Harper.

Harper could be the next great Nat
Harper, who was a catcher in high school but is being converted to an outfielder to preserve his knees, is off to a better start in Washington than the guy making $126 million. In his 18 spring at-bats, Harper had 7 hits--including 3 doubles--to go along with 5 RBI and only 3 strikeouts for a line of .389/.450/.556. It wasn't expected that the 18-year-old would be a National this season, and the Nats did indeed send him down to single-A ball today to prepare for the season. I think if Harper lights up single-A like he did spring training, he'll be in AA by May, and maybe finish the season in AAA. If Strasburg can come back healthy by September and Harper gets a late-season call-up, the Nats might be able to generate enough excitement to draw in some better free agents next year. And hey, if they can pull in one All-Star with the team they had last year...something good might be going on down in D.C.

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