Young talent provides Nats with great hope
From pitching to slugging, Washington has core for success
The Washington Nationals are using every means possible to build a contending team in the National League East.
Taking advantage of high slots in the First-Year Player Draft, signing free agents and making savvy trades that add depth to their roster, executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo and his staff have fashioned a high profile while improving the team. Rizzo has not been shy in pursuing players since he assumed his current role in 2009.
Rizzo came to Washington after having been the director of scouting for Arizona. His success there led to his move in 2006 to assume the role as Washington's assistant VP of baseball operations. His scouting acumen and player-development skills were instrumental in his promotion to his current position leading the baseball side of the franchise.
The Nats feature several young players capable of game-changing impact and potential stardom. These core players may very well shape the eventual success of the club.
Washington is poised to introduce one of the game's highest-profile players to its Major League roster. It's possible that Bryce Harper, the first selection of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, will earn his way onto the Opening Day roster. At 19 years old, Harper has shown outstanding bat speed, an ability to use the entire field, raw power, good hitting mechanics, consistently good contact, very good speed on the bases and in the outfield, and a very strong and accurate arm.
In short, during his time in Class A and Double-A, as well as in the Arizona Fall League, Harper has been an offensive and defensive force. He has shown the type of tools that project to ultimate All-Star-caliber play. It is widely believed the Nationals' staff will give Harper every opportunity to break camp with the club in April. If that time frame is premature, it's likely Harper will arrive at some point in the season.
Harper may have a high profile on the current 40-man roster, but the club has other exciting young players who form a well-balanced nucleus for sustained success.
Right-handed-hitting Michael Morse may be among the most underrated players in the game. He had an outstanding season in 2011, hitting .303, blasting 31 home runs and driving in 95 runs. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Morse is an imposing force in the outfield. He continues to improve and he'll anchor the middle of the batting order. He can also play first base if needed.
There are so many outstanding outfielders in baseball, but at times, Morse gets lost among the galaxy of outfield stars.
Morse doesn't go to the plate to earn a base on balls, as he walked only 36 times in 575 plate appearances last season. Rather, he goes to the plate swinging. He struck out 126 times, but that is a very measured figure for a hitter of his power and overall strength. Overall, Morse makes fairly good contact and the ball makes that "very special sound" as it comes off his bat.
Morse came to Washington from Seattle in a 2009 trade for outfielder Ryan Langerhans. Last season was Morse's best. He hit 16 more home runs than he did in 2010. Morse had 54 more RBIs than he did in 2010. Those are amazing improvements and they indicate the type of power and impact bat Morse will carry to the new season.
Young pitching is another strength.
The Nationals have cobbled together a highly effective bullpen, with two major components working at the end of games.
Even though he was selected to be a Nats representative on the National League All-Star team, right-hander Tyler Clippard, like Morse, is an underrated player.
Clippard, drafted by the Yankees in 2003, came to the Nationals in a trade for Jonathan Albaladejo and has been a steady pitcher in his role as the team's primary setup reliever.
Clippard has the ability to throw his fastball, slider and curveball for strikes. None is an overpowering pitch. However, each has its place in Clippard's pitch sequencing. He seeks to change hitters' eye levels and keep them off-balance. He has an outstanding ability to repeat his smooth delivery, a quality that separates good pitchers from the rest of the pack. Clippard gets hitters out.
Drew Storen, the second of two Washington first-round selections in 2009, has carved out his role as the current closer. He has shown an excellent mound presence and calm demeanor as he consistently succeeds in getting the final three outs of games. Last season, he had 43 saves and a WHIP of 1.02. He gave up only 57 hits in 75 1/3 innings pitched. Winning teams require his type of performances at the end of the game.
Storen throws a combination of a high-velocity fastball, a power slider and a very good curve as he mixes his repertoire well and keeps hitters off-balance. If there is any issue with Storen, at times his fastball comes in a bit too straight and he can give up home runs. But he also can throw that pitch at 96-97 mph, making it difficult to catch up with.
A discussion of potential Nats stars is not complete without including Stephen Strasburg. He and Harper may share the limelight in the nation's capital for years to come. The praise for both will be well-deserved.
The 23-year-old Strasburg led the class of the 2009 Draft and he will be the ace of the Nationals' starting rotation -- if he can stay healthy.
Strasburg had Tommy John surgery that cost him all but the very end of last season. He returned in September and showed he was healthy. Now Strasburg has to pace himself prior to the new season so he can sustain the rigors of a potential 33 starts.
Yes, Strasburg has hit 101 mph and even 102 mph on the radar gun. What's even more compelling is the movement he gets on his pitches. Strasburg throws a slider/curve and he continues to work on a changeup. Hitters look for the heat and get the changeup. They look for the slider and get the fastball. It's a lethal combination of pitches that makes life difficult for even the best hitters.
It won't matter much if Strasburg only throws in the high 90s while his arm strength returns. What does matter is his command and control of his pitches. If he can throw strikes and vary his repertoire and pitch sequencing, Strasburg will become the All-Star scouts project him to be.
Players like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth have shown their outstanding ability as part of the foundation of the Nats. The next wave of players will complement them and help carry the team to the next level. The talent on its way to Washington provides great reason for hope.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.