Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Danny Espinosa hadn't played above Class A this time last year.
But there can also be some value in looking backward, not only to the beginning of the just-completed season, but all the way back to the end of the previous one. That can offer some perspective on what progress, if any, an organization has made over the last 12 months.
It's easy to forget now just what the Nationals' roster looked like one year ago. I tried to run through their end-of-2009 lineup, rotation and bullpen in my own head and flat-out couldn't remember who held certain spots. After doing some quick research, I was reminded that among the significant contributors at the end of 2009 were Josh Bard, Pete Orr, Garrett Mock and Ron Villone. Yikes.
So I decided to analyze, position-by-position, the state of the Nationals' roster in October 2009 vs. the state of the roster in October 2010. Have they made significant progress? Are they essentially the same? Have they gotten worse in any areas?
Let's take a look...
End of 2009: Josh Bard, Wil Nieves, Jesus Flores (injured)
End of 2010: Ivan Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos, Wil Nieves, Jesus Flores (injured)
Wow, how quickly we forget what a disaster this situation was a year ago. The Nationals really put all their eggs in the Jesus Flores basket, and when he went down with his shoulder injury, they had no fallback plan. Bard and Nieves split the job all season, and that convinced Mike Rizzo something needed to be done. So he signed Pudge, then acquired Ramos over the summer. Now a position of weakness looks like a potential strength if Ramos pans out and if Flores indeed returns healthy (he's looked good in the instructional league so far).
Verdict: Significantly better
End of 2009: Adam Dunn
End of 2010: Uncertain
One year ago, the Nationals had no worries about who their first baseman and cleanup hitter would be. They can't say the same right now. Dunn is about to become a free agent. If they re-sign the big guy, they'll be in good shape there. If they don't, they've got to find a legitimate replacement. It's the team's biggest question mark heading into the offseason.
Verdict: Very much uncertain
End of 2009: Alberto Gonzalez, Pete Orr
End of 2010: Danny Espinosa, Adam Kennedy
The Nats basically had a revolving door of second basemen in 2009, from Anderson Hernandez to Ronnie Belliard to Gonzalez to Orr. Even Ian Desmond got some time there. At season's end, it was clear Desmond was better off at shortstop, so the club had to either move Cristian Guzman over from shortstop or acquire someone from outside. They pursued Orlando Hudson, then settled for Kennedy, who still lost out to Guzman in spring training. In the end, the long-term answer was in their farm system. Espinosa ended 2009 without ever having played above Class A. But he shined in the Arizona Fall League, dominated at Class AA, made a brief stint at Class AAA and then got called up for his big-league debut on September 1. Now he looks like a real keeper.
Verdict: Better, possibly significant better
End of 2009: Cristian Guzman, Ian Desmond
End of 2010: Ian Desmond
By the end of 2009, it was clear Guzman no longer had the range or the arm to play shortstop. Desmond had an impressive September, though the organization still didn't want to just hand him the job, so both guys came to spring training competing for it. Desmond forced the issue, and though he had an up-and-down rookie season, he got better along the way (both at the plate and in the field) and looks firmly entrenched in that spot moving forward.
End of 2009: Ryan Zimmerman
End of 2010: Ryan Zimmerman
Not too much to say here. With Zim, you know what you're going to get: elite defense and very good offense. He ended 2009 with a flourish, winning both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and he kept performing at that high level in 2010. He should win his second Gold Glove, though he might lose the Silver Slugger to good friend David Wright, in part because of some nagging injuries that sidelined him in early-April and then in late-September.
Verdict: Same, which is just fine
End of 2009: Josh Willingham
End of 2010: Roger Bernadina, Josh Willingham (injured)
By the end of 2009, Willingham had established himself as a solid left fielder and No. 5 hitter, though he tailed off considerably over the second half. His 2010 seemed to be headed on a remarkably similar path, until a lingering knee injury forced him to shut down in mid-August and have season-ending surgery. The Hammer remains a good, solid player, though there's still a bit of question about his durability and whether he can sustain a high level of play over a full season or not.
Verdict: Same, provided Willingham is healthy
End of 2009: Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell, Nyjer Morgan (injured)
End of 2010: Nyjer Morgan
There's no understating just how good Morgan was from the time he was acquired from the Pirates on June 30 until he broke his wrist sliding into third base on August 27 (which forced Harris and Maxwell into a shared starting job for the season's final month). And there's no understating just how much Nyjer regressed in 2010, in all aspects of his game. All indications from Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman are that he'll be back in 2011, though not assured of retaining his spot. But if not Morgan, who? Will they go out and acquire another center fielder? Another significant question mark.
End of 2009: Elijah Dukes
End of 2010: Michael Morse
At the end of 2009, Dukes still looked like a big part of this club moving forward. He hadn't been able to put his whole game together, but he had shown even glimpses to suggest he deserved another long look. Then he was surprisingly released during spring training, leaving the Nats with a mishmash of options in right field to open the season: Willie Harris, Morse and Willy Taveras. Roger Bernadina joined the group soon after. The position remained a revolving door all season, with Morse finally taking over as the everyday guy only after Josh Willingham's injury forced Bernadina to left field. At this point, the Nats are looking at a Bernadina/Morse platoon heading into 2011, though that could easily change.
Verdict: Better, but still a question mark
End of 2009: Alberto Gonzalez, Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell, Michael Morse, Pete Orr
End of 2010: Alberto Gonzalez, Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell, Adam Kennedy, Kevin Mench
The Nats' bench wasn't anything to get excited about at the end of 2009, though Gonzalez remained a strong defensive infielder, Harris remained a valuable utilityman who could do lots of things and Morse appeared to provide a nice bat off the bench. One year later, many of the names are the same, but the production is worse. Gonzalez still is a good defensive player who can't hit a lick. Same for Maxwell. Harris struggled all year and is probably gone. Same for Kennedy. Same for Mench. This is an area that needs to be addressed over the winter.
Verdict: Slightly worse, and it wasn't good to begin with
End of 2009: John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin, Craig Stammen (injured), Scott Olsen (injured), Jordan Zimmermann (injured)
End of 2010: John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler, Scott Olsen (injured), Stephen Strasburg (injured), Chien-Ming Wang (injured), Luis Atilano (injured), J.D. Martin (injured).
Yes, Mock was their third-best starter at the end of 2009. And he was penciled in as their No. 3 starter in spring training, too. That unit needed some significant upgrading over the winter, which Rizzo thought he accomplished in acquiring Marquis and Wang. Neither veteran worked out, though Marquis finally started performing by the end of 2010 after recovering from elbow surgery. The biggest change from 2009 to 2010 was the return of Zimmermann from Tommy John surgery. Well, that and Strasburg's magical arrival in June and then gut-punch departure in August. There does seem to be the makings of a good rotation in there, but it requires Strasburg's eventual return, Zimmermann's continued progression and the addition of another legitimate arm this winter.
Verdict: Better, but still needs improvement
End of 2009: Mike MacDougal, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Saul Rivera, Jason Bergmann, Ron Villone, Logan Kensing
End of 2010: Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Joel Peralta, Doug Slaten, Miguel Batista, Craig Stammen, Joe Bisenius
The bullpen that ended 2009 was significantly better than the one that started 2009, but it still wasn't that good. MacDougal walked on eggshells every time he got the ball in the ninth inning. Clippard and Burnett had moments but weren't quite polished yet. And Bergmann and Villone held key roles. One year later, this is by far the Nationals' biggest improvement. They're still not sure who the closer will be on Opening Day 2011, but the relief corps as a whole is deep with young talent and should remain a strong point moving forward.
Verdict: Significantly better
So, what's the overall verdict? Is the Nationals' end-of-2010 roster significantly improved from the end-of-2009 roster? In many areas, yes. There are still question marks at first base and center and right fields, plus the stated need to add another starting pitcher and a need to improve the bench. But overall, this organization is in much better shape today than it was one year ago.