Nationals: Breakout Performances from the First 2 Weeks of Spring Training
Every day that passes for the Washington Nationals serves as another reminder that they failed to meet their expectations in 2013. Two weeks into 2014's spring training, however, and Washington has every reason to believe that it can return to its dominant form exemplified in its 98-win 2012 campaign.
The primary cause of this optimism is the emergence of certain players who have had a very good offseason and are preparing to break out in 2014.
The list to follow will not include names of obvious suspects that are perennial contributors, but, rather, players that have flown under the radar and show signs of coming into their own in the Major League Baseball season to follow. Parameters for this list also include players that figure to come back strong after a long slump or injury.
Here are Washington's four breakout performers thus far.
Coming into 2014, Taylor Jordan was assumed to be in the mix for Washington's No. 5 spot in its starting pitching rotation, but his progress has far surpassed just being in the mix.
Jordan won one out of four decisions in nine starts in his 2013 rookie campaign. The 25-year-old Florida native struck out 29 batters in 51.2 innings of work while posting a 3.66 ERA.
The spot he's competing for is one that Ross Detwiler assumed in 2013.
In fact, discounting injuries and short to moderate stretches in the bullpen, Detwiler has assumed the No. 5 spot or higher in the Nationals' starting pitching rotation for the better part of the last five seasons.
If Jordan were to become a starter, it would leave Gio Gonzalez as the lone southpaw in Washington's rotation.
Jordan has impressed thus far in 2014. The former ninth-round pick struck out six batters in three innings of work in an 8-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday. Jordan averaged 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 2013.
If Detwiler's experience gives him the edge early, Jordan won't be far behind.
Danny Espinosa has exhibited strong play in spots thus far in spring training.
Espniosa, the Nats' starting second baseman in 2012, lost favor with retired manager Davey Johnson and spent most of the 2013 season struggling with Washington's Triple-A affiliate, Syracuse.
Nevertheless, Espinosa has displayed improvement and is in the mix to win the starting job at second base, according to Nationals manager Matt Williams—per Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's Dan Kolko.
Despite starting spring training 0-10 from the plate this spring, it's pretty clear that Williams is still high on the former third-round pick, according to Kolko.
I think we've talked to him a lot about what he's done so far. The at-bats that he's taken so far have been really good. So you don't have any hits in 10 at-bats, but that really doesn't mean anything. He's pounded the ball pretty good, left-handed the other way towards shortstop. He's lined out over there, he's had a couple balls taken from him in the infield. Hit a ball hard to center field yesterday. So if those drop, now all of a sudden, he's hitting .400. So in those limited at-bats, you just can't make a determination. But what we see is him having good at-bats and putting the ball in play hard. It's exactly where he wants to be. I tell him every day, 'Stay right there. You're fine. That's exactly what you want right now.' Results aren't there, but what do they really mean right now anyway? So the fact that he's taking good at-bats is important. That's all we look at.
Espinosa went three for his next five at the plate, including a double, following the rough start.
What adds to Espinosa's stock this season is his versatility. He's taken reps at both second base and shortstop and figures to contribute heavily as a defensive presence.
Ranked as the Nationals' fourth-best prospect by Baseball America, Matt Skole was part of Washington's first round of cuts, despite an impressive showing in spring training's first two weeks.
Coming off of Tommy John surgery on his left elbow early in the 2013 season, as reported by the Washington Post's James Wagner, Williams thinks it would be more prudent to let Skole develop and get lots of plate appearances before pressing the gas on him—per MASN's Dan Kolko.
I know Matty from the (Arizona) Fall League, and again, the ability to play both corners in the infield and certainly power (is impressive). With all that happened to him last year, I think he needs some consistent at-bats. So that's why we made the move today, get him some multiple at-bats in a game and let him get his timing back a bit. When you miss that amount of time, it's difficult, though. That's the reason. He's going to play third and first. He'll be on his way.
The former Georgia Tech standout is versatile defensively, with the ability to play both first and third base. Skole is presumed by some to become the full-time starter at third base once Ryan Zimmerman makes the move to first, even though more critics project him as a first baseman long term.
Skole has excelled at the plate this spring, driving in five runs on five hits in 14 plate appearances while blasting three doubles and a home run.
Zach Walters has been a prospect waiting in the wings since his ninth-round selection in 2010. The 24-year-old infielder is another versatile player who can play multiple positions and gives Williams several different options, per Kolko.
He plays short, he plays third certainly. Want to get him some time at second. He stayed back yesterday and got some work at second base. So we'll get him a feel out there. Because you never know. You never know whether he'll be asked to play there or not. Will be the same type of scenario we'll do with (Ryan Zimmerman) at first - we want to make sure he gets out there in a game, feels it, so he's got experience if he's ever called upon to do it.
Walters batted .375 in nine plate appearances in 2013. He's impressed at the plate thus far in spring training as well, hitting safely seven times in 12 at-bats with five runs batted in and a home run. Whether or not he makes the roster initially, Walters has taken steps forward this offseason and spring and will be in the back of Williams' mind going forward.
I think last year he proved that he came into his own. Hit 29 homers and drove the ball and played every day. So in that regard, he's done that. But you never know what kind of need there may be at the big league level, either. We saw he got a call-up last September, got his feet wet. Got used to playing in the big leagues a little bit. So you never know. That's why we want to make sure that he's prepared in case there's ever a need. The way it shakes out, we don't know yet. But if there is a need for him to play, especially second base, we've got to make sure he's done it. It's like anything else we do in spring. If there's a need, then we do it.
All stats acquired via baseball-reference.com