In looking over the Nationals' roster, no weaknesses immediately stand out. That's surely a reason why the team is viewed as a World Series contender going into the 2014 season. The Nats have outstanding starting pitching and a strong bullpen (though general manager Mike Rizzo is always looking to add a reliever), while their lineup features hitters who can put the ball in play, get on base, hit for power, run the bases and play good defense. The roster also has depth (and just got deeper with Thursday's acquistion of catcher Jose Lobaton).
Yet closer scrutiny finds a couple of areas that could become a concern for the Nats during the season. Washington should be worried about Adam LaRoche and whether or not he starts the season slowly again. Additionally, the bullpen currently has only one left-hander and many of their relievers struggle against left-handed hitting. These appear to be the team's two biggest weaknesses.
Let's begin with LaRoche. While the Nats' first baseman finished with 20 home runs and 62 RBI, those numbers are far below the 33 homers and 100 RBI he posted in 2012. Two seasons ago, LaRoche was an NL MVP candidate. Last year, his production was barely above that of a replacement-level first baseman.
In 590 plate appearances, LaRoche hit .237 with a .735 OPS. His slugging percentage dropped 107 points — from .510 to .403 — and his OPS decreased from .853 to .735. His ISO (isolated power) plummeted from .238 to .166. Among NL first baseman with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, LaRoche ranked sixth in WAR at 0.6. Compare that to 2012, when he was the league's best at his position, leading his peers with a 3.4 WAR.
LaRoche got off to a terrible start last April, batting just .136 with a .473 OPS. He slugged just .259, hitting three home runs with eight RBI. But it appeared that he'd shake off that slow start, rebounding nicely in May, hitting .330 with a 1.024 OPS, seven homers and 11 RBI. LaRoche also hit well in June, putting that bad April further in the distance.
But in the second half, LaRoche slumped again. In July, he hit just .159 with a .511 OPS in 97 plate appearances. He was never able to turn his season around after that. Following the All-Star break, LaRoche compiled a .217 average and .702 OPS, while slugging just .369. That surely isn't what the Nats had in mind when they signed him to a two-year, $24 million contract after his tremendous 2012 season. Washington was hesitant to give the then-33-year-old LaRoche anything more than two years in a deal, and his poor 2013 performance makes that look like a smart decision.
With one year remaining on his contract, the Nationals will surely stick with him if he starts slowly again. They might not have a choice. Trading him won't be an option, and it's difficult to justify cutting loose a player who can still slug 20-25 home runs.
Ultimately, the Nats will probably move Ryan Zimmerman over to first and switch Anthony Rendon back to third base. But that's a tough move to make during the season. (Though the Tigers moved Miguel Cabrera from third to first, switching positions with Carlos Guillen, in 2008.) Tyler Moore could also be a possibility at first base in the short term. But even a slumping LaRoche might be preferable to that.
Last year, the Nationals had some trouble replacing left-hander Sean Burnett in their bullpen after he left via free agency. Washington used several left-handed relievers throughout the season with varying degrees of success.
Zach Duke was awful, allowing 22 runs (20 of them earned) and 31 hits in 20.2 innings. Ian Krol was much better, compiling a 3.95 ERA while striking out 22 batters in 27.1 innings. But he was dealt to the Tigers as part of the Doug Fister trade. Fernando Abad posted a 3.35 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 37.2 innings. Yet left-handed batters hit .306 with a .790 OPS against Abad, numbers that are far too high to consider him a left-handed specialist. He was traded to Oakland in the offseason for Single-A outfielder John Wooten.
Though he pitched in only 11 games for the Nats, their most successful left-handed reliever may have been Xavier Cedeno. The 26-year-old spent most of the season in the minors after being picked up off waivers. At Triple-A Syracuse, he compiled a 1.31 ERA and struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. As a September call-up, Cedeno struck out six batters in six innings and posted a 1.50 ERA. Left-handed batters hit .203 against him with a .603 OPS in 31 plate appearances. That's a small sample size to judge, but Cedeno pitched well enough to possibly warrant consideration as the bullpen's second left-hander.
In early December, the Nationals acquired Jerry Blevins from the A's, providing the bullpen with a reliable veteran left-hander. Last season, he had a 3.15 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 60 innings, giving the Nationals another late-inning workhorse. None of the Nationals lefty relievers reached 40 innings in 2013.
However, Blevins is actually better versus right-handed hitters than he is against southpaws. The 30-year-old held righties to a .190 average and .581 OPS. Compare that to the .253 average and .741 OPS Blevins had against lefties. That doesn't mean left-handed batters are teeing off on Blevins (though he did allow five home runs). But he doesn't shut down lefties to the point where you could consider him a specialist.
Actually, very few of the Nationals' current relievers pitches that well against left-handed hitting. Craig Stammen allowed a .282 average versus lefties last season. Drew Storen let left-handers hit .267 against him. Rafael Soriano allowed a .274 average. Of Washington's top four relievers, only Tyler Clippard was successful matched up against lefties, giving up a .152 average. The worst of all was Ryan Mattheus, who let lefties hit .438 with a 1.001 OPS.
Going even deeper into the bullpen, lefties hit .268 against Ross Ohlendorf. Tanner Roark allowed a .263 average in those matchups. Taylor Jordan gave up a .308 average. Opposing teams would do well to make sure they have left-handed hitting available late in ballgames against the Nats. Fellow contenders like the Cardinals, Dodgers and Braves could present problems with their various lefty sluggers.
Perhaps this is nitpicking. No MLB team is going to have a perfect club. Every one of them has a few notable weaknesses. If the worst the Nationals have to worry about is a streaky first baseman and finding a reliever who can consistently get left-handers out, then the outlook for them is quite positive. Both of these are issues that could be fixed during the season, whether by players improving or by Rizzo shoring up those areas with a trade. Or perhaps those weaknesses can simply be overcome by a team that looks like one of the best in baseball.