With pitchers and catchers due to report Sunday, we've reached the home stretch of the offseason. All week, we'll count down the five biggest storylines facing the Nationals at spring training. Today, it's storyline No. 5: Players who need to bounce back from a rough 2011...
Jayson Werth sat before a room full of reporters, cameras and microphones on Dec. 15, 2010, and gave a blunt answer to a question plenty of observers were wondering after the Nationals handed the right fielder 126 million: How much pressure will you feel after signing one of the largest contracts in baseball history?
"I don't foresee any undue pressure," Werth said. "I just want to go out there and play my game."
Fourteen months later, it's hard to believe Werth didn't succumb to some amount of pressure in his first season in Washington. How else to explain his worst offensive numbers in six years: a .232 average, .718 OPS, 58 RBI and 160 strikeouts?
There were, of course, other mitigating factors. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche each suffered major injuries early in the season. That left Werth as the lone established veteran in the Nationals' lineup and left everyone looking to him to carry the load. It didn't help that managers Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson shuffled him throughout their daily lineups, starting him at least five times in each of the top six spots in the order.
Whatever the reason for Werth's struggles, it happened. Which could lead to even more scrutiny and pressure on the 32-year-old as he prepares for the second of his seven years in D.C.
Werth, though, won't be alone when he arrives in Viera. Pressure will also be on two other members of the lineup looking to bounce back after poor seasons: LaRoche and Ian Desmond.
If not for Werth's massive struggles after signing that gargantuan contract, LaRoche might well have been the member of the Nationals lineup receiving the most scrutiny in 2011. Signed to a modest, two-year, 16 million contract last wiinter, the veteran first baseman was supposed to produce his usually consistent numbers at the plate (.275 average, 25 homers, 90 RBI) while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
But early in spring training, LaRoche started feeling discomfort in his left shoulder. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a torn labrum. And though he believed he could play through the injury and continue to produce the way he always had, it quickly became clear the bum shoulder sapped him of all his power.
By late May, with his batting average sitting at .172 and his slugging percentage at an awful .258, LaRoche finally admitted he couldn't continue. He had season-ending surgery to repair the tear and turned his attention to 2012.
Now that he's healthy again, can LaRoche be counted on to revert to his pre-injury form? The Nationals insist the answer is yes. Asked last week whether there's any concern about the state of LaRoche's shoulder, one club official responded: "None."
But until he actually starts facing live pitching and hitting the ball with authority, and until he starts firing in relay throws from shallow right field to the plate, we won't know for certain whether LaRoche is all the way back.
Injuries played no role in Desmond's 2011 offensive struggles; he played 154 games but batted a mediocre .253 while reaching base at a paltry .298 clip. Put it all together, and the young shortstop wound up with the fifth-worst OPS (.656) among all qualifying National League hitters. Throw in his 23 errors (third-most among all major-league shortstops) and Desmond had little to boast about at the end of the season.
The Nationals, though, are committed to the 26-year-old, a 2004 draft pick of the Montreal Expos who has been a member of the organization longer than any player other than outfielder Roger Bernadina (who signed in 2001).
Team officials point to two trends as evidence Desmond is poised to bounce back this season:
1. He made some significant strides at the plate during the second half of 2011. After hitting .223 with a .264 on-base percentage and .308 slugging percentage prior to the All-Star Game, he improved in all three categories after the break (.289.338.417). Those numbers got even better after Johnson bumped Desmond up to the leadoff position in mid-August, enough to convince the Nationals to hand him the job heading into spring training.
2. He also significantly cut down on his defensive mistakes as the season progressed. On April 25, in only his 20th game of the year, Desmond committed his seventh error. He left the club the next day to join his wife for the birth of their first child and upon returning played much cleaner baseball, committing 16 errors over his final 134 games.
As was the case with Desmond, Werth displayed some signs of progress as the 2011 season played out. His offensive "slash line" prior to the All-Star break: .215.319.362. After the All-Star break: .255.345.426.
Still, the Nationals aren't paying 126 million for a .255 hitter. They expect more from Werth in his second season, hoping he'll be more relaxed in his second go-around, especially with healthy run producers surrounding him in the lineup at last.
Whether Werth can relax amid the attention and pressure that is sure to hover around him this spring remains to be seen. Such is life when you're the richest player in franchise history and you've yet to come close to earning your keep.