Grading the 2011 Nationals

It might be harder to assess the individual performances on a .500 baseball team than on any other type of ballclub, because by definition, the results that put the team around the .500 mark are going to be mixed. But looking at the 2011 Nationals individually is also terribly interesting, because of how polarizing the results were at times.

The team went into the year hoping Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen would take some steps forward; instead, all five of those players surpassed expectations. That turned out to be a life-saver for the Nationals, because Ryan Zimmerman missed 61 games, Adam LaRoche had shoulder surgery in mid-May and Jayson Werth had a disappointing first year in Washington. In the end, the Nationals improved by 11 games, but not at all in the manner they expected to do it.

We’ll try to make sense of it all today. Here are our season-ending grades for the 2011 Nationals:

Wilson Ramos: A- At the end of the year, Ramos’ numbers at a premium position look pretty good: .267/.334/.445, with 15 homers and 52 RBI. He also threw out 32 percent of baserunners, and at age 24, he’ll only get better.

Jesus Flores: C The jury is still out on whether Flores can play everyday in the majors again. He was frustrated with his playing time toward the end of the year, but only hit .209, though he looked more effective offensively and defensively as he was further removed from his shoulder surgery. He’s likely a backup in 2012, but will he be happy with that role?

Ivan Rodriguez: C The Nationals praise Pudge for his mentorship skills, and he’s still a solid defensive catcher (he threw out 52 percent of baserunners). But he only played 46 games because of a strained right oblique, and at age 39, he’s probably not anything more than a backup - albeit one who took to a reduced role with class and grace.

Adam LaRoche: Incomplete In retrospect, LaRoche probably should have had surgery in spring training, rooting out shoulder problems before they got serious. But he tried to gut it out, and played superb defense while he was on the field. He only hit .172 in 43 games, but his shoulder exacerbated his typical slow starts. The Nationals hope he’ll be healthy next spring.

Chris Marrero: B- He looked solid in a September call-up, driving in 10 runs and playing effective defense at first base. The 2006 first-rounder could start 2012 in the majors as a right-handed bat off the bench.

Danny Espinosa: B+ He tailed off severely in the second half, but still ended with a .737 OPS, 21 homers and 17 steals, in addition to the superb range and arm he showed at second base. The Nationals appear to have a fixture at the position for years to come.

Alex Cora: C- Cora played solid defense in Zimmerman’s absence, and gave the Nationals a veteran option at a number of positions. But he hit .224, and is primarily a good-field, no-hit player at this point in his career.

Ian Desmond: B- This is a tricky one, since Desmond’s numbers late in the season were up and his defense was cleaner throughout the year than it was in his rookie season. But his OPS was down 53 points from his rookie season. and he still ended up with 23 errors. 2012 will be an important season for him, as Steve Lombardozzi continues to push toward the majors.

Ryan Zimmerman: B We’ll cut the third baseman some slack, since he missed six weeks after abdominal surgery and played admirably after his return. But this is the second time in four years Zimmerman has missed a significant chunk of time, and if he wants the kind of contract the Rockies gave Troy Tulowitzki, he’s got to keep himself on the field. When he was there, he was his typically reliable self; a .798 OPS with the same kind of superb defense we’ve come to expect.

Michael Morse: A Without question, Morse’s emergence was the story of the season. He hit .303, blasted 31 homers, drove in 95 runs, played impressive defense at first in Adam LaRoche’s absence and gave the Nationals a fixture in the middle of their lineup. His defense is still suspect in the outfield, but Morse was so good - and his emergence was so necessary - at the plate that he’s got to be acknowledged as what he was: the Nationals’ MVP.

Laynce Nix: C Nix slumped badly after the All-Star break, and wound up with a .250 average. Still, he hit 16 homers, and helped fill a hole in the lineup early on, when Morse and Jayson Werth were both in deep slumps.

Jonny Gomes: C- He essentially brought Nix’s skill set, only from the right side of the plate, but Gomes only had a .665 OPS with the Nationals after he was acquired in a deal just before the trade deadline.

Rick Ankiel: C After winning the center field job from Nyjer Morgan this spring, Ankiel battled injuries through much of the season, but still managed to hit nine homers, even though his .659 OPS was abysmal. General manager Mike Rizzo said this weekend, though, that Ankiel’s outfield arm might be the best he’s ever seen, and he played a solid center field for much of the year.

Roger Bernadina: C- Sorry, Sharkadina people: It’s the same old story with Bernadina. He looked great in May, showing flashes he could be a leadoff hitter and center fielder, but he wound up with a .664 OPS, though he did steal 17 bases. Bernadina looks great on some days, and lost on others. In the end, he’s probably a fourth outfielder.

Brian Bixler: D+ As a utility player, Bixler is serviceable, but he only hit .205. Still, he was able to fill in all over the diamond, so he brought some value that way.

Jayson Werth: D Put simply, the Nationals expected more than this for their $126 million investment. And while Werth delivered in some areas (his heady baserunning, his selflessness about where he hit in the lineup, the example he brought to other players), he’s paid first and foremost to hit the ball, and hit it often. He had his worst year in the majors, with a .232/.330/.389 line, and he was merely average in the outfield (a 0.6 UZR). He’ll have to rebound in 2012, or the boos he heard at times at home this year will get louder.

Starting pitchers
Livan Hernandez: C+ The 36-year-old ate innings effectively, pitching 175 1/3 of them through August. But most people expected him to drop off after his impressive 2010 season, and he did, falling from a 3.66 ERA to a 4.41. Hernandez could be back as a long reliever, but his days at the front of the Nationals’ rotation are done.

Jordan Zimmermann: A In his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander gave the Nationals everything they could have asked for. He lowered his walks and homers in 161 1/3 innings, getting more ground balls early in the year as his strikeout stuff slowly came back. When the Nationals shut Zimmermann down for the season after he’d hit his innings limit, they did so reluctantly: he’d turned into their ace.

John Lannan: B+ Lannan had the lowest ERA of his career this season, finishing at 3.70 and winning 10 games for the first time. He still walks too many batters for a pitch-to-contact lefty, but he threw his off-speed pitches more effectively this year, and got back to being a solid, if not spectacular, middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Chien-Ming Wang: B The right-hander gave the Nationals more than they could have expected when he returned from shoulder surgery, winning four games in two months. He could be back next year, as the Nationals work on a contract with the sinkerballer.

Ross Detwiler: B+ Throwing his sinker with more conviction and velocity than he has before, Detwiler finally looked like he might be ready to stick in the majors. He had a 3.00 ERA in 15 games, 10 of them starts, and ended the year with a 13 2/3-inning shutout streak.

Brad Peacock: B+ Though we only saw him for a few starts, Peacock looked like he has the stuff (a mid-90s fastball and a solid breaking ball) to pitch in the majors. He handled his first appearance - coming in to face Matt Kemp with two runners on after Stephen Strasburg left the game - with class, and went on to get two more wins after that.

Tommy Milone: B In five starts, he had a 3.81 ERA, showing he isn’t afraid to pitch inside against right-handers and working effectively despite a fastball that touches 90 mph on a good day. He’s another young pitcher who could be in the rotation in 2012.

Stephen Strasburg: A- After returning to the majors on Sept. 6, Strasburg was fantastic, walking just two hitters in 24 innings while striking out 24 and finishing with a 1.50 ERA. He looked rusty at times, like on Sept. 11 against the Astros, but his 10-strikeout performance against the Marlins on Wednesday was an emphatic statement heading into 2012.

Relief pitchers
Drew Storen: A- The first-year closer saved 43 of 48 games, posting a 2.75 ERA and staying durable all year. Other than a brief stretch where he struggled in June, the Nationals couldn’t have asked for much more out of the 24-year-old.

Tyler Clippard: A It’s likely Storen winds up with a save total in the 30s, not the 40s, if Clippard isn’t around to do what he did this year. The gangly right-hander had a tremendous year as a setup man, pitching 88 1/3 innings and entering many games when the Nationals were in a jam and had to have a strikeout. He all but eliminated his problem with inherited runners, and struck out 104 batters while walking 26. He went to the All-Star Game, and never let up after he got back. He deserves an A after a remarkable season.

Henry Rodriguez: C+ It’s hard to evaluate the flame-throwing right-hander, who almost seemed like he pitched with two personalities. On some days, like last Sunday against the Braves, he was unhittable, with his 100-mph fastball and 88-mph slider. On others, he couldn’t get the ball within the same ZIP code as the catcher. But he’ll keep getting chances because of his great stuff, and toward the end of the year, he looked like he might have been ready to make the most of those chances.

Sean Burnett: B- A small adjustment in Burnett’s setup probably saved his season after an ugly beginning, and he was back to being the reliable left-hander he was last year by August. When Burnett was struggling in April and May, he was always standing at his locker, ready to tell reporters what happened and shoulder the blame for a loss. He’s a class act, and he won a lot of respect from his teammates for it.

Todd Coffey: B- At times this year, Coffey didn’t look like a reliable late-inning option, especially with lefties hitting .338 against him. But he shut down right-handers, and pitched in a variety of roles for the Nationals.

Doug Slaten: D- There’s not much good to say about the left-hander’s season; he allowed 15 of 32 inherited runners to score, wound up with a 4.41 ERA and missed 2 1/2 months because of left elbow neuritis. He was a solid lefty specialist last year, and was mostly a liability this year.

Ryan Mattheus: B+ Acquired in a deadline deal for Joe Beimel in 2009, the right-hander finally made it to the majors after Tommy John surgery, and looks like he could be another good late-inning option for the Nationals in the future. He had a 2.81 ERA in 35 games, and figures to be a key piece of the group going forward.

Tom Gorzelanny: B If we’re evaluating Gorzelanny solely as a starter, he probably wouldn’t score this high. But he had a 2.42 ERA as a reliever, and there’s a decent chance he’s back as a long man next season.

Collin Balester: C After looking like he was ready to move forward as a reliever last year, Balester struggled this season, shuttling between the majors and minors as the Nationals tried to find a spot for him. He didn’t quite work as a late-inning option, and wasn’t quite right to be a long man, either. Balester has the stuff to do the job, but he might never turn into a consistent choice there.

Davey Johnson: B The 68-year-old had no shortage of energy in his return to the majors, and he seemed to have a sense of how to push the right buttons with players, particularly with his two middle infielders (Espinosa and Desmond). There were times where his decisions seemed odd, pulling pitchers early in games so they would be lined up to win or lobbying for a extra long reliever in the bullpen. But by the end of the year, he had the Nationals playing well and looking ready to win in 2012. It’d be a shock if he’s not the one managing them.

Mike Rizzo: B- It was a strange year for the general manager, who had both some major highs (signing his top four draft picks at the Aug. 15 deadline to secure a class that many thought was one of the best in baseball) and some very public lows (Jim Riggleman’s abrupt resignation in June, and his odd decision to sequester hitting coach Rick Eckstein from reporters early this season). In between were some moves that didn’t quite pan out; the Nationals stood by Nyjer Morgan all offseason, only to trade him late this spring after his run-in with Werth. Morgan probably wasn’t going to resuscitate his career in Washington, but he became a sensation in Milwaukee during the Brewers’ playoff run, while the Nationals still need a leadoff hitter and center fielder. But at the end of the day, Rizzo has taken a team that won 59 games two years ago and turned them into an 80-win club this year. He doesn’t get all the credit for that, but he should get some.

So there you have it. Let me know what you think of the grades.