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Springtime Storylines: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

Mar 21, 2011, 3:43 PM EDT

Jim Riggleman

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Strasburg-less Washington Nationals.

The big question: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

In a word, yes.

It’s not wrong to call Jayson Werth‘s contract excessive — in fact, I’d be shocked if the Nationals don’t regret it down the road — but more than anything, I found the signing as an acknowledgement from ownership that they weren’t content with returning to being an afterthought in the D.C. market, at least in the short-term.

Whether they’ll admit or not, the Nationals needed to inject some excitement into their fanbase this offseason. They already knew they were going to be without Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season and the signing came less than 48 hours after Adam Dunn — a fan favorite — bolted for Chicago. They needed something to sell the team for 2011, even if they had to massively overpay in order to do it. This was a P.R. move just as much as it was a personnel move.

The main objective for the Nationals this season is to stay relevant long enough until Strasburg returns and Bryce Harper is ready for the major leagues. If all goes well, that could happen in September. Then in 2012, the real fun can begin.

So what else is going on?

  • I don’t mean to short this current squad. There are some interesting pieces here. Ryan Zimmerman continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated players in baseball. Werth helps soften the blow of losing Dunn in the middle of the lineup while Adam LaRoche adds some balance from the left side. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have some flaws, but are a pretty talented middle infield combo. Wilson Ramos, who was acquired in the Matt Capps deal, should be fun to watch behind the plate. And while he entered spring training without a clear role on the team following the signing of LaRoche, it looks like Mike Morse has won the starting left field job.
  • Where I’m less optimistic is center field. The Nationals appear poised to give the starting job to Rick Ankiel, which probably says how much the organization has soured on Nyjer Morgan over the past year. Yuck.
  • Nationals starters had a 4.61 ERA last season, which (sadly) was their lowest since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. They averaged around 5.5 innings per start. If everyone stays healthy, they should be able to improve on those numbers, at least by a little bit. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny aren’t great options, but they’re better than the cannon fodder they’ve sent out there in years past. And I haven’t even talked about Jordan Zimmermann yet. The former 2007 second-round pick is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and has the potential to a be a frontline starter.
  • Who’s gonna close here? If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Drew Storen, but now I’m not so sure. There are even some rumors that he could begin the season in the minors. The good news is that the Nationals actually have some pretty decent depth here, including Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. They should do OK.

So how are they gonna do?

I’m tempted to pick the Nationals for fourth place, but the other four teams in this division all have the potential to be better. With the Nationals, nearly everything would have to break right in order for them to play .500 ball. I’ll give them 73 wins and their fourth straight last-place finish. They’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait another year for things to get interesting.

  1. dodger88 - Mar 21, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    Much like their DC area cousins the Orioles, they will be rewarded for their efforts with a last place finish. I like the offense, althought it might lack consistency. If/when the pitching improves they may finally leap frog the Mets and Marlins and play some meaningful late summer games. Figure 2013.

    • madhatternalice - Mar 21, 2011 at 4:23 PM

      tell me you’re dreaming here. you can’t compare the nats to the o’s. expectations for the o’s are .500 and 4th place (although 3rd in the AL East wouldn’t surprise me, as I think a lot of the TB love is unfounded). nationals fans would sell a kidney for a .500 season.

      • dodger88 - Mar 21, 2011 at 4:46 PM

        I don’t think the O’s sniff .500; on paper I say the Rays and Jays are both better than Baltimore. If a lot goes right for the O’s, they could challenge one or both of them but I think the O’s finish last once again, just like the Nats.

      • redheadedbastard - Mar 21, 2011 at 4:55 PM

        Expectations are useless. The O’s have made upgrades to their team just as much as the Nationals have made upgrades. The O’s still play in the AL East where the Yankees and Red Sox reside. The Jays are not gonna be a push over and Tampa has more talent than the O’s. The Nationals’ upgrades were more about defense and role acceptance. They were unable to acquire quality starting pitching but that doesnt mean that its an automatic last place finish. I feel that it is likely they will finish last but not by much as the Mets do have question marks of their own, while Atlanta, Philly, and Florida have pretty solid teams. Its too much to speculate and to have expectations as to where theses perennial last place teams will end up at the end of the season becuase the real games have not even started. And yes, i would sell a kidney to have the Nationals have a .500 record or better.

      • madhatternalice - Mar 21, 2011 at 5:46 PM

        submitted respectfully to @redheadedbastard

        Everyone’s in love with Tampa. Why? Yes, they have good pitching, but outside of Longoria or Upton, who is going to hit the ball? Time will tell.

        Toronto: really? What does “The Jays are not gonna be a push over” actually mean? Their pitching got worse (the loss of Marcum is going to really, really hurt them), and they have to hope Bautista continues to knock the cover off the ball, or they’re going to be in for a very, very rough season.

        Also, I’d sell my kidney and your kidney for a .500 season out of the Nats. :)

      • cur68 - Mar 22, 2011 at 12:22 AM

        Two words; Roger Bernadina. He’s legitimately in the best shape of his life. Either that or he had grapefruit implanted under his sleeves. I gotta think of him as the “X” factor here. Of all MLB players I think, for no reason other than I admire those guns, that he’ll be the difference maker for the Nats by playing some quality ball. I see them not owning the basement on the strength of Roger’s big shoulder’s (offensively and defensively) , Werth’s offense, and a better starting rotation than in previous years. Ankiel will be riding pine before the month of May is out.

  2. spudchukar - Mar 21, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    They tried hard to better their pitching staff, but alas, no cigars. Should score plenty, but rarely more than their opponents.

  3. BC - Mar 21, 2011 at 4:48 PM

    They’ll duke it out with the Mets to stay out of last. Maybe 75-77 wins.

  4. fatcatt - Mar 21, 2011 at 10:56 PM

    I think it all comes down to pitching with both the Nats and O’s. I like jordan Z here as a wild card. If he can come back and continue to progress he helps this team win 8 more games and only because im unsure the bullpeen can give him more than that. Its probably less but i’ll give the kid the beneifit of the doubt. The O’s on the otherhand can bolster their win total on the account of The Buck Sho and their pitching. They have some studs progressing and will give them a few more wins along with Uncle Buck over the Nats this year. They will beat the Yanks eneough to put them ahead of the Nats total. The sox (who i cant stand by the way) 1st. Then the Tampa 2. Yanks (barely) and O’s tie for 3rd.(Thats right you heard it hear first) and the Jays Last. Batista wont come near last years break out season. And the others will continue to disappoint from 2 seasons ago. I dont think they have a healthy or solid pen all season. Lack of a solid #1. And nor do the rest of their starters progress eneough. However they continue to give the Yanks trouble

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