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Springtime Storylines: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

Mar 22, 2012, 9:15 AM EDT

Davey Johnson, Stephen Strasburg

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the upstart Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

After three straight last-place finishes, the Nationals finally found their way out of the cellar last year. Thanks to going 17-10 in September under new skipper Davey Johnson, they finished in third place at 80-81, securing the team’s best record since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. And there’s every reason to believe that the best is yet to come.

The Nationals didn’t make the big splash for slugger Prince Fielder over the winter, but they managed to improve their starting rotation in a big way. GM Mike Rizzo swapped a package of prospects to the Athletics for left-hander Gio Gonzalez in December, signing him to a contract extension only a few weeks later. Then they added Scott Boras client (surprise!) Edwin Jackson on a low-risk one-year, $11 million deal in early-February. Throwing them into the mix with staff ace Stephen Strasburg and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann gives the Nationals one of the deepest and most formidable starting rotations in the game.

While the starting pitching should be a strength, I have my doubts about the offense. Getting a whole season out of Ryan Zimmerman would certainly help matters and Jayson Werth can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year, but this is a team that projects to have Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel as regulars, at least to begin the season. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have shown flashes of being impact players, but they also have plenty of flaws and neither profiles as an ideal leadoff man. Wilson Ramos surprised with the bat last season, so the Nats would probably be satisfied if he managed to duplicate his production. And while Michael Morse has flown under the radar as one of the best hitters in the National League over the past two seasons, his recent lat strain is somewhat troubling, especially since he’s expected to play left field.

It’s a bit of a baseball cliche, but the Nationals will likely only go as far as their pitching takes them. If they are in contention around the All-Star break and Bryce Harper is eventually thrown into the mix, things could get interesting in a hurry. But realistically, this is just the beginning of the franchise’s upswing.

What else is going on?

  • Two years ago, the date of Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut was the only thing that mattered. While Nationals fans actually have a pretty good team to follow in 2012, Harper’s inevitable arrival will be a constant topic of conversation. It’s not surprising that the 19-year-old was recently sent down to Triple-A Syracuse given the obvious service time implications, but remember that he batted .256/.329/.395 with three homers and a .724 OPS over 147 plate appearances after being promoted to Double-A last year. That’s mighty impressive for an 18-year-old, but it’s probably not the worst idea for him to get more at-bats in the minors. It’s also an ideal environment to see if he can be a viable option in center field in the short-term.
  • Chien-Ming Wang was expected to begin the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter, but he’s now likely to miss most of April after straining his left hamstring last week. John Lannan reportedly drew trade interest from multiple teams this spring, but he figures to stay put at this point. The 27-year-old left-hander is making $5 million this season and projects to be a non-tender candidate this winter, so the Nationals wouldn’t get much in return, anyway. And Wang is hardly a good bet to stay healthy.
  • The Nationals’ bullpen was fifth in the majors last season with a 3.20 ERA. This included a 1.83 ERA over 88 1/3 innings by set-up man Tyler Clippard and a 2.75 ERA over 75 1/3 innings from closer Drew Storen. They are one of the best late-inning duos in the game, but one wonders if Johnson will be able to lean on them as much this season. Storen has been limited to just two appearances this spring due to strep throat and soreness in his bicep and triceps area, but he has downplayed any long-term concerns.
  • Perhaps the most interesting situation to watch is how the Nationals will handle an innings-limit for Strasburg, especially if the team is still in the race late into the summer. The current plan calls to cut him off around 160 innings, similar to how Zimmermann was handled last season in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. For what it’s worth, Zimmermann made his final start last year on August 28.

How are they gonna do?

This is easily the best team the Nationals have fielded since moving to D.C., so anything less than a .500 season would be a surprise. I think they’ll hang around long enough to make things interesting, but I doubt they’ll score enough runs to secure one of the wild cards. Still, this season figures to be an enticing sneak preview for 2013 and beyond.

  1. dagnats - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    they will win 86 games +/- 1 game…2013 is their year to get in the postseason

  2. El Bravo - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    Could this be the best division in baseball? Thoughts? Suppose the Phillies remain the Phillies, the Marlins chemistry clicks early, the Braves staff and pen are lights out and they get a bit out of Heyward, the Nats play at or above their expectations, and finally, Johan pitches near to what he used to…of course, none of this will swing this way for all of these teams, but imagine how good this division could be…ok, except the Mets…I take that back a bit.

    • bmorelikeme - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:52 AM

      No

      Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays and …..my poor O’s

      But the Nats are building something special, they are still a year away

      • nhmac - Mar 22, 2012 at 10:31 AM

        Naw, it’s the AL East and it really isn’t even that close

    • psuravens19 - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:54 AM

      Some people may laugh at this question, but I do think it’s a legit one. The only thing I see, is that the Phillies are going to struggle this year. Yes they have the pitching to beat anyone, but with Ryan Howard out for a while and Chase Utley uncertain, I think they are going to struggle putting up runs.

      I’m an O’s fan, but have started paying attention to the Nationals and they are definitely going to start competing at a high level. The pitching seems to be there, lets just hope they can put up some runs.

    • Francisco (FC) - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:56 AM

      That’s fine, the Mets can be the Orioles of the NL East.

  3. dcfan4life - Mar 22, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Lets compare the NL East and the AL East to see which division is really better.

    The Phillies have better pitching than the Yankees with a similar lineup. The Phillies added a couple of offseason pieces and once healthy on offense should win the NL East and be World Series contenders. The Yankees may win the NL East and are always World Series contenders but even thats not a given with no bench, bullpen questions outside of Rivera, and starting pitching issues at the back end.
    Advantage Phillies.

    The Braves have better Pitching top to bottom than the Red Sox, but the Sox have better hitting. The Braves didn’t lose much in the offseason, the Red Sox lost their 2 time world series winning manager, their closer, their second baseman, their right fielder, their leader in the locker room catcher, and added nothing.
    Advantage Braves.

    The Rays have great young pitching, a strong lineup, and an amazing manager. The Marlins have good young pitching and vastly improved their lineup, but have yet to prove themselves. Throw in bullpen questions for the Marlins, and they are maybe a year away.
    Advantage Rays.

    The Blue Jays underachieve every year, have a moderate fan base that never pushes the team, and seem to get Jet lag from all the travel. They always have solid hitting and pitching but it never gets them over the hump. (Same story for them the last what, 10 years?) The Nationals have a top 5 starting rotation, with a great bullpen. Their offense needs a jolt, but as many as 3 key starting bats were out nearly every game and they still won 80. Coming back healthy is like offseason improvements, plus the potential addition of Harper in a few months.
    Advantage Nationals.

    The Mets will stink. The Orioles are the worst team in baseball.
    Advantage Mets, but its close.

    So with a 4-1 advantage in the projected standings for both divisions, if it pans out as such, id expect the NL East to be the best division in baseball. Hard to argue effectively against it right now in my opinion. Great pitching beats great hitting more often than not.

    • paperlions - Mar 22, 2012 at 11:39 AM

      The Phillies lineup is similar to the Yankees? Really?

      Sorry, I stopped reading at that point.

      • dcfan4life - Mar 22, 2012 at 12:23 PM

        Remember my analysis is all based on potential projections if both teams are healthy all year. Last year the Yankees potent offense was healthy all season, the Phillies was not. Remember its just a projected analysis and opinion. Hard to imagine the Yankees being that healthy and potent and offense again. Same thing should be said for the Red Sox, who led the league in nearly every offensive catagory last year. I just dont see it happening again…

    • Jeremy T - Mar 22, 2012 at 5:56 PM

      Not only is the Yankees lineup quite a bit stronger than the Phillies, what “bullpen questions” are you talking about? The Yankees have quite possibly the strongest bullpen in the majors (and this isn’t just me talking as a fan, their bullpen ranked #1 in FanGraph’s recent positional power rankings). I’d also put the Red Sox closer to the Braves than you seem to think.

    • imbetterthanyou - Apr 4, 2012 at 10:18 AM

      This could be one of the worst analyses of baseball i have ever seen. Once i read your Yankees/Phillies comparison there was no need to actually read the rest since the initial paragraph was atrocious. Yankees offense is MUCH better than the Phillies. Yankees bullpen is one of, if not the best bullpen. (ie Soriano/Robertson/Rivera in the 7th/8th/9th seems pretty good to me). The obvious advantage is in starting pitching…
      Regardless…just terrible comparisons all around.
      Epic Fail

  4. natstowngreg - Mar 22, 2012 at 6:09 PM

    Agree about the offense. I’m not as optimistic as Davey about the abilities of Desmond and Espinosa to improve their OBPs. Could be a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 wins which, come to think of it, was how the Nats often won last season.

  5. fenianblastard - Mar 22, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    As a full season ticket holder of the Phillies since 2004 and as a Real Baseball Fan in its entirety, i can honestly say the Phillies lineup ( opening day 2012) is in its worst shape since 2002, Bowa/Vet Days, the NYY have 4×30 HR Hitters in it w Grande, Tex, Cano , ARod and maybe Swish, a better hitting Shortstop, the Phillies advantage is the Rotation..
    That said as long as the Phillies get hot in Sept an get a WC spot they will b ok once Howard and Utley get back and Amaro steals David Wright from the Muts !

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