Breaking Through to the Other Side: The Washington Nationals
by Sammy Reid on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 5:25 pmhttp://www.baseballdailydigest.com/2012/03/21/break-on-through-to-the-other-side/
......Some say that starting pitching wins championships, others swear that good hitting does. Others still think a good defense is key, and yet another group will tell you that a shutdown bullpen is essential to win in the playoffs. And you know what? They’re all right.
The reality is good teams win titles, and good teams tend to be well-rounded. The best teams don’t just do one thing well – they do many things well. One day their ace starter might shut you down, and the next day they might hang 10 runs on you. The day after that, their bullpen might hold a one-run lead for the final four innings. And in yet another game you might pepper their pitchers, only to have their defense rob you in key situations, preserving their victory.
When I think of the up-and-coming teams that have strength across the board and could join the echelon of the elite, one team stands out: The Washington Nationals.
No! Wait! Please don’t close minimize the window … hear me out.
Last year, the Nats were nearly the definition of an average team. They were 80-81 and were outscored by 19 runs on the season. There are many reasons why this year’s club is primed to make a run at the playoffs. To start, the team’s starting rotation is a great deal stronger than last season. Ace Stephen Strasburg
is back and healthy. He started five games for the team at the end of last season as he made his way back from Tommy John surgery. In those five games he pitched 24 innings, amassing 24 K’s, 2 walks, and a 1.50 ERA.
His career line: 17 starts, 92 IP, 5 HR allowed, 19 BB, 116 K, 2.54 ERA, 0.98 WHIP.
Now imagine if they have him for a whole season. The odds are heavily weighted against him throwing 200 innings, but just adding 150 Verlander-esque frames will be a huge boost for this club.
In addition, the underrated Jordan Zimmermann
should have more innings to contribute as well; coming off his own Tommy John last season, the team capped his innings at 160 (he ended up with 161.1). Zimmermann quietly finished 7th in the NL in K/BB rate at an even 4-to-1, trailing only the elite sextuplet of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels
, and Madison Bumgarner
. The kid gloves should come off this season for Zimm, and he could easily contribute 25% more innings of similar effectiveness.
Rounding out the rotation are two new additions in Gio Gonzalez
and Edwin Jackson
. The 26 year-old Gonzalez is an improving southpaw who is coming off consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings and 15 wins, with a cumulative 3.17 ERA – all while pitching in the AL. Admittedly, Jackson is no ace, but he makes a fine 4th starter. He’s made at least 31 starts five seasons in a row, averaging 1.5 WAR (wins above replacement) per season.
That leaves their 5th starter, likely to be John Lannan
, who in his first four full seasons has averaged over 30 starts per season with a 3.99 ERA. The rotation also has good depth, as lefty Tom Gorzelanny
(33 BBs and 95 Ks in 105 IP with the club last season) and righty Chien-Ming Wang
(career 59-29, 4.15 ERA) wait in the wings.
The Nats’ lineup should also be improved from last season: Their best position player, Ryan Zimmerman
, was limited to just 101 games last season after averaging 145 over his first five seasons. Chances are he’ll log at least 40 more games in 2012 than he did in 2011. First baseman Adam LaRoche
will be back as well; he’s a career .815 OPS hitter who only logged 43 games last year.Jayson Werth
was a huge flop in his first go-around with the club last season; after posting an OPS of at least .861 in all four of his seasons with the Phillies, he dropped to .718 last year with the Nats. Because of his age and home ballpark, he’s not likely to ever reach his previous heights, but every projection system under the sun has him recouping at least 50 points of OPS this season.
The Nats’ young middle infield also has room for improvement; 25 year-old Danny Espinosa
is primed to build on his .737 OPS from last season, and let’s be honest: 26 year-old Ian Desmond
(.656 OPS in 2011) has nowhere to go but up.
We’d be remiss not to mention Bryce Harper
, who is the most legitimate power prospect in the game today. He’ll start the season in AAA, but the most likely scenario has him putting in about half the season with the big club. The only real regression candidate on offense is young slugger Michael Morse, who will be hard-pressed to hit .303 or slug .550 again.
In addition to the improvements on offense and defense, the Nats have a strong bullpen with stud closer Drew Storen
(2.75 ERA, 43/48 saves in 2011), setup man Tyler Clippard
(has averaged 64 appearances, 80 IP, 94 Ks, 6 wins, and a 2.52 ERA over the past three seasons), Brad Lidge
(as bad as you might think he’s been, he’s only posted an ERA above 3.36 once in the past five season), plus lefties Sean Burnett
(2.99 ERA over the past three seasons) and Gorzelanny.
This is now a team that can beat you in any facet. They can outpitch you; their starting rotation is one of the top five in the NL and their top three of Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez are as good as anybody’s. Their #4 and #5 starters are league average, at worst. And they have depth waiting in the wings.
They can out-hit you; the heart of their order will soon be made up of Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Bryce Harper
, and Jayson Werth
, and they will be surrounded by solid bats in Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa
, and Wilson Ramos
. (On a side note, the young catcher also plays some mean defense: According to BP’s Mike Fast, he has gained 12.7 runs per 120g for his team through pitch framing which ranks him among baseball’s top 10 catchers, and his 32.4% CS rate ranked 3rd in the majors last season).
They can also shut you down at the end of a game: Their duo of Drew Storen
and Tyler Clippard
are one of the league’s hardest-hitting 1-2 combos, and Brad Lidge, Sean Burnett
, and Tom Gorzelanny
create quality depth behind them.
They can even play a little defense; Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, and Jayson Werth
all rank near the top of their positions in UZR.
Add it all together and you have a team without a major weakness and plenty of room for improvement. You have a team that can win in any fashion. In short, you have this season’s breakout team.