Last season: 80-81 (3rd in NL East, 21.5 GB)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Greg says: The Nationals may have finally done enough to return to relevance in the National League. They finished the 2011 season strong, going 17-10. It was their best season since their inaugural season in the nation’s capital in 2005, and gave promise to a franchise that has made the playoffs just once with an electric final month of starts from Stephen Strasburg (five games, four earned runs, 0.71 WHIP, 9.00 K/9). With several new acquisitions, the Nationals are hoping they turn the corner with a good mix of young talent and solid veterans; and to perhaps overthrow the Phillies in the East, or at the least, try to snag a spot in a do-or-die Wild Card game.
They went out and acquired Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics and have him locked up for the next seven years. Gonzalez was already a pretty damn good pitcher in the American League. In the last two seasons he has become a top pitcher in the majors with 31 wins the last two seasons, a 3.17 ERA and has gone over 200 innings both years. Now he’ll face National League lineups regularly, where he typically will get at least one easy out in nine batters, plus the East is not exactly Murderer’s Row when it comes to offense. They also acquired Edwin Jackson, who has been a workhorse in his well-traveled career, to fill out a rotation that suddenly looks formidable. Along with Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who appears to have returned back to 100 percent after Tommy John surgery in 2009, the Nationals have a very solid top four starters. The fifth spot in the rotation will go to Ross Detwiler after the Nationals decided to option John Lannan to the minors. Detwiler will remain there as Chien-Ming Wang recovers from a strained hamstring suffered in Spring Training.
Last season’s marquee move in Washington was the signing of Jayson Werth. He clearly failed to live up to the contract in the first season, with just 13 multi-RBI games and 47 games with two or more strikeouts. He had the lowest on-base percentage of his career, although his fluctuation in the batting order did not help. The Nats will also welcome the return of Ryan Zimmerman, who was locked up with a deal through 2020. The sharp-fielding third baseman missed 61 games last season, but has looked good in the spring with a line of .354/.411/.667 and three home runs. The top of the order is what is important to the Nationals’ offense, though. If Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa can become on-base machines, it will make the jobs of Zimmerman, Werth and Michael Morse easier.
While Desmond did hit .293 in the spring, he also struck out 21 times. After August 20 last year, Desmond seemed to figure it out, with 13 extra-base hits and lowering his strikeout rate to 21 percent (it was 25 percent on August 20). Espinosa has looked even worse with 26 strikeouts in the spring, but at least he only has one error after accounting for 14 in 2011. We will see if Morse can continue a surprising 2011 (36 doubles, 31 home runs) to fill out what could be a big-time run-scoring lineup with good power. Expect a platoon of sorts in center field with Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel, but hold your breath because we know Bryce Harper is around the corner at any time.
Closer Drew Storen will begin the season on the disabled list, but the Nationals should have enough artillery to make up the difference in his absence. All-Star Tyler Clippard has been effective since becoming a regular bullpen arm, Brad Lidge has closer’s experience and Henry Rodriguez has the pitches in his arsenal to be a closer. Rodriguez allowed seven baserunners and struck out 11 in as many innings, and Lidge had a WHIP of 0.60 in March. Once Storen returns, the Nats bullpen should be even better.
Worth watching: Strasburg has been nothing shy of the hype he received while steamrolling his way to the majors in 2010. With a career K/9 of 11.3 and a WHIP under 1.00, the 23-year-old right-hander is sure to become a mainstay among the game’s elite. If you have to find a knock on him through just 17 starts, it’s a 1st inning ERA of 4.24; plus he has never been stretched out in games, lasting into the 7th inning only three times. Working in his favor is that the only two teams who have seen him more than once are the Braves and the Marlins. Washington has plenty of time to get him into a long-term deal as he is not due to be a free agent until 2017, but they will surely give him a new deal well before then.
Featured Image Credit: Associated Press