The Washington Nationals may just be the most potential-packed team in all of baseball. After a few dreadful years, the Nationals are re-tooled and loaded for a surprise run in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson will look to bring his magic to this up-and-coming team.
The Nationals are a team stacked with youth from top to bottom. Starting at the top of their rotation is Stephen Strasburg, the number one pick of the 2009 draft. He missed most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but came back at the end of the year and should be ready for this upcoming season. In 2010, Strasburg started the season in Double-A and went 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA between Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg before getting the call to pitch in the majors in his first professional season. He was just 21 years old. For the Nationals, Strasburg went 5-3 and posted a 2.91 ERA before needing Tommy John surgery. However, in his short big league stint, he showed that he could dominate,and at such a young age, that was very impressive.
The Nationals are now mixing in external talent with their core of young players. In late December, the Nationals made the biggest splash in the offseason trade market, acquiring Oakland Athletics pitcher Gio Gonzalez for four minor league players. Gonzalez went 16-12 last season and had a stellar 3.12 ERA. He led the league in walks, but punched out 197 batters over the course of last season. Gonzalez, just 26, can be under team control until 2019 if he is healthy in 2017. He could hit the free agent market at 33 years old. He will likely be an anchor in the rotation for 2012 and beyond.
The Nationals really didn’t lose much this offseason. Livan Hernandez is an innings eaer well past his prime that probably couldn’t go much further and Rick Ankiel was not productive at all last year, finishing with a slash line of .236/.296/.363.
I conducted a Q&A with Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball, a Nationals blog for the SBNation network. Here it is:
1. The Washington Nationals made a few splashes this offseason, including the acquisition of pitcher Gio Gonzalez. Which of these moves surprised you the most?The Nationals signing Edwin Jackson surprised a lot of people, myself included. It made sense that the Nationals would continue to look for pitching after acquiring Gio Gonzalez since they had a few question marks in the rotation in Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler and one starter (Stephen Strasburg) on an innings limit. The surprise was more that a pitcher like Jackson who’d been looking for a longer-term deal was willing to accept a one-year deal with Washington. From the Nationals’ point of view, it’s a reasonably-priced one-year deal with a pitcher that has shown he can throw 200 relatively effective innings and was worth +3.6, 3.8, 3.8 fWAR in each of the last three seasons who slots in as a no.4 behind Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. That’s the kind of aggressive move you would like to see a team that thinks it’s on the cusp make. And the Nationals now will go into the season with the best collection of pitchers they’ve had since…ever.2. How much will the Gio Gonzalez trade help this team in the long run? How good is he in your mind?(15-9) with a 3.23 ERA, a 3.78 FIP and 7.67 K/9 in a +3.2 fWAR season in 2010, (16-12) with a 3.12 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 8.78 K/9 in a +3.5 fWAR 2011 campaign with Oakland A’s teams that finished with 74 and 81 wins, Gonzalez is a young 26-year-old left-hander who’s coming off back-to-back 200-inning seasons in the AL and the Nationals were able to get him for two over-achievers (Tom Milone and Brad Peacock), one impressive young arm (A.J. Cole) and a patient, power-hitting catching prospect (Derek Norris). The fact that the Nationals were also able to lock Gonzalez up for the next fives years to pitch atop the rotation with Strasburg and Zimmermann is what really made it a good deal provided he continues to improve the way he has in the last two years. He led the league in walks last year, which is a concern, but he’s managed to succeed in spite of the high totals. If he improves as people have come to expect when a pitcher moves from the AL to the NL he gives Washington a young, controllable top of the rotation for the near future that can compare favorably with the rest of the league.3. How good is this rotation with Stephen Strasburg at the top? Does it compare to the others in the division?Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann vs Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee/Cole Hamels or vs Tim Hudson/Tommy Hanson/Jair Jurrjens or Josh Johnson/Mark Buehrle/Ricky Nolasco? The Mets are a distant-fifth with Johan Santana (if he’s healthy), Mike Pelfrey and John Niese or R.A. Dickey. The Phillies are probably still the best rotation in the NL East. If Josh Johnson stays healthy, the Marlins are a tough rotation to match up against. The Braves (with question marks for each of the top three in terms of their health), have a strong top of the rotation and up-and-coming arms like Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran that should keep them competitive for a while, but the Nationals are closer to the rest of the division in terms of pitching than they’ve ever been. With some combination of Ross Detwiler, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Edwin Jackson filling out the rotation, the Nationals can actually compete with the rest of the rotations in the division night after night. As for Strasburg himself, he still has a lot to prove. He’s just 23, and 17 starts into his career he’s as good if not better than advertised. There aren’t too many pitchers in this league I’d rather watch throw right now.4. Who is the most likely to have a breakout season for the Nationals?I’m really expecting big things from Wilson Ramos this season. As a 23-year-old rookie the former Twins’ backstop prospect managed a .267/.334/.445, 22 double, 15 HR, +3.1 fWAR season in which he had a .992 fld%, 32% CS% and got to learn from one of the best catchers in baseball history in Pudge Rodriguez. What better mentor could you want for a young catcher, who’s also worked with Joe Mauer when he was in Minnesota. The Nationals pitchers seem to love working with Ramos, who’s a big target behind the plate and the Nationals have had nothing but good things to say about him since they acquired him in 2010. Hopefully with this winter’s drama behind him, Ramos will be even more focused and if he improves at all on the year he had last season he’s got to be considered one of the best young players (not just catchers) in the majors.5. Over/Under: 75 wins for the Nationals this season?Over. I think the Nationals will improve again this season, though how far over last season’s 80 wins they get will depend a lot on how healthy they’re able to stay. The Nationals’ pitching should be significantly improved, the bullpen was strong last year and should benefit from the addition of a veteran presence like Brad Lidge if he can get back to 100%. But the Nationals need Adam LaRoche to stay healthy, they need Ryan Zimmerman to play a full-year without any injuries, they need Jayson Werth to improve significantly and they need Ian Desmond to finally put it together offensively. They also need a center fielder at least until Bryce Harper‘s up in the Nationals’ outfield. I think there’s tremendous potential for the Nats to compete this season, but everything has to go their way and 85-90 wins in the NL East is not going to be easy, but they should top 75 wins again. Can they top last year’s 3rd place finish? It won’t be easy in this division.
(Thanks to Patrick for giving such detailed, insightful answers.)
I 100% agree with Patrick that the Nationals are an up-and-coming team. However, they’re not quite at the point where they are guaranteed contenders. With the core of youth, comes inconsistency. The team will probably need a year or two to eliminate that inconsistency, but manager Davey Johnson is the perfect manager to help them accomplish this. Their rotation will be strong and their lineup could be dangerous down the road, especially if Bryce Harper develops into a star, which he very well could. In any other division, I’d say the Nationals are contenders, but with the loaded Braves, Phillies, and Marlins, I’m not quite sure the Nationals can take that net step to becoming a title contender, but they are certainly well on their way.