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MLB: 10 Washington Nationals Questions Going into the Season

Tom NataliCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2012

MLB: 10 Washington Nationals Questions Going into the Season

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    The Washington Nationals may be the most interesting team in the area. In what has been a largely apathetic fan base upon their move from Montreal, the Nats have definitely struggled (excluding two .500 seasons in the first and last year).

    I have claimed over the past year that if the Nationals become a good team, fans will come in excess.

    Currently, the Washington Capitals have gone from an underground following to everyone and anyone “rockin’ the red," which goes to show you what will happen when a home team starts winning. I feel the same could be applied for the Nats, but with greater magnitude.

    There is such a familiarity with baseball: the rules are widely understood, the majority of kids out there at least played tee ball and Nationals Park is a great atmosphere, with relatively cheap ticket prices as well as its convenient accessibility.

    So once again, I stand by my statement: If the Washington Nationals become a playoff team, they will start generating a major fan base, or if you would like to say, “If you build it, we will come.”

    Last year’s Nats finished with a respectable record and a tremendous amount of improvement was made. Relief pitchers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen formed one of the best young 1-2 punches in the eight and ninth innings. Danny Espinosa showed flashes of power, athleticism and defense. Mike Morse came out of nowhere to become the team’s best offensive threat and Jordan Zimmerman pitched at an All-Star level.

    With a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg returning, the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez and the possibility of phenom Bryce Harper reaching the majors this season, the Nationals have suddenly become a dark horse in the playoff race.

    What needs to happen for the Nationals to go to the playoffs this year? The answer is simple: You need a little bit of luck and things need to go as planned. That means no more devastating injuries, free agent busts, and instead the development of young talent. That seems easy, but in an unpredictable sport like baseball, stranger things have happened.

    Below you will find a set of questions that I feel are contingent on the Nationals success this year, which are not in any particular order.

Question 1: Can Ian Desmond Become the Leadoff Hitter?

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    I’ve said from the start that if Ian Desmond wants to remain a Washington National, he’s going to need to learn how to hit from the leadoff spot.

    He has the speed, athleticism and has improved defensively in year two as the team’s starting shortstop, but he continued to struggle at the plate, most notably against breaking balls.

    Throughout the season Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson had him bat all throughout the lineup, as they were yet to find a level of comfort with him. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the season that Davey Johnson put Ian back at the top of the order, and he began to show the promise that Nationals officials had hoped for.

    I think this will be Desmond’s last year to prove himself. Davey Johnson is notorious for giving his players the benefit of the doubt, which gives Desmond another opportunity to solve a problem the Nats have been trying to answer for years now.

Question 2: When Will Bryce Harper Be Called Up?

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    It is widely known that Bryce Harper’s talent level can be mentioned with some of the great young hitters of this generation. He has already drawn up comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, who both became major leagues at age 19.

    What General Manager Mike Rizzo has to realize (I’m sure he does) is that this is a not a race. There may some added pressure by the organization to have Bryce make the roster out of spring training to boost ticket sales, merchandise and overall revenue, but I feel that Davey Johnson, Rizzo and others will be extra patient with the young man.

    It bothers me that so many people are overly critical of Harper. Think back to how you acted when you were 19 years old? Now imagine being the best baseball player in your age group with millions of dollars. Yeah, it’s a little different.

    Lastly, my prediction of Bryce is that we’ll see him sometime in June or July. Let’s give the youngster some more time to develop, especially in the outfield, where he’s only been playing for a year and a half now.

    Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina can fill in the time being. Now, I don’t envision the same type of buzz that Strasburg had in his debut, but something definitely similar.

Question 3: Who Is Going to Earn the Fifth Spot in the Rotation?

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    Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Edwin Jackson have all solidified their position in the rotation, and probably in that order.

    That leaves John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler to battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.

    Lannan has been a National for years now, but he’s nothing special. He’s an innings-eater who likes to induce ground balls and has remained mostly accurate.

    After years of battling through injuries, Wang seemed to improve after each start in Washington, however he struggled working late in games due to his stamina.

    In my opinion, Detwiler is the best option out of the three. For one, I prefer to have two left-handed starting pitchers in the rotation (Gonzalez being the other). In addition to that, Detwiler is the youngest of the three and probably has the highest ceiling.

    After becoming the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, Detwiler hasn’t shown much. He initially struggled in his days with Manny Acta as the manager and then went through a difficult hip injury in which he had to re-learn his mechanics.

    Ross started to turn the corner when given the opportunity last year. He has a higher velocity on his fastball than Lannan and can eat up some innings, which is a primary goal for a back of the rotation guy.

    I’d consider Wang a wash for now and see if we can trade Lannan for some help in the bullpen.

Question 4: Can Mike Morse Continue Where He Left Off?

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    He was the most enjoyable to player to watch on last year’s Nationals team. The ball was exploding off of his bat as he hit home runs, doubles and singles, and even more impressive—he was hitting them to all sides of the field.

    As mentioned before, baseball is predictably unpredictable, so can Morse continue on his hot streak, thus inevitably leading to his first All-Star game?

    I would say yes, he’s too talented to fail. He has the size, strength and his much improved ability to read pitches to become a 30 home run, 100 RBI guy.

    What will be beneficial to Morse this season is having a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche back together with hopeful consistency from Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa. The more hitters in the lineup, the more opportunities Morse will receive.

    What has been mentioned before is the “core” of the Nationals that features youthful, talented ballplayers that have yet to reach their full potential. I see no reason why Michael Morse won’t be mentioned in that category.

Question 5: Will Jayson Werth Rebound from Last Season?

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    He has to, right? By all accounts, you don’t sign someone to a $126 million dollar contract and put on a performance like that.

    That being said, Werth struggled with a lot adversity last year. He’s in an unfamiliar place; he doesn’t have All-Star sluggers like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins in the lineup with him and the Nats never established him in the batting order consistently.

    In addition to that, he still remained a very good outfielder and is the team’s best base runner. However, let it be known that the Nationals cannot afford another season like Werth had in 2011.

    Even the best hitters in baseball go through slumps at times, but slumps are not supposed to last an entire season. I can only guess that Jayson will improve upon that. He’s too experienced not to.

    Lastly, what really impressed me about the Washington Nationals last year is despite losing their best player Ryan Zimmerman to an injury for half of the season, Jayson Werth being worthless (a really bad pun) and Stephen Strasburg basically gone the entire season, the team still finished only a game behind .500. In my opinion, that’s very impressive.

Question 6: What Will the Environment of Nationals Park Be Like?

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    I can’t say enough about the stadium. All things considered, tickets prices are easily affordable, there’s enough activities for children to keep busy and the food is great.

    I have heard that Nats Park doesn’t have that “ballpark” feel. Well, it doesn’t have that because not enough people are going.

    I consider it unrealistic to sell out over 80 home games unless you are in New York, Chicago or Boston, but upon Nats Park opening, I can say that they have had a home field advantage only twice. That was on opening night, with Zimmerman’s walk off home run and Stephen Strasburg’s inaugural game. In other words, that’s really bad.

    In comparison to the players on the roster, Nationals Park and their fans have high potential too. Even though I know I am reiterating myself, I need to answer my question: the environment will be much improved if the Nationals turn into a winner.

    Ticket prices will go up and the Metro will be filled to the brim. That still remains a big “if” though.

Question 7: Can Davey Johnson Still Manage?

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    Does Davey still got it? I don’t think we can answer that yet. Obviously, he has the resume to prove that he does. However, can the 69-year-old with health problems work through a 162 game season? I’m certainly skeptical, but I think Davey is too fired up.

    He’s been raving about the talent that is currently on the roster and he’s not afraid of mentioning the “P” word (playoffs).

    Davey Johnson is a baseball guy. He’s been in the game for decades now, in which he is tremendously patient with his players, and he has provided mathematics to his gameplan.

    When push comes to shove, Davey is the right man to lead this team. He’s won everywhere he has gone and the same success can be realistically attainable.

Question 8: Will Ryan Zimmerman Earn a Contract Extension?

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    I would say yes. He’s been with the franchise for six years, and when healthy he’s one of the best third baseman in the majors.

    That’s one of the problems, however—he hasn’t been healthy in two years. In addition to that, the Nats already have a $100 million man in Jayson Werth. Hopefully, Stephen Strasburg will receive an eventual extension, as well as Jordan Zimmerman.

    If I were Mike Rizzo, I would do what it takes to keep the Z-man in a Nationals uniform for the rest of his career.

    He’s been the face of the franchise, a model teammate and is the most clutch hitter on the team. He has also become the veteran of the clubhouse, which is essential to a team that the Nats have assembled.

Question 9: Will Stephen Strasburg Be as Advertised?

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    Yes, on a limited basis. I know most fans want to see Strasburg pitch eight shutout innings, as he’s touching 100 MPH on the radar gun.

    They are going to be careful with their prized possession. I was happy that he came back for a month last year just to get the cobwebs out, but he’s going to be monitored all season—similar to what Jordan Zimmerman went through last year.

    Strasburg initially drew fame being a power pitcher. His off-speed pitches went unnoticed. The ability to throw deceptive off-speed pitches can prolong his career by transitioning to allow more ground balls. This may be the direction Strasburg goes to now that he missed over a year on the mound.

    All that being said, Stephen Strasburg remains an enormous talent and he’ll most likely be the starter on Opening Day.

    It has been reported that Strasburg will be shut down in September, just like Jordan Zimmerman was in 2011. So what happens if the Nationals are in a playoff race? Are they going to be forced to shut down their best pitcher when they need him the most? It’s definitely an interesting conundrum.

Question 10: Will the Nationals Make the Playoffs?

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    Let’s see: the rotation and bullpen appears to be playoff worthy, they are very strong defensively (Danny Espinosa will win a Gold Glove very soon), they have the power hitters (Morse, Zimmerman, maybe Bryce Harper) and they have the manager.

    So, on paper, the playoffs seem very possible. Here’s what they don’t have, however, which might be the most important: experience. Excluding Jayson Werth, there’s not a starter on the team that has substantial experience come October.

    If I were to realistically predict this coming season, I think the Washington Nationals need another year to develop. The Phillies are still going to be the beast of the division, the Braves and new look Marlins will be a threat too.

    The Nats are young, very young. Let them grow into the professionals that they inevitably become and also make Mike Rizzo look like a genius.

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