The Washington Nationals took a big step forward in 2011, and they'll head into 2012 looking to take yet another big step forward.
The Nats finished just a game under .500 last season, which is pretty impressive considering the fact Jayson Werth was a bust in the first year of his big contract and they only got to enjoy five starts from Stephen Strasburg.
Over the offseason, the Nats went out and shored up their starting pitching staff and their bullpen. On paper, they now look like a very strong team, one that could possibly win the NL East.
Here's a look at how the Nats are shaping up heading into 2012.
2011 Record: 80-81
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Ryan Perry (from Detroit), RHP Jeff Fulchino (FA), 2B Andres Blanco (FA), OF Xavier Paul (FA), 3B Chad Tracy (FA), 3B Jarrett Hoffpauir (FA), RHP Waldis Joaquin (FA), SS Carlos Rivero (waivers), LHP Gio Gonzalez (from Oakland), RHP Robert Gilliam (from Oakland), OF/INF Mark DeRosa (FA), C James Skelton (FA), C Devan Ivany (FA), RHP Jimmy Barthmaier (FA), RHP Brad Lidge (FA), RHP Edwin Jackson (FA), 3B Mark Teahen (FA), OF Rick Ankiel (FA).
Key Departures: RHP Collin Balester (to Detroit), LHP Tom Milone (to Oakland), C Derek Norris (to Oakland), RHP A.J. Cole (to Oakland), RHP Brad Peacock (to Oakland), RHP Todd Coffey (FA), RHP Livan Hernandez (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP)
- Gio Gonzalez (16-12, 3.12, 1.32)
- Jordan Zimmerman (8-11, 3.18, 1.15)
- Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79, 1.44)
- Chien-Ming Wang (4-3, 4.04, 1.28)*
- John Lannan (10-13, 3.70, 1.46)
- Ross Detwiler (4-5, 3.00, 1.26)
C: Wilson Ramos (.267/.334/.445)
1B: Adam LaRoche (.172/.288/.258)
2B: Danny Espinosa (.236/.323/.414)
3B: Ryan Zimmerman (.289/.355/.443)
SS: Ian Desmond (.253/.298/.358)
LF: Michael Morse (.303/.360/.550)
CF: Roger Bernadina (.243/.301/.362)
RF: Jayson Werth (.232/.330/.389)
Closer: Drew Storen (R) (6-3, 43 SV, 3 HLD, 5 BLSV, 2.75 ERA, 1.02 WHIP)
Tyler Clippard (R) (3-0, 38 HLD, 7 BLSV, 1.83, 0.84)
Brad Lidge (R) (0-2, 1 SV, 8 HLD, 1.40, 1.50)
Sean Burnett (L) (5-5, 4 SV, 15 HLD, 6 BLSV, 3.81, 1.32)
Henry Rodriguez (R) (3-3, 2 SV, 10 HLD, 3 BLSV, 3.56, 1.51)
Tom Gorzelanny (L) (4-6, 4 HLD, 1 BLSV, 4.03, 1.29)
Ryan Perry (R) (2-0, 4 HLD, 1 BLSV, 5.35, 1.62)
Ryan Mattheus (R) (2-2, 8 HLD, 2.81, 1.28)
Craig Stammen (R) (1-1, 1 HLD, 0.87, 0.68)
Atahualpa Severino (L) (1-0, 1 HLD, 3.86, 1.29)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching wasn't Washington's specialty in 2011, but Washington's rotation was better than most people probably think.
Despite the fact they logged just 79 quality starts, Nationals starters combined for a 3.80 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP last season. Both of those figures were middle of the road in the National League, and they put the Nationals in the same company as teams like the St. Louis Cardinals.
One of the biggest problems Washington's rotation had last season was its inability to strike hitters out. Nationals starters had a 5.67 K/9, second-lowest in the National League.
This is one thing that should be different in 2012. The Nationals have a few guys in their rotation who can strike hitters out in their sleep.
It all starts at the top with Stephen Strasburg, who is about to embark on his first full season in the major leagues. The Nationals have no choice to but to sit back and cross their fingers, hoping that Strasburg will be as good as he was in the 12 games he started back in 2010.
In those 12 starts, Strasburg had a 12.18 K/9. To put that in perspective, the highest K/9 posted by a qualified pitcher that season was 9.79, posted by Tim Lincecum. Strasburg had that rate beat by a lot. To put it in further perspective, had Strasburg pitched the whole season, his 12.18 K/9 would have qualified for the seventh-best single-season K/9 ever.
In the five starts Strasburg made in 2011, he slacked off and posted a pedestrian K/9 of 9.00. This, however, was coupled by a 0.75 BB/9.
The question you want to ask is this one: How high can I get my hopes up?
Not too high. Strasburg has a live arm, but the Nats know it's also a fragile arm. They'll be watching Strasburg's innings like a hawk, and they will intervene at the slightest sign of trouble.
The other guys in the rotation will have to pick up the slack, and that's an effort that will start with Gio Gonzalez.
Gonzalez can't strike guys out quite like Strasburg, but he's coming off a season in which he posted a K/9 of 8.78. That was good for 11th in baseball and fourth in the American League.
The downside? Gonzalez's BB/9 was over 4.00, and he ended up walking a major league-high 91 hitters. That's not a category any pitcher wants to lead baseball in.
The bright side is that Gonzalez still managed to pitch 200 innings despite his tendency to walk the ballpark, and that can be chalked up to how hard he was to hit. He got a good percentage of ground balls, and he was able to keep hitters off balance pretty well. All told, hitters hit just .230 off him with a .336 slugging percentage.
So you can just imagine what will happen if Gonzalez stops piling up walks. He'll be an ace.
Jordan Zimmerman was the ace of this staff in 2011. He had a sub-.500 record, but there's nothing to scoff at when you look at Zimmerman's other numbers. He didn't strike out a ton of hitters, but he helped himself by lowering his BB/9 to 1.73, a very good mark.
Zimmerman's success came mostly through his ability to get fly ball outs. Among NL pitchers with at least 160 innings, only five pitchers had a higher fly-ball rate than Zimmerman's 41.9 percent. It's impressive that he managed to keep the ball in the yard, as he gave up only 12 home runs in a little over 161 innings of work.
I would say that Zimmerman got lucky, but that's a hard argument to make given the fact Zimmerman's FIP of 3.16 was basically a mirror image of his ERA. That's a sign that his numbers were right where they were supposed to be. So if he stays steady in 2012, he'll be an outstanding No. 3 starter.
Edwin Jackson will be a solid No. 4 starter. Walks have always been a problem for him, but he's coming off a season in which he posted a career-best 2.79 BB/9. So at least there's that.
The not-so-good news is that Jackson's K rate dropped to 6.67 per nine innings, and hitters hit .290 off him. There's really no defending those numbers.
What does bode well for Jackson is that he's joining a division that has three below-average offensive clubs in it in the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Extra starts against them will help Jackson pad his stats and will likely push him closer to the 200-inning mark. You take that kind of production out of a No. 4 starter.
Chien-Ming Wang would be an outstanding No. 5 starter if this was 2007. But since it's not, well, I guess the Nationals will have to take what they can get out of Wang and be thankful.
I'll say this for Wang. In the 11 starts he managed to make last year, he showed that he still has the ability to get ground balls in bunches. If he can do that over, say, 20 starts with John Lannan and others picking up a start here and there, the Nats will be pretty happy with what they're getting from the back end of their rotation.
The Nationals rotation is not as great as Philadelphia's, for example, but it's full of starters who are young, and most of them have live arms and great stuff. The ceiling for this group is very high.
Scouting the Bullpen
Washington's bullpen had a strange season in 2011.
The good: a 3.20 ERA (fourth in NL), a .225 opponents' batting average (fourth in NL), a 1.26 WHIP (fourth in NL) and an 8.02 K/9 (tied for sixth in NL).
The bad: 27 blown saves, the most in the major leagues.
Oh well. It's a new season now, and there's a lot to like about the bullpen the Nats have lined up for 2012.
Drew Storen was one of the top closers in the league last season, finishing tied for sixth in the majors with 43 saves and posting a 2.75 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. It was generally agreed before last season that Storen had closer's stuff and, well, there it was.
Storen will deliver his fastball consistently in the mid 90s, and he gets a lot of swings and misses on his secondary stuff. His 8.84 K/9 did not place him amongst the game's elite relievers, but he kept his BABIP at a very respectable .246, and hitters had hit just .204 off him when all was said and done. He didn't suffer solid contact to be made against him.
This season, Storen will have to work on increasing his K/BB ratio, and he'll do himself plenty of favors if he surrenders fewer home runs. He gave up eight last season in 75.1 innings pitched, which is a few too many.
Setting up for Storen will be Tyler Clippard. Once a Yankees washout, Clippard proved to be a dominant setup man last season. He allowed a ridiculously low .162 opponents' batting average, which looked pretty good next to his 10.60 K/9.
We knew Clippard had the goods to strike hitters out, but one of the reasons he was so much better in 2011 than he'd ever been before was because of his improved control. Clippard had a BB/9 over 4.00 in 2010. In 2011, he got it down to 2.65, an impressive decrease.
In the end, Clippard ended up leading the majors in the most overlooked category in baseball: holds. He had 38 of them.
The Nats went out and acquired Brad Lidge to help set up for Storen in the ninth. Lidge is a total crapshoot at this stage of his career, but he's looked sharp in spring training. The Nats know Lidge is not going to blow hitters away with his fastball anymore, but he'll be a solid reliever if he can use his slider effectively. And of course, they'll need Lidge to stay healthy.
If the Nats get the pre-All-Star break version of Henry Rodriguez and good work out of lefties Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny, this bullpen is going to be absolutely loaded.
The key, obviously, will be the two guys at the end doing what they did in 2011 all over again, hopefully a little better. As long as the Nats get that, they're going to win a lot more games than they're going to lose.
Scouting the Hitting
The Nationals were not an elite offensive team in 2011. They scored just 624 runs, 12th in the National League, and their .242 team batting average tied them with the San Francisco Giants for the second-worst mark in the National League.
In order for things to be better, the Nats are going to need some players to stay healthy, and they're going to need other players to step it up.
One player who has to stay healthy is Ryan Zimmerman. Last season, he was done in by an abdominal strain that cost him to miss a few weeks just when the season was getting started.
On the bright side, Zimmerman was pretty good in the second half of the season. He hit just .254 with four homers in 130 at-bats before the All-Star break. After the break, Zimmerman hit .306/.361/.460 with eight home runs. He's capable of putting up better numbers than that, but Zimmerman did well to save face after the first half of his season was basically lost to injury.
I'm going to have more on Zimmerman in just a minute, but for now, I'll just say that he needs to be the man in the middle of the Nationals batting order. If he stays healthy and performs the way he's capable of performing, the Nats will go far.
Elsewhere in the middle of Washington's lineup, the Nats are going to need Michael Morse to do exactly what he did last year, when he hit .303 with a .550 slugging percentage and 31 home runs. There's a slight regression concern given Morse's tendency to strike out way more often than he walks, but the raw power is definitely there. Morse's ISO (isolated power) of .247 ranked fifth in the National League.
The Nats have to be encouraged by how consistent Morse was last season. He hit .306 with 15 homers before the break and .299 with 16 homers after the break. I recall many people were waiting for Morse to plummet back to earth, and he never did. He just kept slugging.
The Nats are hoping that Jayson Werth will get back to slugging this year. His signing was a bad idea when it happened, and Werth made it look like an even worse idea as the season progressed. A hitter as talented as him has no business posting a .719 OPS.
Werth's struggles in 2011 seem to be a classic case of a player trying way too hard. His walk rate decreased, his strikeout rate increased and he just plain struggled to make solid contact. His BABIP was .352 in 2010. It plummeted to .286 in 2011, which had a lot to do with all the ground balls Werth hit. A guy with his power isn't going to be good for much if he's hitting it on the ground nearly half the time, as Werth did in 2011.
The Nats will be looking for a bounce-back from Werth, and they'll be looking for Danny Espinosa to take the next step and just be consistent this season. He put up some impressive power numbers before the break last season (16 home runs), but he hit just .227 with five home runs after the break. Not unlike many young hitters, Espinosa strikes out way too much, and he's only going to develop so much as a hitter as long as that's par for the course.
According to MASNSports.com, Espinosa is going to hit second for the Nationals this season, and Ian Desmond is going to bat leadoff. If so, Desmond is going to need to do a much better job of getting on base this season, as he's coming off a season in which he managed an OBP of just .298. In 2010, his OBP was .308.
That's not going to get it done. Desmond is going to have to take his walks, and he's another guy who has to cut down on his strikeouts. If he doesn't improve, this lineup is going to suffer.
As a whole, this is not an awful lineup, but it is a lineup that will require a few hitters to step up their game. I've discussed the key guys in depth, but the Nats are going to need Adam LaRoche, Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Wilson Ramos to provide some production as well.
If the Nats struggle to hit, they'll have to find somebody who can help out. And I think we all know who they're likely to turn to in that situation.
He still hasn't proven himself as a bona-fide major league ace, but Stephen Strasburg has to go here.
There are a couple things that make Strasburg scary. First and foremost is his fastball velocity, which is elite. His fastball came in at an average of 97.6 miles per hour in 2010, and it came in at an average of 96 miles per hour in his five starts last season.
In other words, Strasburg took something off his fastball, and he was still chucking it faster than 95.
One other thing that makes Strasburg almost unfairly good is the fact that he has an array of secondary pitches he can throw, and all of them are plus pitches. His curveball (or slurve or whatever it is) and changeup in particular are deadly.
Lastly, pitchers as young and as green as Strasburg aren't supposed to have such advanced control. I pointed out that his control was even better after he returned late last season, and that's pretty impressive considering that control is often the hardest thing for a pitcher to reclaim when returning from Tommy John surgery.
The only thing standing in the way of Strasburg becoming an ace and a perennial Cy Young contender is health. Given the arm troubles he's already experienced, there appear to be only two paths on which Strasburg's career will progress: He'll either be the next Mark Prior, or the next Justin Verlander.
For baseball's sake, I'm rooting for the latter.
When he's healthy, Ryan Zimmerman is the best all-around third baseman in baseball. He'll hit for average and power, and he'll play tremendous defense at the hot corner. It feels like there used to be a lot of third basemen who fit that particular mold, but these days, Zimmerman is a rarity.
It's strange to think that Zimmerman has only hit 30 home runs once and that he's only hit .300 once. You just get the sense that such numbers should be routine for him, though that may have something to do with Zimmerman's fat new contract.
To live up to that contract, all Zimmerman will have to do is stay on the field. His natural talent will take care of the rest.
When he's at the dish, the best way I can describe Zimmerman is to call him a pure hitter. He's not a guy who walks too often (career BB% of 9.2), but he manages to avoid striking out too much. When he swings the bat, he swings it with authority, as he's only posted a BABIP under .300 once, and that year, his BABIP was .295.
If Zimmerman stays healthy this season, the bar will be set at a line like .300/.375/.520 with 30 home runs and 110 RBI. If he achieves those numbers, he'll be an All-Star and he could even find himself in the MVP discussion if the Nats win enough games.
You know what the really scary part is? Zimmerman is still only 27.
When he was in Philadelphia, Jayson Werth was the Phillies' X-factor. He didn't stand out next to greats like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, yet there he was waiting to destroy pitchers after they found their way past the heart of Philly's lineup.
After one season in Washington, it's obvious that Werth is a much better sidekick than he is a star. As many expected would be the case, Werth just wasn't the same outside of Philly's vaunted lineup.
Werth has no choice but to prove this reputation wrong in 2012 (and beyond). And to be honest, I like his chances.
I like Werth's chances because he's not getting nearly as much attention this year as he was last year. There's less pressure on him to perform, which can only help given how badly he crumbled under pressure in 2011.
All Werth has to do is dig into the box, relax and hit the ball hard. That's what he used to do in Philly, and the numbers he managed to put up speak for themselves.
If Werth goes back to hitting like he did with the Phillies, Washington's lineup is going to be a lot deeper and a lot scarier. If he doesn't, he'll be just as easy an out in 2012 as he was in 2011, and Washington's lineup will struggle to score runs.
There's no middle ground. Werth is either going to go boom, or he's going to bust. Again.
Prospect to Watch
The Nationals optioned Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse a couple days ago, ending his chances of opening camp with the big club. No doubt the decision came as a disappointment to those who can't wait to watch Harper blasting home runs at the major league level. And let's face it, that's all of us.
All in good time. Harper is still only 19 years old, and everyone must keep in mind that he's only advanced as far as Double-A. He has as much talent as any prospect in baseball, but he still has much to learn.
Syracuse will only hold Harper for so long. It's fair to expect Harper to handle Triple-A pitching quite well, and sooner or later, the Nationals are going to come to the conclusion that his talents are being wasted in the minors.
It'll happen. When Harper gets the call to the big leagues, he's yet another guy who will make the Nationals lineup much deeper and much more dangerous.
What the Nationals Will Do Well
All the pieces are in place for the Nats to be an above-average pitching team in 2012. They have a young, talented rotation and a bullpen that is very strong at the back end.
So here's my gut feeling: The Nats are indeed going to be an above-average pitching team, most likely one of the best in the National League.
On offense, the Nats will conduct most of their business via the home run. They have a lot of guys who can mash, and you just get the sense that power will be infectious in this lineup. If so, the Nats will be this year's version of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
What the Nationals Won’t Do Well
Two things worry me about the Nats.
First, the youth of this pitching staff will invariably result in some collective wildness and some inconsistency. Nats pitchers are going to walk their fair share of hitters, and there are going to be cold spells. Rest assured.
In addition, the Nats are likely going to have a hard time scoring runs when they're not hitting the ball out of the yard. The top of their order is very weak, which will create problems for the middle of the lineup. The latter half of their order has the potential to be very weak.
Also, the Nats are going to be at best a mediocre fielding team. Zimmerman is a stud at the hot corner, but there are several weaknesses elsewhere on the diamond.
Where will the Nationals finish in the NL East in 2012?
Brad Lidge made waves recently when he said that this Nationals team is the most talented team he's ever been on.
That's a bold statement seeing as how Lidge has played for a NL champion Houston Astros squad and a world champion Philadelphia Phillies squad.
But Lidge had a point. There is a ton of talent on this Nationals squad. They're an up-and-comer, not unlike the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. Nobody should be surprised if the Nats win the NL East this season.
I know I won't be. I'm picking them to do just that.
Projected Record: 94-68, first in NL East.
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American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: