Things Looking Up For Nationals (Yes, Really!)

Farid RushdiAnalyst IApril 21, 2009

ATLANTA - APRIL 11: Pitcher John Lannan #31 of the Washington Nationals throws against the Atlanta Braves on April 11, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Well, well; take a couple of weeks off and look what happens to the Washington Nationals.

I hope they don't expect me to clean up the mess.

Two weeks into the season and the Washington Nationals are in last place in the National League East. That's not unexpected. Their record is 2-10.

That's crazy.

But wait a minute. Before we write the team off as a "laughing stock" as so many national journalists and sports reporters already have, let's look a little deeper into all those layers of statistics that makes following baseball so much fun.

Of those ten losses, six were by two runs or less, three by one run. Three losses were in extra innings and three came as the result of blown saves in the 9th inning. The Nationals-with just a little luck-could have a .500 record.

And to blame the offense for their bad start would be a canard. The woeful offense from last year has been replaced by a very competent-perhaps above average-group who are just now beginning to hit their stride.

To wit: The Nationals are currently 5th in the league in batting average (.269), 3rd in walks (56), 5th in hits (115), 7th in stolen bases (6), and 5th in on-base percent (.385). They are a little lacking in runs scored (9th), home runs (12th) and slugging percent (9th), but the power will come. By the end of the year, I expect four or five players will have 25+ home runs.

The pitching, of course, is another matter, but even that isn't really a concern at this point. While there is no question that all four starters got pounded in their first game-and a couple in their second-John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Daniel Cabrera and Shairon Martis have looked good in recent starts.

John Lannan got clobbered in his first two games, but returned to form April 17th against the Marlins, allowing just one run, three hits and a walk in 6.1 innings (1.50 ERA) while striking out eight and throwing 65% of his pitches for strikes. Scott Olsen, also clobbered in his first two starts, went seven innings against the Marlins his last time out, giving up two runs on six hits (2.57 ERA) and a walk while striking out five. He threw 103 pitches, 72% of them for strikes.

Daniel Cabrera has pitched well his last two games, but I guess I'm saying he pitched well for Daniel Cabrera. In those two starts, against the Phillies and Marlins, Cabrera pitched 10 innings, giving up just three earned runs (2.29 ERA), allowing nine hits. But his problems with the Orioles have followed him down the parkway. In those 10 innings, Cabrera walked six and struck out just two, an indication that his 98+ mph fastball is still missing in action. In addition, just 52% of his pitches were strikes.

Shairon Martis' last game, against the Phillies, was very good. In 6.1 innings, he allowed two runs and a two walks (3.60 ERA) while striking out one. Though he threw only 54% of his pitches for strikes, he had good command when needed.

Last night, young Jordan Zimmermann braved the rain and his nerves and pitched brilliantly against the Braves, allowing just two runs (and he was one strike away from allowing none) in six innings (3.00 ERA). He struck out three and walked one, and threw an impressive 70% of his pitches for strikes.

Add up those last six starts, and even the Nationals' naysayers have to be impressed. In 36 innings, the starters have given up 31 hits and 12 walks while striking out 18. Over that span, their ERA is a very impressive 2.75.

The bullpen was perhaps the main culprit of the team's 2-10 start, but that really was the fault of acting general manager Mike Rizzo. He sent down Garrett Mock and Jason Bergman-two of their best relievers during the spring-because they had options and kept Steven Schell and Will Ledezma because they didn't.

Mock and Bergman should stabilize the bullpen, but I'm still not sold on Joel Hanrahan as the closer. He only converted 75% of his save opportunities last year and is just one out of four in 2009.

He has the talent. Does he have the mettle? Time will tell.

The offense is clicking, and the starting pitching seems to have righted itself. The bullpen has been revamped and seems capable. The only problem that helped cause that 2-10 start that hasn't been fixed is the defense, which is first in the league in errors (13) and dead-last in fielding percent (.972).

But even that cloud isn't as dark as it seems.

Six of those 13 errors were committed by reserves or players starting because of injury. Only Ryan Zimmerman's three miscues looks out of line, but really, do any of us really think he'll finish the year with more than 12-15 errors?

Sure, the start hurts, but by September, the bad start will have been all but forgotten, and the Nationals will look like a sleeper team in 2010.