Summer Could Be Time of Contention for Washington Nationals

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Summer Could Be Time of Contention for Washington Nationals
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On Monday, the Washington Nationals will draft Bryce Harper, a “once in a generation” hitting prospect with their first overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft. On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg, last year’s top pick and a “once in a generation” pitching prospect, will take the mound in his first ever major league game.

To borrow a phrase from former Redskins’ head coach George Allen: "The future is now."

I have little doubt that the Nationals will contend in 2011, especially if Chien-Ming Wang returns from injury and regains the form that saw him craft back-to-back 19-win seasons with the Yankees in 2006 and 2007.

But what about 2010? Clearly, the team as presently constituted won’t reach .500 this year, though they will come close. Once the injured players return, a 75-78 win season doesn’t seem unreasonable.

But, we all know that this team is about to get a lot better. Strasburg will join the rotation on Tuesday and when last we heard, Wang is on schedule to join the team sometime after the all-star break.

If general manager Mike Rizzo thinks the team can make a serious run towards the playoffs, he will end the Roger Bernadina experiment in right field and bring in a reliable right fielder in exchange for some prospects. If not, expect right field to continue to be a debilitating sore on the Nationals lineup for the remainder of the season.

Let’s take a look at the team and try to guess what might happen in the coming weeks, beginning with the starting rotation:

 

Craig Stammen: 1-2, 5.33, 11.0/2.4/4.5, .304/.344/.544, 11 starts

Last season, Stammen’s batting average-against the first two times through the lineup was just .258 before it jumped by 80 points the third time through, so it was thought he would make an ideal long-relief pitcher. This season, however, he’s getting hit hardest in the first two innings.

Stammen was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse after a beautifully pitched game against Cincinnati on Sunday.

It was the right choice.

Luis Atilano: 5-2, 4.24, 9.4/4.3/3.3, .269/.349/.444, 9 starts

Atilano’s ERA was high before Saturday’s game against the Reds, but an outstanding outing brought it down to an acceptable number. That high ERA was the result of three very bad starts (9.64 ERA) intermixed with his five very good ones (2.40 ERA). His 4.3 walks per nine-innings is high, but hits, batting average, on-base and slugging percents allowed are all very good.

And he’s on pace to win 15 games this season. Until he proves he doesn’t belong, he will remain with the Nationals.

John Lannan: 2-3, 4.79, 10.6/4.1/2.9, .294/.367/.440, 11 starts

Lannan’s numbers look bad, but he suffered through some pretty significant elbow pain early in the season. Not counting his first game back against the Rockies in Denver (which tends to skew statistics), Lannan has pitched brilliantly.

In his last three games, Lannan is 1-0 with a 1.96 ERA, allowing opponent batters a .205 batting average, .261 on-base percent and a .292 slugging mark.

John Lannan is the model of consistency. He is only one of a handful of starting pitchers with an ERA below 4.00 in the last two seasons. No doubt, 2010 will make three in a row.

Scott Olsen: 2-2, 3.77, 9.4/2.9/6.7, .269/.324/.365, 8 starts

Oh, if Nationals’ starters could just stay healthy. Coming back from elbow surgery, Olsen started the year in the minors and got hammered in his first two starts back with the Nationals. In his last six starts, however, he’s been dominant: 1-0, 2.04, .248/.299/.293.

Olsen should return to the rotation in 10 days, and if healthy, will remain for the rest of the season.

J. D. Martin: 0-1, 2.31, 9.3/0.8/6.9, .250/.265/.542, 2 starts

Last season, Martin was solid as a rookie, going 4-4 with a 4.44 ERA. But like most rookies, he got pasted in his first two starts but from that point on—in his last nine starts last year and his first two this season—Martin has pitched beautifully.

In 77 innings, Martin is 4-3 with a 3.28 ERA, allowing 9.5 hits and 1.9 walks per nine-innings while striking out 5.6. Opponents are hitting just .261/.322/.456 against him.

There is nothing sexy about Martin. But he is a former first-round pick who gets major league batters out on a regular basis.

He deserves a spot in the rotation.

So thus far, here is my Nationals’ rotation for the second half of the season:

1. Stephen Strasburg
2. John Lannan
3. Scott Olsen
4. Luis Atilano
5. J.D. Martin

This, of course, doesn’t include Livan Hernandez (4-3, 2.22, 7.4/2.6/4.6, .222/.275/.363), without a doubt the team’s best starter thus far. That is because I don’t for a second believe that Livan will be with the team after the trading deadline on July 31st , perhaps even before.

No one expected Hernandez, 35, to pitch this well in 2010. He hasn’t finished a season with an ERA under 4.00 since 2005. Since then, he’s been traded, released, and released again.

At 35, Livan is not in the team’s long-term plans, and any day now could return to his form as one of the worst starters in the National League. No doubt Rizzo is gauging his value as trade bait to a contender, perhaps packaging Livan and a prospect or two for a bona fide major league right fielder.

Really, if the Nationals aren’t going to try to contend this season, Livan’s presence is a luxury, perhaps even a problem.

Because waiting in the wings are two former all-star pitchers, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang. Marquis is due to return to the Nationals in mid-July and Wang, who is not progressing as quickly as hoped, will probably be available two or three weeks later.

Stephen Strasburg, John Lannan and Scott Olsen are locks to remain in the rotation through the rest of the season (though Strasburg will be pulled when he reaches his first-year inning count, somewhere in early-to-mid September). But what if Luis Atilano or J.D. Martin struggles?

No problem. Just insert Wang or Marquis. In fact, they are going to be inserted regardless of how the staff is pitching.

By August, then, the rotation will include Strasburg, Lannan, Wang, Marquis and one of Atilano, Martin or Olsen.

Sometime after the all-star break, the Nationals will have no less than eight starting pitchers who have earned the right to be in the rotation. Some will slump, some will be injured, but among them will be five pitchers who are good enough to help the Nationals contend.

But if that is true, is the bullpen strong enough to support a contender?

Absolutely.

The Nationals will need seven solid arms in the bullpen. Take a look at the top seven relievers the Nationals currently have:

 

Miguel Batista: 0-2, 4.05, 6.5/5.6/4.8, .207/.336/.360

Other than his high number of walks, Batista’s stats—especially his batting average against—are lights out. He is the weakest link in the bullpen right now, which says a lot about the way this group is pitching.

Tyler Walker: 1-0, 4.13, 9.5/1.6/8.6, .278/.304/.472

Need someone to come in and strike a batter out, or to at least make sure you don’t walk him? Walker is allowing just 1.6 walks per nine-innings while striking out almost nine. He started off poorly but has pitched well recently.

Doug Slaten: 2-0, 1.93, 9.7/4.3/5.4, .290/.371/.323

Slaten is walking too many, and giving up too many hits, but his 1.93 ERA is sparkling.

Sean Burnett: 0-3, 3.50, 8.3/3.6/8.8, .235/.307/.353

Burnett started slowly but has redeemed himself recently and has now matched his numbers from last season, which was his career best.

Drew Storen: 1-0, 1.93, 5.6/5.6/5.6, .185/.333/.222

5.6 walks, hits and strikeouts per nine-innings? I think all of those numbers are skewed by a low inning total. But his averages-against tell the real story. He’s done an outstanding job.

Tyler Clippard: 8-3, 1.66,  5.0/4.3/10.1,  .172/.279/.276

Just look at those slash lines one more time. I don’t have a thing to add.

Matt Capps: 0-3, 3.71, 10.5/2.1/8.1, .286/.330/.429, 18 saves

Take away the errors in Houston and Capps would have 20 saves, on pace for 58 for the year. Sure, he’s got a little Chad Cordero in him, but unless his defense (or the umpires) doesn’t make a mistake, he’s going to get the save. He’s hanging some sliders right now, but he’ll correct the problem soon enough.

The Nationals’ offense, as we all know, is good enough to make it to the playoffs. Yes, there is a big hole in right field, but Rizzo certainly has enough spare parts to go out and get one if needed.

And the bullpen is about as good as it gets, and once the injured starting pitchers return, there is going to be a logjam like we’ve never seen before here in Washington.

The National League is made up of several very good teams and a bunch more average ones. Strasburg, a right fielder, and the return of the players currently on the disabled list would be enough to get the Nationals to 84-87 wins.

Will that be enough to get to the playoffs?

I don’t know. And unless the answer to that question becomes a cut-and-dried yes, I don’t see the Nationals trading any of their future for a preemptive pennant chase this summer.

Stay tuned, though. Whatever happens is going to happen soon.

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