The Washington Nationals are the only team in baseaball with a +.500 record against the Phillies this year (10-8)
Like many baseball fans, I love MLB Network. So, Prime 9 has inspired me to give my top nine reasons why the Washington Nationals will shock the baseball world. It might surprise you, but none of my nine reasons include Bryce Harper lighting the world on fire. Now to the rest of my introduction:
The Washington Nationals have been the punching bag of baseball for virtually their entire existence (even including their years in the great white north), but through several years of painful rebuilding, it finally feels like the old, "next year is our year" line can finally hold some water in the nation's capital.
The Nationals have developed a strong core of young players through the draft and trades. They have netted themselves a plethora of high-ceiling, young players that have a very real chance of being part of the first great Nationals club. The charge is led by Ryan Zimmerman, and includes Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen. There is also the veteran presence of regulars like breakout star Michael Morse and outfielder Jayson Werth.
Without further ado, my first reason why the Nationals will shock the baseball world in 2012 is...
The Nationals have had a knack for comebacks late in ballgames and "never saying never." Nearly every regular player has had a walk-off hit. Heck, Ryan Zimmerman has only played half of a season and has three walk-off hits of his own. Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth, and Ian Desmond have walked the Nationals off. They lead the league in walk-off wins. How else would you explain a team that is in the bottom third in the league in virtually every offensive category still just three games from .500?
Don't let the 8-11 record fool you. Jordan Zimmermann was the Nationals ace this year. He posted a 3.18 era over 161 1/3 innings, striking out 124 and walking just 31.
To answer my question a little further of how a team flirting with .500 be so bad when it comes to scoring runs, look no further than the vast improvement in the Nationals pitching staff. Currently eighth in baseball in team ERA, the Nationals can flat-out pitch and are poised to be an even better staff in the coming years.
The Nationals came into 2011 with a mix of veteran and youth among their starting five and have ended the year with only two pitchers with three-plus years of big league experience as opposed to the four out of five that they began the year with.
The Nationals rotation began the year with the following:
RHP Livan Hernandez
LHP Jason Marquis
LHP John Lannan
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
LHP Tom Gorzelanny
While each member to start in the rotation did a good to great job, due to the youth movement in the nation's capital, only one of the five remains. Jason Marquis was moved to Arizona at the trading deadline, Tom Gorzelanny was move to long-relief in preparation for the return of Chien-Ming Wang manager Davey Johnson's desire to have a dependable bullpen guy to pitch two-plus innings at any point in a ballgame. Jordan Zimmermann was shut down due to his innings limit after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in August of 2009, and Livan Hernandez was removed due to the club's desire to start evaluating its top pitching prospects as the season began to wind down.
Their rotation now consists of the following:
LHP John Lannan (10-13, 3.73, 32 GS, 178 2/3 IP)
LHP Tom Milone (1-0, 3.32, 4 GS, 21 2/3 IP)
RHP Brad Peacock (2-0, 0.75, 3G, 2 GS, 12 IP)
RHP Stephen Strasburg (0-1, 2.00, 4 GS, 18 IP, 14K's to 0 BB)
RHP Chien-Ming Wang (4-3, 4.04, 11 GS, 62 1/3 IP)
LHP Ross Detwiler (4-5, 3.00, 15 G, 10 GS, 66 IP)
No one on the team's current rotation, outside of Wang, is older than 27 and three of the five have dominated in the upper level of the minor leagues and could eventually be No. 2s or in Strasburg's case, No. 1 in the Nationals' rotation.
Assuming no starters of significance are traded or acquired, the Nationals have to fill five rotation spots will a plethora of legitimate candidates in 2012.
To break it down further, three pitchers—if they are retained—will be locks:
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
RHP Stephen Strasburg
LHP John Lannan
Now look at the battle for the final two spots:
1. LHP Ross Detwiler: The 2007 first-rounder hasn't been much other than a disappointment prior to 2011. He has had sprinkles of success in previous seasons, but since getting a chance to start consistently in August, the left-hander has made himself look like the right selection for the Nationals four years ago. Given his late season performance, he will more than likely be first in line for that fourth spot in the team's rotation in 2012.
2. LHP Tom Milone: The 2010 minor league pitcher of the year for the club and dominated the International League at AAA for much of the '11 season. He posted a crazy K/BB ratio of nearly 10-1. Did I mention that this kid tops out in the low 90s on his fastball?
3. RHP Brad Peacock: He dominated the Eastern League and got invited to the Future's game along with Bryce Harper. He even pitched well in a cup of coffee at AAA before posting a sub 1.00 ERA with the Nationals.
4. Chien-Ming Wang: The Nationals spent almost two years waiting on Wang's return to the big leagues and were rewarded with four quality starts and five-plus innings in every outing other than his first start back in the bigs.
All four pitchers have a legitimate case for being a National on opening day, but barring a big free agent acquisition, there will be four of them fighting for just two spots.
The logjam in the rotation can only lead one to believe that the Nationals have come a long, long way with their pitching staff. It was only a few years ago when players like Tony Armas Jr, Odalis Perez, and Ramon Ortiz were some the Nationals "top" rotation arms.
Michael Morse has been a breakout star this year, as he holds a .304/.361/.541 slash line to go with 28 home runs and 89 RBI.
The Nationals have hit 149 home runs, good for 16th in baseball. The team has six players with double digit home run totals and three with 19 or more. Include a full year of Ryan Zimmerman and that makes four. Of those four, three have hit for 25-30 in a season (Morse, Zimmerman and Werth). If you add roughly 10-15 home runs to the Nationals total with the absence of Zimmerman for the majority of the first half, the Nationals move into the top 10.
Danny Espinosa has 21 home runs in his rookie campaign and is only the third rookie second baseman to hit as many. His power potential could easily reach and surpass 30. His inconsistent batting average has him looking like a Dan Uggla type hitter, but with much greater defensive value.
Look for the Nationals to hit about 170-185 home runs next year with a number of them at key moments.
Drew Storen has over 40 saves in his first full year closing games for the Nationals.
As you already know, the Nationals have a plethora of talented young players and many believe that with age and experience comes maturity and knowledge.
Of the Nationals' young players, the following have had decent to great success at the major league level and will be entering either their second or third full year in the league:
2B Danny Espinosa
SS Ian Desmond
C Wilson Ramos
CL Drew Storen
SP Jordan Zimmermann
All five players play key positions on the Nationals. Many say that you have to be strong up the middle. The Nationals have three strong defensive players up the middle in Ramos, Desmond, and Espinosa. Then there is Storen, who in his first full year as closer has racked up over 40 saves for a team whose win total isn't even double that. Finally there is Zimmermann who has turned into the club's ace (at least until Strasburg can take those reigns) and pitched like a 15-20 game winner in his first full year since rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery.
With all five young players, each one has the potential to be a star at their position, and don't be surprised if more than one of the five does it in 2012.
Zimmerman being mobbed at the plate after hitting a walk-off grand slam against the NL East leading Phillies
There should be no doubt in anyone's mind who the Nationals' best player is. It's not Strasburg, it's Ryan Zimmerman. He is—and has been—the face of the franchise for nearly as long as the club has existed in DC. He has the most game-winning hits of any player in Major League Baseball since his debut in September of '05 and is a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger candidate year in and year out. He is the Nationals' most complete player and is as big a key to the Nationals shocking the baseball world in '12 as any other player on the roster now or at any point in the next year.
If the Nationals wish to not only contend, but make the playoffs in 2012, Zimmerman can't miss significant time. He's clutch, a complete player, and a team leader.
There is no doubt that the Nationals have one of the best bullpens in baseball and is highlighted by the eighth and ninth inning combination of setup man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard and the closer with a killer slider, Drew Storen.
What you might not know is that the Nationals bullpen has also had notable contributions from young arms such as Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Mattheus (pronounced Matthews), Cole Kimball, Collin Balester, and Craig Stammen.
Given the young "live" arms in the Nationals bullpen, the team's bullpen will be one of the reasons for success when the Nationals shock the baseball world in 2012.
For the first time in the Nationals history they have a series of logjams. Going into 2012, they have three first-basemen that have proven they can be regulars at the position.
The team signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal over the winter and he spent the first two or so months playing hurt before having shoulder surgery. However, he has a track record of solid offensive play and is a very good defender at first base.
Also at first base is the breakout star Michael Morse. He started as the club's everyday LF, but quickly played himself out of a job until he seemed to flip a switch around late April and early May. After LaRoche's injury, Morse moved to first and proved to be a quality defender, especially considering he had little to no experience at the position. Morse has put together a season where he has shown he has every tool but speed at the Major League level, and will end up at around 30 home runs and 90 runs batted in.
Finally, there is the youngster in the form of Chris Marrero. The Nationals made him their first-round selection in 2006 out of high school and was converted to OF and finally 1B after the emergence of Ryan Zimmerman at 3B. Marrero struggled initially on defense, but in just about a month with the big club has shown that he can be a solid defender and a clutch hitter, having driven in 10 in his first 28 games, with a number of his hits being in crucial moments.
Any one of the three could be the team's opening day first baseman, with one of the other two residing in LF.
Then there is the logjam at starting pitching, which has four in-house candidates competing for two spots. That is before the Nationals have added another starter, which GM Mike Rizzo has indicated is an offseason goal for the club. If the Nationals add a top-end rotation starter,you are talking about four pitchers for one spot or at least three if Wang departs for free agency.
Last but not least is the Nationals' depth in middle infielders. Among those includes Stephen Lombardozzi, son of the former Major Leaguer of the same name. Lombardozzi hit over .300 at AA and AAA in '11 and plays solid defense at both middle infield spots. If either Desmond or Espinosa were to fall out of favor with the organization, Lombardozzi would be the first player to replace them.
The Nationals have depth everywhere and it is likely that they will have to go to their reserves at some point next season.
There is little doubt who the Nationals' breakout player is. Michael Morse has been clutch and the club's most productive regular despite a dismal April. If the Nationals shock the baseball world, he'll need to have a repeat, and I believe he will. I have no stats to back this up other than his production this year, but just from watching his two-strike approach, I don't see any reason other than an unforeseen injury for him to not repeat his '11 efforts.
Jayson Werth has already been written off by many (including myself for a while), but remember that Werth and the Nationals were without Zimmerman for a sizable part of the season and the pressure was on Werth to carry the Nationals from the get-go.
I believe that with a full year of Zimmerman, a repeat of '11 Morse, and potential a free agent OF which Mike Rizzo has stated as an off-season goal for the club, Werth will feel like he's back in Philly with the bats around him. I would aspect 10-20 more runs batted in and a .255-.270 average from Werth in '12, which isn't that far-fetched.
The Nationals' wish list for 2012 is highlighted by an acquisition of a top-end SP and a starting OF. The Nationals have been linked to Tampa Bay Ray BJ Upton for some time and Upton has even been quoted as saying that he doesn't see himself in Tampa beyond this year. Upton is also a childhood friend of Ryan Zimmerman and has also been quoted as saying that other than Tampa, his second choice of place to play is DC. However, he has also said that he wouldn't mind being reunited with another childhood friend, David Wright in New York.
Upton would provide the Nationals with speed and power in an outfield that could feature both Morse and Werth, who could combine for as many of 60 home runs in '12 and keep them from being one of the slowest outfields in the NL.
The only question is whether Upton can remain consistent and be the player he showed he could be in the '08 playoffs. Upton still has youth, would be closer to home and his family and would be on a team with a lot of young talent. He is the Nationals' most likely acquisition in the coming offseason.
Finally, the Nationals wish to add another quality SP. They could go with any number of candidates, highlighted by C.J. Wilson and Japanese star Yu Darvish. There are also the possibility of C.C. Sabathia opting out of New York, but that might be a long-shot at best and will likely be the most expensive of the bunch.
First and foremost, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read my article and I hope that it was insightful and enjoyable. Finally, I'll leave you with some Nationals highlights from the 2011 season. I hope you enjoy it.