For the first time since they arrived in town seven years ago, the offseason is a time of true potential and hope for the Washington Nationals. After winning 80 games and finishing third in the National League East, expectations for 2012 lie somewhere between contention and championship.
For the once moribund franchise, preparing for a potential pennant chase is an unknown commodity. How much additional talent will the team need to add, and how many more games must they win to have a real chance of making the post season for the first time since 1981?
Since 1996, National League Wild Card teams have averaged 90.5 wins per season. So for the Nationals, if they can win 10 more games in 2012, a wild card berth would be a near certainty.
Since September, general manager Mike Rizzo has continually said that the Nationals are a center fielder and starting pitcher away from true contention.
Well, let’s see.
Having a healthy Stephen Strasburg for the entire season will be a great start. The 22-year-old will be on a strict innings limit as he continues to strengthen his Tommy John-repaired elbow. He’ll likely start about 25 games in 2012, 21 more than last year when he went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA. Strasburg should be worth three additional wins next year.
Pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, who on Friday was re-signed to a one-year contract, will likely be the team’s No. 4 starter if the Nationals don’t sign a free agent this winter, or their fifth starter if they do. Wang returned this year from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss much of the last three seasons and pitched well, going 4-3 with a 4.04 ERA.
Wang won 19 games in both 2006 and 2007 and could again be formidable with his power sinker. He would be replacing Tom Gorzelanny (and a host of others) at the back of the rotation.
He should be worth another two wins.
In his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Jordan Zimmerman started 26 games and went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA. Through the first four months of the season, Zimmermann was clearly the team’s best starter. When he took the field against the Houston Astros in late July, his ERA was 2.66. He gave up six runs that night and over his last seven games of the year, his ERA was a not-so-stellar 4.47.
It was clear that he tired in his first year back from reconstructive elbow surgery. By next season, Zimmermann should have regained his strength and his form, giving the Nationals another six or seven starts.
That’s got to be worth another win.
When Washington signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year contract last offseason, it was assumed that the 31-year-old would give the Nationals roughly 25 home runs and 90 RBI, his career averages. But shoulder problems limited him to just 43 games, three homers and 15 RBI.
Midseason surgery repaired the problem and he is expected to be 100 percent by the time spring training arrives. There is no reason that LaRoche won’t hit those 25 homers and 90 RBI next year, while giving the team one of the National League’s better gloves at first.
His return would move slugger Michael Morse and his 31 homers and 95 runs batted in back to left, replacing a rotation of Laynce Nix, Rick Ankiel, Jerry Hairston and Roger Bernadina.
LaRoche’s return should bring another victory.
The Nationals’ starting lineup was dotted with rookies and inexperienced players in 2011. It would make sense that Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will be better next year. And there is no way that Jayson Werth, the team’s $126 million free-agent find, will repeat his terrible 2011 season (.232-20-58).
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman missed the first third of the season due to injury and saw his power limited by pain in his abdominal muscles when he did return. His 12 homers and 49 RBI should double if he remains healthy in 2012.
Add that all up, and it has to be worth two more wins.
It would seem, then, that the Nationals could potentially increase their win total by nine games before signing any free agents or making any significant trades.
That would put Washington at 89 wins. The addition of, say, pitcher C.J. Wilson (as many suggest) in their starting rotation and perhaps Grady Sizemore (a high risk/high reward possibility) in center could bring the Nationals another three victories.
That would give the Nationals 92 wins (give or take) and put them in a position to head into the season’s final weekend with an excellent chance of winning at least the wild card berth.
If the Washington Nationals can avoid devastating injuries in 2012 (like Ryan Zimmerman) and career-worst performances (Jayson Werth), the team can mark the city’s first winning season since 1969 and possibly their first postseason play since 1933.
And that was a long, long time ago.