Kamis, 01 Maret 2012

Season Previews, Part Sixteen: Washington Nationals

Washington Nationals

2011 Record: 80-81
Pythag Record: 78-83
Games out of First: 21.5

2011 Recap:

The Nationals went into 2011 as a team that was expected to improve, but not necessarily make the "next big jump."  And really, they did just that as they improved from a 69 win team to an 80 win team (could have been 81 had one of their games not been rained out).  For those curious, their pythagorean record improved by 6 wins, which is rather significant.  Yes, the Nationals definitely made strides in 2011 as a franchise.  However, things could have been significantly better.  Jayson Werth had one of the worst years of his career, and stud young pitcher Stephen Strasburg missed the majority of the season on the road to recovery from Tommy John surgery.  Also, Ryan Zimmerman missed 51 games due to injury, which really limited the team's offensive potential.  What this left was a group of young guys and random breakout players to carry the club to 80 wins. Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, John Lannan, and Jordan Zimmermann were all regular contributors who had not hit their primes.  Then when you factor in Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg, you get a young core of players with an average age of just about 24 years old.  This young group of guys was then paired with the breakout (more like eruption) of Michael Morse, who blasted his way to a 147 OPS+.  The team did everything pretty well, but injuries and unexpected downgrades held them back from pushing over that .500 mark.

Top 5 Position Players by WAR:

1. Michael Morse: 3.0
2. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos: 2.5
4. Ryan Zimmerman: 2.3
5. Rick Ankiel and Jayson Werth: 2.1

Top 5 Pitchers by WAR:

1. Jordan Zimmermann: 3.4
2. Livan Hernandez: 1.9
3. Jason Marquis: 1.6
4. John Lannan: 1.3
5. Tyler Clippard: 1.2

Worth noting: Stephen Strasburg accrued 1.1 wins in 24 innings.

Off Season Overview:

The Nationals were linked to everyone this off season.  It seemed you couldn't go a day without someone suggesting that the Nationals were serious contenders to sign a big name or make a big trade.  To this point in the off season, they have done a ton.  They traded for LHP Gio Gonzalez (then extended him for five years), gave Michael Morse a two year extension, signed Brad Lidge, signed Edwin Jackson, and then gave Ryan Zimmerman a nice, juicy, 6 year/$100 million extension.  Saying the team was active is a pretty big understatement.  The Nationals have had a lot of young talent brewing in the minors for a while, and their ownership has some of the deepest pockets in all of sports.  This mix has resulted in a two year stretch of big spending, great trades, and young players making big impacts.  The Nationals are one of a few teams who are candidates for the most improved team in baseball from 2011 to 2012, because they are not only getting a bunch of new faces on the roster, but they are also likely to get bounceback years from guys like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.  They have a perfect storm brewing going into the 2012 season, and it could be capped off by something I will mention later.

Notable Additions:

SP Gio Gonzalez
SP Edwin Jackson
RP Brad Lidge

Notable Subtractions:

SP Livan Hernandez
SP Jason Marquis

Projected Lineup Version A:

1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Danny Espinosa, 2B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Jayson Werth, LF
5. Michael Morse, 1B
6. Bryce Harper, RF
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Roger Bernadina/Rick Ankiel, CF
9. Pitcher

Projected Lineup Version B:

1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Danny Espinosa, 2B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Jayson Werth, RF
5. Michael Morse, LF
6. Adam LaRoche, 1B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Roger Bernadina/Rick Ankiel, CF
9. Pitcher

As you may have (hopefully) noticed, there are two lineups here.  They are here because the team changes quite a bit if Bryce Harper actually does make the team out of spring training like some are suggesting.  From what the media has said, manager Davey Johnson wants Harper in the majors in spring, but the front office is a little more hesitant to make that big jump with the young stud so early into his development.  Now, besides that, we are looking at a stacked team right here.  All kinds of contact ability and power throughout the lineup.  There is legitimate 20+ HR power in spots 2-7 in this lineup (Ramos had 15 last year in 113 games, and I think he can get to 20 easily).  There are also a bunch of steals throughout the lineup, with 3 players (Desmond, Espinosa, and Werth) all capable of 20+ stolen bases in a season (and Desmond could get to 30 easily if he improves on his technique).  The team may not draw a ton of walks, which will keep them from being a truly elite offense, but they are going to pretty easily be able to put up enough runs to do well with the rotation you are about to see.

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Stephen Strasburg, RH
2. Gio Gonzalez, LH
3. Jordan Zimmermann, RH
4. Edwin Jackson, RH
5. John Lannan, LH

*walks away*...You guys just have fun with that one while I go sit over here...But in all seriousness, Washington has improved their rotation more than just about any team I have ever seen in one off season.  They replaced Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, and Chien-Ming Wang with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson.  That's an improvement that could easily add up to 11 wins right there...an 11 win improvement through 3 players...assuming all else is equal, that is an 89 win team right there.  However, all else is not equal, because Jordan Zimmermann is still improving, and John Lannan will be in the first year of his prime.  In fact, all five members of the rotation will either be in their primes or younger, and all of them could be legitimate #3 starters on decent teams.  Many people think Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Miami easily have the best 3 rotations in the division, but I think this one is deserving of being grouped with them.  In fact, this could be a top 5 rotation in the National League if everyone stays healthy.

Roster Strengths:

Depth.  They are deep all over the place.  Deep offense, deep starting staff, and deep bullpen.  They will be able to hit for a lot of power, and they might have the best overall pitching staff in the division if you factor in that Lidge/Clippard/Storen is one of the best back ends in all of baseball.  This is a very well-constructed roster that just needs its young players to stay healthy.  They don't have a bunch of old or frail veterans like they did last year.  They are going to be composed of a bunch of young and talented guys who will be creeping in the shadows of the popularity and hype surrounding the Phillies and the Marlins.

Roster Weaknesses:

Ummm...their offense strikes out a bunch?  I mean, not a whole lot is wrong, here.  I guess they could be a bit better defensively, especially if Morse is in the outfield and LaRoche is at first base.  However, outside of that, this is a very good roster that is going to be able to compete for quite a long time.

2012 Outlook:

This is the year, ladies and gentlemen.  Ever since the 1994 strike helped kill one of the most promising young teams in recent memory, the Washington Nationals franchise and its fans have a reason to be excited.  A core of fantastic young players is creeping into its prime and is ready to compete.  They've got the offense and pitching necessary to be a highly competitive team.  Three key things are necessary however:

1) Strasburg and Zimmerman must stay healthy.  The two biggest stars on the team are going to serve as the backbone for the squad.
2) Jayson Werth must successfully bounce back from last year.
3) Bryce Harper should make the team out of camp so his bat is in the lineup and not LaRoche's bat.

If those three things happen, I think this team is good enough to win the National League East.  Better yet, I think this is a team that can make a serious October run.  They've got the necessary pitching to get it done, and if they decide they need to go out and get another player, do not at all be surprised if they make a move to acquire a pitcher like Matt Garza (if he is not extended) to put them over the top.  Times are changing in the National League, and the Nationals are going to be at the head of the revolution.

Potential Breakout Player:

RF Bryce Harper

The phenom.  The teenager.  Bryce Harper.  Whatever you want to call him, one of the best prospects since Ken Griffey, Jr. (and one of baseball's rare and true "phenoms") is very close to arriving and contributing.  For now, he's going to have to work to win a job out of camp, but the mere fact that it's even being considered is enough to get excited about.  Massive power potential, good speed, and a cannon of an arm are the tools that have everyone talking.  If Harper makes the right adjustment to MLB pitching, then he can put on a show against the best baseball players in the world.

Potential Bust Player:

SP John Lannan

Lannan is really the biggest reason I am still hesitant to call the Nationals one of the best teams in baseball.  A very low strikeout rate and a poor walk rate are poor signs, and all of his peripherals are also poor.  Lannan isn't a very good pitcher, and his 3 seasons of roughly 3.9 ERA are on par with being remarkable.  In a more realistic world, he is probably a pitcher who will have an ERA of roughly 4.25 to 4.40.  His dropoff will probably be the most noteworthy of everyone on the Nationals' roster.

Prospects Who Could Contribute in 2012:

RF Bryce Harper (I talked enough about him before)


Projected Record: 93-69
Projected Finish: 2nd Place
Projected MVP: Stephen Strasburg (6.8 WAR)

Final Thoughts:

Call me bold.  Call me optimistic.  Call me crazy.  I don't care, because every year one team comes out and improves like it is expected to.    I think the Nationals are a serious team that is a major threat to everyone in the National League.  These are no longer the lovable losers that everyone gets to beat up on.  No more 100 loss seasons, no more roster destruction, and no more laughing stock.  These guys are for real, and I think they could legitimately win the National League East.  In fact, if I had it my way, I would probably predict the Phillies to finish 2nd to the Nationals, but my brain has told me that the Phillies have too far to fall for that to happen.  Even though the East has improved a ton as a whole, I think the Nationals have the 2nd best roster, and I think they will be the team to beat in the NL East for the next 5 years.  So sit back, relax, and enjoy the amazing show that could be the 2012 Washington Nationals.

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