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2012 National League East Preview: Washington Nationals

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Episode 2012: Return of the Strasburg (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Episode 2012: Return of the Strasburg (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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As Mets fans presumably know, the Washington Nationals haven’t had much success. Frankly, they’ve never really even mattered, a fact that I can confirm first-hand after living in Washington, D.C., for most of the past two years.

So people might raise an eyebrow (maybe even two) at the idea of baseball being a big deal in the nation’s capital soon, but the Washington Nationals have quietly been building the base for a team that may be able to compete for a quite a while. And where there are wins, there are fans.

And as awesome as that might sound for those hailing from the nation’s capital, it’s just another reason for Mets fans to stare at the calendar for the next few years and think, "How the hell are we going to compete?"

New York should prepare itself for a world in which the Mets are competing with four franchises that have to be defined as well off. The Phillies are obviously the top dog of as late, turning the team into a financial powerhouse. The Braves are the Braves, and the young pitching in the pipeline gives reason to believe that we can still use that phrase for a while. The Marlins are a suddenly relevant fringe contender with money, youth and a new ballpark

It may not come together all the way in 2012, but soon the Washington Nationals will be another foe that looks mighty formidable. If it does happen this year, though, credit the team’s management for aggressively upgrading the starting rotation during the offseason.

Gio, Edwin, And The Hastening Of A Rebuilding Process

Instead of giving you any statistics on how the Nationals pitched last season, let’s roll out the full list of starting pitchers that the team used:

  • John Lannan
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Jordan Zimmermann
  • Jason Marquis
  • Tom Gorzelanny
  • Ross Detwiler
  • Chien-Ming Wang
  • Yunesky Maya
  • Tom Milone
  • Stephen Strasburg
  • Brad Peacock

Now, somehow, the Nationals managed to finish 11th among all teams in ERA last season with only one month of Strasburg and Zimmermann missing a month. But asking for that to happen again would be like sitting down at a McDonald’s and asking for a waiter. You can certainly try it, but people will laugh towards you, and you should expect to come away disappointed.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo apparently avoided McDonald’s altogether, going for some fine dining in the land where waiters are plentiful, and also really, really expensive. Because while the Nationals now have a couple of extremely talented young starting pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, they also gave up significant amounts of talent and money in order to do so.

Neither Gonzalez nor Jackson is an ace, so there shouldn’t be any confusion there. But they both have big-time fastballs, and easily could register 4 WAR or more by moving to the friendlier confines of the National League. Durability is also a plus with both pitchers, as each has pitched over 400 innings over the past two seasons.

What you’re basically seeing here is Washington "going for it," for the lack of a better term, by landing two young, but experienced and costly, starters. And presumably, one of the biggest reasons for doing so is the return of a pitching phenom.

A Strasburgian Return

Having both Gonzalez and Jackson allows the Nationals to go four pitchers deep in above-average starters. That certainly gives Washington a variety of benefits, but a big one is that it takes pressure off Stephen Strasburg to shoulder an unduly load as he returns from Tommy John surgery.

As long as he’s been around, Strasburg is still just 23. He’s still a huge part of the Nationals’ future. And as important as he is to Washington’s chances in 2012, it’s even more important that he’s around to make a difference in the years beyond. This is still a young team that’s maturing, and like Strasburg, it won’t peak for a couple of years.

Having the depth puts less pressure on management to push Strasburg into bad situations. You can certainly wonder how a pennant race might impact the team’s usage of its prized pitcher, but they’ve already been adamant about having an innings limit in place. The Nationals probably need Strasburg to pitch extremely well to make the playoffs, but it would be a bigger disaster if he got injured again while the team makes a push.

Zimmerman, Werth, And Scoring Runs

The Nationals were 11th in runs per game among NL teams last season, well below the league average. That makes sense, considering that the team’s two star hitters, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, both struggled through most of the season. But given the potential for improvement in those two, plus a few other factors, the Nationals might be able to do a bit better in 2012.

Mainly, it starts with Zimmerman and Werth. These two guys are both signed long-term now, so the team is essentially banking on the idea that both players will leave 2011 behind and return to previous levels of success. When you see someone in their 30’s dropping from a 5-win player to a 2.5-win player in one year, you hope that they’re near the end of a contract. Werth still has six more years to go.

Zimmerman has more going for him, but the injuries need to be considered. In 2009 and 2010, he was one of the best players in the sport, an MVP-level performer because of his ability to perform both offensively and defensively. But last season, he battled injuries, which took hurt him both offensively and defensively beyond limiting his playing time. If he’s a first baseman soon, he’s no longer remotely the same kind of player because of the value that he provided as an elite defensive third baseman.

Yes, Bryce Harper is coming soon. Probably at some point next season. But he won’t save the day from the very beginning. He’ll need a bunch of help. At this point, Zimmerman and Werth are the two guys penned into that role.

Center Field, Anyone? Anyone?

If you hadn’t heard over the past year, the Washington Nationals are looking for a long-term center fielder. Frankly, they’ve been looking for one ever since they traded Brad Wilkerson to the Texas Rangers in 2006 to land Alfonso Soriano. Recently, the names have been Arizona’s Gerardo Parra and Houston’s Jason Bougeois, but it seems like the Nationals are having an awfully hard time figuring out what they’ll do at the position.

Usually, you won’t see teams going years at a time without committing to either a veteran or a young prospect. Unless the Nationals are going to shove Werth or Harper into center field, the next guy in the pipeline is 21-year-old Eury Perez, but he also needs to show that he can hit the ball out of the infield with some consistency.

For now, it appears that Roger Bernadina will be the man of the hour in center field. A 27-year-old with a .242/.304/.364 career line in 889 plate appearances, he’s basically the definition of a guy who is fine, but for like a half-season.

So, How’s It Going To Go?

It’s going to go as well as the pitching dictates. Strasburg needs to stay healthy. Well, frankly, they all need to stay healthy. But if the Nationals can somehow get 120 starts from Strasburg, Jackson, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, it’s absolutely reasonable to believe that playoff games could be played in D.C. this fall.

But the best part of what’s happening in Washington is the reality that 2012 only represents the beginning of what’s potentially a new era of unprecedented success. The Nationals already have some excellent talent at the big league level, as well as a farm system that’s not weak even after taking a beating in the Gonzalez trade. The Dodgers have shown us that Strasburg and Harper, even if they reach their potential, can’t bring a team success on their own, but there’s no reason for that to happen at this point.