MIAMI GARDENS, FL - Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches during a game against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
In the first edition of our 2012 team previews, we look at the Washington Nationals, who are hoping to compete in a tough NL East.
Welcome to the first team preview for the 2012 season! We'll cover all 30 teams, and we'll alternate leagues in reverse-alphabetical order. There's nothing worse than being a fan of the "S" through "W" teams and having to wait until April for one of these. Then you get to the Cardinals, who are ahead of your team somehow even though "St." clearly comes after "San", but they skate in on a technicality … it's just the worst.
Looks like the Milwaukee Brewers will always be hosed, though. The "C" student of team previews.
One of the more interesting teams in baseball, the Washington Nationals, will lead us off. It's always nice to see a team crawl out of the dustbin and become a contender, and for years, the Nationals were under the moldy piece of whatsit that was in the corner of the dustbin.
Do you know how hard that is to do? First, they were so bad that they won the same number of games in both seasons, while managing to strain the constructs of mathematics and tack on an extra loss the following season. The 2008 Nationals used 25 different pitchers; the 2009 Nationals used 30 different pitchers. A majority of those pitchers didn't appear in the majors last season. They were special, special teams. The Cubs have lost more than 100 games just twice in their 136 seasons. The Nationals did it twice in their first seven seasons in Washington.
The good news is that those 205 losses came at the perfect time. The Royals have been a downtrodden, under-.500 franchise for most of the last two decades. They've lost more than 100 games four different times during that stretch. They've had the #1 overall pick just once.
The Nationals turned those two straight 59-win seasons into two straight #1 picks that came right when two consensus #1 picks were available. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are huge reasons why the Nationals' future looks amazingly bright, and it took some fortuitous draft-slotting to set the Nats up like that.
Those #1 picks should also help them contend in 2012, and not just because Strasburg is healthy again and Harper could make the team. Their cost-controlled years are also a reason why the Nationals feel comfortable spending now. They have a pretty good idea of what Strasburg and Harper will make in 2017, which allowed them some freedom to pay for players like Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson.
Jackson is a clear win-now acquisition, having signed for just one year. But Werth is a win-now acquisition from an offseason where it didn't seem like the Nationals were close to a win-now roster. His deal is still trying-to-get-a-severed-head-in-a-duffel-bag-through-airport-security insane, but for 2012 the Nationals are still pleased to have him, even after the down year. His deal was a risk that the Nationals might not have taken if they picked Bryan Bullington and Delmon Young with those first overall picks.
It wasn't just a roll of the draft dice that set the Nationals up for the future, though. They grabbed defensive mastermind Danny Espinosa in the third round, and they stole Wilson Ramos from the Twins. They walked into Target Field with a sack full of Matt Capps, did the whole thing where they weighted the sack of Matt Capps in their hand before replacing Ramos on the pedestal, and then they narrowly escaped a boulder-related booby trap. That actually happened.
I swear I started this analogy before remembering that the idol in the first Indiana Jones was then taken at gunpoint. I promise. The important thing is that Ramos is safe and something of a badass young catcher. Espinosa and Ramos are two players who should help the Nationals worry about other spots in the lineup for years to come -- it's a nice head start for any lineup to have.
In 2012, the Werth deal should help them win. In 2017, well, they'll still have Strasburg and Harper instead of Bullington and Young. They have the best of both worlds -- a win-now team that's also set up well for the future, even after trading away a chunk of their farm system this offseason.
The biggest part of both short- and long-term, though, is the rotation. It was an offseason that started with Chien-Ming Wang re-signing for $5 million. That's not the move of a team confident in its rotation.
But after a huge trade for Gio Gonzalez and a one-year deal to Jackson, the Nats are right to be very confident in their rotation. After staggering their Tommy John surgeries, Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg are healthy at the same time. Jackson has never been an ace, but he's at least been a reliable, above-average innings eater since 2007. It's one of the better rotations in the National League. And it all started with Chien-Ming Wang signing for $5 million.
If the Nats make a run at the NL East or Wild Card(s) this year, it will be because of the pitching. But the contributions of Werth could play a big part, and they might not have had him if they didn't feel comfortable that both Strasburg and Harper would be around, making huge contributions at below-market value for the next few years. And they don't have those two top picks in consecutive years if they don't stink at exactly the right time, shortly after MLB changed the draft rules and stopped alternating the first-overall picks between leagues.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
Roger Bernadina is the de facto starter in center field. Over 254 games, the 27-year-old's WAR is 0.1, according to Baseball Reference. Somehow that seems more cruel than a simple 0.0 WAR.
If Harper makes the team, though, he could start in center. Or he could push Werth to center, which would be hilarious. If Harper starts in the minors, though, it looks like a heapin' help of Bernadina, and that could have been an easy problem to fix.
That is, what could happen that's unexpected. I suppose Bryce Harper would qualify, but he's almost a known quantity. In the history of 20th- and 21st-century baseball, there has been only one teenager who has had a fantastic season at the plate: Mel Ott in 1928. Everyone else, from Ken Griffey to Ty Cobb, had something between promising and overwhelming seasons when they were 19 or younger.
The real wild card is Strasburg. The Nationals are determined to limit his innings. Maybe that will change in August if the team is leading a race. If it doesn't, though, the Nationals could be replacing an ace with either Wang or John Lannan. If you're comparing the Nationals' rotation to the rest of of the National League, it might be a good idea to stuff 15 percent of Wang or Lannan into what you think Strasburg's final numbers will be.
Over .500. Contending in September. Active at the trade deadline.