Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Nats are for Real

The Washington Nationals have been terrible franchise since moving from Montreal in 2005. 2005 was actually their best season in DC, and they finished with a .500 record. From 2005 until 2011, the Nationals had a 492-640 record and five last place finishes. They were awful in 2008 and 2009, losing over 100 games both seasons. This franchise hasn't had a winning season since 2003 when they were the Montreal Expos. Last year, the Nationals improved by 11 wins from the previous season and this year they are off to a 36-23 start. With young phenoms like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, things are looking up for the Nats.

The Nats were actually in first place at the All Star break in 2005, but they collapsed down the stretch and ended up in last place. They finished .500, which is about as good as a last place team could be. That team wasn't anywhere near talented as this year's version. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is the only remaining member of that club, and he was only a September call up that year. This years version of the Nats has arguably the best pitching staff in the National League. So far, they lead the NL in ERA and strikeouts.

On offense, the Nats aren't as strong; ranking only 13th in the NL in runs scored. Zimmerman was hurt part of the year, and injuries have hit hard elsewhere. Jayson Werth has been out for over a month and will be out for at least another month. Catcher Wilson Ramos had a good rookie campaign last year, but is out for a couple of months. Mike Morse had a breakout season last year, hitting 36 home runs and driving in 126 runs. He just recently came back from injury.

Still, there are some players on offense that have underperformed. Second baseman Danny Espinosa is thought of highly by scouts, but is in a major sophomore slump this year. Switch hitting Espinosa has good power for a middle infielder, but he needs to cut down on strikeouts. Currently, he leads the National League. Shortstop Ian Desmond got off to a slow start, but he has picked it up in the last month. Utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi spots these guys sometimes, but he is needed in the outfield due to other injuries. Rick Ankiel gives the Nats good defense in center field, however he has a weak bat. Left field has been a mess this year. Morse should solidify that, though.

So far, first baseman Adam LaRoche and rookie outfielder Bryce Harper have been the Nats best hitters. Harper is likely to be a perennial All Star soon, probably not this year due to so outfielders having good years in the National League. Manager Davey Johnson has pushed to get Harper in the big leagues despite his youth. At age 19, Harper leads the team in batting average, on base pct., and slugging pct. Harper is just scratching the surface of his potential right now, and with time will cut down on the rookie mistakes he makes. Zimmerman hasn't turned it on yet this year, and I think he will at some point. The offense will also improve when Werth and Ramos are healthy again.

The key to the Nats success is their pitching. It's damn good, and this team has alot of pitching depth. A couple of years ago, John Lannan was their best starter. Now, he's in Triple A and on the trade block. Stephen Strasburg is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and has been dominant this year. Strasburg is 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. Strasburg also leads the National League with 92 strikeouts. Lefty Gio Gonzalez was acquired from Oakland in the offseason and is off to a 8-2 start with a 2.35 ERA. Gonzalez is second to Strasburg with 89 strikeouts. Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, and Edwin Jackson have all been good for the Nats this season as well.

Drew Storen had a great year as closer last year, saving 43 games with a 2.75 ERA. He hasn't pitched yet this year due to injury. However, All Star setup man Tyler Clippard has filled in well for Storen. Hard throwing Henry Rodriguez was tried at closer first, but faltered in that role. Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett both have sub-2.00 ERAs out of the bullpen. This team still has veterans Brad Lidge and Mike Gonzalez on the team, both who have closing experience.

I think the Nats will stay in contention all year due to their pitching. This is probably the most talented team this franchise has fielded since the Expos teams of the mid-90's. I thought they were still a year away from contending this year, but they are loaded with young talent. The National League East is a tough division, but the Nats have a 14-8 record against division opponents. The Phillies have been the beast of the East for the last five years, however they are banged up and struggling. There is an opening in this division this year, and the Nats could take it.

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