The 2012 Washington Nationals Are For Real

Friday April 20th, 2012

Sam Evans: The Washington Nationals have gotten off to a hot start and they’re currently in first place in the National League East. It is very early in the season, but every game matters and the Nationals have looked very strong so far. If the Nationals pitching lives up to expectations, and a certain outfield prospect can make the major impact he is capable of, I see no reason why the Nationals can’t win the N.L. East in 2012.

The N.L. East isn’t as strong as it has been in recent years. The Phillies lost their two superstar position players, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, for who knows how long. The whole Philadelphia roster looks like they’ve been suffering from the loss of those two guys. Still, they have one of the best rotations in baseball and a decent offense. The Marlins have a chance to contend this year, but they’re relying on Josh Johnson to get back to his old form, which is a risky business. The Braves have an abundance of young pitching, but a couple of their key aging position players can no longer be relied on to produce All-Star season. The one constant is the Mets. To no one’s surprise, they’re still terrible.

The Nationals are going to be an above-average baseball team in the coming years. The farm system is stacked with talent, and Stephen Strasburg is healthy. However, there is no reason why they can’t put in all their chips for this year. Let’s look at the Nationals major league roster, areas they can improve, and why they have a chance to compete in 2012.

Catcher: The Nationals pulled off one of the best trades in their franchise history in 2010 at the trading deadline. The Nationals traded aging reliever Matt Capps, who hasn’t found success in any bullpen since being traded. The Twins, looking to acquire bullpen help, traded young catcher Wilson Ramos. At the time, Ramos seemed like he would be forever blocked by All-Star catcher Joe Mauer. Instead, Mauer has been injured on and off for the last couple years, and the Twins have practically nobody to back him up. The Twins made a common mistake here. They traded away a prospect because he was blocked at the major league level. This is never a good idea, especially when it comes to highly regarded catching prospects.

Last year, Ramos had a breakout year hitting .267 with fifteen home runs. He struck out a lot, and didn’t have an amazing OBP%, but he was good enough to have a 3.3 WAR. We don’t know enough about how to determine the success of catcher’s defense to tell whether Ramos was above-average behind the plate, but most statistics show him as a decent catcher. If Ramos can show at least minor improvements over his 2011 season, he will be a prime candidate for a contract extension this offseason.

Corner Infield: Currently, the Nationals are starting the veteran Adam LaRoche at first base. He was just awful last year, but he has gotten off to a fine start this year, hitting .321. If LaRoche can keep this production up, the Nationals will look like geniuses for not giving up on him after last year. If not, Mike Morse could play at first base once he returns from his injury around the All-Star break.

Third basemen Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best young third basemen in the game. The Nationals should be pumped that they have him locked up through 2016. They key for Zimmerman this years is going to be staying healthy. Last year, he only played 101 games and it resulted in the worst year of his career. At his best, Zimmerman is a .300 hitter with thirty homers and above-average defense. The Nationals don’t need that kind of production from him every year, but he needs to have a couple more years near his peak for his contract to be worth it for the Nationals. Not to mention, the Nationals also have 2011 first-round pick Anthony Rendon on thee way. If Zimmerman is still at third, then when Rendon eventually gets called up he will be just fine at second base. Overall, third base looks like it is going to be a strength for Nationals ballclubs for a long time to come.

Middle Infield: Danny Espinosa is a future superstar. He’s only twenty-four year’s old and he has already hit more than twenty homers in a single season. Of course, Espinosa will never be a perennial All-Star unless he hits at least .250. Last year, Espinosa was somewhat plagued by a low BABIP but his failure to hit for average wasn’t exactly unexpected. Looking at 2012 only, Espinosa needs to have a year similar to his 2011 season, or even better in order for the Nationals to succeed. Right now he is probably the second-best healthy second basemen in the N.L. East. Did I mention he’s only twenty-four years old?

Ian Desmond is a below-average second basemen. He doesn’t play great defense, he doesn’t play defense, and he has below-average power. The only way I see Desmond becoming an everyday regular for a perennial playoff contender, is if he can get on base and stop striking out so much. In thirteen games this season, Desmond has looked like a completely different player. He’s currently hitting .300 with a career low K% and nine runs scored. Maybe Desmond will turn a corner in his third full MLB season. Still, I doubt it.

Outfield: The Nationals outfield looks a lot worse without Mike Morse. I don’t think people realize how good Morse was last year. He hit .303 with thirty-one homers. Washington needs Mike Morse back as soon as possible in order for the Nats to keep up with the other N.L. East teams. On Thursday, the Nationals outfield consisted of Jayson Werth, Roger Bernadina, and Rick Ankiel. Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady have also seen playing time in the Nationals outfield.

The Jayson Werth seven-year contract is going to come back to hurt the Nationals in the future. In 2011, Werth’s first year as a National, he posted an OPS+ of 97, his lowest since his time with the Dodgers in 2005. Part of this was due to bad luck, but Werth wouldn’t have been that much more impressive even if a couple of balls landed in favorable places. Werth has been the most valuable player on the Nationals in a limited amount of time so far, and I see no reason why he can’t win the N.L. Comeback Player of the Year award this year.

Roger Bernadina is a very talented athlete. He is one of those players that technically is a five-tool player, but he isn’t particularly good at any of those areas. Truthfully, he is running out of time to prove that he can be a MLB regular. 2012 is going to be a huge year for him. Mark DeRosa should not be stealing playing time from young players, or really anyone this year. Rick Ankiel has already displayed his amazing arm in 2012, but he can’t hit anymore. Out of Nady, DeRosa, and Ankiel, I think Ankiel is the best option for the Nationals until they find someone else. Luckily, they have a special someone who is knocking on the door to the big leagues. Bryce Harper could be called up in the next month, and I’m excited to see why some people consider him the best prospect in baseball.

From what I’ve heard, Harper could make a big impact on the N.L. East pennant race. If he can arrive in Washington soon, then he’ll have a chance to get almost 400 at-bats against the highest quality of pitching in the world. I see him struggling when he first gets called up, but what do I know? Overall, the Nationals outfield is probably their weakest area right now. However, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth seemed primed to change that sooner than later.

Rotation: The Nationals might have the best rotation in the N.L. East. At the head of the rotation is the best pitching prospect in the history of the game, Stephen Strasburg. We’ve seen what Strasburg can do when he’s healthy, now the Nationals just have to pray that his arm and shoulder issues are a thing of the past.

I was kind of bummed when the Nationals shut down Jordan Zimmerman after 160 innings last year. Sure, he was coming off a year when he threw less than sixty, but he was so much fun to watch. In 2011, Zimmerman posted a 3.18 ERA and 3.16 FIP. He was outstanding, to say the least. In three starts this year, he has picked up right where he left off. He currently is averaging seven innings per start, and he has a 1.29 ERA in those innings. Look for Zimmerman to burst into more national attention in 2012.

Gio Gonzalez has always had the talent to be a #2 starter in the big leagues. He throws fairly hard, and his slider and changeup are both above-average pitches. He’s pitched four hundred innings over the last two years for a team that has never been in contention. When the Nationals traded for him this winter, they were assuming that he could continue to be the pitcher he had been with Oakland. However, leaving the Oakland Coliseum is never easy. Gonzalez has been lights-out in three starts so far, but I expect him to struggle more this year playing in a less-friendly ballpark.

Edwin Jackson was a steal for the Nationals. At one-year, $11 million Jackson is barely making more money than Chone Figgins. Not to mention, it’s a one year contract so even if he turns out to be a disaster, the Nationals aren’t locked down with a long-term contract. Over the last two seasons, E-Jax has posted a combined 7.6 WAR.  He’s only twenty-eight years old and there is definitely room for improvement. Most importantly, Jackson needs to stop relying so much on his slider. With the recent studies done on overuse of sliders and their effect on injuries, Jackson needs to learn that he should throw his fastball and changeup more often. Still, Jackson is one of the best #4 starters in the league, and I think he can have another solid year.

The Nationals surprised a lot of people choosing Ross Detwiler over John Lannan as their fifth starter. Detwiler hasn’t been used as a starter since he was in A-ball in 2008. Nonetheless, Detwiler has gotten off to a sharp start this season. The Nationals rotation in criminally underrated. Their top four starters are capable of matching up with anytime in the league. Washington will only go as far as their starting pitching takes them in 2012.

Washington is a very exciting team. With their strong rotation and infield, they should be in contention all year. And if 2012 isn’t the year the Nats make the playoffs, their time will come. The Nationals front office has done a magnificent job of drafting players and signing players to respectable contracts. I believe in this Nationals team, and I think it’s time you do too.

***Today’s feature was prepared by our Baseball Writer, Sam Evans.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Sam on Twitter. (@RJA206)***

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About samevans87

I love writing, talking, watching, and playing baseball. I am a baseball writer for MLB Reports and Fish Stripes. "No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined." -Paul Gallic

Posted on April 20, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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