Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Nationals? The NATIONALS?

How weird is it to see the Washington Nationals at #1 overall in Buster Olney's power rankings? The organization that lost 100 games back-to-back years. The organization that has finished last in the NL East every year of it's existence but two. The organization that saw fit to pay Jayson Werth $100+ million.

Although it does feel surreal, anyone paying attention this year will agree Washington should be in the discussion for the top team. Davey Johnson has led the team to 71 wins - the most in all major league baseball. To back up the results, they have outscored their opponents by 96 runs on the season: almost a full run per game. But with the team's most notable player, Bryce Harper, batting just .249/.328/.406, how are they doing it and can they keep it up?

The primary component of Washington's success has been their pitching. I think this graphic from ESPN sums up just how dominant the Nat's staff has been:

That's a lot "1st"s. Click on the picture to get a closer look. A team 3.22 ERA. A team 1.20 WHIP. A team .231 batting average against. For reference, a team of CJ Wilson, CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke 2012 clones wouldn't be close to matching Washington this season.

Washington has been doing it with tremendous depth in the rotation and bullpen. The rotation is anchored by home grown products Jordann Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler. All three have sub-3.00 ERA's and Zimmermann and Strasburg have K/BB ratios well north of 4.25 (only 5 other pitchers can claim that. In addition, off-season additions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson have pitched as advertised. Gio leads all qualifying pitchers in FIP and trails only Strasburg in the NL leaders in K% at 26.3% of batters. Jackson has provided 137 innings of above average performance, well worth the one year deal for Washington.

The bullpen has been similarily dominant. Drew Storen (2.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) has proven to be just fine after missing the first half for surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Despite a 7-6 K/BB he's avoided giving runs and will be used with caution until he's proven to be fully back to his former self. In Storen's absence, righties Tyler Clippard (3.04, 1.05) and Craig Stammen (2.48, 1.29) have stepped up as dominant late inning relievers beside lefty Sean Burnett (1.81, 0.95) and the Nationals have milked some very good innings from veterans Tom Gorzelanny (3.35, 1.30) and Mike Gonzalez (2.31, 1.37). Unlike the rotation, the bullpen took some time to fall into place. Manager Davey Johnson ran out the likes of Henry Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Ryan Perry who fell flat before the 'pen came together.

So that's all great, top to bottom an impressive pitching staff doing it's best impression of the '98 Braves. A wrench in that plan, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has made it clear that staff ace Stephen Strasburg will not be finishing the season in the rotation. How can a team vying for their first ever playoff birth bench the best player in their organization's history for the stretch run and playoffs? And replace him with John Lannan? A team could do worse than that, but that's a huge dropoff: going from one of the best in the league to a completely average starter. The importance of the move shouldn't be understated, but if any team could take the hit, it's the Nationals. Their playoff rotation went from Strasburg-Zimmermann-Gonzalez to Zimmermann-Gonzalez-Jackson, which can still match up favorably with any potential playoff opponent in the National League.

The pitching staff was expected to be among the best in baseball, but the offense was supposed to hold it back. This hasn't been the case as the bats have shown up. Ryan Zimmerman has been killing the ball since late June, but even more surprising is his health. He's battled injuries since 2007, netting only one full season. This year, he had a short stint on the DL at the start of the season, but has stayed on the field since. He's the best hitter on this team and the Nationals will need him to stay in the lineup and keep producing to make any noise in October. Alongside Zimmerman have been Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche. Desmond's breakout this season, as one of the top shortstops in the majors, landed him on the All-Star team, but shortly after he tore his oblique. From what I have read, he should be back for the stretch run. Another oft-injured has found success in Adam LaRoche. Batting .264/.339/.500 at first base, LaRoche has been right in line with his career norms but once again, the key is health. Zimmerman, LaRoche and Desmond have gotten Washington this far and only the risk of injury stands in their way of continuing the trend.

Speaking of injuries, both Jayson Werth (75 games missed) and Michael Morse (50 games missed) have recently returned to the outfield from prolonged ailments. Replacing Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadinha in the lineup, the two add some much needed pop to the back of the lineup. Despite the grief Werth receives for not being worth (excuse the pun) his hugely unreasonable contract, he's a valuable player with very good on base skills and above average power. I wasn't sold on Morse even after his breakout last year, but now with about 1500 PA's in the majors, I'll buy it. Morse is a legit threat in the middle of the order. Joining Werth and Morse in the formidable outfield is the most notable National, 19 year old Bryce Harper. The production from Harper has been nothing short of amazing when you factor in age. Consider that as a 19 year old last year, Mike Trout hit .220/.281/.390. Not to say Harper will have the same MVP season next year, but what he has done is nothing short of astonishing. On the other hand, don't let that sway your opinion of him for the rest of this season. He's a good outfielder, who strikes out too much but has solid power and can run. Also notable, as many rookies do, Harper could be wearing down as the workload of a major league season mounts; he's hitting just .183 with 2 home runs since the all-star break. Luckily for Washington, they boast a couple solid backups in Lombardozzi and Bernadinha.

Davey Johnson also has depth in the infield. Even with Ian Desmond on the disabled list, he's been able to bring Danny Espinosa to shortstop from second base and replace him with Lombardozzi (for whom second is his natural position). Behind the plate the Nat's are flipping between the underperforming Jesus Flores and the recently acquired (and underperforming) Kurt Suzuki. They both have some ability and given that Wilson Ramos is done for the year, a team could do worse. Davey rounds out his bench with veterans Chad Tracy and Cesar Izturis who are both generally awful and shouldn't be around for playoff time, ideally.

At this point in the season, it's clear the Nationals have the talent to succeed. The rotation is as good as it gets, the bullpen has some talent at the top and the lineup certainly has potential. The keys to September and October are going to be threefold. First, the bullpen needs to hold up. Clippard, Stammen and Burnett are solid, but they'll need consistent help from the back end and Storen. Second is Strasburg, I'm not sure it will make a huge difference in the regular season (maybe a win or two), but missing him in the postseason will be an issue. How the front office handles him will be a huge story and could decide their ultimate fate. Lastly, that offense has to stay healthy. A middle of the order with a healthy and productive core of Desmond, Harper, Zimmerman, LaRoche, Morse and Werth could do a lot of damage. Whether that's on the medical staff or dumb luck, it will be very important.

My prediction for the Nationals is to hold off the Braves in the regular season and take the number one seed. My playoff prediction is meaningless as at that point it's random, but I'd say they should do well even without Strasburg, given the extra emphasis put on managing, and Davey Johnson is among the best strategists in the game. So there you have it, an exhaustive look at the Nationals!

This could be the beginning of a series of playoff previews. It's way too early to say for sure anyone will make the playoffs, but we'd like to familiarize ourselves and our readers with the contenders for the stretch run.

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