The Nationals have been a steadily improving team over the last few seasons. In 2008 and 2009, the Nationals lost over 100 games. Then, in 2010 they started showing signs of improvement. The team managed a 69-93 record. Far from the type of record most fans dream of, but an improvement nonetheless. Then, last season, the Nationals threatened to finish over .500 for the first time since moving to D.C. They fell short, but still put together a respectable season, finishing at 80-81 (no make-up game for one of their rain-outs).
With the farm system, the return of Stephen Strasburg, and the offseason moves, the Nationals seem poised to compete in 2012. Let’s examine the roster and just how good these new-look Nationals can be.
Stephen Strasburg is set to make his full-season return to the rotation in 2012. While the team will surely have him on a short leash to avoid re-injurying his arm, Strasburg’s presence will boost a staff that was average in 2011. In addition, the club picked up Edwin Jackson recently. Jackson’s value rests solely on his potential. Everyone seems to agree Jackson has an incredible upside if he can get his control – well – under control. The addition, though, will certainly bolster the starting five and help improve upon a 2011 that saw the Nationals rank towards the bottom of the league in some key categories.
As a team, the Nationals struck out 6.51 batters per nine innings. That was good for 25th best in all of baseball – or fifth worst depending on your level of optimism. They were about middle of the pack in BAbip at .287, but they gave up slightly more line drives than average at 19.8%. The Nationals’ pitchers got an average amount of swings outside the zone, 30.6%, but they also gave up a lot of contact on those swings, 68.9%. While that is not necessarily a bad thing because many batted balls outside the zone fall in for outs, the staff did a poor job of missing bats as a whole. Their swinging strike percentage of 8.3% ranked them 24th in the league.
It’s almost certain that Strasburg will improve upon that swinging strike percentage single-handedly. In 2010, Strasburg had batters missing his pitches at a rate of 12.5%. His BAbip in 2010 was .319, but expect that to drop as he pitches in a full season. Much of Strasburg’s BAbip number was related to the defense behind him. His FIP in 2010 of 2.08 compared to his ERA of 2.91 indicates a little less help defensively than he may have liked. Strasburg should help the Nationals improve in just about every pitching category. And he’ll have help in the form of Edwin Jackson.
Jackson’s knock has been his control over the course of his career. He walks 9.3% of the batters he faces on average. In 2011, he reduced that number to 7.2% which is promising. What’s not promising though is his increasing BAbip. Part of this is luck as I alluded to with Strasburg, but since 2009, Jackson has seen his BAbip rise in every season. In ’09 it was .276. In ’10, it was .313. Then last year, it was .330. Part of this may be due to the constant adjustments he must make when switching teams so often. In 2010 and 2011, Jackson played for two teams each year. Yet, Jackson has the ability to make batters miss. His career swinging strike percentage is 9.1%. He strikes out 17% of the batters he faces. If he can improve the location of some of the pitches that are hit, he should see his BAbip drop, and he should help the Nationals staff improve verse the league average.
On the offensive side of things, the Nationals have been developing a solid group of core guys. Mike Morse at first base had a breakout season in 2011. He hit .303/.360/.550 in 146 games. He hit 31 home runs and smacked 36 doubles. Since coming to Washington in 2009, Morse has shown consistent improvement. So, it is unlikely his 2011 season was a fluke. Andrew Flax of District on Deck had this to say about Morse:
Up to their age 30 seasons, Werth and Morse have had eerily similar careers. After struggling in the majors early, both changed teams and quickly proved their ability with breakout years, which were similar all the way down to their ages. While this comparison could end up inaccurate, it certainly seems to be a much more trustworthy means of predicting than random speculation. If Morse follows in Werth’s footsteps, as history indicates he might, he could become an offensive force and serious MVP candidate as soon as next year. Let’s just hope he doesn’t leave home like Werth did.
The Nationals also has Jason Werth who is looking to rebound to his 2010 form. In 2011, Werth struggled. His batting average dropped from .296 to .232. His OBP dropped from .388 to .330. And his slugging percentage dropped from .532 to .389. His batting average and OBP were career lows. Werth is still in the prime of his playing career at 32 years old, so he should be able to make a nice recovery in 2012. If he can revert back to his career average line of .264/.360/.464 the Nationals will find themselves with more wins than losses.
Couple Morse and Werth with the potential of Bryce Harper, and the Nationals offense could be a force to be reckoned with. Via Twitter, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported Davey Johnson would like Harper to be the team’s starting right fielder in 2012. Harper still has some maturing to do, but it would not surprise many to see Harper playing full time in Washington very soon. He has destroyed the minor leagues up to this point to the tune of a .297/.392/.501 line. He has yet to play AAA ball, so it would be unlikely to see Harper in the opening day lineup, but it’s not completely out of the question.
Finally, Ryan Zimmerman, the former face of the Nationals (before Stephen Strasburg came around), can provide that final bump in offense if he can play a full season. Last year, Zimmerman only played 101 games. He still managed a .289/.355/.479 line which is right about where his career averages are, but he wasn’t able to provide that pop as often as Washington would like. Since 2006, when Zimmerman became the Nationals full-time third baseman, he has only played in less than 140 games twice, 2008 and 2011. Based on that history, it would seem Zimmerman is poised to play another full season and put up impressive offensive numbers. In his 7 seasons, Zimmerman has already amounted to 19.8 WAR. The Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman are working toward a contract extension that should keep him in D.C. for years to come. So even if the club fails to make the postseason in 2012, Zimmerman and others will return to an improving club to make another run in 2013.
The moves being made by Nationals G.M. Mike Rizzo are certainly the type that will help a team win in the future. However, this team, the 2012 Washington Nationals, is ready to compete right now. The Atlanta Braves showed vulnerability. The Phillies, while having a strong starting pitching staff, struggled offensively. The Marlins are a complete unknown right now. And the Mets are still recovering. 2012 is as good a time as any for the Nationals to make a run at the National League East crown. Beyond that, though, if baseball can find a way to sneak the extra Wild Card teams into each league starting this upcoming year, the Nationals will see their play-off chances increase further. With what looks to be a much more well-rounded team than the one from 2011, the Nationals are true contenders in heading into the 2012 season.