Earlier this week I witnessed the Nationals’ first win in the Riggleman era. The Nats picked up a game on the Mets, making them only 17 games behind New York for fourth place. And they’re still on track to at least challenge the 1962 Mets for the worst team in the modern era of baseball. They play a brand of baseball so pathetic that I show up to the ballpark expecting to watch the Nationals lose every single day.
I ’m only saying this once: the Washington Nationals are going to win the 2012 NL East.
Look, I realize the team is unwatchable right now, and the reasons they won’t succeed far outweigh the reasons they will, but I’m just here to point out some things that might have you counting down to the summer of 2012 (or if you’re a rational person, at least pique your interest a little bit before you decide that I’m a lunatic.)
1. Among the position players, the Nationals already have three players in the majors who could start for a division winner in three years, and have a couple useful bench players.
The team is one of the worst defensive teams, if not the worst, in baseball. They give away hits routinely (even beyond what the error column says, because errors are not a comprehensive statistic), which usually spots the other team at least a run a game. If you replace Guzman and Dunn with above-average defenders, you’d probably see this team’s fortunes turn a little bit over the course of the season.
As for the three regulars? Ryan Zimmerman, Nyjer Morgan, and (stick with me) Alberto Gonzalez. Zimmerman is having his best season since 2006 as a 24-year-old, and it’s not inconceivable that he could be even better next year. Heck, if someone would just tell him to stop taking breaking ball strike threes, he’d already cut his strikeout total in half. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it’s close.
Morgan is a phenomenal defensive centerfielder, and he might be a little bit better than he’s showing, considering he picked up baseball late (he was an ex-hockey player. I know. Awesome.) It’s not a stretch that he could still be what he is now as a 32-year-old in 2012. Gonzalez is a good defensive second baseman. He can hit a little bit too. Second basemen don’t need to be the best players on the team – they just need to be good defensively and adequate offensively. Gonzalez is both of those things.
Jesus Flores would be a future all-star at catcher if he can just stay healthy, but with two injury-shortened seasons, I’m a little worried that Flores might be injury prone, so he doesn’t make the reasons. Willie Harris will be the best 25th man in baseball, even as a 34-year-old, because of his speed and versatility on the diamond.
2. The Young Rotation Improves
The starters for the Nationals right now are a who’s who of the organization’s top prospects going into this year. At least Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan are keepers, and I feel fairly confident that one person between the trifecta of Stammen, Olsen and Detwiler will develop to the point of being a solid fourth starter.
Zimmermann strikes out nine batters per nine innings, a very healthy ratio. His WHIP is almost exactly the same as Lannan’s, even though Lannan gives up 1.5 earned runs less than him. That’s because Lannan’s ERA is “boosted” by unearned runs: if every run was earned, Lannan’s ERA would be 3.8 instead of 3.4 – yet another indicator of how bad the Nationals are defensively. Zimmermann figures to be better next year, as this is only his rookie year with the team, and most hurlers peak after the age of 23.
As for Lannan, he’s just awesome. He deftly navigates around lineups like a speedboat maneuvering around tankers in a harbor. Sure, if he misses his spot, he’ll get blown up, but he doesn’t miss his spot all that often. No one seems to be able to put their barrel on his pitches. It’s been this way for two full years – this might just be what he can do.
3. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg
We all know about Strasburg: he is an ace waiting to happen, throws 102 mph fastballs and completely overpowers people. Even if the ESPN and their unnamed, unidentified, un-anything’d sources are right, guess who has the top two picks next year? That’s right – the Nationals. They’ll get the No. 1 pick for being the worst team in the game, then they’ll get pick “1A” for not signing their No. 1 pick this year in Strasburg.
So basically, Strasburg can fight the system and move to Japan for a year and then…sign with the Nationals after they draft him next year. While it's true that he can deny the Nationals the right to draft him next year, I can't imagine that being the third pick in any draft would work with Scott Boras' money-maximizing plan. Unless he wants to spend his career in Japan, he needs to come to the Nationals. The Commissioner’s office is making noise that they’ll consider intervening and making sure that Strasburg will always have to go through the draft to get into Major League Baseball, which all adds up to Boras and Strasburg signing with the Nationals, eventually.
Then there’s the Sports Illustrated coverboy, Bryce Harper. My Baseball America moles tell me that he’s referred to reverently in the office as “Christ Harper”. Apparently he kills absolutely everything thrown at him. And he’s doing it as a high school sophomore. He’s leaving high school early to enter the 2010 draft. Good news for the Nationals, bad news for pitchers everywhere.
The Sports Illustrated article said that Strasburg and Harper being paired together on the same team would be like an NBA team taking Dwight Howard and LeBron James back to back. Apparently Harper’s fast enough to play anywhere on the field, and throws 96 mph from the mound. He even bats without gloves right now. How awesome is that? Finding out where he’ll play will be someone else’s decision, but don’t worry: I’ll weigh in later.
4. The Farm System in Place Could Finally Be Useful
I was flipping through my 2003 Prospect Handbook, and I got transfixed by playing a game of “hey! I know that guy!”. Every single major league team had a guy who at least made the majors and started every day for a while (long enough for me to recognize them, at least.) Every team, that is, except one.
The Montreal Expos.
Okay, fine, I’ve heard of Terrmel Sledge. But he’s easily the least consequential best-career guy of the organizations in the book. That’s why the Nationals are so terrible now: they had to rely on replacement level players from other organizations all over the diamond. That’s how you end up paying Austin Kearns and Cristian Guzman a combined $16 million dollars this season.
This year’s Prospect Handbook tells a different story: Zimmermann, Shairon Martis and Craig Stammen are all in the majors already, and it looks like Ian Desmond (the Nationals SS of the future for four years until they gave up on him two years ago) is finally putting it all together. He was always a great fielder, but now he’s batting .300 between AA and AAA this season, at age 24. He might well be the answer at SS that they’re looking for.
Needless to say, Elijah Dukes is still lurking in AAA (batting .320 since he’s been sent down), and Chris Marrero just won player of the week in the Carolina League. While that’s not that much of a big deal, Marrero is batting .305 with 13 HRs, which is pretty solid for a high-A level player, let alone a 21-year-old. That means if no one else other than Marrero, Dukes, and Desmond pan out (even though I’m skipping over some pretty solid players like Daniel Espinoza, Destin Hood, Michael Burgess and a whole mess of pitchers) they’ll have starters at:
C: Jesus Flores/Blank
1B: Chris Marrero
2B: Alberto Gonzalez
3B: Ryan Zimmerman
SS: Ian Desmond
LF: Bryce Harper
CF: Nyjer Morgan
RF: Elijah Dukes
That means the Lerners would only have to dip into their pockets to buy a catcher and an entire bullpen. While that’s not light, it is definitely possible. (Note: I put Bryce Harper in left field because I didn’t want to deal with watching him wither away as a catcher and only play 40 games a year. And he’s not in RF because, well, I like Elijah Dukes entirely too much).
5. Historical Precedence
Are the Nationals terrible this year? Absolutely. I probably don’t need to remind you, however, that the last team to challenge the 1962 Mets were the 2003 Tigers. They lost 119 games, one short of the Mets.
Even though they suffered through all that losing, they were in the World Series by 2006. They even still had some people who were on that team: Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, Fernando Rodney, Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman.
This wasn’t even the first time that’s happened. The famed Mets won the World Series in ’69, just seven seasons later. The Pirates won the World Series in ’60, just five seasons removed from three consecutive 100-loss seasons. These things turn around.
So my message to you is, stick with the Nationals, because the best is yet to come.