Saturday, March 3, 2012

2012 MLB Preview– Washington Nationals

Rewind the clock to 3 years ago in an effort to gain a little perspective on the Washington Nationals’ makeover. Their opening day lineup in 2009 was: Lastings Milledge, Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Ronnie Belliard, and Jesus Flores. Their starting 5 was John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Daniel Cabrera, Shairon Martis, and rookie Jordan Zimmermann.

That team started 2-7 and ended up losing 103 games.

Just 3 short years later, the 2012 lineup could feature these 8 guys: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper (maybe?). Their starting 5 is locked in with Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez, and either Chien-Ming Wang or Ross Detwiler.

Now that’s an impressive overhaul.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

Having locked up their franchise player Ryan Zimmerman and showing a relentless attitude toward building a contender, the Nationals may finally be ready to give the Phillies and Braves a run for the NL East crown.

3 Up

Best Case Scenario for 2012

Is it too ridiculous to say that this team could shock the world and win the National League East? I’m not so sure about that. Not only are the Nats extremely talented, but they are young and confident. Expect their offense to take the next step and move into the top half in terms of run production. Their pitching staff was passable in 2011 and should dramatically improve this year with the additions of Gio and Edwin. The bullpen still features Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, which makes the 8th and 9th innings a safe place to be. Hey, stranger things have happened – the Nationals could win this division.

Most Important Nationals

Ryan Zimmerman just inked a 6-year, $100M contract extension that will keep him around DC for a long time. Does a guy who is a .288 lifetime hitter averaging 21 homers and 82 RBI’s/season deserve that kind of cheese? Well, apparently so, and now that he has it he needs to stay on the diamond and be the 162 game/season leader that this team sorely needs. Injuries have not been kind to Zimmerman, who has managed just 137.5 games on average since becoming a full-time player 6 years ago, including just 101 a season ago. He has a great ballpark to play in and a talented roster surrounding him. His time to be elite is upon us.

From a pitching perspective, Stephen Strasburg is the most important National for a variety of reasons. First, he’s quite simply their best pitcher. Second, he turned Washington into a national team of interest from day 1. Third, his ability to be one of the top 5 pitchers in the game will legitimize this franchise for years to come. Strasburg, entering his first full season away from Tommy John surgery, will be on the Jordan Zimmermann plan of 160 innings and out. You can bet the house that they will be some dynamic, eye-popping innings. He should approach 200 strikeouts even with the workload cap. Buckle in, it’s about to get really fun in D.C.

Potential Breakout Players

Offensively, how could it be anyone other than Bryce Harper? The Nationals are going to take a long look at the 19-year old phenom this spring to see if he can handle the rigors of a full major league season. The smart money is on him playing significant games this year for Davey Johnson’s team. Whether that is from Opening Day or not is another matter. The Nats need left-handed pop in their lineup and Harper is ready to provide it. When he joins the big club the Nationals will have the most intriguing lineup this side of Kansas City. Ross Detwiler will be battling Chien-Ming Wang for the 5th starter spot. If he gets it, he has the ability to be solid. In 10 starts last year for the Nats he only gave up more than 3 earned runs once. He was consistent and at age 26 still has plenty of upside. With the big 4 taking up the marquee, Detwiler could be a sneaky good addition to the pitching staff, ala Vance Worley in 2011 for the Phillies. He isn’t a huge strikeout guy but he possesses above average command and should have some run support to lean on.

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario

The Nationals won 80 games last year. When you factor in the talent upgrades to the pitching staff, the floor is probably a .500 season. Make no mistake; the Nationals are here to contend for a division title in 2012. If they can keep their pitchers out of Tommy John-land, things should be just fine. They do need to see progress from Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa from an offensive standpoint as well. If those 2 players live up to their potential, no one will be talking about the Nationals and worst-case scenarios anymore.

Areas of Concern

In the past few years the Nationals have had their top 2 pitching prospects endure season-ending elbow surgeries and their star catcher got kidnapped. All of this on top of a slew of injuries to franchise player Ryan Zimmerman. Oh, and don’t forget the lackluster season they got from prized free agent Jayson Werth. $126M over 7 years should get a better return on investment than a .232 average and 58 RBI’s. To put it another way, the Nationals haven’t exactly been living in Lucky Charms Village. They are either a cursed franchise or due some good fortune. Bet on the latter.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011

To quote Lois Einhorn from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, “What do you know…about PRESSURE!?” Jayson Werth had been living the good life in the shadows of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in Philadelphia; however, when a rebuilding team drops $126M in your lap, the spotlight couldn’t be any brighter, and Werth’s blemishes appeared for all to see. The 19 steals he grabbed was the only statistic he was able to maintain from his Philly days. If the Nationals want to be elite and challenge Werth’s former team, they will need him to break out of his funk and get back to being the power/speed menace they thought they paid for. Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond also need to wake up their bats before Washington’s front office starts getting wandering eyes. The keystone combination gets a little more rope due to their slick fielding up the middle but they both have the strength and legs to do a lot of damage on offense. If they can start getting on base with regularity, Washington’s offense could be truly special.

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