Saturday, January 1, 2011

At Least The Nationals Are Trying

When baseball once again found a permanent home in the Nation's capitol, it was a great day for Major League Baseball. Then the Nationals showed up. Coming from Montreal where the Expos had been a perennial laughing stock, the franchise clearly had some rebuilding to do. While it's been ugly at times, the Washington Nationals are becoming relevant again and its definitely a good thing. America's game should be well represented in Washington D.C. and the Nationals may be just be pulling this off in the near future.

Potential is a word that is way overused in sports discussion. In it's purest form, potential simply means that a positive outcome may result from a particular situation. What isn't stated is that a negative outcome may also result from that same situation. This is why its important to note that the Nationals are trying to become relevant in baseball again, because of their potential, but refrain from making predictions about their win-loss totals in the near future. Washington is loaded with potential and could soon be a major player in the National League. Unfortunately, they could also squander it away, have players fail to perform or become perpetually injured and never show up on the radar. Potential is a dangerous word.

Focussing on what could go right, the Nationals are in good position to start contending. While they will be a player in the NL East in 2011, the team could be very dangerous in 2012. Phenom Stephen Strasburg will miss 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, but should be lighting up the radar gun in 2012. Top pick Bryce Harper could also be playing in the bigs by then, depending on how he performs in the minor in 2011. He's young but extremely talented and should move the system quickly. Young players like Nyjer Morgan (OF), Drew Storen (RP), Ian Desmond (SS), Danny Espinosa (2B) and Roger Bernadina (OF) should help bring up the talent level of the Nationals all over the field.

Adding to the infusion of talent are free agent acquisitions Jayson Werth (OF) and Adam LaRoche (1B). These two give the Nationals the power options they've been missing. When added to All-Star third basemen Ryan Zimmerman, these two high-profile free agents give Washington a solid core of proven players. This team is loaded with offensive talent and should score a ton of runs this season, especially if they can get the first two batters of the lineup, likely Morgan and Desmond, on base with regularity.

The problems lie within the pitching staff. Strasburgh won't be pitching this season so the rotation will be thin on talent. Livan Hernandez is an innings-eater but not a true ace by any means. Jason Marquis can be good if healthy but after signing with Washington before the 2010 season and then pitching to a 2-9 record with a 6+ ERA before being shut down for the season by injury, its safe to say he was a disappointment. If he doesn't bounce back this year, it will definitely hurt the Nationals ability to contend. Jordan Zimmerman has talent but is young and unproven while John Lannan is inconsistent. Washington is a still a contender for Carl Pavano and this would be a big help for the young Washington rotation.

The bullpen has gotten better for Washington with Drew Storen helping shore things up. Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett, who recently signed an extention, have also helped the Nationals hold onto late-game leads. Chien-Ming Wang is a reclamation project that could help if he resurrects his career with Washington, which is a long shot but worth the gamble. Doug Slaten helps round things out and solidify the bullpen. While they could definitely use a dominant late-inning arm, the Nationals are in decent shape.

If they land Pavano, which I would say is a 50/50 proposition at this point, the future lineup and rotation could look like this:

1. Nyjer Morgan (CF)
2. Ian Desmond (SS)
3. Jayson Werth (RF)
4. Ryan Zimmerman (3B)
5. Adam LaRoche (1B)
6. Roger Bernandina (LF)
7. Ivan Rodriguez (C)
8. Danny Espinosa (2B)
9. Pitcher

This lineup will definitely score runs. If and when Harper comes up, which is a risky thing to try to predict since he hasn't played much pro ball yet, I would expect Werth to move to left field and Harper to take over in right, replacing Bernadina in the lineup. With Pavano and Strasburg in the mix, the rotation should look like this:

1. Carl Pavano (R)
2. Stephen Strasburg (R)
3. Livan Hernandez (R)
4. John Lannan (L)
5. Jordan Zimmerman (R)

The thing that jumps out immediately is the lack of left-handed starting pitching. Jason Marquis' deal ends at the end of 2011 and I don't foresee him being brought back. Hernandez will also be a free agent after 2011 but the Nationals could try to retain him.

If the Nationals can land Pavano, get Strasburg healthy and not see dropoff from key producers (R. Zimmerman, Werth, Morgan and LaRoche), they will be a force to be reckoned with in 2012, if not sooner. For a while there, Washington was just plain terrible. Progress is being made and the Nationals are full of potential. While nothing is set in stone, at least the Nationals are trying.

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