Team Profile – Washington Nationals
One year ago, the Nationals were still a joke out in the N.L. East, nowhere near being real competition for the Braves or Phillies. Now, the Nationals find themselves at the top of the division, by a seven and a half game margin. Some key offseason pickups (like starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez), as well as the return of phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg, have led the Nats to a position once thought all but impossible. They are poised for a division crown, trip the postseason, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But the season is far from over, and with Strasburg’s season in question, will the Nationals be able to stay strong to the very end?
Player by player, the Washington Nationals may very well have the best rotation in baseball. ERAs are a little elevated, especially for one-time potential ace, Edwin Jackson (who is currently at 3.85), but overall, the numbers are very good. The best part is that most of the starters (Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Strasburg) all have WHIPs under 1.20. Even the win totals are impressive, a testament of both the effectiveness of the starters, and the potency of the offense. Gonzalez is making a Cy Young bid, at 19-7; Zimmerman is proving an admirable number three starter at 10-8; and, of course, there’s Stephen Strasburg, who recovered nicely from Tommy John’s surgery to put up a 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA. It’s a powerful rotation that shows no signs of slowing down, making it very potent for a deep playoff run.
The only problem here is Strasburg. Not his pitching, but the management this season. It was explicitly stated before the season began that Strasburg was going to be limited to about 160 innings, so as not to aggravate his newly repaired elbow. However, it’s been pretty clear since about mid-May that the Nationals were going to compete in their division until the very end. So why did no one take a look at Strasburg’s numbers, the projected dates of the rest of his starts, and better manage what he did throughout the season? The reason why this is a problem is because it is now mid-September, and Strasburg has been officially shut down for the season. He won’t make any more starts, and there’s still no word on what will happen if/when the Nationals make the postseason. Yes, only a four-man rotation is necessary, and Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Detwiler, and Jackson could perform well enough. But losing Strasburg due to your own poor management should me that if there isn’t a deep playoff run, you should lose your job. It wasn’t a surprise. 160 innings didn’t sneak up on you. Some front office changes could be in order this offseason if bad things happen.
Bryce Harper burst on the scene this year, giving the Nationals a reason to look forward to the future of the franchise. He’s only hitting .265, but has 19 home runs and 50 RBIs to go with 13 stolen bases. But he isn’t the top offensive threat on this team. Roger Bernadina and Ian Desmond lead in terms of average, with .296 and .292, respectively, while Adam LaRoche is the home run leader at 29 for the year. The Nationals have one of those offenses that isn’t necessarily potent in terms of the individual players. But, like the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s a group of men who, when the sum of their parts is taken together, ends up being a team that can keep up with anyone else in baseball.
The Nationals already have a fantastic rotation, and an adequate offense. Do they dare try for the triple threat? Is it worth it to get that greedy? In 2012, yes, yes it is. The Nationals have so many good pieces in the bullpen with miniscule ERAs and microscopic WHIPs. Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen, and Ryan Mattheus all have ERAs under 2.45 and WHIPs under 1.25. Burnett’s WHIP is almost 1.00, currently sitting at 1.07. It’s amazing how wonderful this team has been as a whole this year. Even closer Tyler Clippard, who is 31/35 in save opportunities, has an ERA barely over 3.00. This is a special Nationals’ team, and this bullpen is going to be a key piece towards a playoff run.
Keys to Success
There are no more head-to-head matchups with the Braves, and Atlanta isn’t out of it yet. So it’s going to mean some really strong performances against a couple of tough teams down the stretch (including the Dodgers and Cardinals). If this team can win with consistency over the next week, then they should be able to hold off the opposition enough in the final week of the season to take the N.L. East title. Like I said, this is a special team. We’re witnessing a team that could easily win the World Series, and I don’t think anyone would be surprised now if they did just that.