This is the first part in my series on teams who could be rising up from a disappointing 2011 to take a playoff spot in 2012. In the last 6 seasons, and 16 of the 17 in the Wild Card Era, a team has made the playoffs after posting a losing record the previous year. 2012 should be no different and when the playoffs expand, whether that be this season or next, look for the trend to continue.
The Washington Nationals have been the NL East punching bag since they moved stateside in 2005 but times could be a’changin’ in the upcoming seasons due to the wealth of young, major league-ready talent the franchise has acquired. Headed by 2 of the last 3 number 1 overall picks, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ future looks bright. The upcoming 2012 season could be the breakthrough year the franchise has been looking for since it came to the nation’s capital.
Washington has been able to convert their lousy ball clubs into premium talent due to the fact that they finished worst in the league when two transformational players were about to be drafted. This allowed the Nationals to bag two potential superstars in Strasburg and Harper. Strasburg has only thrown 92 professional innings so far and has experience Tommy John surgery already, but his numbers in that limited time were astounding. He’s struck out 11.3 per 9 innings, with a WHIP below 1, and an opponent’s batting average of .211. These type of numbers over the course of a full season will put any pitcher in a position to win the Cy Young award, and if Strasburg can do that in 2012 the Nats will be competitive. Harper also appears to be just as prodigious. Scouts are already raving about his potential power, projecting him as a player who can hit 30-40 homers while maintaining a solid average. If Harper can crack the major league lineup for part of 2012, the Nationals could catch lightning in a bottle, similar to the Giants with Buster Posey in 2010. Of course that depends on how the rest of the lineup and retooled rotation produce.
The lineup was disappointing last season, finishing in the bottom 3rd of the National League in runs produced, only topping Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and San Francisco. Not exactly where a contender wants to be offensively. The lineup will be better this season because D.C. won’t be giving Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina 700+ outfield at bats to OPS+ around 80. If Harper can take about half of those at bats and hit around league average (which would be an accomplishment for someone who can’t even have a beer), and Nationals will score more runs. If Jason Werth can bounce back from his .232/.330/.389 line that would help Washington greatly. Werth will make $13 million next season, the 2nd of his back loaded 7 year deal, which will go down as one of the worst contracts of all time without improvement. Werth still hit 20 homers and stole 19 bases with a high rate of success so his game didn’t completely fall apart, but a comeback season is necessary if D.C. wants to compete.
Another player who needs a comeback year, albeit for different reasons is Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who just inked a 6-year, $100 mil extension, is coming back from an injury-riddled 2011 campaign. Zimmerman performed well when on the field, hitting at a near All-Star level OPS+ of 118, but he only played in 101 games. 150 games out of Zimmerman this season with a similar OPS+ will not only provide that Nationals with more runs but will life the rest of the lineup as well. Zimmerman is also a highly skilled defensive 3rd baseman, consistently showing a lot of range with sublime arm strength. It’s very probable that only Adrian Beltre is better at the hot corner with the glove. The Nationals will look very smart in a couple of seasons if Zimmerman’s contract works out as well as it should and the 3rd baseman is at the core of the team. I believe this deal is very savvy on the part of the team’s front office, the type of move that needed to be made to turn Washington into a winner. He’s a very comparable player to Scott Rolen, who has won multiple Gold Gloves and a World Series title, and that comparison bodes excellently for D.C.
The rest of the lineup outside of Mike Morse is rather young and still has plenty of potential to produce. Morse pounded the ball a season ago, on his way to career highs in nearly every category and hitting an elite 31 homeruns. Coupled with Zimmerman and Werth, these three player could be one of the most powerful combos in baseball this season and when Harper reaches the majors in a year or two this lineup could be elite in the run scoring department. The days of scraping runs together could be over rather soon.
The pitching staff will look radically different in 2012 from the unit the Nationals used in 2011. Overall the Nats were in the middle of the National League in runs allowed and should be much improved this season especially with Strasburg ready to shoulder the load. John Lannan, who was pitching above his head slightly as the de facto ace of the staff now finds himself comfortably in the middle 3 or 4 spot.
Newly acquired Gio Gonzalez will be a huge upgrade in the rotation as well. In the last 2 seasons he has pitched at least 200 innings with an ERA+ of at least 127. That is elite production that comes with one caveat: Gonzalez pitched in the, to put it lightly, rather spacious confines of Oakland’s Coliseum. In 2011 Gonzalez’s home/road splits were noticeable as the pitcher allowed about 1 more earned run on the road. That can be explained away somewhat, as his road ERA was only 3.62, which is still near elite, and opponent’s power numbers were nearly the same home or away. This pickup will improve Washington by a couple of wins and further locks down an impressive young core. The Edwin Jackson signing was also a savvy more by the D.C. brass, as it adds a league average pitcher for the forth spot in the roation. Jackson’s last 4 seasons have put him around league average in ERA+ (106,95,126,100), which is worth about 2 wins and the $11 million he will be paid.
With a solid bullpen lead by Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Brad Lidge the Nationals should be able to finish games as well. Lidge is another comeback candidate on the team and if Storen falters he can close in a pinch. Clippard has been one of the most valuable relievers the past 3 seasons, posting k/9 rates over 10, which is elite, and 6.3 WAR, which is fantastic for a reliever. If Strasburg and co. get leads going into the 7th, Washington should make short work of their opponents.
This team is well positioned to make a jump in 2012 and be the team that makes the playoffs after finishing the previous year with a losing record. With a strong core of All-Star caliber players (Zimmerman, Strasburg, Werth, Gonzalez) the Nationals should surprise and at the very least bring competitive baseball to Washington this September.