But I'm not reacting to one game. I'm looking at a team that has far too many holes and too few Plans B in case (or when) things go wrong.
Let's first look at the line-up. Last year, only two teams in the National League scored fewer runs per game than the Nationals (the Pirates and the Astros). On that team, just three players gave the team more than 300 PAs (roughly half a season) with a wOBA over .325, the league average: Adam Dunn (.379), Josh Willingham (.378), and Ryan Zimmerman (.389).
Those are really high levels of production from three players that made sure the Nationals were bad, but not totally awful. And as you know, two of those guys are gone.
In their place we get Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. Let's take LaRoche first. He has no chance of replacing the kind of production the team got from Dunn and Willingham. His career-high wOBA is .379--in 2006. Last year he fell all the way to .339--barely average for a position player and way below what he's replacing.
Werth is a fine player--I always liked him in Philly, and I think the combined losses of Utley and Werth are devastating to their offense. The Phillies might not even make the playoffs, even with that rotation. He's not quite the hitter Dunn was last year, but he's a far better defender and should provide better overall production.
But, still I'm worried about Werth. He's only really played a full season twice, because of injuries. He's never played for a bad team. And he's never played with $126 million guaranteed in his pocket. How will he respond to playing in front of hostile or indifferent crowds at all his home games? I'm not saying he's going to stop working out, gain 50 pounds, and go in the tank on purpose. But be honest--if you knew you had $127 million coming to you no matter what you did, would you bring the same level of determination to your job? Would you have the same edge as you would if you were fighting for your job every day?
Those are the bright spots. Now for the rest of the team. Rick Ankiel is just an insult to the people paying good money to see Major League Baseball. You know the joke--Rick Ankiel the hitter swings at so much junk even Rick Ankiel the pitcher could have struck him out. At least he's not a bad left fielder. Oh, he's playing center? Dang.
I don't have a big problem starting Danny Espinosa--may as well find out what you have. But given his youth and inexperience, if he's not one of the worst hitting second basemen in the league this year, we should count ourselves lucky.
There seems to be a lot of optimism around Ian Desmond these days, but I don't know why. If you asked me at the beginning of 2010 what a really bad season for Desmond would be, I would have said, "regression in BB:K rate and an ungodly number of errors." Check and check. He didn't quite do enough to get the team to give up on him as the long-term answer at the position, but most organizations would have by now.
Ivan Rodriguez, like Ankiel, is a flat-out embarrassment who has no business drawing a salary as a full-time major leaguer. He had a few weeks of BABIP luck at the beginning of 2010 and spent the next four months being the worst starting catcher in baseball. Wil Nieves is gone, so they can't help but get a little better, but even if Wilson Ramos gives the team best-case production, he'll be stuck to the bench by Jim Riggleman too much to make a difference.
Which brings us to Michael Morse. Morse is undoubtedly the worst case of a GM doubling down on his own good fortune since Jim Bowden handed $10 million to Dmitri Young. Sample size, people. Sample size. -.. --- -. .----. - / ... .- -.-- / -.-- --- ..- / .-- . .-. . -. .----. - / .-- .- .-. -. . -.. .-.-.-
Then there's the starting rotation. Jordan Zimmermann will be exciting to watch, and I think Tom Gorzelanny was a savvy little pick-up. They could have gotten more for Mike Burgess two years ago if they had tried to move him then, but oh well.
Livan and Marquis might avoid embarrassing themselves long enough to rack up a lot of innings. John Lannan will keep giving us warm fuzzies. But none of these guys, except maybe Zimermann, is likely to be one of the top 100 starting pitchers in baseball. It's one talented kid trying to establish himself, plus four guys who could be adequate at the back of an otherwise very good rotation. As a group, they stink.
And after learning the hard way in 2009 what happens when you just ignore the bullpen and patch with free talent, things can get ugly fast. Tyler Clippard is well down the Saul Rivera path of death by overuse. Sean Burnett will get exposed if he's asked to pitch too many high-leverage innings without playing any match-ups. Drew Storen could establish himself as a solid late-innings reliever, but that will only serve to remind everyone that even in the best-case scenario a relief pitcher gives you limited return for the #9 overall pick in the draft (yes, I said #9). otherwise this is a soft group that will suffer from being asked to pitch too many innings because the starters can't hold up their end.
And then as weak as the Nationals' starters are, their depth is just grotesque. Bowden was renowned for the awful benches he would build, but this group, featuring the likes of Laynce Nix, Matt Stairs, and Jerry Hairston could match up very well with the Baerga-Blanco-Cordero benches of the Bowden era.
And if the Nationals suffer any injuries? If Werth loses time you're looking at a starting outfield of what, Morse, Ankiel, and Laynce Nix? If Zimmerman gets hurt, and let's say one of the two middle infielders needs some time back in Syracuse at some point, you're looking at an infield with Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston?
There isn't any more top-level talent in the minors coming anytime soon. I guess Derek Norris could get a look late in the season, or A.J. Cole, if everything goes swimmingly well. But Bryce Harper is a long way off, and that's about it when it comes to potential impact players in the system.
So could this be the worst Nationals team ever? Could they be worse than the 103-loss team of 2009? Probably not, but it could happen. And there's a much, much better chance that the team is drafting first overall for the third time in four years next June than that they're battling for .500 in September.
P.S. If you think I'm too pessimistic, just think--I didn't even mention Oliver Perez.