As I've written a number of times, the one thing this Nationals team absolutely can't withstand if they want to avoid another top-5 draft pick is a prolonged injury to Ryan Zimmerman. But it's looking like that's exactly what's happening.
The good news is that since Ryan Zimmerman went down April 9, the Nationals have not fallen apart. In fact, they've managed 9 wins in 19 games, a better winning percentage than I or most other people predicted for them even with Zimmerman. At the same time, they went 2-4 against the lowly Pirates and Mets and have scored just 3.84 runs a game (in 2009, when they lost 103 games, they managed 4.38 runs per game).
So what is it, exactly, that Nationals fans should expect from here on out?
There's one reason why losing Zimmerman might not mean a return to the dark days of 07-08: starting pitching. It's starting to look like they may get best-case (or near best-case) seasons from Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez (again), John Lannan, and Tom Gorzelanny.
Now, all four of these guys are due for some regression--they all have xFIPs at least half a run higher than their ERA. Hernandez continues to enjoy the good luck of an unsustainably low HR/FB rate, which for a flyball pitcher like Livan creates an especially large distortion. This year he's allowed homers on just 3.4% of flyballs, while 44% of his balls in play have been flyballs. No pitcher can maintain a HR/FB rate much below 11% without the benefit of extreme park effects, so once that number starts to catch up, things will get ugly fast.
That said, Hernandez his only walking 2.31 batters per 9 innings, which is an exceptionally low number but not out of line with his career performance. If you're not handing out free passes, you can get away with a few more homers. Still, we're talking about a profile that will produce an ERA around 5, not in the mid-to-low 3s.
Marquis and Gorzelanny's performances are more easily attributed to repeatable skill. Gorzelanny is whiffing 7.54 batters per 9 while walking about half as many. He's never going to be a great pitcher, but an ERA in the mid-4s is totally reasonable. I liked that trade at the time (and Michael Burgess has only continued to prove his doubters right), and I'm glad to see it work out for Rizzo.
Marquis' numbers give us even more reason for optimism. He's getting the 56% groundball rate that has always been his bread-and-butter, but he's elevated his K-rate to over 6 per nine innings (which he hasn't done since 2004) and dropped his walk rate to 1.31, which would make him one of the best command pitchers in baseball.
I don't expect the K and BB rates to continue, but he can give up quite a bit of ground on those rates and still be worth more what the Nationals are paying. And if those rates did continue--if he somehow has figured out some new skill set--he'd be on track for easily the best season of his career. Again, I liked the Marquis free agent signing at the time, and it's good to see the team rewarded for good decision-making.
And John Lannan is basically the same guy he's been for the last four years. Lots of groundballs, not too many walks. Barring a return to the lucky BABIPs he got in '08 and '09, he'll finish the season with an ERA in the mid to high-4s.
I haven't mentioned Jordan Zimmermann, because he's the one guy who's actually underperforming. I'd like to look a little closer at him, but he obviously is the most talented pitcher on the team and could also provide a boost.
The odds of all five of these pitchers coming through for the Nationals in this way is extremely unlikely. But so far, there are good reasons to think that's what's happening. Losing Zimmerman is still the biggest blow this team can take. But if they can survive this without a prolonged jag of losing, this will be the reason.