Watching these final weeks of the season tick down, I've been digesting the meaning of the 2011 season. Certainly, this year marked the end of the cellar-dwelling, laughingstock "Natinals" era in Washington. Thank gawd.
I took a Murphy's Law approach to my own Nationals predictions before the 2011 season, guessing for instance that Jordan Zimmermann would struggle with command in his first season back from Tommy John. I (and plenty of others) saw Michael Morse as the second coming of Wily Mo Pena, a career part-time player with massive holes in his swing who would be exposed in full-time duty. Relief pitcher performance tends to fluctuate wildly from year to year, and I guessed that the Nationals might be due for a run of bad outings. I figured Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa would struggle more in their first years of full-time duty. I didn't see Davey Johnson coming.
(I also guessed that Ryan Zimmerman would miss time, Jim Riggleman would be gone, and Jayson Werth wouldn't adjust well to playing with a huge contract for a non-contender. So I got a few things right.)
Those were all reasonable concerns, but to guess that everything that could go wrong would go wrong--that was pretty unlikely. But hey! It's the Nationals!
Not anymore. They spend like a normal team now (if not more). They've been picking at the top of the draft for a decade. Jim Bowden is gone. So is Stan Kasten and his multiple, conflicting lines of authority.
But the even bigger factor is the simple fact that it's really hard to be--and stay--as bad as the Nationals were. And in the reduced run-scoring environment of the last two seasons, plus the overall mediocrity of the National League, it's even harder.
Not to take anything away from the progress the Nationals have made upgrading the talent in the franchise, but Philadelphia is probably the only really good team the Nationals played all season--and even they're not a great team because of their problems scoring runs. The Brewers and D'Backs are solid, but no one is going to mistake them for juggernauts. The Braves and Cardinals are both deeply flawed. And everyone else in the National League really truly stinks.
In interleague, the Nationals got 6 games against Baltimore (pretty soon people are going to notice that it's really unfair that the Nationals get two series against the Orioles while the Mets have to play the Yankees.) And then they got 9 games against the White Sox, Mariners, and Angels. That's 12 interleague games against truly rotten teams, plus 6 more against the just-OK Angels and White Sox. Not many NL teams got off so easy.
Again, I'm not dissing the Nationals because of who they played. They can't control that--and all you can do is beat the teams you're scheduled to play. But it's pretty hard to lose more than 90 games in the NL right now. Look at the lengths Houston had to go to.
Now, Mike Rizzo says the Nationals are a frontline starting pitcher and an top-of-the-order centerfielder away from contending in the NL. Is he right?
Maybe, although remember that those are two of the hardest things to find in all of baseball. It's a little like saying all the economy needs is an increase in consumer demand and a solution to the European debt crisis.
And even then, if Michael Morse regresses, or Zimmermann and/or Stephen Strasburg don't do what we expect, or this, that, and the other... There are plenty of ways the Nationals could upgrade at a couple key spots and remain stuck right around .500.
The league is shaped like a bell curve. Not a ton of teams finish with 90 or more losses, while not very many teams finish with 90 or more wins. Lots of teams finish clustered around 81-81. It took a lot of work to get from consecutive 59-win seasons to this year's quasi-.500, 80-81 team. But getting from 80 wins to 90 wins is way, way harder. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked. Now the hard part--and the fun part--begins.