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This is the year we've all been waiting for. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are poised to give the Nationals one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league. The Lerners' early penny-pinching ways have been replaced by aggressive spending in the draft and free agency and trades of cost-controlled prospects for expensive, arbitration-eligible veterans. Only a commitment to prudent player development is keeping Bryce Harper from exploding on the league right now. Even the cement plant is gone.
At least that's the story we're being told. Is this really the year the Nationals become relevant? Or is this simply the first time fans of the Nationals-Expos franchise can indulge in ordinary spring training optimism without being intoxicated or completely uninformed?
One thing is clear: The pitching is for real. Yes, guys could get hurt, but that's true with every team. Zimmermann handled more or less a full workload last season and established himself as one of the 20-30 best starting pitchers in baseball. Strasburg has been every bit the true ace he was expected to be whenever he's been on the mound, and the history of Tommy John is good enough that there's no evidence-based reason to worry about him any more than anyone else at this stage in his career.
Gio Gonzalez would have been the undisputed ace of any Nationals team from 2006-2011--and for that matter Edwin Jackson probably would have been too. John Lannan should finally get to shine in a role that really suits him: solid, innings-eating fifth starter, and I think that's still what will happen this year. Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, and Tom Gorzelanny give them credible options for depth if needed, and it's always needed.
It's the hitting that will hold this team back. Even a rosiest projections say the Nationals will field bottom-third starters in centerfield, shortstop, first base, and probably right field. And as long as Morse is out they have the worst left field situation that MLB has seen since the 102-loss Scats of 2008 (if Wily Mo Pena ever gets ahold of one, look out!).
Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos are nice young complimentary players, but neither is really special. So despite all the hype, the Nationals are again fielding a line-up in which only Ryan Zimmerman is really a good bet to be an above average player. That's been the case every year since 2006, and as much progress as they've made as a franchise, that hasn't really changed. Bryce Harper certainly will change that shortly, but if he's in DC anytime before September, that's bad news for a team that should be prioritizing his development over anything for this year.
Still the Nationals have a pretty good chance to remain relevant into late August or later. If nothing else, there's the extra playoff spot, which means that a full one out of every three teams will get a spot in at least a play-in game. That means that regardless of your division, it only takes about 88-89 wins to get in, and all .500 teams will have realistic hopes very late in the year. Which is the point of the expansion, even if it does make a mockery of the regular season--personally I obsess over the regular season but barely even watch the playoffs since it's such an insult to baseball. But I digress.
The other thing the Nationals have going for them is six games against the Orioles. Mets fans have never really had a reason to care, but in a tight race it's a huge advantage for the Nationals to get two series against one of the worst franchises in baseball every year. Those are games that they're not playing against the Yankees or other teams in the far-superior American League and could be worth easily 2-3 wins.
The bullpen figures to be very good again, but relief pitchers are such a fickle bunch who really knows.
Ultimately it will come down to the starting pitching. If Strasburg, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Gonzalez perform as expected, Washington will see a baseball team finish above .500 for the third time since World War II.
Most fans will consider that a success even if they finish 82-80, but personally I think given how much they've invested in winning now they need to make the playoffs to consider this season a success. Am I greedy? Maybe, but if they're not at least in the mix this year, it will be hard to define most of their most recent big moves as successes.
Obviously they mortgaged the future to get Jayson Werth. As awful as he looks now, imagine what he'll be like in 2017 when his back-loaded deal is kicking in at $21 million a year. Makes the Alfonso Soriano contract look pretty good by comparison. The second half of this decade could be rough.
But the move that told me this team was going all in for 2012 was the Gio Gonzalez trade. Simply put, 2012 is the only year that Gio is likely to provide more value than the players the Nationals traded to get him. And on a per-dollar basis he probably won't even outperform them this year.
Even though he's the only guy in MLB now, Tommy Milone isn't worth crying over--he's basically a #6 or 7 starter, the kind of guy a good team keeps in AAA for depth. Brad Peacock however has a more than decent chance of matching Gio's value by next year if not sooner. Derek Norris could be a solid second division starter now, and still has all-star upside. And then there's A.J. Cole, the most talented player in the trade. He's still a couple years away, but unless the Nationals contend now, it's really hard to justify giving up this much for Gonzalez.
And that's assuming Gonzalez performs as expected, which I'm not at all confident about. This is a guy who at his very best has been among the league leaders in walks. He's gotten great outcomes the last two years, but that's been in an extreme pitcher's park in the hitting-deprived AL West with a BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB rate that are all due for regression. If he's not the guy they're expecting that trade could become Jayson Werth-level disaster.
The other concern I have about the long-term outlook for this team is that they don't have a ton of resources left to upgrade. The core that they have now is probably the group that will determine how good they can be. And even if they add an MVP candidate in Harper it might not be enough offense to get there.
They've signed major long-term deals with Zimmerman, Werth, and Gonzalez. Assuming all goes well at some point soon they'll want to start talking extensions with Strasburg, Zimmermann, and even Harper. So how many more big free agent signings do they have in their budget? I'd guess one at most unless there's a big change on the revenue side.
Their minor league system is now pretty well depleted between promotions and trade, so that despite all the high draft picks they're ranked middle of the pack, and their most valuable assets are injury risks (see: Rendon, Purke).
So if they need to add a big bat make a final push, where does it come from? Most likely from the player development system, but this team doesn't have much of a track record developing bats from within. And even the best scouting and development teams struggle to develop above average players without high draft picks and/or trading veterans. Brian Goodwin and Rendon are high ceiling players. Destin Hood and Michael Taylor are interesting but a long way off. That's it as far as bats go, and presumably the days of drafting in the top 10 are over.
So where does this leave me as a Nationals fan? I'm rooting for them to contend this year, and it feels good to be able to do that with an honest expectation that it could actually happen. But I'm also already feeling the clock ticking on this team's window of opportunity, and I worry that Mike Rizzo has started selling long-term assets to win now a year or two too soon.
This team has come a long way from the back to back 100-loss seasons that the Bowden-Kasten regime wrought, but it's not enough to win 85 games a year for a few years before the window closes and the team sinks back into a long rebuild. And I'm not sure I see enough to do better than that--at least not yet.