Washington Nationals are Finally Positioned to Win

By Carl Kotala

Well, one thing is for certain when sizing up the Washington Nationals’ chances in 2012 – for the first time since Major League Baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005, mentioning the Nationals and the postseason in the same sentence won’t draw an immediate rebuke … or a hearty laugh.

If anything, Washington could be one of the most interesting teams to follow in all of baseball during the 2012 season. Given that the Nationals conduct spring training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Brevard County fans have a chance to experience one of baseball’s true up-and-coming teams firsthand. The Nationals finished 80-81 last season, their best record since the club moved back to Washington, which was good enough for third place in the National League East Division.

On the Mound

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the number 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, will once again be a top attraction for the Nationals. Strasburg sat out nearly all of the 2011 season while working his way back from Tommy John (elbow) surgery. As a precaution, he is not expected to pitch more than 160 innings this season. However, with the right-hander Strasburg (23), right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (25) and newly acquired All-Star left-hander Gio Gonzalez (26), Washington has one of the best young starting rotations in the game. Strikeouts should be plentiful. As Buster Olney of ESPN The Magazine wrote this offseason, “Hitters will go into a series against Washington knowing they will be in for extremely difficult at-bats, facing guys with nasty stuff.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo, speaking to reporters after the Gonzalez trade was made, sounded excited about the future of the Nationals pitching staff. “We feel we’re set up very, very well for the long haul.”

Ten-game winner John Lannan (left-hander) and veteran Chien-Ming Wang (right-hander) will go into spring training as the remaining two starters for Washington with 25-year-old left-hander Ross Detwiler looking to crack the rotation. Closer Drew Storen had 43 saves last season and set-up man Tyler Clippard had a remarkable 0.84 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) ratio in 2011. In his preseason rankings, Olney ranked both Washington’s starting rotation and bullpen as the eighth-best in baseball.

The Nats Are Getting the Bats

Which brings us to the lineup. The Nationals were rumored to be a possible landing spot for high-profile free-agent Prince Fielder, who graduated from Eau Gallie High School. Though Fielder ended up in Detroit, the fact that Washington was pursuing the hard hitting first baseman shows the Nationals are in the hunt for players that can carry them into October.

The Nationals finished 24th in the league with 624 runs scored last season. Their big free-agent pickup – outfielder Jayson Werth – had a disappointing year, batting .232 with 20 homeruns, 58 RBI and a career-high 160 strikeouts. He is expected to bat in the number 2 spot (where he seems most comfortable) this season, but the big news is that he could also find himself moving from right field to center.

Rizzo, speaking on MLB Network Radio in December sounded as if he would prefer to wait until the 2013 free agent market, when players like Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino could be available. “We see the 2013 free agent class at center field as much stronger than it is for the 2012 season,” Rizzo said. “With that in mind we know Jayson can handle the center field position. It’s not a perfect world for us. He’s a good defender out there and is ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibility to play center field.”

Having Werth switch positions would make room for 2010 number 1 draft pick Bryce Harper, should he be deemed ready to make the jump to the big leagues. Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson, who saw Harper win a homerun contest when he was just 15 years old, has said the young right fielder will be given a chance to make the Major League roster out of spring training. Just to be safe, the Nationals did sign veteran Mike Cameron to a minor-league contract. At the very least, Cameron could give the Nationals a veteran presence in the locker room, some experience off the bench and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement. The team also signed utility player Mark DeRosa to strengthen the bench.

Reasons for Optimism!

Leftfielder Michael Morse had a breakout year in 2011, hitting .303 with 31 homeruns and 95 RBIs. Then there is Ryan Zimmerman, a team leader, face of the franchise and, when healthy, one of the top third baseman in the National League. Washington has the chance to be more potent offensively. First baseman Adam LaRoche is capable of 25 or more homeruns and between 80-100 RBIs. A healthy Zimmerman will not only put up solid numbers, he’ll also provide protection in the lineup for Werth to have a bounce-back season.

With shortstop Ian Desmond expected to lead off and second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos both considered top young players, the Nationals can give fans plenty to be excited about. The days of the Alfonso Soriano, Elijah Dukes and Milton Bradley experiments seem to be over.

After all their years of losing, the Nationals are finally heading in the right direction, which is cause for celebration among Brevard’s baseball fans and the many businesses that prosper as a result of major and minor league baseball at Space Coast Stadium.

“I feel good; I feel optimistic about where we’re at,” Rizzo told reporters after the Gonzalez trade. “Our goal is to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season and beyond.”