The Cream Of The Crop For The Washington Nationals

2012 was supposed to be the year for the Washington Nationals, where they at least posted their first winning season since moving to D.C. from Montreal in 2004 and made a run at the playoffs. To use political parlance in this election year, let’s say that the early returns are looking good for the Nats, as they’re off to an 8-3 start and lead the National League East at this early date.  Washington’s goals for the season are modest—85 wins would fulfill the goal of a winning year with room to spare, and might be enough to steal one of the two wild-card berths. At the very least it keeps them in contention. Therefore, if the Nats just get solid years from their top-level players, they’ll have enough to do that. With that in mind, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the stars inside the D.C. Beltway.

One of Washington’s biggest stars is in the dugout. Having Davey Johnson as manager is another reason I feel confident in orientating this article around the upper crust, rather than focus on depth. As important is depth is, it’s often something a manager can help create, through finding the right niche for players to fill. No manager can create stars, or make stars play like stars (how’s that for redundant use of a word), so the ultimate verdict of the Nats’ season comes down to the top three starters—Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, along with four key parts in the everyday lineup—third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, rightfielder Jayson Werth, first base/left field Michael Morse and catcher Wilson Ramos. Let’s run through this group…

Stephen Strasburg: With him being only 23 years old and missing most of 2011 after elbow surgery it seems surprising, at least to me, that he’s already got twenty career starts. His ERA is a sparkling 2.35, and most importantly he’s off to a good start in 2012. This is the year he had to answer the bell is the team’s Opening Day starter, and his three outings, including last night over Houston, have produced a 2-0 record, a 1.42 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 19 innings. Yeah, I’d say he’s worthy of all the hype that surrounded his selection with the first pick in the 2010 amateur draft.

Gio Gonzalez: I still can’t believe the Nats got this 26-year-old stud out of Oakland for  what amounted to nothing more than an autographed picture of President Obama and Speaker Boehner at the State of the Union address. Over the past two seasons in Oakland, Gonzalez won 31 games and his ERAs were in the 3.10 to 3.20 range both times. He went over 200 innings both years. While pitching in Oakland’s spacious park was a big help, so is not having to face a DH anymore in the National League. Gonzalez’s first start as a Nat was less than stellar, as he got roughed up in Wrigley Field, but he came back with a strong outing over Cincinnati, and takes the ball tonight against Houston.

Jordan Zimmerman: He was the unsung hero of last year’s staff, getting his first chance at regular major league work at age 24. He threw 161 IP and posted a 3.18 ERA. There’s always the concern of it being a fluke, especially given that he didn’t have a  Strasburg-like resume coming in, but Zimmerman’s first two starts this year have been dominant, averaging seven innings an outing with a buck-42 ERA.

Ryan Zimmerman: Can the third baseman stay healthy? His home run totals have gone from 33 to 25 to 12 over the last three years. Now last season he was injured so the raw numbers are going to go down, but he still got nearly 400 at-bats, so even pro-rated, his power has been dropping. Again, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he wasn’t fully healthy when he did play. But whatever the reason, Johnson needs Zimmerman to have a big year, which we’ll define as slugging over .500 and having an OBP over .360, while getting 500 at-bats. Zimmerman met all those benchmarks in 2010-11.

Jayson Werth: I’m fully prepared to write off his terrible 2011 season as the result of the pressure that comes with signing a contract for over $100 million. This is an excuse I’ll give to new free agents across the board, but I have to vent about how ridiculous it is—if you give a guy the keys to the vault, aren’t pressures to produce a given? But reality tells us that players do need an adjustment period, so I think Werth’s going to return to the player he was in Philly where he hit the benchmarks I outlined for Zimmerman above. And Werth’s early returns are as good as the team’s (surely no coincidence), as he’s hitting .341, drawing walks and slugging .432—not great, but tolerable for a small sample size that hasn’t given the player time to heat up.

Michael Morse—The first piece of bad news comes here, as a bad back will have Morse on the disabled list for the next six weeks. He languished in obscurity in Seattle before the Nats gave him a chance in 2010, and in part-time duty he had an OBP/Slugging line of .352/.519 and popped 15 home runs. Upgraded to full-time last year, Morse posted a .360/.440 line and went deep 31 times. He can play both first base and left field. The big question on his return will be whether the back is fully healed and will allow him to drive the ball for power.

Wilson Ramos—I flat-out love this kid. The 24-year-old catcher broke in last year and had a .334/.445 line. He’s off to a slow start in 2012, but in this lineup he only needs to be good fifth or sixth-place hitter and there’s plenty of time to grow into that.

If the Nationals get big years from these players, it will have them in the mid-80s for wins, which fulfills their preseason goals. Then if you get solid work from players like second baseman Danny Espinosa and veteran pickups like Edwin Jackson in the rotation and Brad Lidge in the bullpen, you can think a little bigger. That will be a topic for another day. For now, let’s look to May 6 as the conclusion of the early evaluation period for the Nationals. Between now and then, they’ll finish up this series with Houston, have Miami come to town, go west to face the Dodgers and Padres, come back home to play Arizona and then that first weekend in May sees the Phillies come to town. The 6th is the series finale and will be on Sunday Night baseball from D.C. If Johnson’s team keeps playing steady baseball, it’s got the potential to be an exciting early season night on the East Coast.