Monday, December 26, 2011

Washington Nationals: Contenders?

A combination of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez has the potential to be very good. Not to plug my own writing, but... well, OK, I'm plugging my own writing.

"Even so, there’s no denying an fWAR total of 6.7 over 402.2 innings between 2010 and 2011 at ages 24 and 25. Sub-4 FIP’s and solid home run rates mean Gonzalez is doing things right. It’s a nice addition for a Nationals staff that was needing an impact arm to be taken seriously. Stick Gonzalez in there with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and you have a very solid Top 3 that can compete with almost any Top 3 on its good days."

I won't go into detail about Gonzalez's shortcomings. He walks more batters than anybody else in the game and has done so the past two seasons. He also strikes out a lot of batters and posts sub-4 FIP's below the age of 25, so he's a good pitcher capable of being a No. 2 starter on a contender if he knocks the walks down a tad. If not, he's a No. 3 ceiling.

So a post like this is not out of this world to consider. The Nationals, in a league where it's not impossible to shock the world with a Wild Card berth, could potentially have what it takes to do that. There are two things that could derail their chances, and for one, I plug the same post.

"However, with youth comes questions, and this Top 3 has a few. Gonzalez’s control will always be in question, and he will have days where he can’t find the strike zone, depending on a Nationals offense that hasn’t gotten any better. Health concerns will surround this group, especially considering both Strasburg and Zimmermann have experienced Tommy John surgery. Depth is a concern, as the Nationals will rely on Chien-Ming Wang at the back-end, and if two starters go down at the same time, they will depend on some combination of Ross Detwiler, Matt Purke and Yunesky Maya. Injuries are impossible to predict, and all five starters could throw 180+ innings, but depth is so important to a pitching staff, and I don’t see a ton of it for Washington."

The second problem involves an offense that finished in the lower half of the National League in most categories. They were 11th in fWAR, 12th in wRC+, 11th in wOBA and 12th in OPS. Jayson Werth was the major disappointment for Washington's offense, recording a .323 wOBA after four straight seasons of .380+. Ryan Zimmerman was also held to just a .347 wOBA in only 440 plate appearances due to an abdominal injury. Expecting better seasons from these two middle of the order hitters is obvious.

Along with this is something that continued to appear when looking at team leaderboards: The Braves were either at or worse than the Nationals in the same four categories listed above. Yes, the Braves had among the top pitching staffs in the game last season, which kept them on top of the Wild Card standings for most of the year. But the return of Strasburg and the trade for Gonzalez means a better staff for a Nationals team that ranked in the middle of the pack. The Braves showed it doesn't take a Top 10 offense to contend for a Wild Card. (Of course, much of this depends on individual seasons.)

Any sort of contention for the Nationals hinges on the returns of Strasburg, Zimmermann, Zimmerman and Werth, and the continued development of Gonzalez, so there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding them. However, for the first time since the move from Montreal, this Washington team has a legitimate shot at causing worry for Wild Card contenders. In a league with such parity among Wild Card contenders, it only takes a hot streak or two to make things interesting.

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