Back in Spring Training, I posted a blog (is that the proper vernacular? I'm old) about the promise that every baseball team experiences when they convene in Florida (or Arizona) to start the season (you can read it for yourself: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/03/hope-springs-eternal.html). At the time, the Nationals' storyline was something like this - lots of young talent, may contend for a playoff spot, but probably a year or two away from being really good. Well, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, that narrative has changed to, can they win the division and is it unreasonable to think they might get to the World Series. Gotta love baseball.
For those of us who remember that first season in Washington, with the out of nowhere 50-31 start, this team has a much different feel. While that inaugural season was put together with rubber bands and chewing gum (actually, guys like John Patterson, Chad Cordero and Jose Guillen, none of whom have played for the Nats (or any other team) for some time), the 2012 Nationals are so deep with young talent it's scary. Unlike prior seasons, where the team would get off to a rocky start and then have to dig itself out of a hole, this season's squad came out like a house on fire, starting the season 12-4 before a postponement against the Marlins in late April and they haven't let up since, sitting atop the division, 3.5 games clear of the second place Mets.
The Nationals' success has not be a fluke. If anything, it has come in spite of a rash of injuries that other teams like the Phillies, the perennial bully on the block, have been unable to overcome (Philadelphia sits in last place, boo too). When you consider that the Nationals started the season without their closer (Drew Storen, who has still not played) and starting LF (Michael Morse, who missed the first 50 games of the season), and that other major contributors, like starting C Wilson Ramos (torn ACL) and RF Jayson Werth (broken wrist) are missing all or most of the season and that other players, like 3B Ryan Zimmerman (shoulder), SP Chien-Mien Wang (hamstring), all world PH Chad Tracy (adductor), and P Brad Lidge (abdominal strain - ultimately released by the club) have all missed significant time this season, the fact that the Nationals are not only in 1st place, but have the best record in the National League is all the more remarkable.
So how did this happen? For the most part, it's come down to two words - pitching & defense. Until about 10 days ago, the offense was mediocre, but the pitching staff has been lights out from the minute Stephen Strasburg took the hill in Chicago to start the season against the Cubs on April 5th. The Nationals' pitching staff has the lowest ERA in the majors and the starters all sport ERAs between 2.70 (Jordan Zimmermann) and 3.73 (Edwin Jackson). Meanwhile, Strasburg leads the NL in strikeouts and Gio Gonzalez is tied for third (both were named All-Stars earlier this week). And when the starters hand the ball off, the bullpen has been equally effective. Set up men like Craig Stammen (1.41 ERA, 45/17 K/BB ratio) and Sean Burnett (1.52 ERA 15 Holds) have been virtually untouchable, and former set-up man Tyler Clippard, who was promoted to the closer's role when flame-throwing (but erratic) Henry Rodriguez showed himself to be unprepared for the role, has been unhittable, converting all 13 of his save opportunities while surrendering only 16 hits in 34.1 innings. When Storen (43 saves in 2011) comes back, the bullpen will be even deeper.
All of that pitching depth has resulted in the team yielding the fewest runs in major league baseball (271 - 29 fewer than the #2 team on the list, the Pittsburgh Pirates), with opponents batting .229 against the team's pitching staff. While the team makes its share of errors, these mistakes are not being converted into runs thanks to the pitchers' dominance. And their wins are not coming against cellar dwellers - fully two-thirds of the team's schedule thus far has been against teams with a better than .500 record. In short, the work GM Mike Rizzo put into molding a starting rotation through the draft (Strasburg), trade (Gonzalez) and free agent signing (Edwin Jackson) has paid enormous dividends when put with two other starters Rizzo had a hand in getting when he was head of scouting under former GM Jim Bowden (Detweiler and Zimmermann). The fact that the bullpen has remained sturdy in the absence of its closer speaks to its depth (Clippard, a steal from the Yankees, came aboard under Bowden's tenure) and to Rizzo's keen eye (trading for Burnett and Rodriguez, drafting Stammen).
While pitching and defense have been the team's mainstay, offense has been a little harder to come by. Early season injuries resulted in much heralded phenom Bryce Harper receiving an earlier than expected call up to the majors and he has not disappointed. In an early May series versus the Phillies, he was plunked by SP Cole Hamels. After advancing to third on a single by Werth, Harper stole home when Hamels made a slow pick off throw to first, bolting for home and barely beating the attempt to tag him out. Harper has hit a couple of tape measure home runs, gone viral with his "that's a clown question, bro" statement to a reporter and, according to all reports, been a model teammate who "plays the game the right way" (the highest compliment a big leaguer can give to one of its own) - going for the extra base, moving runners over, being patient at the plate (he's already amassed 25 walks and gets pitched to like a multi-year all-star) and, even when he makes the occasional blunder, owns up to it (except the 0 for 7 collar he took in a 14 inning game against the Yankees - dude was pissed).
Recently, the offense has started to put it together. Zimmerman took a cortisone shot to relieve the pain in his aching shoulder and started hitting the cover off the ball, Morse not only returned, but has started to find his .300 stroke from last season, 1B Adam LaRoche gives the team stellar field work and good power, and SS Ian Desmond is having a break out season, clubbing 14 home runs with 47 RBIs and a selection to the All-Star Game now on his resume. The team has also received contributions from utility player Steve Lombardozzi, pinch hitter Chad Tracy (until his injury) and 2B Danny Espinosa, who, while struggling a bit at the plate, makes, along with Desmond, one of the most exciting double play combinations in the league.
And the best part? This is only the beginning. While the team sits at 47-32 and will, in all likelihood, contend for that playoff spot this year, many of the team's stars have not even approached the prime of their careers. The core of the team is both ridiculously young and also under team control for the foreseeable future (player age in parentheses):
2015: Jordan Zimmermann (26), Ian Desmond (26) and Tyler Clippard (27);
2016: Stephen Strasburg (24), Gio Gonzalez (26), Wilson Ramos (24), Craig Stammen (28), Danny Espinosa (25) and Drew Storen (24);
2017: Jayson Werth (32);
2018: Bryce Harper (19); and
2019: Ryan Zimmerman (27)
And that list does not include Tyler Moore, who was recently called up from Triple A and has hit more than .400 in his last 15 games, Lombardozzi, who is projecting into a "play him where you can" utility guy who can get meaningful innings in LF, SS and 2B, or Chris Marrero, who showed flashes of power during a late season call-up in 2011. Add to that the fact that the team's owners are the wealthiest in major league baseball, attendance is spiking and the team's cable contract is scheduled to reset with a substantial addition to its bottom line and you've got a situation where free agents to be like Edwin Jackson may want to stick around and players coming up for free agency like Morse, Tom Gorzelanny and Burnett (who are only under team control until the end of next season) may pass on bigger contracts elsewhere. Further, the team is in a position to lock up its younger talent to long-term deals, as they did when they traded for Gio Gonzalez and signed him to a 5-year extension and when Zimmerman signed an extension earlier this season that will keep him with the team for the rest of his career.
Of course, every team suffers set backs, freak injuries or just bad luck, but all other things being equal, the Nationals "window" of opportunity to compete for not just division championships but World Series titles appears to be open for at least the next 5-6 years. Rizzo continues to stock the farm system with a steady stream of prospects, giving the team flexibility to make trades, the major league club is deep and talented (they've gone through 4 catchers this season, all, with the exception of Ramos, "home grown") and winning will make the team an appealing destination for free agents. To watch players develop, to see the city embracing them and the team starting to play like an elite squad is incredibly satisfying for those of us who suffered through the lean years as we look forward to October baseball and dream of D.C.'s first World Series pennant since 1924.