The bright side about being a Nats fan is that after this last year—from “Natinals” to the GM resigning in disgrace to, well, the terrible record—things have to be looking up. And with Stephen Strasburg looming, they almost certainly are.
So that leads us to…
1. What’s going to happen to Stephen Strasburg this season?
The Nats have announced—rightly—that their phenom is going to begin the year in the minors. If you’re a lucky fan of the Altoona Curve, you’ll be able to catch his first minor league start on April 11.
Was sending him down the right decision? Almost certainly. Does it kind of stink for Nats’ fans? Sort of.
He was the team’s best pitcher in the spring. He’s clearly got the stuff to hang with major league batters. Despite that, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that sending him down to work on a few things would be beneficial.
But we all know it’s the off-the-field stuff that’s driving this. First, keeping him down a few weeks gives the team an extra year of control. It’s far better to have a fully developed Strasburg in 2016 than a still-learning one toiling for a should-be last-place team in 2010. Second, it’s about the money.
While the contract that Strasburg signed reduces the temptation for the team to game the system a bit, keeping him down still means millions more saved in the future. As the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin lays out, keeping him down is the difference between three years of arbitration salaries or four. Translation: it could mean a minimum of $15 million for the Nats.
So Strasburg’s not likely to make the majors until June, and Nats fans are getting excited, even the casual ones waiting around for the team to just do something interesting.
In the end, Strasburg will likely get 15 or so starts in the majors. And if he’s anything less than 15-0 with 165 strikeouts, it’ll be a major disappointment.
2. Is Ryan Zimmerman really a superstar?
Last year, you could’ve made an argument that Ryan Zimmerman was an MVP contender. Sure, he wasn’t really Pujols, but without straining yourself, you could’ve made an argument that he was the next best player in the National League. The shorthand version of that argument: his Silver Slugger and Gold Glove. Few players in the game put up such great numbers at both facets of the game.
Defensively, there probably aren’t any third basemen with better instincts and range. The only knock on him defensively is his errors. When he has too much time, he tends to take an extra look at the ball, throwing off his timing: his footwork goes astray, and the ball whips past the first baseman for an error. If he could halve those throwing errors, he’d simply be the best.
But it’s the bat that took a huge step forward. And whenever that happens, everyone runs to BABIP to explain it. Not in this case. His .310 is right in line with his career numbers. What improved was his eye and his health.
He bested his career high in walks by 11, and his overall rate crept up to 10.4 percent. We’ll chalk that up to Adam Dunn‘s influence.
But it’s really his health that made the biggest difference. He was coming off seasons ruined by a frayed shoulder and a hamate bone removal. Both likely affected his swing, especially his power. With rest and rehab, he finally showed what he was capable of.
Maybe expecting a pure repeat of last year’s offensive performance isn’t realistic. But even if he drops a few ticks in slugging, he’s still among the most valuable players in the league.
3. What does the bullpen look like?
One of the reasons last year’s Nats did so terribly compared to their Pythagorean record was their terrible bullpen.
After starting out 0-7, the Nats won one before starting a three-game series with the Marlins.
Game two: Hanrahan gave up three runs in the ninth, including two on a Jeremy Hermida homer, (he later hit a three-run bomb) on the way to a 9-6 loss.
Game three: Rivera, who had failed in the first game, tried for the one-run save, instead giving up an RBI double followed by a bases-clearing double in what turned into a 7-4 loss.
Three games, three blown saves. That was a microcosm. But it wasn’t quite rock bottom, because the Nats’ pitchers kept finding new and interesting ways to lose.
So the Nats kicked most of those stiffs out, and they’re coming into 2010 with a bullpen led by Matt Capps, he of the 5.80 ERA and 4.90 FIP, Sean Burnett, he of the -0.1 WAR, and Brian Bruney, he of the career 6.22 BB/9. Cherry-picking, of course. But the larger point remains. These guys aren’t very good.
But even not very good is going to be better than last year. Even if you don’t like ERA, especially in evaluating relievers, the 5.09 bullpen ERA or the 5.71 ERA in save situations paints a thorough enough picture.
Along with a change in arms, a change in management might help here. Manny Acta never really seemed to grasp how to use the guys he had. Notably, on opening day last year, he brought Rivera in to face Ryan Howard, even with at least two lefties sitting in the pen. His explanation? Saul was his “seventh inning guy.” A big homer later, and the game was over.
While there wasn’t much talent to mine from those arms, Acta consistently seemed to find ways to use the talent in the worst possible way.
So while Capps, Bruney and Burnett aren’t going to make anyone miss the Nasty Boys, there’s hope for some marginal improvement here.
4. How loud will the clanks off Adam Dunn’s glove be?
The guy that everyone wants to be a DH has found a home at first base.
We know he’s not going to be a great first baseman, but everyone likes to point at his terrible UZR numbers (-25 per 150 games last year) to say he’s the next Dick Stuart. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But half a season’s worth of UZR, even when combined with fractions of seasons before it aren’t really enough to tell.
Piecing together those partial seasons and drawing a conclusion from them makes no more sense than picking out a batter’s statline in April and August and drawing conclusions from that.
Nats fans have seen some truly horrid first base defense, including a morbidly obese Dmitri Young and a short-armed Ronnie Belliard. Anyone who watched Dunn regularly at first didn’t see someone as terrible as those guys.
Dunn’s not going to have great range, but he’s a great target. With his size, if he can figure out the footwork around the bag, he’ll cut down on bad throws, something that’s not necessarily captured by UZR. I have zero belief that he’ll be a good first baseman, but it’s hard to believe that someone with his size and athleticism would be the absolute worst in the league.
If he shows he’s only costing the team five to 10 runs at first, he’s a valuable player.
5. How important is a good showing this season?
With everything that’s gone on to this team—much of it self-inflicted—the answer is “very.” Nobody’s expecting a pennant winner, or even really a .500 team. But they absolutely cannot afford to have another 100-loss team. There are plenty of casual baseball fans who just want to cheer for a decent team, but they’ve had absolutely nothing to root for, at least since September ’05.
The Washington Capitals are Cup contenders. The Washington Redskins are always the dominant force in town, and after a few years of futility, they finally have adults in place making football decisions. There’s a lot of competition for the sports dollar and rooting time. And so far, the Nats have given no reason for most people to care.
75 wins isn’t going to make anyone stand and cheer. But it would be a step forward. They could go into the off-season, talking about the 15-win improvement they had. They could point to Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, John Lannan, Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmermann as the core of a potential championship contender — and do such without really stretching the truth.
Fans need to be convinced that the team is building towards something, not just with the words the team utters (which have typically been hollow), but with their actions and results.
So while some mocked the team for signing a pitcher like Jason Marquis, they’re missing the point. He’s not here to bring a championship to DC, he’s here to bring stability to the team — to keep the bottom from dropping out as it’s done the last few seasons. He’s here to stabilize, help younger pitchers develop (if only through absorbing a workload), and to keep the team in games.
Hypothetically there’s no difference between 62 wins and 75, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in DC.