The 2011 season brought some success and hope to Washington Nationals fans; yes, an 80-81 season can be considered a success considering the exit of manager Jim Riggleman in a contract dispute after 75 games led most people to consider the franchise as being in turmoil. New manager Davey Johnson, though leading them to a sub-.500 mark (40-43) over the remaining part of the season, brought the Nationals back to respectability and gave the team much-needed stability.
There’s considerable optimism for 2012; Johnson flatly declares the team a contender. So, with that in mind, here are five questions regarding a potential rise of “nationals-ism” in the National League East.
Will Johnson turn the Nationals into contenders in 2012?
In 15 seasons as a manager, Johnson has suffered exactly four sub-.500 seasons—and all of those, except one, came in partial seasons. Those would be 1990, when he was fired by the Mets after 42 games; 1993, when he took over the Reds; and 2011, when he took over the Nats from Riggleman. (The one full losing season a Johnson-led team suffered was in 1999, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
In every other season he’s managed, Johnson’s blend of modern savvy and Earl Weaver basics has led to finishes no lower than second, and he’s led five division champions. And that lone sub-.500 Dodgers team? It finished third.
With the exception of his first gig with the Mets, Johnson has moved from one club to another after the previous manager wore out his welcome. That first job, however, gives us an idea of how Johnson’s Nats may fare this season.
A student of the game, with perhaps a sharper eye for talent and how to harness it than many, if not most, managers in the majors today, Johnson entered the managerial ranks after serving as a minor league pilot, and while at Tidewater—the Mets’ Triple-A home—Johnson was able to gain insight into the younger players who would later be important cogs in the 1986 World Series machine.
Before that, Johnson was a roving minor league jack-of-all-trades for the Mets. Dwight Gooden, in an interview with MLB Fan Cave, says, “… Davey was really the reason I made the team in ’84…. Back in ’82 I got drafted, Davey was a roving instructor for the Mets and he saw me throwing in rookie ball in Kingsport, Tenn.”
It was Johnson who pushed for Gooden‘s inclusion on the Mets in 1984 straight out of the Carolina League, and he was proven correct in assuming the youngster was ready—physically—for the duty (the fact that Gooden began abusing drugs and drink and failed to take care of his body can hardly be blamed on Johnson). And it was Johnson who was able to blend the younger players he’d managed in the minors—Wally Backman, for example—with established veterans.
Flash to 2011. Johnson took over the 2011 Nationals after a season or so as an aide to ownership—and some of this time was spent learning the capabilities of players in the minor league system. This season’s edition of the Nationals will benefit by the preparation Davey’s put in over the last couple of seasons, just as certainly as those 1980s Mets benefited from Johnson’s preparations then.
Johnson has proclaimed the team will not only reach .500, but contend all season. With the debut of a new playoff round in Bud World, he could be correct.
So, what will it take to make the Nationals contenders in 2012?
First, the team needs strong performances by the starters. Pitching-wise, the Nationals aren’t as good as the Phillies, yet—but which team can make that claim?
The rotation looks to be Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan, though Lannan is predicted to depart in a trade at some point. Don’t be surprised, however, if Johnson finds enough work for all six, especially if Question No. 4 (see below) is strictly enforced.
The additions of Gonzalez and Jackson make this staff potentially one of the best in the league. Jackson should more than adequately replace Jason Marquis in the No. 4 slot, and Gonzalez is quite an upgrade from Livan Hernandez at No. 2. Depth is key over 162 games, and it appears the Nationals will be fine in this regard, enough to withstand any problems Gonzalez might encounter in his league shift, or a recurrence of injuries to Strasburg, Zimmermann, or Wang.
In the pen, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and new addition Brad Lidge are as impressive a trio as any in the league, especially if Lidge can repeat his performance of last year, or better it. Storen saved 43 last season and should have more opportunities with the newly built rotation.
Catching belongs to Wilson Ramos. After his off-season adventures—being kidnapped isn’t exactly what players expect from winter league ball—he returns to improve on his offense and defense. His upside is good, but this season he won’t have Ivan Rodriguez to fall back on for advice.
On defense, slick-fielding Adam LaRoche will be at first; Steve Lombardozzi or Danny Espinosa at second; Ian Desmond on short; and Ryan Zimmerman on third, with a new extension to make him happy. This is a solid, if unspectacular, group—Zimmerman, of course, is this team’s unquestioned offensive star, and his new deal (a six-year, $100 million extension) should give him some peace of mind. He’s a leader both on and off the field.
The outfield defense suffers somewhat from Michael Morse (the other offensive horse), but Johnson will likely give him some time at first base as well, with Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Mark DeRosa in reserve. Werth will play either center field or right, and look to improve his counting stats (the less said about his relatively dismal 2011, the better). And where Werth plays depends on …
Bryce Harper. Will the slugger begin the season in D.C.?
John Sickels said this about Nationals’ prospect Bryce Harper: “He is not just a power masher; he’s got great instincts, and I have seen him make adjustments within at-bats more rapidly than most major leaguers can.”
Johnson’s on record as thinking Harper is fully capable of opening the season in Washington, and—Davey usually gets what he wants.
If Harper does go back to Triple-A, Davey can get a good look at Morse in the outfield and figure out his primary platoon partners for interleague play (Morse seems like a shoo-in for DH duties). But, if the kid is ready, it seems a shame to deny him the chance.
If the Nats obtain an outfielder with a sterling pedigree, then all bets are off. But Harper is a monster. The pressure could be intense, but this guy’s ego and ability should shine through.
4. Will Strasburg be held to 160 innings?
At the beginning, it would be foolish for Johnson to push the youngster. The bullpen they’ve created this season will be much stronger, enabling Strasburg to be a five-inning pitcher. With his stuff, and when he’s on, those five innings will consist of a lot of three-up, three-downs. His walks to strikeouts ratio last year was 12-1 That’s sick (though it was in just 24 innings). However, as the season goes on—and assuming the Nats will be in contention—Johnson may wind up having to use King Stephen somewhat more than 160 innings. GM Mike Rizzo says once his 160 is up, he’ll be shut down. But seriously, how do you shut down a force like Strasburg when big money’s on the line?
And what about Anthony Rendon?
Fascinating how this story is playing out. The rookie, not even a full season removed from college ball, is making even more of an impression than Harper. He’s a slick fielder and a solid hitter, and has the emotional make-up to be a major leaguer very soon.
Sure, he’s never played pro ball. But look at his Rice Owls page (http://www.riceowls.com/sports/m-basebl/mtt/rendon_anthony00.html) and you’ll see a kid who is more advanced than most.
Some questions remain after shoulder problems last year, so don’t expect Rendon to be around before June. And if the infield is solid and performing well and Harper’s in the midst of a sterling season, Rendon could be allowed to just continue in the minors, which will probably be a very good thing. But many predict the Nationals’ 2013 lineup will have Zimmerman at first and Rendon at third.
It’s hard to see 2012 as being anything but successful for the Nationals. Maybe not enough to knock off the Phillies, but definitely a team on the rise, with a playoff berth possible. As for the future, if Harper—and Rendon—live up to their potential, they, along with Zimmerman and Morse, could make the Nationals lineup difficult for NL pitchers for a long, long time.
Hello, new Wild Card format; and, with a little magic from the Davey Johnson playbook, hello post-season. Washington has never had a team go to the postseason in the entire history of the playoffs, and hasn’t had a team go to the World Series since 1933. If Johnson manages to pull off both, they’ll give him the keys to the White House.
References & Resources