June 21, 2011

Answer Unclear, Ask Again Later

Are the 2011 Washington Nationals surprise NL Wild Card contenders or just slightly better than expected playoff pretenders? The next 10 days should tell us quite a bit about the suddenly scrappy boys in red, white and blue.

Starting tonight the Nats play a nine game stretch versus the Mariners, at the White Sox, and at the Angels before wrapping up June with an off day. All three clubs are hovering right around the .500 mark, providing additional evidence of this season's unusual parity. Seattle, like Washington has ridden a better than expected pitching staff into contention in a year when Texas was supposed to run away with the AL West. M's starters Doug Fister, Erik Bedard and Michael Pineda are probably the best trio the reconstituted Nats lineup has faced, and while their offense is not good, that didn't exactly stop the Padres from rolling the Nats, did it?

After that the team hits the road to take on under-performing squads in Chicago (Hi, Big Dunnkey!) and Anaheim (aka Los Angeles). Both clubs have struggled at times but are talented enough to blow the Nats out of the water if the team that showed up Sunday versus the Orioles makes a repeat appearance. A club with serious playoff aspirations would expect to win all three of these series, or at worst take 2 of 3 at home and 3 of 6 on the road. By June 30th we'll know if these Nats are more than just talented enough to reel off a random win streak.

But even with that out of the way it's not at all clear that this year's Nats have the tools to compete. In fairness they weren't really meant to. Any National League club that carries a full-time pinch hitter is not seriously thinking playoffs. This was supposed to be the bridge season to 2012 - Strasburg, possibly Harper (and now perhaps Rendon) to go along with the Zimmermen(n), Jayson Werth, a more seasoned Ramos, Espinosa, and Desmond and Clippard, Burnett and Storen at the back of the 'pen. Improvement, including a run at .500 was in the cards, but nobody was talking playoffs.

They are now, but that talk will need to translate into action to improve the CF defense and the OBP at the top of the order, find a reliable fifth starter, add at least one more (left-handed) arm to the bullpen, and maybe a utility infielder better than Alex Cora and/or Brian Bixler. The Nats will also have to commit to keeping Jason Marquis and mini-Morse Laynce Nix around past July 31st, meaning Rizzo would have to dip into the farm to make upgrades to the big league clubs.

Is that the right path to take? Harper clearly thinks not. I'm less of a believer in the success cycle myself, and more of a Nats fan, so it's a harder call for me. If the Nats come home on June 30th two games over .500 and reel off a winning record at home in the 10 games leading up to the All-Star break, it's going to be awfully difficult for me to get on the "Break Up the Nats!" bandwagon.

Among other things, 2012 will be Strasburg's first post-TJ season, so it's hard to see him being dominant even in the best case. The best case would also feature at most 2/3 of a season of 19 year old Bryce Harper, rookie Anthony Rendon and a few rookie pitchers (perhaps AAA LHP Tom Milone and AA RHP Brad Peacock), who while they look intriguing in the minors will have virtually no MLB experience. Tough to see that being a significantly more playoff caliber club.

But all this is cheap progNATStication. The next 10 days will tell us more about who the 2011 Nationals are, and where they're headed. Stay tuned.

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