The Nationals' off season to date has been characterized by a marked lack of activity on the position player front. No major free agents (Sorry, Mark DeRosa does not qualify as a blockbuster signing.), no "big" trades; lots of sound, very little fury (apart from certain quarters of the fanbase). Signifying what, exactly?
Unlike seasons past, when the plan for the winter was less roster upgrade than roster overhaul, the Nats approach 2012 with relatively well-defined needs. Foremost among the holes to be filled, a centerfielder and a lead-off hitter, either separately or all in one player. The free agent market for lead-off hitting centerfielders was less than impressive even before Grady Sizemore re-signed with Cleveland, and Coco Crisp is a cereal, not a solution.
Remaining free agents like Cuban Yeonnis Cespedes or trade targets like B.J. Upton are centerfielders, but not classic leadoff hitters. And now the jungle drums are rumbling that Mike Rizzo may wait until 2013 to upgrade the outfield, even as Buster Olney suggests that the team may be eyeballing ex-Nat Marlon Byrd in the Cubs on-going fire sale. And all of this leaves aside the looming, ever-expanding profile of the Prince of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's very own Hamlet. "To be or not to be?" is indeed the question, but not one we're concerned with today.
Today we're looking at the Opening Day 25-man roster as though the franchise was frozen in time on January 10, 2012. No more bench bats or bullpen arms, only what Mike Rizzo has to work with as of right this moment. With that in mind, I give you your 2012 Washington Nationals:
Starting Pitchers: S. Strasburg (R), G. Gonzalez (L), J. Zimmermann (R), C. Wang (R), J. Lannan (L)
First Thoughts - Easily the best rotation since baseball returned to Washington, DC. Three potentially legitimate top-of-the-order starters, and the 4/5 pitchers are slotted below their ability.
Relief Pitchers: D. Storen (R), T. Clippard (R), H. Rodriguez (R), S. Burnett (L), R. Mattheus (R), T. Gorzelanny (L), R. Detwiler (L)
First Thoughts - This bullpen could easily be as good as the 2011 version, but in a perfect world one of the lefty long relievers would be swapped for a right-hander and there'd be one more veteran arm to support the youngsters.
Starting Eight: W. Ramos (C), A. LaRoche (1B), D. Espinosa (2B), R. Zimmerman (3B), I. Desmond (SS), M. Morse (LF), M. Cameron (CF), J. Werth (RF)
First Thoughts - If there were an award for Comeback Lineup of the Year, the Nationals would be strong contenders. The team will need bounce back years from LaRoche, Zimmerman, Desmond & Werth to stay competitive. The inclusion of ageless Mike Cameron shines a harsh spotlight on the Nats' on-going struggles in centerfield.
Bench: J. Flores (C), M. DeRosa (UTIL), S. Lombardozzi (INF), R. Bernadina (OF), C. Tracy (UTIL)
First Thoughts - Equal parts question marks and potential, but if the season started today the bench would once again be a weakness. If Flores and DeRosa have overcome their injuries they'll be solid contributors, but it's unreasonable to expect too much from the rest.
The Nationals have made tremendous progress and fans have every reason to hope for a winning record in 2012, but significant holes remain, and there's no clear-cut path to filling them. Thank goodness Mike Rizzo still has 40 days until pitchers and catchers report to fine-tune his team.
N.B. - There is one glaring absence from the Opening Day roster, a Mr. Harper. First, please observe that this is The Worst-Case Scenario Opening Day Roster. Second, slotting Bryce Harper in as the Opening Day rightfielder and pushing Jayson Werth into center may nominally resolve some questions, but it's not a panacea. Harper's presence in the starting lineup creates problems of its own. But that's a topic for another post.