The Washington Nationals are Doing it Right

In case you haven’t heard, the Washington Nationals are a thing now. No, really. At 36-23, they’ve got the second best record in baseball, the best team ERA, and as much as it pains me to say it, this little thing called Bryce Harper, luckily sans “skullet,” which makes it hurt a little less.

Here’s the thing about the Nats though, after Harper they don’t hit very well, or at all really. They’re at the back end of the majors with 230 runs (25th), a .243 batting average (24th), and a paltry .311 on base percentage (24th). How then are they at the top of the NL East, one of the league’s most contentious divisions, by a comfortable three games over the Braves and five over the Mets and Marlins? Well if it’s not the hitting…

Let’s talk about this Nats pitching staff. As mentioned, their 2.98 ERA is the best in the majors, they’ve also got a league best 1.14WHIP  and .220 batting average against. Here’s the thing about their rotation, Edwin Jackson (he of the 3.02 ERA) is their number four starter. Four. Ahead of him they’ve got Jordan Zimmermann (2.91), Gio Gonzalez (2.35), and phenom Stephen Strasburg (2.41). So if your team’s playing the Nationals on any given night, there’s an 80 percent chance they’ll be trying to hit a guy with an ERA of 3.02 or less. Think about that for a second. And as much as I love Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, no team in the league has a 1-2 punch better than Strasburg and Gonzalez, who Grantland’s Shane Ryan called “the most dynamic Washington duo since Mondale-Ferraro fever swept the District in ’84.”

With a rotation like that, they’ve probably got an awful bullpen, right? I mean everyone’s got an awful bullpen. Nope. National relievers have the NL’s fourth best combined ERA, 3.12. But that’s OK, their closer’s injured and having a good closer means everything, right? Wrong. Even if closer was a worthwhile baseball position and not just a money-making tool, the absence of Drew Storen (the team’s first-round pick in 2009), who had 43 saves and a 2.75 ERA last year, hasn’t hurt the Nationals any. Since stepping into the role Tyler Clippard is eight for eight in save opportunities. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s got guys like Sean Burnett (1.35 ERA, 23 K’s in 20 innings pitched) and Craig Stammen (1.80 ERA, 32 K’s in 30 innings pitched) behind him.

But up there, when I said “the Washing Nationals are doing it right,” I wasn’t really talking about any of this stuff. Well, except the wins. What I really meant was the way the Nats are handling things behind the scenes. There’s only one way for a team that won 69 games in 2010 and 59 in 2009 and 2008 to be this good this year: making the right draft choices, spending money on free agents when it’s called for (without wasting it when it isn’t, well besides Jayson Werth), and pulling the trigger, without spending too much, on high-risk high-reward pick ups. Edwin Jackson is a perfect example of the final strategy, the journeyman has bounced around the league and had a few successful seasons here and there, but he’s never been able to really pull it together. But Jackson is only 28, and now he’s having his best year ever, so an appropriate suffix for the previous sentence just might be “until now.”

Despite the record and accolades, the Nationals are in the bottom third of MLB payrolls (20th, $81,336,143). Furthermore, three of the team’s four best hitters: Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond, as well as Strasburg and Zimmermann (note the second “n”) are homegrown. It took a while for the Nats to get their shit together following the move from Montreal, but it’s happened, and now the team is here to stay. Don’t be surprised if you see them in the playoffs (or at least the NL East hunt) for the next few years.

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The Nationals are finally poised to compete

In the entire history of the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, they’ve made just one playoff appearance, which happened so long ago that Mark McGwire probably doesn’t even remember being drafted by the organization that year. (1981 for those scoring at home.)

Since then, the Expos/Nationals have been a study in failure. Sure, there were those few years in the early 90s when the team was competitive under Felipe Alou, but for the most part the organization has been riddled with bad luck and underperformance.

Until now, that is.

Am I ready to crown the Nationals as my pre-season pick to win the NL East? No, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they earned a Wild Card bid – especially with a playoff team being added in each league this year. Their starting rotation is excellent, their bullpen is solid, and their offense should be improved from what it was a year ago. Assuming their core players stay healthy, there’s no reason to think the Nats can’t challenge an aging Philadelphia squad and a club in Atlanta that has managed to choke in pressure situations the past two seasons.

It’s hard not to love Washington’s starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery but he and Jordan Zimmermann flat out throw gas. Gio Gonzalez was one of the more underrated pickups from this offseason and Edwin Jackson helped the Cardinals win a World Series title last season. Assuming he isn’t traded at some point, John Lannan is a pretty damn good fifth starter. In fact, all five of Washington’s starting pitchers could finish with ERAs south of 4.0.

That said, the offense will make or break this club in 2012. Outside of Ryan Zimmerman, not one hitter in the Nats’ projected 2012 lineup will hit for average. There also isn’t a 100-RBI man on the roster, unless Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (who had a brutal debut last year with the Nationals) overachieve.

But the 2010 Giants showed that offense isn’t everything, especially if you can make it into the postseason. Plus, it’s a pitcher’s game now and the Nationals aren’t short on arms this season. We’ll just have to see if they have enough offense to give themselves a shot to play past October 3.

Either way, this isn’t the same Nationals’ club that finished fifth, fifth, fourth, fifth, fifth, fifth and third since moving to Washington in 2005. This team appears ready to compete.

The difference between Jayson Werth the National and Jayson Werth the Red Sox? One year.

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth bats against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 2, 2010 in Denver. The Phillies lead the NL Wild Card race. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

It’s cool, Jayson Werth. You signed with the Nationals because they offered you $126 million. Nobody will fault you for that. I’d probably smash my femur with a hammer for half that.

But don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining.

When Werth signed with the Nationals back in December, he concocted this speech about how he’s always “been a fan of an underdog” and how he noticed that the Nationals had a “grittiness and a will to win.”

Everyone knew he was blowing smoke but nobody cared, because how could anyone blame him for cashing in? Hey, it wasn’t his fault the Nationals paid him $127 million despite the fact that no other team was willing to offer him that much dough.

But he shows up for Nationals spring training this week and the first things out of his mouth were about how the Phillies could have had both him and Cliff Lee had they not traded Lee away last year, and how he had a “great meeting” with the Red Sox and would have signed with them had they offered six years instead of five.

For those scoring at home, he admitted that he would have signed with the Boston freaking Red Sox (a legitimate World Series contender) instead of the perennial doormats of the NL East (no offense Nationals, I think you’re beautiful on the inside) had the BoSox offered him six years instead of five. Holy mercenary, Batman.

And talk about bitter: it’s not up to Werth to play GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. Maybe they could have had both him and Lee had they not traded Lee last year, but correct me if I’m wrong, the Phillies are the favorites to win the World Series this year because of Lee and Roy Halladay. I haven’t seen any respected analyst say, “The Phils aren’t World Series contenders this year because they don’t have Jayson Werth in right field.”

Again, nobody cares that he took the money in Washington. Good for him. But considering they gave him a contract that nobody else was willing to give him, maybe he should spend more time being a National and less time sounding so greedy and bitter.

Red Sox pursing Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth bats against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 2, 2010 in Denver. The Phillies lead the NL Wild Card race.   UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

Apparently Boston GM Theo Epstein is out of his slumber and ready to make some moves. Losing yet another middle-of-the-order bat like Victor Martinez will do that to a GM.

According to Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports, the Red Sox have stepped up in their pursuit of free agent outfielders Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford. Epstein met with Crawford in his hometown of Houston, Texas and apparently came away “very, very impressed” with the meeting.

Crawford is a favorite of the organization and why shouldn’t he be? He hit a career-high 19 home runs last season and battled .307. He also drove in 90 runs, swiped 47 bases and plays outstanding defense.

Werth falls right behind Crawford in terms of best available outfielders this offseason. Werth has better overall power numbers than Crawford, plays a solid right field and would be cheaper than the former Rays’ outfielder. But if the Sox are looking for the complete package, Crawford is it. The only question is whether or not they’ll commit to Crawford (who is reportedly seeking an eight-year deal and $20 million per season) and if they do, whether or not the Yankees will step in at the final second and steal him like they did Mark Teixeira). (I guess that’s two questions.)

The Red Sox have yet to make an offer to either player, but one may be forthcoming soon.

Yankees not expected to pursue Crawford or Werth?

Philadelphia Phillies' Jayson Werth waits his turn to bat against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of their MLB National League baseball game in Washington, September 27, 2010.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Here’s a shock: The Yankees aren’t interested in a couple of high-priced free agents.

According to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, the Yankees aren’t expected to pursue Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth this offseason. As Feinsand writes, the Bombers already have Brett Gardner (who is coming off a breakout year), Nick Swisher (who was solid) and Curtis Granderson (whom the Yankees traded for last offseason). So unless they parted with one of those guys, where would Crawford or Werth fit in?

Of course, these are the Yankees we’re talking about. They want Cliff Lee and will probably stop at nothing to lure him to the Big Apple. But if they miss out on him, does anyone actually believe they wouldn’t pursue another big name? There’s no way. The Yankees don’t hunt through the bargain bins, either – they go top shelf.

I’m not a big fan of Werth, but he would be perfect for the Yankees because they play in a kiddies’ park just like the Phillies do. Werth’s power numbers wouldn’t drop playing at Yankee Stadium like they would if he went to San Francisco. (I’m not saying the Giants are interested; just using their park as an example.)

If I were to make a guess, I think either Werth or Crawford wind up in Boston. The Red Sox are willing to spend and they need to upgrade their outfield. That said, Werth isn’t a lefty so I’m wondering how his power numbers would translate with the “Green Monster” out in left field.

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