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.

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2009 MLB Preview: #29 Washington Nationals

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Offseason Movement: Perhaps the Nats’ biggest addition was 1B/OF Adam Dunn, who will add some pop to the lineup, as well as a fair amount of strikeouts. Washington also acquired OF Josh Willingham and LHP Scott Olsen in a trade with the Marlins and signed free agents Daniel Cabrera, Alex Cintron and Javier Valentin. In the deal to land Willingham and Olsen, the Nationals agreed to send 2B Emilio Bonifaci, INF Jake Smolinski and RHP P.J. Dean to Florida.

Top Prospect: Jordan Zimmerman, RHP
Zimmermann is a serious Rookie of the Year candidate and is turning in a fantastic spring. As of this writing, he has allowed only six hits, two walks and has struck out 16 batters over 12 1/3 scoreless innings. He seems to be over shadowed on a national level, but that’s mostly because the Nationals have yet to officially hand him a spot in the starting rotation. But that should change soon and as long as he doesn’t let the bright lights of the Big Leagues eat him alive, the 22-year old could be a future star.

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Will The Mets Collapse Again?

I’m a lifelong Mets fan, and while they have been in four World Series and won two, they have been good enough to get there numerous times and have not. Most recently, the Mets were eliminated from playoff contention in 2007 on the season’s final day–to complete an epic collapse in which they were leading the Phillies by seven games with 17 to play. I remember those days vividly. My wife had just had our first child so I was up in the wee hours at least once a night, and every time I turned on ESPN News the Mets had lost while the Phillies had won. I get a sick feeling in my stomach when I think about it. It doesn’t help that the year before that, 2006, the Mets were painfully beaten in a Game 7 in the NLCS by the upstart (and annoying) Cardinals.

Now, it appears that recent history will repeat itself. Despite that the Mets replaced Willie Randolph with interim skipper Jerry Manuel in June, and had that amazing run in July to get back on top of the division, they continue to build 3-4 game leads only to have the Phillies catch them. Right now they sit 1/2 game behind in the NL East, and 1/2 game up in the wild card standings only because Milwaukee has had their own collapse.

Is this a repeat of 2007? How can you say it’s not looking that way? Jay Schreiber of the NY Times parallels some eerie things from last year to this year in his blog.

Me, I just feel it. The middle of the order has stopped hitting, though they did wake up last night against Washington. Still, the Mets had an 8-2 lead and won 9-7. The bullpen is maybe the worst in baseball, and are responsible for a minimum of 10 losses already. And even the starting pitchers have started slipping a little. Not even Johan Santana makes you feel like they are going to win for sure.

Throw in the fact that guys like John Lannan look like Cy Young against the Mets, and guys like Anderson Hernandez, Jorge Cantu and So Taguchi look like Ted Williams against them….and you just can’t feel good. Oh, and every day I look at the morning paper and the Phillies have won.
Seriously, do they ever lose in September?

Despite all of my negativity here, there is a good chance the Mets wind up as the wild card. They would face the Dodgers, who they match up well against. Well yeah, but don’t think someone like Casey Blake won’t hit .800 in that series. Plus, they haven’t face the Manny Ramirez Dodgers yet.

If the Mets do wind up choking here down the stretch, I won’t say I told you so. And if they make it, I’ll root for them like crazy. But I still don’t feel very confident.

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