Springtime Storylines: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Strasburg-less Washington Nationals.

The big question: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

In a word, yes.

It’s not wrong to call Jayson Werth’s contract excessive — in fact, I’d be shocked if the Nationals don’t regret it down the road — but more than anything, I found the signing as an acknowledgement from ownership that they weren’t content with returning to being an afterthought in the D.C. market, at least in the short-term.

Whether they’ll admit or not, the Nationals needed to inject some excitement into their fanbase this offseason. They already knew they were going to be without Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season and the signing came less than 48 hours after Adam Dunn — a fan favorite — bolted for Chicago. They needed something to sell the team for 2011, even if they had to massively overpay in order to do it. This was a P.R. move just as much as it was a personnel move.

The main objective for the Nationals this season is to stay relevant long enough until Strasburg returns and Bryce Harper is ready for the major leagues. If all goes well, that could happen in September. Then in 2012, the real fun can begin.

So what else is going on?

  • I don’t mean to short this current squad. There are some interesting pieces here. Ryan Zimmerman continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated players in baseball. Werth helps soften the blow of losing Dunn in the middle of the lineup while Adam LaRoche adds some balance from the left side. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have some flaws, but are a pretty talented middle infield combo. Wilson Ramos, who was acquired in the Matt Capps deal, should be fun to watch behind the plate. And while he entered spring training without a clear role on the team following the signing of LaRoche, it looks like Mike Morse has won the starting left field job.
  • Where I’m less optimistic is center field. The Nationals appear poised to give the starting job to Rick Ankiel, which probably says how much the organization has soured on Nyjer Morgan over the past year. Yuck.
  • Nationals starters had a 4.61 ERA last season, which (sadly) was their lowest since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. They averaged around 5.5 innings per start. If everyone stays healthy, they should be able to improve on those numbers, at least by a little bit. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny aren’t great options, but they’re better than the cannon fodder they’ve sent out there in years past. And I haven’t even talked about Jordan Zimmermann yet. The former 2007 second-round pick is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and has the potential to a be a frontline starter.
  • Who’s gonna close here? If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Drew Storen, but now I’m not so sure. There are even some rumors that he could begin the season in the minors. The good news is that the Nationals actually have some pretty decent depth here, including Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. They should do OK.

So how are they gonna do?

I’m tempted to pick the Nationals for fourth place, but the other four teams in this division all have the potential to be better. With the Nationals, nearly everything would have to break right in order for them to play .500 ball. I’ll give them 73 wins and their fourth straight last-place finish. They’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait another year for things to get interesting.

Kris Bryant on Joey Votto: “He’s the best player ever … He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

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The Cubs wrapped up a four-game series against the Reds at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 13-10 loss to split the set. They’ll match up again against the Reds next week for a three-game series in Cincinnati. That’s good news for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, because that means he’ll get to see Reds first baseman Joey Votto some more.

As CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports, Bryant has grown quite fond of Votto. Bryant has already won a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award, but he still looks up to Votto. According to Bryant, Votto is “the best player ever.” He added, ““He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain. He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Bryant said that Votto is “a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant also explained how his approach changed by watching Votto. He said that in his rookie season, he was “swinging at everything.” Votto, however, is “aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it.”

Indeed, in Bryant’s rookie season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his 650 plate appearances. This season, he has struck out in only 19 percent of his PA. His walk rate has also increased by more than 2.5 percent since his rookie campaign. Compared to last year, Bryant is down in HR and RBI, but his average is the same, his on-base percentage is markedly better, and his slugging percentage is only down by a minute amount.

Video: Daniel Descalso hits D-Backs’ third inside-the-park homer of the season

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Diamondbacks second baseman Daniel Descalso hit his team’s third inside-the-park home run of the season during Thursday’s 4-0 win over the Astros. In the top of the fourth inning, with the score 1-0 and the bases empty, Descalso ripped a 1-0, 83 MPH change-up to right-center field. The ball caromed off the wall, heading towards left field, which sent center Jake Marisnick on the chase. Marisnick tried to pick up the ball with his glove, but dropped it, which sealed Descalso’s destiny for an inside-the-parker.

It had only been five days since the Diamondbacks’ last inside-the-park home run. David Peralta hit one against the Cubs on August 12. Ketel Marte legged out his club’s first ITPHR on July 26 against the Braves.

As ESPN Stats & Info notes, the Diamondbacks have three as a team, which is amazing because the other 29 teams have hit seven combined.