Springtime Storylines: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the upstart Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

After three straight last-place finishes, the Nationals finally found their way out of the cellar last year. Thanks to going 17-10 in September under new skipper Davey Johnson, they finished in third place at 80-81, securing the team’s best record since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. And there’s every reason to believe that the best is yet to come.

The Nationals didn’t make the big splash for slugger Prince Fielder over the winter, but they managed to improve their starting rotation in a big way. GM Mike Rizzo swapped a package of prospects to the Athletics for left-hander Gio Gonzalez in December, signing him to a contract extension only a few weeks later. Then they added Scott Boras client (surprise!) Edwin Jackson on a low-risk one-year, $11 million deal in early-February. Throwing them into the mix with staff ace Stephen Strasburg and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann gives the Nationals one of the deepest and most formidable starting rotations in the game.

While the starting pitching should be a strength, I have my doubts about the offense. Getting a whole season out of Ryan Zimmerman would certainly help matters and Jayson Werth can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year, but this is a team that projects to have Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel as regulars, at least to begin the season. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have shown flashes of being impact players, but they also have plenty of flaws and neither profiles as an ideal leadoff man. Wilson Ramos surprised with the bat last season, so the Nats would probably be satisfied if he managed to duplicate his production. And while Michael Morse has flown under the radar as one of the best hitters in the National League over the past two seasons, his recent lat strain is somewhat troubling, especially since he’s expected to play left field.

It’s a bit of a baseball cliche, but the Nationals will likely only go as far as their pitching takes them. If they are in contention around the All-Star break and Bryce Harper is eventually thrown into the mix, things could get interesting in a hurry. But realistically, this is just the beginning of the franchise’s upswing.

What else is going on?

  • Two years ago, the date of Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut was the only thing that mattered. While Nationals fans actually have a pretty good team to follow in 2012, Harper’s inevitable arrival will be a constant topic of conversation. It’s not surprising that the 19-year-old was recently sent down to Triple-A Syracuse given the obvious service time implications, but remember that he batted .256/.329/.395 with three homers and a .724 OPS over 147 plate appearances after being promoted to Double-A last year. That’s mighty impressive for an 18-year-old, but it’s probably not the worst idea for him to get more at-bats in the minors. It’s also an ideal environment to see if he can be a viable option in center field in the short-term.
  • Chien-Ming Wang was expected to begin the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter, but he’s now likely to miss most of April after straining his left hamstring last week. John Lannan reportedly drew trade interest from multiple teams this spring, but he figures to stay put at this point. The 27-year-old left-hander is making $5 million this season and projects to be a non-tender candidate this winter, so the Nationals wouldn’t get much in return, anyway. And Wang is hardly a good bet to stay healthy.
  • The Nationals’ bullpen was fifth in the majors last season with a 3.20 ERA. This included a 1.83 ERA over 88 1/3 innings by set-up man Tyler Clippard and a 2.75 ERA over 75 1/3 innings from closer Drew Storen. They are one of the best late-inning duos in the game, but one wonders if Johnson will be able to lean on them as much this season. Storen has been limited to just two appearances this spring due to strep throat and soreness in his bicep and triceps area, but he has downplayed any long-term concerns.
  • Perhaps the most interesting situation to watch is how the Nationals will handle an innings-limit for Strasburg, especially if the team is still in the race late into the summer. The current plan calls to cut him off around 160 innings, similar to how Zimmermann was handled last season in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. For what it’s worth, Zimmermann made his final start last year on August 28.

How are they gonna do?

This is easily the best team the Nationals have fielded since moving to D.C., so anything less than a .500 season would be a surprise. I think they’ll hang around long enough to make things interesting, but I doubt they’ll score enough runs to secure one of the wild cards. Still, this season figures to be an enticing sneak preview for 2013 and beyond.

Cardinals place Dexter Fowler on the disabled list

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The Cardinals announced on Tuesday that outfielder Dexter Fowler has been placed on the 10-day disabled list with a strained left forearm. Outfielder Harrison Bader was recalled from Triple-A Memphis to take Fowler’s spot on the roster.

It’s not clear when Fowler suffered the injury, but he went 0-for-12 since a three-hit performance last Friday. He’s hitting .241/.333/.452 with 14 home runs and 37 RBI in 333 plate appearances this season.

Bader, 23, is the Cardinals’ No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. This season, with Memphis, Bader hit .297/.354/.517 with 19 home runs and 48 RBI in 381 PA.

Dodgers, Cubs could be interested in Justin Verlander

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Jon Morosi of MLB Network said yesterday that the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs have been engaged in trade talks involving starting pitcher Justin Verlander and catcher Alex Avila. Morosi also noted that the Los Angeles Dodgers have shown interest in Verlander as well. Whether this is idyl chitchatting of serious dispute is unclear, of course. Everything is unclear in the leadup to the deadline.

The veteran right-hander is carrying a 4.50 with a 120/57 K/BB ratio over 124 innings. Verlander impressed last year, finishing second in AL Cy Young Award balloting, but he has fallen back to Earth in 2017. His velocity remains high, however, and it’s not hard to imagine him going on a solid run in a way that could help a contender. He is owed $56 million over the next two seasons, however, and has a $22 million option that could vest for 2020, so negotiations for him could be tough. If the Tigers want talent back, they’ll have to eat salary.

Verlander got an ovation from a Detroit crowd last night which seemed to sense that, yes, it’s possible he pitched his last game for the Tigers. Given that he has 10/5 rights, allowing him to veto any trade, that decision is ultimately up to him. It’s not hard to imagine him accepting a trade to a contender, however.

We wait see.