Davey Johnson, Stephen Strasburg

Springtime Storylines: Are the Nationals ready to contend?


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.

World Series Game 3 lineups: Carlos Santana will be in left field

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians warms up prior to Game One of the 2016 World Series against the Chicago Cubs at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images

People have been drinking in Wrigleyville since before 8am this morning. There are throngs of people out on the streets and packing every bar in the vicinity and it’s still four hours until first pitch. I realize I’m an old man who rarely leaves his home, but that looks exhausting even by the standards of normal degenerates. Be safe, everyone!

As for the game, the Indians are doing it: Carlos Santana is playing left field, keeping his bat and he bat of Mike Napoli in the lineup. I mentioned this morning that Santana has played exactly one game in the outfield in his career, and that that came four years ago. Allow me to reiterate that. And to remind everyone that, in baseball, the ball tends to find you. I can picture a sinking liner to left right now and it’s not a pretty picture. If you’re an Indians fan, pray that I’m wrong, but don’t act like you can’t picture it too.

Of course, this being baseball, he’ll probably rob someone of a homer and hit two himself while Napoli goes for the cycle. Never try to predict this stuff, folks.


1. Carlos Santana (S) LF
2. Jason Kipnis (L) 2B
3. Francisco Lindor (S) SS
4. Mike Napoli (R) 1B
5. Jose Ramirez (S) 3B
6. Lonnie Chisenhall (L) RF
7. Roberto Perez (R) C
8. Tyler Naquin (L) CF
9. Josh Tomlin (R) P


1. Dexter Fowler (S) CF
2. Kris Bryant (R) 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo (L) 1B
4. Ben Zobrist (S) LF
5. Willson Contreras (R) C
6. Jorge Soler (R) RF
7. Javier Baez (R) 2B
8. Addison Russell (R) SS
9. Kyle Hendricks (R) P

Ohio Governor John Kasich Says Baseball is dying, you guys

COLUMBUS, OH - MAY 4: Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks to the media announcing he is suspending his campaign May 4, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Kasich is the second Republican candidate within a day to drop out of the GOP race. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)
Getty Images

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me the governor of my state, John Kasich, was on The Dan Patrick Show today. He had some bad news, unfortunately. According to Kasich, “baseball is going to die.”

It’s based mostly on his belief that, because some clubs are rich and some clubs are not so rich, and because players make too much money, poor teams cannot compete and fans cannot find a basis for team loyalty. He cites his boyhood rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ability for fans to root for players on the same teams year-in, year-out and claims that, if you don’t root for a high-payroll team, “your team is out before the All-Star Break.” Which is demonstrably not true, but he was on a roll so Patrick let him finish.

The real issue, Kasich says, is the lack of revenue sharing in the NFL-NBA mold. He makes a reference to “my buddy Bob Castellini,” the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and says stuff about how the Reds can’t compete with the Cubs on payroll. His buddy Bob Castellini, by the way, is worth half a billion dollars, purchased the Reds for $270 million, they’re now worth an estimated $905 million, and they just signed a lucrative new TV deal, so thoughts and prayers to his buddy Bob Castellini and the Reds.

Kasich is right that baseball does not have straight revenue sharing like the NFL and NBA do. But he’s also comically uninformed about the differences in financial structure and revenue sources for baseball teams on the one hand and other sports on the other. He talks about how NFL teams in small towns like Green Bay can do just great while the poor sisters in Cincinnati can’t do as well in baseball, but either doesn’t realize or doesn’t acknowledge that local revenue — especially local TV revenue — pales in importance in football compared to baseball. If the Packers had to make all of their money by broadcasting games to the greater Green Bay area their situation would be a lot different. Meanwhile, if the Yankees had to put all of the revenue they receive via broadcasts in the greater New York area and give it to the poorer teams, it would something less than fair, would it not?

Wait, that’s it! I realize now why my governor did not do as well in the Republican primaries as he expected to! HE’S A COMMUNIST!