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.

Travis d’Arnaud’s position in Wednesday’s box score read “3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B-3B-2B”

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The Mets had to scratch both Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores an hour before Wednesday’s game against the Yankees due to ribcage injuries, so Travis d'Arnaud — normally a catcher — borrowed David Wright‘s glove and played third base for the first time in his career. He had played some third base in spring training, but as far as an official professional game goes, he’s never been there.

The first two batters the Yankees sent up to the plate in the first inning were left-handed. But when the right-handed Aaron Judge came up, manager Terry Collins swapped second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera with d’Arnaud. It became a thing. The two swapped once more in the first inning, three times in the second, once in the third, five times in the fourth, once in the fifth, three times in the sixth, four times in the seventh, once in the eighth, and twice in the ninth. It worked, as d’Arnaud didn’t have an opportunity to make a play until catching Todd Frazier‘s pop-up for the first out of the ninth inning — as a second baseman. Cabrera had a handful of opportunities, including immediately after having swapped with d’Arnaud.

The Mets lost 5-3. At the plate, d’Arnaud went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. Cabrera was 1-for-4.

Matt Reynolds and Gavin Cecchini are being recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas so the Mets don’t have to do the “3B-2B shenanigans,” as MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo put it, again.

John Lackey stole the first base of his career

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Cubs starter John Lackey stole the first base of his 15-year career on Wednesday against the Reds. Of course, he spent the first 11 and a half years of his career in the American League, where opportunities to bat, let alone attempt to steal a base, were rare. Lackey entered Wednesday having taken 250 plate appearances, reaching base just 31 times on 17 singles, seven doubles, and seven walks for a .134 on-base percentage. One can imagine the 38-year-old is not exactly the swiftest base runner.

Still, Lackey managed to swipe a bag in the fourth inning. He singled with two outs against Homer Bailey. Then, with an 0-1 count on Ben Zobrist, Lackey broke for second even before Bailey began his windup. Tucker Barnhart stood up to alert Bailey that Lackey was running, so Bailey wheeled around and threw to second base, but Lackey slid into the bag easily safe. It wasn’t a pretty slide, but it did the job.

Lackey, however, was picked off of second base by Barnhart later that inning. Bailey threw a 3-2 fastball wide of the strike zone, walking Zobrist. Lackey had wandered too far off of second base, so Barnhart threw behind Lackey and the tag was applied by Zack Cozart. Lackey was called safe initially. The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field was overturned, ending the fourth inning.

Base Ba’al giveth and Base Ba’al taketh away.