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MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Washington Nationals

To be a title contender, the Washington Nationals just need to get healthy.

That’s easier said than done.  Catcher Wilson Ramos is done for the year with a torn ACL.  That came six months after an offseason kidnapping in his native Venuezula, which means that the ACL injury is hardly the most serious thing that happened to him recently.  The team’s best player, Ryan Zimmerman, spent forever on the disabled list.  Chin Ming-Wang, the veteran member of the club, is just recently off the DL, and like Zimmerman, is still struggling to find consistent production.  Reliever Brad Lidge, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, hasn’t been healthy this year.  The team’s largest financial investment, Jayson Werth, is out until perhaps September.  Mike Morse, the teams best offensive player in 2011, just came off the DL.

It’s going to take better health than this to win a title.  But we can tell after 50 games or so that the Washington Nationals are the best team in the National League East division, and while they might not be at the level of the Reds just yet, they sport the best rotation in the National League, a strong bullpen, strong defense up the middle, and all of a sudden, a real major league lineup.  The Nationals are here to stay, not just for the rest of 2012, but they’re as good a bet to be around for the next five years as any team in baseball.

This season, the best offensive player on the Nationals has been Bryce Harper.  This isn’t all that surprising I suppose, with the hype surrounding Bryce Harper.  But Harper is all of 19 years old.  He’s also enough of a risk for regression that one of the largest concerns for the Nationals in the second half the season (on the other side of the ledger from Stephen Strasburg’s success) is what to do if the team starts to slide because Harper starts to slide.  We may not be out of the woods yet where Harper might have to return to the minor leagues, but we’re talking about a guy who is tied for third on the Nationals in total bases, is third in home runs, and spent the first three weeks of the season in the minor leagues.  Harper has been hit by a pitch just once in his major league career, yet you know exactly when that happened and under which circumstances.  Such is the legend of Bryce Harper.

The unsung hero of the Nationals has been 1B Adam LaRoche, who becomes an interesting candidate if the Nationals want to sell high at the deadline.  The Nationals as sellers is an interesting concept.  Rarely does a team who is enjoying this kind of success have an opportunity to fortify their future, but beyond the standings, they have not one but two pitchers who are a year removed from Tommy John surgery, they’ve been killed by injuries, their division is veteran-laden, their offensive star is 19 and is under team control through 2018 (when he’ll hit free agency at age 25, if he doesn’t sign an extension with Washington), and despite all this, they’re likely the division front runner.

It would be an aggressive move for General Manager Mike Rizzo to sell on LaRoche, Wang, and Lidge, etc, and try to fortify his club’s future at the expense of the present.  But it would be consistent with the desire to limit the workloads of Steven Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman, develop his trio of middle infield prospects further, avoid the temptation to buy at the deadline, and manage his treasure trove of young talent without needing to push towards winning a title in 2012.  The Nationals need to build organizational depth, as one of the big reasons Bryce Harper was brought up when he was happened because the team didn’t have any other in house options to turn to in order to plug a major hole in the lineup.  Their offseason signings will likely center around veterans signed to minor league deals.  This deadline is the Nationals opportunity to trade off short term veteran contracts for more young pitching and power hitting and defense.

The truth is that if Harper, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmerman, and Edwin Jackson play like this all season, the Nationals will cruise to the NL East title even if they sell at the deadline, and they’ll make noise in the playoffs.  But they have a better chance in the future, when they are no obvious contenders in the National League to their dominance outside of the Reds.  And the Reds just don’t stack up quite like the Nationals do in the next five years.  The future is now in Washington…for the baseball team.

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