Thursday, February 4, 2010

How the Nats could contend in 2011

Thanks to everyone who voted in our first Nats Insider poll. It turned out to feature a neck-and-neck race. Take a look...

QUESTION: How soon do you think the Nats could realistically be in a pennant race?
2010: 5 (4%)
2011: 57 (45%)
2012: 50 (40%)
2013 or later: 12 (9%)

I guess we can safely say there's only minimal belief the pieces could all fall into place this year and produce a surprise pennant run on South Capitol Street. But I guess we can also say with some conviction that fans are optimistic it could happen in the near future.

My personal take on the matter? I think it's entirely possible the Nats could contend in 2011. I'm not saying I think it's a certainty, far from it. This team still has a long way to go to even approach respectability. But in my mind, it could become reality if the following five things come true...

1. STEPHEN STRASBURG BECOMES A TRUE ACE

You can't win without good starting pitching, there's no way around that. And realistically, you can't make a real run without a legit No. 1 atop the rotation. Among those currently employed by the Nats, only Strasburg has a real chance to become that guy. I know it's unfair to put this kind of pressure on a 21-year-old kid who still hasn't thrown his first pitch in the minor leagues, let along the major leagues. But every indication from every talent evaluator and coach who has seen Strasburg pitch leads me to believe he will be as good as advertised ... provided he stays healthy. Assuming he makes his Nats debut sometime in the middle chunk of the 2010 season, he'll have time to take a few lumps, learn what it takes to get big-league hitters out and then return fresh in 2011 ready to assume his place atop the rotation.

2. JORDAN ZIMMERMANN RETURNS STRONG FROM TOMMY JOHN SURGERY

While you obviously need a No. 1 starter to have a chance at success, you also need quality arms through the rest of the rotation. John Lannan and Jason Marquis are pretty safe bets to provide quality innings over the next two years, but the Nats still need someone else to emerge from the pack. Zimmermann is the most-likely choice from the group. Before he was shut down last summer with elbow pain, the rookie right-hander looked like a legitimate big-league pitcher, one of the few true power pitchers in Washington's system. His surgery was a devastating blow to the organization, and there's virtually no chance he'll make a substantial contribution to this year's team. But by the time 2011 rolls around, Zimmermann will be 18 months removed from surgery and ready to resume his career path. If he pitches the way everyone believes he can, he'll be a solid No. 2 behind Strasburg in the Nats' rotation.

3. ADAM DUNN SIGNS A CONTRACT EXTENSION

Word got out last week that Dunn and the Nats have begun preliminary talks about a long-term deal, and that may be the best news fans will hear all winter. Dunn is due to become a free agent at the end of this season, but he's clearly expressed a desire to stay in D.C. rather than test the open market. He's going to want some serious money, as anyone who was a virtual lock to hit 40 homers, drive in 100 runs and draw 100 walks every year would. But it should be obvious now that Dunn is worth the price. Is a complete, five-tool player? Not even close. But he's one of only a few legit cleanup hitters in baseball, and his defensive work at first base was far better than anyone could have imagined. Yes, top prospect Chris Marrero could blossom into a better hitter over time. But Dunn is more likely to help this team win in 2011 than a rookie Marrero.

4. SOMEONE STEPS UP TO BECOME A POTENT NO. 5 HITTER

Though the Nats' offensive production is the least of their worries right now, let's not kid ourselves and proclaim this one of baseball's most-dangerous lineups. It does have a good table-setter in Nyjer Morgan, a legit 3-4 combo in Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn and some good complementary hitters behind them. But what this lineup really lacks, in my mind, is a legit No. 5 hitter. I'm talking someone who you can pencil in for 25-plus homers, 90-plus RBI and at least a .280 average. For a couple of months last season, Josh Willingham looked like that guy. But the Hammer tailed off considerably during the second half and wound up posting his standard career numbers: .260-24-61. In a perfect world, he'd be a No. 6 hitter. So who else could step up and take the No. 5 spot? Elijah Dukes. We've all seen what he's capable of producing; we just haven't seen it in long enough spurts. This is a huge year for Dukes, who will be extra motivated because he'll be arbitration-eligible next winter. If he makes the step up, he can be that guy. If not, the Nats may need to look elsewhere for a big bat.

5. ONE OR TWO KIDS BURST ONTO THE SCENE

For the Nationals to become contenders by 2011, they're going to need some more help from their farm system. We've seen a few guys in bits and pieces so far, but we need to see more. Can Drew Storen become a top-shelf closer, or at least a strong setup man for Matt Capps? Can Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa be a productive big-league shortstop (or maybe second baseman)? Can Chris Marrero force his way into the lineup, whether Dunn is still around or not? Can anyone out of the pool of promising young pitchers (Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Shairon Martis, Matt Chico, Brad Meyers) make the leap and become successful on the major-league level? If Washington is going to experience a pennant race in 2011, at least one or two of these guys are going to need to play a significant role.

There you have it. I'm interested to hear what you all think, beyond what you've already stated in the original poll.

14 comments:

An Briosca Mor said...

I would suggest that the Nats could contend in 2011 if only they'd fire Manny Acta, but I don't want to get JayB started again. But seriously, in regard to your characterization of Willingham consider what his 2009 line would have looked like if so many of his homers hadn't been solo shots. (I believe his first 12 or 13 were, before he finally hit one out with runners aboard.) Add another 15 or so missed RBI to the 61 he had, and he's getting closer to the 90 you're looking for. He already had 24 of the 25 dingers you want. I think the big question with Willingham is this: Is he streaky, like Ryan Zimmerman always has been, and if so can he produce enough during his hot spells to offset his slumps? Or was his hot spell in 2009 just an aberration? 2010 should provide the answer to that. Similarly, 2010 is the make-or-break year for Dukes. One has to hope that at least one of those ships comes in.

JMW4th said...

Josh Willingham....they call him Sir Solo Shot.

*cue cheesy tv-show intro music*

Anonymous said...

If this team is every going to contend, they will need to improve their defense. They had the most errors of any team last year and I think the most by any team in over 5 years.

Until they gobble of all the balls, they won't have much success, since thier pitchers don't strike guys out. Ground ball pitchers and bad defense, is not good!

JayB said...

That is the unknown....Defense...thus the need to have a focused, well run Spring Training with accountability and high expectations....everything Acta did not do.....Oh and who decided to play Kearns instead of Willingham....Ding Ding....Acta is the right answer.

Wally said...

Mark

Good note. Color me skeptical for 2011, but I think that you are touching on most of the things that have to happen for there to be a chance. Here is my two cents:

On Willingham, I think that he can be that #5 hitter. I think that he already is. FanGraphs ran a piece a little while ago comparing him to Jason Bay, and concluding, based on career stats (not just last year) that they are very similar players, and Bay is only slightly better. That feels right to me. My bigger issue, lineupwise, is everyone else :#2, 6, 7 and 8. For the Nats to seriously contend for the playoffs into September (within 5 games of WC on Sep 1?), their lineup needs to get MLB average or better production from C, SS and 2B, with a bopper in RF. Does Flores step up? With Hudson apparently going to the Twins, can Desmond/Espinosa or a FA step up (we need two of them). And then Dukes. It is a lot to ask for all of that to happen. But the bigger reason that I am skeptical is the pitching - let's say that SS becomes a dominant hurler during his career - does it happen after only 1/2 season? And ditto for JZimm - assuming a complete recovery from TJ, does he rebound by that first full season back? Once again a long shot. Then Marquis has to hold on, not decline. lannan seems safe, but again, with pitchers there is always that risk. So sorry to be a pessimist, but it just seems like too much has to go right.

jcj5y said...

I agree with others that Willingham is pretty close to the ideal 5 hitter you're describing. I don't want to be overly optimistic here, especially as Hudson signs with the Twins, but if Dukes were to fulfill his potential in 2010, the Nats' 3-6 hitters are as good or better than anyone's.

As for 2011, I think Strasburg and Zimmermann are the two biggest keys, because front line starting pitchers are the hardest thing to find on the open market. The second hardest thing, which you didn't mention, is a quality catcher. So I think Flores is a huge key to 2011. Itbis unlikely that Norris will be ready by then.

JMW4th said...

lemme ask you something Mark. I don't expect a detailed answer here, but I was just wondering.

are you still getting Reporter-esque access to the team and FO? or are you kinda blogging from the outside like a regular blogger, based on what you already know about the team?

Mark Zuckerman said...

JMW: Same access as always, because I'll still have a BBWAA card this year (which guarantees admittance to any major-league press box/clubhouse) and the Nats will also credential me for some regular freelance reporting I've landed.

NatsGirl said...

Mark: is it a major concern that Jordan Zimmerman needed Tommy John surgery so early in his career, or is that a pretty standard thing these days?
When do you think we'll be likely to see Flores behind the plate regularly?

Anonymous said...

Adam Dunn isn't the answer. There's a reason why the Nats were the only bidder on a guy who hit 40HR/100RBI for 5 straight seasons, because his defense makes him borderline useless. He was worth just as much as Jason Kendall and Skip Schumaker last year, despite doing exactly what was expected of him. His defense probably isn't as historically bad at 1B. Sure, he caught most of the balls thrown at him, but that still doesn't make him a good firstbaseman.

The Nats would be better off trading Dunn at the deadline to a AL team for whatever they can get for him, then hope that Marrero or Norris can step up in 2011.

Nattydread said...

Mark

Thanks for the 2011 Kool-aid.

Great points about Strassburg, Zimmermann, Dunn. Willingham, right (the guy that only hit solo shots until he knocked 2 grand slams in one game?). Also the need for someone to "bust out".

Point 6 needs to be defense. I agree with JayB on that. In this years' crappy free agent market, Hudson wouldn't have been much help -- in fact he's a huge risk, and could have saddled us with another Guzman millstone. From what I can see, we don't have much help coming from the farm. We need a Nyjer Morgan-type trade for a hustling middle infielder. I suspect Rizzo is working on this quietly --- but, except for relievers and AAAA starters, we don't have many useful pieces.

Sasskuash said...

The Nats defense does need to get better, but I think last years dreadful performance was partially bad luck. You saw fewer errors and better defensive play last year in the second half and after certain changes- Dunn at 1B instead of LF, Willingham in LF instead of RF, a real CF (Morgan), Dukes out of CF, in his natural positon of RF, and (Yes JayB) a different manager who appears to do a better job of holding players accountable. Those changes will still be in effect this season. Also, the 2B defense will be better with Kennedy than the embarrassing mix of A. Hernandez, A. Gonzalez, Willie Harris (I love him in the OF, but he's a terrible IF defender), Pete Orr, Mike Morse and whoever else let some grounders by them at that position last season. Pudge, even though he's not the Pudge of old, is a better back-up C option than Bard or Nieves. Even if our defense is not great this year, it will not be the worst in MLB either.

periculum said...

They needed Aroldis Chapman to make this a statistically probably done deal. It didn't happen.

The draft may yield better possibilities for the pitching rotation ... but now its 2012 ... Rizzo/Riggleman MUST do better ... they know they've screwed the pooch ... get to work boyz ...you missed the mark.

NatsGirl said...

We're all bemoaning these trades and acquisitions for no reason. These guys are all just stop-gaps. There's no way the Nats are going to be contenders this year or next.
I did some research on Baseball Reference.com (because what else am I going to do in a blizzard) and came up with this: if a team--expansion or relocation--hasn't become a contender (defined as finishing first or second in its division) by year 3, then it generally takes at least ten years for the team to contend. We're entering year 6. If the Nats are still finishing last in the NL East in 2014, then I'll start thinking about moving to Birdland.

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