One great aspect of Major League baseball is that every year there are teams that blow away expert and fan expectations.
This year, there have been a handful of those teams, including the Orioles, White Sox, Dodgers, Pirates, Mets, and Nationals.
Today I’m going to focus on what I feel is the biggest surprise of that group: the Nationals.
In recent years, baseball fans have watched the Tampa Bay Rays rise from the bottom of the AL East to an annually elite level. It was a long process certainly, but when the team turned the corner the long wait seemed entirely worth it.
It showed us that building an entire organization from the ground up is tough but certainly doable.
And in 2012, it looks like the same story is beginning to be told for the “Nasty Nats.”
The Nationals are 38-23 and in first place of the loaded NL East. They’re 4 1/2 games ahead of the also surprising New York Mets, and seem to be in the driver’s seat of the division for the foreseeable future.
But of course a young, successful team will field the question: “contender or pretender?”
When trying to figure out whether or not Washington can stay atop the standings down the stretch and indeed make the playoffs, you have to look first at the team’s pitching. And in the case of the Nationals, that category doesn’t disappoint.
Super Starting Staff
I could throw a lot of complex stats at you about how good the pitching in Washington has been to this point, but you only need one to get the idea: the Nationals’ ERA, as a team, is 2.94.
Yeah, I typed that right and you read it right…2.94.
Led by a couple of the league’s best pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats are on a 6-game winning streak and bringing more attention to the already compelling story that has been developing in the nation’s capital.
But their pitching isn’t just top heavy. They have one of the deepest staffs around.
The Nationals starters’ ERAs are as follows: Gio Gonzalez, 2.35; Stephen Strasburg, 2.45; Jordan Zimmerman, 2.91; and Edwin Jackson, 3.02. And they have three very formidable options for the 5th starter in Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang, and Tom Gorzelanny.
They have four relievers currently with an ERA of 2.25 or lower, and that’s without their closer, Drew Storen, who has been on the DL all season. So there’s no drop off from the starters to the relievers.
Yes, I’m the type of baseball guy that thinks pitching wins championships. But just because I feel that way doesn’t mean I don’t think offense is important, so let’s delve in to the Nationals’ hitters.
Improving Lineup Brimming With Potential
Overall, the team has a nice combination of seasoned veterans and youngsters. Their offensive production has not been good to this point, as they’re basically a middle-of-the-pack type team at the plate, but I think they’ll only get better from that from here on out.
As they continue to get more healthy, the bats will heat up throughout the summer.
Guys that have been around the league for a while like Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Werth, and Rick Ankiel, have been solid, especially LaRoche, who has been a great surprise to this point with 42 RBI. Mix those guys with great young talent like Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Desmond, and you’ve got yourself a solid li’l lineup.
Considering their injuries to this point on offense, like I said, I only see them producing more as the season goes on. And while I don’t expect their pitching staff to hold their team ERA below 3.00 the rest of the way, as long as they’re still very good the increased offense that I anticipate from them should even it out, if you will.
So…Contender or Pretender?
As I’m sure you can tell, I’m a believer in the Nationals.
If they weren’t playing in the same division as four other solid-to-very-good teams, I’d be 100% set on picking them for the playoffs. It’ll be hard for them to overcome Atlanta and Miami among others over the long haul, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they can do it.
Considering there are now two Wild Card teams qualifying for each league’s playoffs, I would be surprised if the Nationals do not make it. I think they have a very good shot at winning their division, but a great shot at grabbing a Wild Card spot if they do not.
When you have as much great pitching as Washington does, you’ve made a believer out of me.
It’s a race that will be a ton of fun to watch, as there are a handful of other teams trying to shock the masses like the Nats are. Stay tuned for my dissection of the Baltimore Orioles here on MSF in the coming days.