After yesterday’s split of the doubleheader with the Pirates, the Nationals now find themselves with a record of 42-42, with eight games still remaining on their home stand before the All-Star break. Their overall record is rather impressive with the many obstacles that have confronted them this season: Ryan Zimmerman was on the disabled list for nine weeks with an oblique injury, Adam LaRoche injured his shoulder in spring training and required season ending surgery in May, Jayson Werth has struggled without protection in the lineup and by the expectations of his new mega-deal and most recently, the abrupt retirement of Jim Riggleman as manager. While acknowledging that there have been many obstacles, the Nationals have played consistently solid baseball and have made great progress for their future. I thought this would be a great time to reflect on what the Nationals (and us) have learned so far in 2011 and what still needs to be discovered before the end of the season.
So what have we learned through the first half of 2011? I think it is safe to say that Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos and Mike Morse have all proven that they are long-term building blocks for the organization. Espinosa has played gold glove worthy defense at second base, and with his 15 Home Runs and batting line of .235/.322./460 has been as good as any second baseman in the National League. Drew Storen struggled during spring training but once the season arrived he has been special, posting a 2.83 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts in 41.1 innings, while converting 20 of 23 save opportunities. Espinosa and Storen have quickly established themselves as two of the brightest young stars in baseball and each have a solid chance to make the All-Star team.
Wilson Ramos has made as big a statement as any National this season, and has forced himself into the team’s long-term plans. Prior to the season Ramos was seen as more of a placeholder at catcher until uber-prospect Derek Norris was poised to take over in mid-2012. But in this first half of this season, Ramos has proven that he is a plus defender behind home plate, has some thump in his bat, and will be an average to above average starting catcher for many years.
As many of us remember, Mike Morse was simply dominant this spring and forced the Nationals make him the starting left fielder. Unfortunately he put too much pressure on himself to produce and prove the Nationals correct and he struggled terribly through May. However, once Adam LaRoche was placed on the disabled list for the season, Morse has planted himself at first base and flourished while getting consistent at-bats. I still believe Morse settles into a super utility role similar to Tony Phillips with Detroit and Oakland back in the late eighties/early nineties, finding 450-500 at-bats at 3 or 4 different positions. Clearly, Morse has made the statement that he belongs and is a building block for the Nationals.
Jordan Zimmermann has fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery almost two years ago and appears that he is capable of being the #2 starting pitcher behind Stephen Strasburg next season. Zimmermann has produced a 2.63 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in his 16 starts and 102.2 innings this season to go along with 71 strikeouts. While you would like to see his K/9 rate to be a bit higher, Zimmermann has shown that he should be a force in the rotation for seasons to come.
Although Ian Desmond has struggled with the bat like many of his teammates this season, he has made tremendous strides defensively in the past 50-60 games. Desmond still needs refinement both with his swing and approach at the plate, but he has proven he can stay at shortstop defensively long-term and will not require a position change. Today, he is an average to slightly above average everyday shortstop defensively, still has some room to improve with the bat, and should be a solid player for many seasons.
What do the Nationals still need to learn?
For me, the biggest single question mark in the organization right now is, who will be the National’s starting center fielder in 2012 and beyond. Roger Bernadina has been given about 40 games in center field this season, and has had some great moments and has struggled at times. Roger is probably as big an enigma to me as there is in baseball: one day I am convinced he is the center fielder long-term for the Nationals, as his athleticism and occasional brilliance shines through, then the next day he re- convinces me that is a quality bench player but not a starter for a playoff team. The Nationals need to continue to play him every day, and allow him to sink or swim with the job, because if he proves not to be the answer, GM Mike Rizzo needs to find that player this off-season.
Another big area to watch is the continued development of the farm system, both through signing 2011 draftees and any midseason trades the Nationals decide to make. Will GM Mike Rizzo be able to sign Matt Purke, our 3rd round pick out of Texas Christian University, along with the Mississippi High School pitchers Hawtin Buchanan (19th round) and Josh Laxor (20th round)? The Nationals did a fantastic job of drafting the best player available consistently in the June draft, but if they do not get most or all of their players signed, it will be an opportunity squandered. Will the Nationals decide to be sellers at the trade deadline, and if so, which players do they decide to part with? I have said repeatedly that Jason Marquis is a strong bet to be traded, as he is a free agent at the end of this season and likely will not return in 2012: he should fetch a fairly solid prospect or two. Other than Marquis, I will be interested to see if they trade anyone else, with Todd Coffey, Laynce Nix, Ivan Rodriguez, and Tyler Clippard likely drawing interest from other teams. The Nationals have an average farm system right now, in my opinion, but have the potential to add a great deal of talent in the next six weeks and I will be interested to see how well they capitalize on this opportunity.
Finally, the Nationals need to get some of their young pitchers, especially Tom Gorzelanny, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Mattheus, and Cole Kimball more experience and see if they are assets going forward. Tom Gorzelanny has battled some consistency issues and some inflammation in his elbow so far this season, but his overall numbers are fairly solid: 3.77 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 64 strikeouts in 12 starts and 72.2 innings pitched. His lousy starts seemed to cluster around the time of his injury, so perhaps that can explain the inconsistency, but recently, he has been as good as anyone could have imagined. Hopefully he will build off his recent success and continue to flourish in the second half. Henry Rodriguez still needs polish and experience, but when he is on his game, his combination of a 97-100mph fastball with his nasty 88-90mph slider makes him simply unhittable. If he can continue to show progress harnessing his command, the sky is the limit for his potential.
Ryan Mattheus was one of two prospects the Nationals received in the Joe Beimel trade with Colorado in 2009, and was recovering from Tommy John surgery when acquired (the only reason the Nationals received such a quality prospect in return) . He has recovered well from the surgery and should have every opportunity to make a name for himself in the second half of this season. I think he has solid potential as a middle reliever and is my breakout sleeper for the rest of 2011(mark my words). Kimball arrived from Syracuse and was extremely impressive until inflammation in his pitching shoulder forced him to the disabled list. I am glad the team is taking its time with Kimball’s recovery, as I think he has the talent and pitching arsenal to be a valuable weapon at the back end of the Nationals bullpen for many seasons, assuming his shoulder fully recovers.
Lets hope the Nationals continue their success at home this week and close out the All-Star break in quality fashion while continuing to develop their young players for 2012 and 2013, when the Nationals expect to compete. Make no mistake, the future looks bright for the organization, climb on board while there is still room on the bandwagon.
Big “Tip of the Fedora” goes out to Ronald Cox and Daniel Skidmore-Hess, who wrote the book “Free Agency and Competitive Balance in Baseball”… I just finished reading this outstanding book, and while it is neither the quickest nor easiest read, I learned more in these 200 pages than perhaps any other book about baseball that I can ever remember. If you are interested in the economics of the sport and topics such as free agency and expansion, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.
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