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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why the Washington Nationals Will (and Will Not) Make the World Series

Roughly four years ago, when the Nationals were playingmore like the Natinals, my friend and former (almost) best manDave (aka “Furniture”) made a friendly wager with me that, at the time, appeared safe for decades to come.  Furniturespeculated that the Nationals would leave Washington, D.C. before they even appeared in a World Series game.  Because betting money on sports outside of Las Vegas is, of course, illegal, and because we would never do anything to run afoul of the fair and consistent policies of our government, we absolutely did not wager $1000 on the outcome.  Absolutely not.  Because that would be wrong, and our government knows best.

Anyway, I of course took this bet, because OF COURSE the Nationals will at least make it to a World Series before they leave town (the previous two incarnations of the Washington Baseball Club were 1 for 2 on World Series appearances, a solid .500 average).  With the District of Colombia $581 million invested in the team and its stadium, the Nationals will be in town for the (long) foreseeable future.  It was, for me, easy money…err, I mean easy goods in lieu of money.

Furniture and I recently caught a Nationals game in person, and we rehashed the bet in all of its glory.  He recounted how nervous he was last offseason, and how worried he is now that the Nats have a young contingency of stars in Strasburg, Harper, and the Zimmermans.  This edginess caused him to try to buy me out of the bet at a lower price.  However, I did not bite.

Why?  Because the Nationals will be in the World Series this year (or they won’t).  Here’s why Furniture should be worried (or not):

Why the Nationals Will Be in the 2013 World Series

The Nationals are currently in second place in the National League East, a half game behind the Atlanta Braves.  Their record (as of 5/19) sits at 23-19, for a .548 clip.  This puts theNats on pace for 87 wins on the season.  Since baseball went to a 162 game schedule, five teams have made the World Series with 87 or fewer wins in non-strike years (2006 St. Louis Cardinals, 2000 New York Yankees, 1997 Cleveland Indians, 1987 Minnesota Twins, and the 1973 New York Mets).  Typically, you want to see at least 90 wins out of a World Series contender, but it is certainly not an impediment to be slightly below that.  So, 87 wins in and of itself does not keep the Nationals out of the World Series.

So, what does keep the Nats out?  Strasburg’s “struggles” (more on this in a bit)?  Zimmerman’s inability to avoid errors? The lack of clutch hits in key situations by the Nats offense?

Let’s start with Stephen Strasburg, he of the 2-5 record and seeming inability to adjust to adversity.  What to do with him?  Well, I would put forward this thought – start drafting up a major contract extension.  Strasburg has performed above andbeyond expectations, especially after coming back from Tommy John surgery.  Despite all this, Strasburg’s lack of success this season has been well-documented, from his mediocre win-loss record to his inability to adjust to adversity.  Yet, for all this noise, how “bad” has he really been?
After 10 starts and 57 innings, Stephen Strasburg has posted the following stat line:  2.83 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 54 strikeouts, against only 18 walks.  In the logic of sports, this is “struggling.”  This is a pitcher who has yet to pitch a full season, and is still at a relatively early developmental stage of his career, and he is putting up numbers that, if sustained throughout a career, would garner him first-ballot Hall of Fame votes.  So what about that record?  Strasburg has been subjected to 9 unearned runs, most in the majors, while enjoying nearly no run support from his offense.  Despite this, Strasburg has shown no signs of straying from his stratospheric expectations so far.

Next we have Ryan Zimmerman.  While I’ve spoken on my suggestions on how to fix his struggles beforeZim remains a Gold Glove, All-Star caliber third baseman.  His struggles are mostly relegated to this season (meaning it’s not a systematic issue), and he has still retained the ability to make spectacular plays when necessary.  They appear to be mental, rather than physical, problems.  See a shrink.  He’ll be fine.  And if not, bring up Anthony Rendon.

And finally, most importantly, the Nationals have not played to their ability at all this season, yet still enjoy the record they have.  Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper have not been at full health in each game (Werth because he is Mr. Glass and Harper because he is a stuntman).  Wilson Ramos has battled injury problems.  The Goon Squad bench players have not yet matched last year’s offensive output, as they try to adjust to their 2013 roles.  And Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren (both former Cy Young finalists) have not pitched to their potential.  All of these, history suggests, will change for the better (and if Ramos does not improve, Kurt Suzuki has proven to be a shrewd pickup).

Oh, and the Nationals’ number three pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, may win the Cy Young Award when all is said and done.

The bottom-line is that the Nationals’ pitching rotation, batting lineup, and defensive prowess (aside from the daily Zimmerman circus) matches up and exceeds any other team in the National League.

Why the Nationals Will Not Be in the 2013 World Series
And yet, Ryan Zimmerman continues to make errors in every game.  And Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren appeared to have regressed.  And clutch hits are few and far between. 

There is certainly reason for concern among this current group of Nationals.  For one, manager Davey Johnson appears content with one less than mediocre left-handed pitcher in his bullpen – Zach Duke and his 8.40 ERA.  Craig Stammen, by far the best non-closing reliever, has been used sparingly, limiting the effects of his utter dominance over the past two seasons.  

More disturbingly, the Nationals have not been able to mount the comebacks that defined the 2012 season.  According to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, the Nationals are 4-9 when trailing after one inning, 1-12 when trailing after the fourth and 0-16 when they’re behind after six innings.  With all the talk of Strasburg’s inability to handle adversity in the form of Zimmerman’s errors, it appears the rest of the team has issues with adversity as far as a scoring deficit.  This lack of clutch hitting can derail a regular season team, much less a playoff contender.

But the ultimate question is not can the Nationals make the playoffs, but can they proceed through them to the big games.  Against the Cardinals in 2012, the Nationals’ lack of depth in their bench and pitching, as well as their inability to hit Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal’s 100+ MPH fastball, hurt them greatly.  But, in the end, it was their lack of experience on the postseason stage that did them in.  Gio Gonzalez who had pitched out of his mind throughout the season, and Drew Storen, fresh off the DL, faltered late in the deciding game.  

The argument for why the Washington Nationals won’t make the World Series this year rests on Gio and Storen’s lack of improvement since that fateful day, the consistent lack of clutch and comeback hitting, and the errors and inconsistent pitching that plagued the Nationals against the Cardinals.

Why Furniture Should Be Worried

Ultimately, I am going to win my bet with Dave/Furniture.  From a long-run perspective, the Nationals would have to initiate the most spectacular collapse of any sports franchise…ever.  With the talent already at the Major League level, combined with a minor league stable consisting of A.J. Cole,Yuniesky Maya, Eury Perez, Anthony Rendon, and Brian Goodwin, the Nationals are built for long-term success, rather than as a one year all or nothing shot.  More importantly, with the success of the Nationals, the attendance levels have risen to the point where the Nationals are averaging 32,654 fans per game, 9th in the majors.  Washington has embraced the Nationals.

Just two years ago, the Washington Nationals were 80-81, with their entire future dependant on an 18 year old kid and a Tommy John patient.  At that time Dave’s bet seemed pretty secure.  

Not now.  Get ready to pay up, Furniture.  The Nationals are World Series bound – if not this year, then in the next couple of years for sure.  Good thing we stayed within U.S. laws, right?

By:  Adam Johnson

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