Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2012

Nats Have Potential, But Will That Turn Into Performance?

With spring training in full swing, hope abounds across team complexes throughout central and southern Florida and in the Arizona desert. At this early stage, every off-season move made by every one of the thirty franchises still has the potential to turn into a stroke of genius. Fans dream of breakout years by a young phenom, or unexpected comebacks by a wily veteran. Hope is a powerful thing, and it leads fans all across the country to picture their team playing on into October after a successful regular season; some even dare dream of capturing the ultimate prize.

But reality is the nemesis of hope; and the reality is that every one of the 2,430 regular season games that will begin in less than two weeks when the Mariners and Athletics jet across the Pacific for a two-game set at the Tokyo Dome must have a loser as well as a winner. By mid-summer some of those off-season moves will look foolish, some phenoms will have failed, and some veterans will have grown old and broken down before the eyes of the devoted faithful in the stands.

In March the pundits are busy speculating which teams’ fans will have their hopes realized and which will see springtime’s wave of great expectations dashed against the rocky shore of the longest season’s grinding reality. There are so many variables at play that even the speculation of wizened observers is made up in good measure of guessing and wishful thinking. But as much as my guess could turn out to be utterly mistaken, and as much as I would love to engage in more positive wishful thinking, I can’t help but feel that one place where springtime’s hope is higher than it should be is in our nation’s capital.

Loyalty in sports works in funny ways. I grew up in the D.C. area, but the Washington Nationals are obviously not the team that in some of my earliest memories I recall watching at old Griffith Stadium. That team now plays in Minnesota. Nor are they the squad that I spent many summer afternoons as a boy and teenager cheering on even as they lost game after game at D.C., later R.F.K. Stadium. That franchise now plays in Texas, where it has represented the American League in each of the last two World Series. The Nationals began life in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, and only moved to D.C. in 2005, more than three decades after I had moved to New Hampshire. Yet while they will never compete with the great franchise in the Bronx in any contest for my affection, because they play now in the city of my youth there will always be room in my heart for the Nats.

That space has often ached during the team’s seven seasons in D.C. The only team in the National League, and one of only two in the majors, never to go to the World Series, the Nationals finished last in the NL East in five of those years. They’ve never posted a winning record, and twice lost more than 100 games. But last year they came within a game of .500, and climbed over the woeful Mets and the Marlins to finish third in the division, albeit a distant 21 ½ games behind the Phillies. Still it was a season of marked improvement, and then general manager Mike Rizzo made some off-season moves that has sent hopes soaring in greater Washington and down in Viera, Florida, where the team is preparing for the 2012 campaign.

One of the game’s truisms is that a team can never have too much pitching. Washington showed considerable promise on the mound last year. Among the starters, John Lannan won 10 games while lowering his ERA and WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning pitched) and increasing his strikeouts per nine innings from the previous season. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Jordan Zimmermann posted the 8th best WHIP in the National League. Returning in mid-season after losing most of two years to injury, the former Yankee Chien-Ming Wang was predictably erratic, but showed flashes of the skill that allowed him to twice lead the Yankees with 19 wins. Most hopeful of all, the phenom Stephen Strasburg came back in September after his own Tommy John rehab. In five late season starts he posted an ERA of 1.50 while averaging 9 strikeouts per game. Of this core of starters Wang is the oldest at just 31, and the only one over 30. They in turn were backed up by an unexpectedly strong bullpen.

Then Rizzo added to Washington’s pitching wealth, trading several prospects to Oakland for All-Star Gio Gonzalez; and signing the free agent Edwin Jackson, two more starters in their 20’s who have shown great promise. He lured closer Brad Lidge away from the Phillies. On offense he locked up star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman until the end of the decade with a contract extension. Meanwhile, all Nats fans await the day when teenager Bryce Harper, the #1 pick in the 2010 draft and a hitter of seemingly limitless potential, makes his major league debut.

Brad Lidge recently told ESPN’s Jayson Starks that Washington was “probably the most talented team I’ve ever been on.” Since Lidge won a championship with the 2008 Phillies that would seem to be a stretch; but clearly Washington is loaded with potential; and the fact that so much of it is young gives the team’s fans legitimate hope for the future. But assuming that future is now may be inviting a rude awakening in the form of the game’s harsh reality that every contest must have a loser. First of course is the fact that they play in the National League East. Philadelphia has ruled the division for the past five years, and last year won 102 games. Atlanta was second in 2010, some 8 ½ games ahead of Washington, and that only after a late season swoon. Meanwhile Miami with its new stadium was one of the most active teams in the majors during the off-season, and certainly expects to improve.

Aside from the competition, it remains to be seen if potential can be turned into performance. Just today Wang left an exhibition game with a strained hamstring; a reminder that injuries always play an unwelcome role in how a season turns out. Jordan Zimmermann has been impressive on the mound and Stephen Strasburg electric, but both have already suffered a major injury that once upon a time would have ended their careers before they got started. Were those one-time events, or warning signs? Twice in the last four years injuries have limited Ryan Zimmerman to just over 100 games played. His .288 career average leaves hanging the question of whether he is a potentially elite player, or just looks like one because he has played on what has more often than not been a bad team.

As for the new arrivals, Lidge went from a phenomenal year as a closer in 2008 to a 7.41 ERA in 2009, and eventually lost his job as the Phillies 9th inning man. Gonzalez was an All-Star pitcher in massive Oakland Coliseum, a decidedly pitcher-friendly park. Jackson has struggled mightily at times with his control, issuing 7 walks in 5 1/3 innings in Game 4 of last year’s World Series. And one has to wonder why two young pitchers with such promise have already been traded a combined total of ten times in their careers.

Finally, there is the question of Bryce Harper. While his talent seems undeniable, he has yet to display that talent in a regular season game above the AA level; and his immaturity is already becoming the stuff of legend. He may yet be a mainstay of Washington’s success for years to come; or he may flame out and become a poison in the clubhouse while doing so.

It is March, and in Washington like so many other big league cities, hope abounds. But for 2012 at least, Nats fans might be wise to temper their expectations.

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