September 14, 2011
Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade—whether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.
Today we look at the Washington Nationals. It's time to kiss 'em goodbye.
Signs of hope: The foundations of a starting rotation were in place by the end of the season, with Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan pitching well and Stephen Strasburg back from Tommy John surgery with his stuff intact. Tyler Clippard had another fine year in the bullpen, and former first-rounder Drew Storen established himself as the closer. Catcher Wilson Ramos supplanted the superannuated Ivan Rodriguez and combined solid-if-unspectacular hitting with an above-average 34 percent of attempted base stealers thrown out. The jury is still out on young double-play combination Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond. The former was hot in the first half and cold in the second, the latter the opposite. If the duo can find consistency, the Nationals will have their own lesser Whitaker-Trammell to build around. If not, the team brought up second-base prospect Stephen Lombardozzi for a fall cup of coffee.
Signs of disaster: The seven-year, $126 million contract given to the 32-year-old Jayson Werth seemed like a bad idea at the outset given his age and his dependence on the favorable hitting environment at Citizens Bank Park. Werth was undoubtedly pressing in the first half; his second-half line (.255 AVG/.354 OBP/.446 SLG) is likely more in line with what they can expect over the next few years. The problem is that's not a lot of production for a yearly salary that will rise from $13 million next year to $20 million by 2014, and there is no guarantee that Werth will continue to hit even that well as he ages from his mid- to late-30s on the Nationals' dime.
Signs you can ignore: Any turbulence in Strasburg's results between now and the end of the season. The return from Tommy John surgery is not always a linear path from healing to dominance; command, in particular, may wander, as it did for Strasburg in his three-inning start on Sunday. As a strikeout pitcher, Strasburg is under an additional burden because his style of pitching inevitably leads to high pitch counts. A pitch-to-contact hurler might get a batter to ground out on, say, a 1-1 count, but strikeouts require a minimum of three pitches. As such, Strasburg is going to struggle to stay in games with his current restrictive pitch count, but that is a transient problem. —Steve Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
Bowden's Bold Move
The starting rotation could be completely homegrown in 2012, with the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock, and John Lannan. A healthy Strasburg is a top-of-the-rotation ace, while Zimmermann has quietly put himself into the pool of emerging young starting pitchers in the National League. Detwiler is improving, Lannan has been solid, and Peacock has the potential to be a Zimmermann-type starter but is probably a year away. The Nationals could use a solid third starter to slot behind Strasburg and Zimmermann, while letting the others provide much-needed depth.
The Nationals would also love to be able to chase down a free-agent shortstop like Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins to combine them in the middle of the diamond with Espinosa. That would allow them to include Desmond or Lombardozzi as part of a package to trade for Span, Upton or a starting pitcher.
To fill the center field and starting pitching gaps, the Nationals should make a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and acquire center fielder Upton and right-handed starter Wade Davis in exchange for prospects. The Rays will always have financial problems playing at Tropicana Field, and Upton will be really expensive in arbitration this offseason. Davis is in the midst of a multiyear contract through 2014 with club options for 2015-2017, and he should develop into at least a solid No. 3 starter. The Nationals have a deep farm system and the pieces to get this deal done. —Jim Bowden
Hopes and Fears
Worst-case scenario: 69-93
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.