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.
Baseball Prospectus' Take
The Nationals have jobs open in the outfield and could use a high-OBP guy to stick at the top of the order. If the Nats sign a first baseman this winter, Morse will likely fill the hole in left. This is Strasburg's rotation to lead, and the last two open spots could be filled with a free-agent signing or a revolving door of arms.
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 Nationals have finally started to make progress, and the 2012 season could be their breakout year. The team's most glaring need is in center field, and GM Mike Rizzo has been aggressive in trade talks to solve the problem. At the trade deadline, the Nationals came close to dealing for the Twins' Denard Span, and they have had conversations with the Rays regarding B.J. Upton for more than a year.
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
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 87-75
The Nats haven't finished above .500 since they were the Expos, but there are enough pluses in the organization to give them a favorable upside. The offense ranks only 12th in the NL in runs scored this season, and even the mean expectation sees the offense improving considerably. Michael Morse became a .900 OPS slugger, which was fortunate, but not much else went right with the lineup. A full season of Ryan Zimmerman, a rebound from Jayson Werth and continued improvement by Ramos, Espinosa, and Desmond could push the Nats toward real relevance in 2012. There's also that starting pitcher, Stras-something, who has a lot of upside if the Tommy John fairies are kind.
Worst-case scenario: 69-93
Washington has a solid potential for a team likely to finish the year below .500, but the team's depth remains thin enough that a few key injuries could be devastating. While ZiPS expects Morse to retain enough improvements from the last two years to be an .850-.875 OPS contributor, there's not much offensive depth behind him. Werth could simply be showing his age and rebound only slightly or not at all. With Strasburg and Zimmermann both having recently repaired elbows, the Nats simply don't have the spare pitchers to handle more bad luck. While most teams don't have the rotation depth of the Braves, who could lose a few starters without it destroying the team, the Nats can't afford to lose any for practically any period of time. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory
By most accounts, the future of the Nationals franchise still revolves around Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, arguably the two most well-known prospects in the history of the game. Strasburg's successful rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery has him on pace for a successful 170-175 innings in 2012, while Harper reached Double-A as a teenager and has a shot at landing in Washington by next September. While those two drew the spotlight this year, the real story was a step forward by the rest of the system, as two players—no matter how good—cannot turn around a franchise alone. This year the Nationals found another potential quality starter in Peacock, who had a 2.39 ERA in 146 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Washington had three of the first 34 picks in the draft and added the best college hitter in Anthony Rendon, one of the best college athletes in Brian Goodwin, a high ceiling arm in Alex Meyer, and then took a chance on lefty Matt Purke in the third round and signed him. GM Mike Rizzo's scouting acumen was the perfect fit for the Nationals, and it's getting closer to paying dividends at the big league level. —Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .