Natstown has Lost its Innocence
It is mourning in Natstown. Red curly W caps have been replaced by black veils as we awake this morning widows of a baseball season lost in tragedy. Baseball is heart break. It all begins with the hope of Spring and what can be during the summer. For some teams reality sets in sooner than for others, and by the time fall arrives only few teams are left. One by one those teams drop off and in the end only one team gets to celebrate. The 2012 Nats are not that team. After blowing a 6-0 lead and falling 9-7 to the Cardinals the Nationals are headed home. The next game played at Nats Park will be April 1 against the Miami Marlins.
Heart break is part of the game. Nearly every team has their moment. The moment no fan wants to remember. Baseball teams have lost in the post-season in all types of embarrassing fashions. Whether it is a ball rolling between Bill Buckner's legs, normally automatic closer Dennis Eckersley giving up a homerun to a player on two bad legs, or a foul ball glancing off of Steve Bartman and away from the glove of Moises Alou. Daniel Descalso has become the Sid Bream or Bucky Dent of Nationals lore.
Nationals park was filled to over capacity for all three home playoff games and Jayson Werth provided Nats fans with a genuine post-season moment with his 13th pitch walk-off homer off of Lance Lynn to force a game five. The Nats stumbled and almost fell flat on their face in the playoffs, but didn't, and what happened to them is what has happened to a lot of playoff teams. It is what happened to the Phillies last season. The Nationals ran into a hot team. One month, or in the Nationals case, one week of play doesn't decide who a team is.
The Nationals are a 98 win team, the best team in baseball, and the NL East champions. There is no shame in what the Nationals accomplished this season. Think back to before the season began and the predictions that were made. 86 wins and a possible shot at the new second Wild Card looked like the ceiling. The Nationals eclipsed that by miles. They were the best team in baseball. Now think about where they are and what they are building towards. The Nationals have two free agents on the roster and two players with mutual options. If they lose all four they still enter the off-season with a 21 man roster.
Of the players the Nats could lose; Edwin Jackson, Michael Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, and Sean Burnett, only LaRoche would be a significant hole, and the Nationals could have his replacement already in house in either Michael Morse or Tyler Moore. The Nationals could run with one of them in left and the other at first and be a good team, or they could try and find an outfielder that can help replace some of the lost production. With the ability of Harper to play either center or a corner position it gives the Nats versatility in who they go after. Hamilton, Bourn, Upton, and Pagan are all options for the Nationals. Another option would be to keep Morse in left and sign a first baseman like Kevin Youkilis, or the obvious move of trying to get LaRoche to accept the option or offer him a multi-year deal.
Even with Burnett and Michael Gonzalez being the only Nationals exiting the bullpen in the off-season they could use some more relievers. These don't have to big moves. A baseball reliever is the most volatile position in sports. With the Royals unlikely to pick up Soria's option he would be one risk move the Nationals could take and they can once again get in bed with Scott Boras and put a bid in for Ryan Madsen who will be coming off of Tommy John's surgery. There are other relievers out there, but those two are two of the best when healthy and because they haven't been they won't be cost prohibitive to keep the Nationals from going after a free agent outfielder.
The real strength of this Nationals team was the starting pitching. The top three of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann all had months good enough to win the pitcher of the month award in the NL. The talk this winter in the national media will all be about how stupid the Nationals were in shutting down Strasburg and losing in October, but he will be pitching again for the Nationals, and there is no reason to believe he won't be just as good if not better. Davey Johnson and the Nationals didn't just limit Strasburg's innings for the season he was also limited in games.
Strasburg never once threw a pitch in the eighth inning of a ball game despite having the best stuff in the NL and at times making entire line-ups look foolish. Jordan Zimmermann was also limited in the number of innings he pitched. It was more subtle than with Strasburg but there were many a time that Zimmermann was removed with a pitch count in the high 80's or low 90's while still going strong. Even Gio Gonzalez was limited in his innings in a start. Gonzalez is the only starter in baseball history to win as many as 21 games while pitching under 200 innings. Davey took care of his young staff and if anything showed in October it was their lack of endurance.
Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann will all be back in 2013. Detwiler pitched well enough in 2012 to earn the right to be a part of next season's rotation and if the flashes of brilliance he showed in 2012 were any indication the Nationals starting pitching will be dominant for years to come. This off-season the Nationals will have holes to fill, but they will mostly be looking for ancillary pieces. The Nationals needs if they lose every one they can are a couple middle relievers, a first baseman or outfielder, and a fifth starter, and unlike in the days of back to back 100 loss seasons the Nationals should have no issue courting such players.
In the future when the 2012 season is looked back on it won't be as a season of failure. While it certainly ended in disappointment it is a jumping off point. The Nationals will have most of their players back with a few new pieces added around the fringes. It is hard to say a 98 win team should be better next season, but a full season from Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper will make the Nationals better in 2013 than they were in 2012, and that doesn't even mention how much Harper could improve as he moves into his age 20 season. 2012 was a fun season, but starting in 2013 it will look like business as usual.