Tonight Stephen Strasburg is pitching and as I watch him dominate, I cant deny that if he stays healthy hes going to be a very special player. However, unless Washington management finds a way to add talent around him he wont be pitching for a contender anytime soon. In fact, I am still a firm believer that the Orioles, despite their miserable start this year, have a brighter future than the Nationals.
First of all, its important to consider just how much Strasburg can do for the franchise. So i decided the best way to figure out that is by taking one of the best years from recent memory and assuming at Strasburg's peak he's that good. I chose Pedro's insane '99 season where his FIP was 1.37 and WAR was 12.1 (not to mention thats the most that he, Lincecum, Halladay, Clemens or Randy Johnson ever produced). What that means is that Strasburg would provide 12 wins above a AAAA player or the bottom level major leaguer. So if you put him on a team of average major leaguers and he makes that team a 93 win team. The problem with the Nats is that his teammates are not league average, they just aren't very good at all. So if he puts up insane numbers like that blowing any pitcher in recent memory away, he will still need a league average team around him to equal the Phillies record for last year.
Looking at the rest of the team, the same ones that won 59 games all of last year, I am unimpressed besides a few bright spots. When you look at their young core it leaves something to be desired. First of all there is Ryan Zimmerman, he is everything he appears to be, one of the top three third basemen in baseball. After that their biggest name position player is Adam Dunn, however we have discussed him and his old player skills at nauseam so I'm not going to do it besides reiterate that players with his skill-set tend to "fall off a cliff" in their early 30's. After those two players, the rest of the lineup looks terrible. Their outfield consists of Nyjer Morgan, Rogearvin Bernadina, and Josh Willingham. In case those names do not mean anything to you I'll summarize them for you, a fast guy who was expendable for the Pirates, a player with a minor league OPS of .733 (whom Sickels described as "An ideal fourth outfielder"), and a player having a career year at age 31. Their infield consists Dunn, Adam Kennedy, Ian Desmond, Zimmerman, and Pudge. Adam Kennedy is a 34 year old journeyman, Ian Desmond never drew rave reviews as a prospect and isn't looking like anything more than a fringe major leaguer and Pudge is 38.
So to recap, best case scenario, the impact hitters that may be around in 3 years are Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham. So even if you do think that Dunn's the exception to old player skills and Willingham is a late bloomer, that's a lot of holes in the lineup. The rotation is just as brutal.
Their rotation consists of their anointed one, John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Luis Atilano and J.D. Martin. J.D. Martin is a failed prospect from the Indians who is putting up 5th starter type numbers while giving up 1.78 HR/9. He doesn't K a lot of batters but doesn't walk a lot. Unfortunately hes not getting a ton a GB's either. There is no reason to believe this soft-tosser is anything more than a 5th starter, if that. Luis Atilano never showed up on prospect lists and is putting up an uninspiring ERA of close to 5. Livan Hernandez isn't worth talking about because you can google "regression to the mean" yourself. The most interesting arm outside of Strasburg in their rotation is Lannan. He has put up good ERA's in two straight years but his BABIP has been unusually low and he's had a FIP of just under 5, heres a good link about that. This year he's not doing so well, and to me that sounds like Guthrie and another 5th starter. So nobody in the rotation outside of Strasburg is inspiring. (Drew Storen is a stud in the bullpen, but as a closer his impact is limited)
So with a weak lineup and rotation, their minor league system has to be good right? Here is what Sickel's said before the year "The Nationals system has an amazing talent in Strasburg, and I'm also very high on Norris, Storen, and Espinosa. After that, it fades quickly." Also not inspiring considering they don't have much at the major league level. Now I should note that they did add Harper and a very solid draft class, but they are all years away and its probably 3-5 years before you see any sort of impact from their draft class.
So why are improved this year? Last year they were a 59 win team and their run differential was -164 so they were a terrible team and they got what they deserved. This year, they have seen significantly improved contributions from Livan Hernandez, Josh Willingham, Ivan Rodreguez, and Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman's are legit but the rest aren't. Those career years have them at 5 games below .500 with Strasburg just now coming on the scene. So will he live up to expectations, maybe, and even if he is the best we've seen, does it matter, unless something changes then no. The Nationals don't have the talent around him to make it matter.
Finally, if you were to compare them to the Orioles its all in what you think of the Orioles young core of: Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Pie, Reimold, Matusz, Arrieta, Tillman, D. Hernandez and Roberts (well not so young for him). I think that core beats Strasburg, Zimmerman, the promising young Jordan Zimmermann (Pitcher due to return from T.J. soon) and Dunn (also not so young) even with this years struggles. I try not to get too encouraged from one year or too discouraged from one year. Last year I tried to temper my expectations (apparently not enough), this year I'm not letting them get beat down too far. There's still enough promise in that core to have hope. Also, while the Nat's aren't in the AL East, they are in the NL East and have more teams to compete with for the wild card. Their division is no slouch with the big budgets of the Mets, Phillies, a well run Atlanta team, and a feast or famine team in Florida. Is it the AL East, no, but the Nationals will have to somehow find a lot more talent if they want to compete in that division. On a side note, Amber beats Debbi Taylor any day, so we've got that going for us.
Stats obtained from Fangraphs and ESPN.