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2012 Preview: Washington Nationals

(As we get back into the swing of things -- baseball season's coming soon! -- I'll be previewing the 2012 season for each team. I'll run through the teams in reverse alphabetical order...first up: the Nationals)

Since moving to Washington, not once have the Nationals finished with a winning record. That's why, in spite of the fact that an 80-win season is nothing special -- it is, in fact, the near definition of "average" -- 2011 was a source of hope for the Nationals. A team that had finished in fifth place nearly every year since 2005 finally moved up to third in the NL East standings, and came just short of topping a .500 win percentage.

The good news? Things are only looking up for the Nationals, who -- as I detailed earlier this offseason -- have built themselves an enviable core of young studs. Between Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann (among others), there's certainly no shortage of talented youth. The top of the rotation, Strasburg and Zimmermann, already looked stellar entering this offseason, but Nationals GM Mike Rizzo went out and added a couple more arms to bolster the rotation: Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.

Gonzalez, 26, didn't come cheap, as the Oakland Athletics got a solid package of prospects in exchange for the southpaw: A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Tom Milone, and Brad Peacock. Strong pitching comes at a high price though, and Gonzalez has been superb for Oakland these past two seasons. Granted, he got his fair share of help from his home park as well as the defense behind him, but in each of 2010/2011, he was worth 4+ wins above replacement. He'll presumably be part of Washington’s picture for years to come, as he's signed through 2016 with options in 2017 and 2018.

In Edwin Jackson, the Nationals got one of the major bargains of the 2012 offseason. (Speaking of which, Brad Lidge is yet another bargain. In a market where some relievers have cashed in big, the Nationals solidified their bullpen for 2012 at just $1M). The 28-year-old right-hander was one of the top arms in a thin free agent starter market, but he ended up settling on a one-year deal worth $11M. On the surface, Jackson seems like an inconsistent mid-rotation pitcher. Only once has he had a markedly above-average ERA+, and that was back in 2009 (126). More recently, he’s allowed runs at a merely average rate -- in fact, his ERA+ across 409 innings in 2010-2011 is exactly 100. Yet, his peripherals have been consistently solid in recent seasons, particularly this past season: Jackson finished the 2011 season with a 3.55 FIP, which put him in company with names like Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez, and Josh Beckett. The defensive-independent metrics like him a lot, in fact: Fangraphs’ implementation of WAR, based on FIP, has Jackson at 11.2 WAR since 2009. But even in simple terms of runs allowed, he’s been quite productive, averaging 3 rWAR per season in that same span. If he can exceed 200 innings and continue to pitch this well, the Nationals will have gotten themselves five to ten million dollars in surplus value.

Anyway, the NL East looks stacked this year. The Phillies have dominated the division in recent years, and their run doesn’t seem like it’s about to end just yet. The Braves, who fell just short of the playoffs in 2011, will surely be contenders again. And the Marlins, of course, had a busy offseason, bringing in Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle. (More on all these teams later...)

Given the competition, it’s hard to see the Nationals finally winning the division. But they’re talented enough that they could just surprise some, or at the very least, finally come around to winning 82+ games.