On deck: The Nationals drafted A.J. Cole in the fourth round, traded him for Gio Gonzalez, then traded Michael Morse to get him back. Who knew trades could be round-trip? The Nats wanted Cole back because while there might be a limit as to what they’ll pay Jordan Zimmermann, there isn’t to how many candidates there can be to replace him in 2016. A year ago Tanner Roark was supposed to be the sixth starter, but he grabbed a spot and didn’t let go when Doug Fister was hurt. Roark was second on the team with 15 wins, and third among Nats starters in ERA at 2.85 (he went back to the bullpen in the NLDS, and that didn’t work so well. Given that’s where he’s likely to go in 2015, the Nats might want to take note). If Zimmermann leaves, Cole will be among those getting the first chance to replace him. He’s fanned 504 in 500.1 minor-league innings, though his 148 hits allowed last year in 134 innings is disturbing. Cole will need to hold on tightly, though, because an even better prospect, Lucas Giolito, (110 strikeouts in 98 Low Class A innings, 70 hits, 2.20 ERA) will be right behind. It’s nice to be rich.
Trivia: Ian Desmond had 24 home runs and stole 24 bases last year, becoming the fourth shortstop to have three 20-20 seasons. Who were the first three? Answer below.
What he said: Nats manager Matt Williams on his opening-day starter: “We’ll evaluate as it gets longer down the line here, and we’ll let everybody know when it’s the appropriate time.” What he meant: “Stephen Strasburg. Max Scherzer. Jordan Zimmermann. Does it matter?”
Outlook: The Nationals are an anomaly in Washington: efficient, smart, organized, prepared. So why can’t they win in October?
The Nationals won 96 games last year, most in the NL, and then lost to a team that won eight fewer games. This came two years after they won 98 games, most in the NL, and lost to a team that had won 10 fewer games.
Three years ago the Nats might have lost in the playoffs because Strasburg was shut down, but last fall they clearly did because their offense was. The Nats scored nine runs in four games, one of which went 18 innings; it didn’t help that Strasburg was outpitched by a creaking Jake Peavy.
Forget all the old cliches about pitching. The Nationals’ four-game loss to the Giants last year is a reminder that the shorter the series, the greater the variables.
The Nats were first in the NL in pitching, but they were also third in runs scored. Even in all of MLB, without the benefit of a DH, the Nats were ninth in runs scored and eighth in OPS. There was nothing wrong with the team’s offense that Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s adept use of his bullpen wasn’t responsible for.
This year’s Nats are a lot like last year’s, only better — which is why the Braves folded before the hand was even dealt. The Nats winning the NL East in 2015 is as sure a thing as there is in baseball in March: if it was politics, it would be Reagan vs. Mondale, Nixon vs. McGovern, FDR vs. Landon.
The Nats added Scherzer — a luxury signing — to a rotation that didn’t need him, but who said opulence is bad if you can afford it? They moved Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first, where maybe he can play more than 61 games and hit more than five home runs. And they dealt Tyler Clippard, leaving them short in the bullpen, for Yuniel Escobar, who can play second — but also short if they need him there upon Ian Desmond’s departure.
Unlike most of Washington, the Nats think ahead, and the team is not only set up to win now, but to win next year and the year after and the year after that, as well. Nats GM Mike Rizzo might not always be an easy person to like from afar, but it’s easy to like what he’s done with his team. He works with a foresight not often seen in Washington.
If Zimmermann leaves, the Nats will have Giolito or Cole to replace him (not to mention Roark). If Denard Span, surprisingly valuable in 2014, leaves when his contract expires this year, Michael Taylor (.313/.396/.539) will play center (in the meantime, Jayson Werth is hurt and Bryce Harper often is, so Taylor shouldn’t be lacking for opportunity). If Desmond leaves, Escobar can man the position until Trea Turner, the player still to be named in the three-way deal with the Padres and Rays, is ready.
There’s a logic to how the Nats have been built and how they work. Forget about Washington. It’s just as often missing in baseball, too.
Trivia answer: The other three shortstops with at least 20 home runs and 20 steals in the same season three times are: Hanley Ramirez (four: 29-51 in 2007, 33-35 in 2008, 24-27 in 2009 and 21-32 in 2010; he had a fifth as a third baseman in 2012), Jimmy Rollins (four: 25-36 in 2006, 30-41 in 2007, 21-31 in 2009 and 23-30 in 2012) and Alex Rodriguez (23-29 in 1997, 42-46 in 1998 and 42-21 in 1999; he had three more as a third baseman).
Team song: Graham Parker: No more excuses