Although the pun wasn’t necessary for the title of this article, the 2011 calendar year for the Washington Nationals was by far the best year the Nats franchise has ever had That even includes the time when the team was still in Montreal. Results on and off the field couldn’t have gone any better and the future looks brighter than ever. Want one reason why? I’ll give you ten!
1. Wilson Ramos survives kidnapping: I’ve always said that baseball, although a business, is a game. Nothing is more valuable than your life and that theory was put to the test when the Nats’ starting catcher was kidnapped in his native Venezuela. Ramos was playing in a winter baseball league and his wealth in a poor country is enticing to people who are looking to cause mischief. What’s even more remarkable is that Ramos stayed in the country after being rescued and played again, showing bravery and dedication. Had worse come to worse, the Nats probably wouldn’t have traded Derek Norris, which means, no Gio.
2. The team’s willingness to spend money: With the Nats as the frontrunner to land slugger Prince Fielder, the league is being put on notice that Washington isn’t going to sit back and be a mid-market team. The team signed Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126M contract last December and Fielder will command at least $150M over 7 seasons. Forbes listed the Lerners (the owners) as the richest majority owners in baseball and with a new TV with MASN on the horizon, there is no shortage of cash to spend.
3. The return of Strasburg: In August 2010, it seemed like the world was going to end because pitching phenomenon Stephen Strasburg left a start injured and eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery. We all remember his incredible debut with 14 strikeouts and zero walks against the Pirates, but many wondered if his stuff would take a step back after the procedure. His fastball is almost back, his curve is still devastating, and the recovery process was a lot quicker than expected. He’ll be on an innings limit for the 2012 campaign (around 150 innings), but he’ll be ready to face Hamels, Johnson, and Hudson this year as the NL East has a loaded pitching division.
4. Bryce Harper arrives: The “LeBron James of baseball” burst onto the scene with Class-A Hagerstown, showing the mix of power and speed that leaves scouts in awe. All the hype didn’t get to Harper, who was only 18 at the start of the season, and showed improved maturity despite blowing a kiss at the opposing pitcher after a home run. His .318/.423/.554 lines were insane for a kid his age and showed above average defense and smart baserunning. He struggled a bit after his promotion to Double-A, but he may have been trying too hard to impress. Nats manager Davey Johnson would like Harper to get a fair shot at making the Opening Day roster, but that seems unlikely.
5. Successful recovery for Jordan Zimmermann: With all the talk surrounding Strasburg, people forgot that Zimmermann, another high pick for the Nats, had TJS almost a year before Strasburg did. The 25-year old came storming out of the gates and finished with a sparkling 3.18 ERA in 26 starts. His 8-11 record was due to poor run support, but he kept the ball in the yard and issued only 1.7 BB/9 in 161 1/3 innings. Look for the strikeouts to increase a little bit in 2012 and expect Strasburg to follow the J-Zimm plan in terms of innings.
6. Phillies look vulnerable: The biggest rival in the NL East for the Nationals is probably the Philadelphia Phillies and even though they’ve won five straight division titles, the team is on the decline. Closer Ryan Madson and starting left-fielder Raul Ibañez are gone, while pitchers Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge had their options declined (although they could be brought back). Their core 3 of Utley, Howard, and Rollins are all a year older and injury-prone. The law of averages suggest Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will take a dip (even if it’s very slight) in performance and the former is due for an injury. Heck, the Nats won the season series last year 10-8.
7. Gio Gonzalez trade: The Nats acquired the Oakland pitcher for four of the organization’s top 10 prospects, but the deal will be worth it in the long run. The southpaw is a streaky pitcher that racks up strikeouts with relative ease. He could split Strasburg and Zimmermann to form a formidable top of the rotation for Washington. Derek Norris, a top catcher, was expendable because of the Ramos emergence. Lefty A.J. Cole signed at the last minute at last year’s signing deadline. Right-hander Brad Peacock had a taste of the majors in September and lefty Tom Milone made a splash by homering in his first-at bat. If Gio can keep his walks down, that ERA of his (3.17 the past two years), can sink below 3.
8. Emergence of Morse: A few years ago, Michael Morse was trying to find himself as a baseball player. He was one of the first players in the minors suspended 50 games for steriod use and some may think he’s on them again, considering how he played last year. During his first year as a starter, Morse hit .303 with 31 bombs and 95 RBI while being in “Beast Mode” from the beginning of May until the last day of the year. During a one month stretch, no hitter in baseball was hotter and he added a swagger to a team that isn’t a doormat anymore. To make room for Adam LaRoche (or Fielder), he’ll move to left in 2012. He’s now a legitimate force in the middle of that order.
9. Jim Riggleman resigns: How is your manager resigning in the middle of a team’s best stretch ever, a good thing? One word: UNITY! This team became closer when their skipper quit on them after a contract dispute and the team is better for it. People say that team chemistry is overrated, but as the saying goes, happier employees perform better. Isn’t the point in baseball to play at your best and win? Add to the fact that Davey Johnson is instilling the right attitude in the clubhouse and this hasty act isn’t as bad as it seems.
10. A third place finish: You have to save the best for last, right? The Nats had their second-best record in their 7 years in D.C. with an 80-81 mark, good for third in the NL East. They didn’t make up a rained out home game against the Dodgers, which is very upsetting. Besides the revenue and the fans missing out, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp missed a shot at 40-40, finishing one home run short. Back to the Nats, this wasn’t the year they were supposed to emerge. This shows that effort and hard work does pay off in sports and talent isn’t everything. Third place should now be the minimum expectation with this team.
Maybe 2011 was a fluke, maybe it wasn’t. This team went through a lot this year, both inside the organization and out. However, it’s quite possible that the Nats were underestimated and were able to sneak up on people. 2012 will be different and if Fielder does sign, expect attendance to increase, league attention to rise, and more fans hopping on the bandwagon. It’s been 40 years, but fans in the DMV area can now proudly say that baseball is truly back in Washington D.C.