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Posted at 05:38 PM ET, 12/29/2011

Washington Nationals’ top stories in 2011, Part 1


(Mike Ehrmann - GETTY IMAGES)
This was supposed to be the year in between. Stephen Strasburg would heal his prized right elbow and Bryce Harper would cut his teeth in the bushes. Their two biggest attractions would bide their time. Fans would Google “ulnar collateral ligament” and seek out South Atlantic League box scores. In 2011, the Nationals would wait.

It didn’t happen like that. We should have known right away – spring training ended with the Nationals dealing their enigmatic center fielder days after he fought their superstar free agent. What other team could trade Nyjer Morgan and still have a year this wild?

The Nationals played constantly compelling baseball – often exhilarating, frequently infuriating, rarely boring. One manager quit in the strangest way, at the strangest time, and the Nationals culled his replacement from out of the last decade. Their splashy free agent whiffed his way through the first half and at the end of the season, as part of his crusade on his new team’s culture, tackled a mascot.

They said farewell to two old stalwarts and watched, delighted, as young players staked positions all over the field. The Nationals’ youth movement was matched only by their staunch refusal to make things easy on themselves. They blew huge leads, staged incredible comebacks and made “walk-off” a regular part of their vocabulary.

Your mind still drifted to Strasburg, sweating through the Florida humidity – how’s he doing, anyway? You still anticipated the next Harper headline — oh, boy, what’d he do now? But as dates flew by and games racked up, those thoughts became secondary to what was happening on the field — hey, are the Nats actually half-decent?

Like that, Harper was in Class AA and Strasburg was stepping on a minor league pitcher’s mound for a real, live game. By September, he was back. The Nationals dusted the NL East in September and finished one win shy of .500, 11 wins better than 2010 and 21 wins better than 2009.

They tried to keep the momentum going in the offseason, keeping Davey Johnson on board. After initial frustration, the Nationals pulled off their biggest trade since … well, maybe ever. They sent four prospects to Oakland for a left-handed, hard-throwing, 26-year-old who gives them three starters to fill a potentially dominant rotation for years to come. The playoffs no longer feel like a pipe dream.

Now that 2011 is over, it didn’t feel like waiting at all. It felt like the start of something.

We’ll look back now with, to borrow from Davey’s vernacular, an eye on tomorrow. Below are the biggest story lines from 2011 (baseball only – you won’t find the harrowing kidnapping of Wilson Ramos or the tragic death of Yewri Guillen) along with the best-case and worst-case scenario for how they’ll play out in 2012.

Feel free to provide your own list in the comments. Thanks for reading all year long.


(Lynne Sladky - AP)
10. Michael Morse emerges

After a career spent trying to find a position and fighting for an opportunity, Morse proved what he can do with 500 at-bats in a season. He was by far the Nationals’ best hitter this year, overcoming a slow start that briefly cost him his position – Morse began the year as the left fielder, lost his spot and then took off as the regular first baseman after Adam LaRoche’s injury.

Best-case in 2012: Morse continues a trend that’s pretty well established – he has a 142 OPS+ and 46 homers over his last 868 plate appearances – and, at 30, is one of the best sluggers in the National League and a top-10 MVP finisher. With Adam LaRoche’s contract up and one more year of arbitration remaining, the Nationals sign Morse to a team-friendly, multi-year extension and, after a serviceable year in left field, he becomes a stalwart at first base.

Worst case in 2012: After his two-season breakout, Morse falters as an everyday left fielder, bringing to mind his April performance (.211/.253/.268) in 2011. He reverts back to having bad luck with injuries, and 2011 stands as the best season he ever has.

9. Jordan Zimmerman establishes himself

In his first season back after Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann quashed any remaining doubts about the fitness of his right elbow. Zimmermann was clearly the Nationals’ best starter, posting a 3.11 ERA and striking out four batters for every walk in 161 1/3 innings. He showed he can provide a top-of-the-rotation starter and also gave Strasburg a comforting road map.

Best-case in 2012: Zimmermann does exactly what he did in 2011, only he finishes his starts with the same dominance he starts them, and he pitches 220 innings.

Worst case in 2012: Zimmermann’s one bugaboo last year was unraveling once he reached the final out or two of a start, and he can’t conquer it this year. While he puts up good numbers, he starts looking more like an innings eater than a top-of-the-rotation horse. (I admit, this one’s a stretch. After watching him last year, it’s hard to think of anything, barring injury or awful luck on balls in play, that will hold him back.)

8. Nationals end 2011 on a tear

The Nationals closed last year on a 14-4 run, which included a four-game sweep in Philadelphia and taking two of three from NL East rival Atlanta, a series that helped cost the Braves a playoff spot. The Nationals did it on the backs of a rotation made almost entirely of 20-somethings and a dominant bullpen.

Best-case in 2012: The Nationals never look back. They use the momentum from 2011 as a catalyst and immediately make clear they’re contenders. Fans believe in the finish, too, and they fill Nationals Park, even in April.

Worst case in 2012: Their finish turns out to be a mirage, helped by those four games when the Phillies played mostly reserves following their clinching of the division. Momentum does not carry across winter, and the Nationals stumble out of the gate.

7. The rookies step up

Perhaps the most pleasant development of 2011 was Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos giving the Nationals two core, up-the-middle players. After call-ups in 2010, both received votes in Rookie of the Year balloting, and with good reason. Espinosa crushed 21 homers despite a wicked second-half slump and played second base as well as anyone in the league. Ramos had a 113 OPS+ as a 23-year-old catcher. Pitchers love throwing to him, and base stealers already fear him.

Best-case in 2012: Espinosa cuts down on his strikeouts and his on-base percentage surges from .323 to .345. With a hot offensive start and continued stellar defense, he makes the all-star team. Meanwhile, Ramos becomes a fan favorite after his harrowing ordeal and approaches the torrid pace he set over his final 53 games – .300/.351/.505 – over a whole season.

Worst case in 2012: Espinosa strikes out too much again, and rather than improving in his second year, his opponents simply find more ways to get him out. He’s still an oustanding defensive player, but questions about his offense surface. Meanwhile, Ramos is understandbly shaken following his offseason, and the effects cross over to the field.

6. Jayson Werth struggles in his first season in Washington

Werth repeatedly said he joined the Nationals to help them become winners, but on the field he added little toward that goal. Werth hit .232/.330/.389 with 20 homers and 58 RBIs, his worst season since he became an everyday player.

Best-case in 2012: Werth showed signs of regaining his old form in the second half of the season. After the all-star break, Werth hit .255/.345/.426. Having grown comfortable playing in Washington with a big contract, and with Ryan Zimmerman back in the lineup for the entire season, and not having to toggle in and out of the leadoff spot, Werth’s comfort leads to him enjoying one his vintage Phillies years — .279/.376/.513 with 29 homers, his precise average season from 2008 to 2010.

Worst case in 2012: Werth’s struggles in 2011 had more to do with his aging than comfort, and he only gets a year older in 2012. He puts up similar stats and looks out of place in center field to start the season. The Nationals are left dreading the final five seasons left on his seven-year, $126 million deal.

Click here for the remaining top Nationals stories of 2011.

By  |  05:38 PM ET, 12/29/2011

 
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