If you lost to the Giants head-to-head, like the Reds and Cards, you blew your shot. If you didn’t make it out of the division series, like the Nats, you weren’t that close, no matter what you think. And the Tigers, after sweeping the Yankees, were obviously the best the American League could offer. They got their doors blown off in four games. So the AL has no gripe, either.
But the Giants are no dynasty. They’re a fine team that’s averaged 91 wins since Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito were joined three years ago. They have a pitching-defense-and-fundamentals tilt that works in October. But other styles have won titles for 100 years, too.
As long as the Giants have most of their current pitching staff, plus MVP-quality catcher Buster Posey, they’ll be a playoff force. However, a half-dozen other teams have every reason to think they’re a couple of new players, and a couple of October breaks, away from champagne in 365 days.
Entering this offseason, the Nats have one big advantage: No team in baseball is going to improve as much simply by being one year older. Many teams have nice rookies like Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi or a young regular like Danny Espinosa trying to make the jump to an elite level in his third full year, as Ian Desmond did last season. But nobody else has Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper on the brink. Maybe nobody ever has.
Strasburg is already a very good pitcher with a 21-10 record, 2.94 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 2511
3 innings over 45 starts. But that is not a great pitcher. He has seldom gone more than six innings, and he faded in his last 10 starts (4.14 ERA). That’s typical of pitchers recovering from elbow surgery. In his last starts, he was going on fumes, painful to watch. Presumably, greatness is the next step. But that has to be proved, not postulated.
Watching Harper’s development next year or two may be one of the sports memories of a lifetime. At 19, he was a stat clone of Mickey Mantle (but a hair better) and a notch above Ken Griffey Jr., at that age. Across the board, he most resembles Willie Mays at 20. No disrespect to the game’s immortals, but those are just facts.
Harper, .270 with 22 homers and 98 runs, isn’t even a major star yet (no matter what wins-above-replacement says). Neither were those others at that age, but they were just months away, such as Mike Trout erupting at 20. Harper will either become the thing he always dreamed of, which will require adjustments and maturity. Or he won’t, which will demand even more.
In the wake of the bitterest defeat that any team suffered in the entire ’12 season, the Nats’ biggest offseason challenge will be managing the aftershock of heartbreak. The desire to assign blame for misery is enormous. But in team sports, the ability to resist it is essential.