Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

2012 Nationals: Terrifically talented but ultimately unproven

A week ago, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty watched Henry Rodriguez humiliate hitters with his 100-mph fastball, slider and change-up, then declared the reliever’s stuff “pretty frickin’ bueno.”

As opening day arrives and an offseason of intense anticipation ends, let Rodriguez, 25, serve as a symbol of all the Nats. He’s only McCatty’s third- to fifth-best reliever, but he drips talent and potential of a specific type that General Manger Mike Rizzo prefers: unapologetic intimidation. Rizzo wants pitchers who embarrass hitters, hitters who do the same to pitchers and all-around athletes who may someday become complete ballplayers.

Video

The Washington Post's Jason Reid joins the Post Sports Live crew to preview the Nationals' upcoming season and debate whether or not the expectation level needs to be adjusted for this club.

The Washington Post's Jason Reid joins the Post Sports Live crew to preview the Nationals' upcoming season and debate whether or not the expectation level needs to be adjusted for this club.

However, in Rodriguez’s case, as well as on much of the Nats’ roster, those gifts are only partially tamed. Yet at times Rodriguez seems very close to his arrival date. He hasn’t done much so far, except raise eyebrows, but he might do a lot. That’s where the entire Nationals franchise stands right now.

This is how “pretty frickin’ bueno” the Nats are on opening day: Their cleanup hitter, closer, center fielder and a starting pitcher are on the disabled list but, even without Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Rick Ankiel and Chien-Ming Wang, they look like a perfectly plausible playoff contender.

The Nats want those players back badly, and all may return in a couple of weeks. But this team’s ability to find in-house alternatives is merely a symptom of the Nationals’ new place in baseball. They are one of the sport’s young, rising and gaudily gifted teams. But they also have tons to learn. Many of them have flooded in over the last two years and shown dazzling abilities or made highlight plays, but they haven’t had a winning year yet.

Few teams in baseball have more power arms than the 10 swing-and-miss men on the D.C. staff. And 6-foot-9 Alex Meyer, a 2011 draftee with a near-100-mph fastball, is in the pipeline as well as lefty Matt Purke, who’s rated better. A groundball pitcher like John Lannan, the $5 million lefty who was optioned to AAA on Tuesday, is an archeological find.

Instead, the Nats want to see more of Ross Detwiler. “The two best things that have happened this spring are Detwiler and Bryce Harper’s progress playing center field,”Rizzo said. Wang looked so good just before his hamstring injury, hinting at his old Yankees form, that Manager Davey Johnson told Rizzo, “That’s a fifth starter? Looks like a number three.”

Few teams look more destructive in batting practice, with muscle men like Morse, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, who’ve all had over-30 homer seasons. Wilson Ramos matches any of them in BP while Danny Espinosa ripped 21 homers as a rookie. Yet they all still strike out by the gross in games and are, so far, a below-average offense.

At almost every spot, you can see that Rizzo and Johnson want a team that, if it ever jells, will have something akin to the brute presence of the 108-win ’86 Mets or the ’01 Diamondbacks, where Rizzo earned his chops, with Randy “Big Unit” Johnson, Curt Schilling and 57-homer slugger Luis Gonzalez. They want players whom other players watch.

Ex-star pitcher Ankiel has the strongest throwing arm of any outfielder in baseball. Roger Bernadina is cut out of Curacaoan marble. Ian Desmond and Espinosa may have the two biggest cannons, combined, of any middle infield. Zimmerman received a $100 million extension, in part, because few players inspire more praise for defense from their disbelieving peers.

And that’s before Stephen Strasburg even starts to tap his prime or Harper arrives or the Lerners field their first $90 million payroll.

Johnson managed an Orioles team with seven players with 21 to 50 homers and played on the great Baltimore teams of ’66 to ’71. Yet he shakes his head at what he sees around him: So much clay to mold.

He knows he’s been handed unfinished products. Strasburg has six career wins and Jordan Zimmermann has a lifetime mark of 12-18. The key relievers have never faced playoff-race pressure. Desmond and Espinosa can look raw at the plate. Morse has had only one fine season. And, until Harper proves he can play center field, that vital position is virtually a void.

Perhaps Johnson’s enthusiasm for this team, which sometimes borders on giddiness, may be tinged with his delight at being back at the helm after 11 years away from managing. But he denies it. “I don’t try to blow smoke. I try to be candid,” Johnson said Tuesday. When he took over the ’96 Orioles, he made it clear his clubhouse had flat-line, stat-focused vets who lacked fire. He raised hell. Now, in the Nats, he claims to see the opposite.

“It takes about five minutes to rate the talent [of a player]. The talent here is very good. Then you mix in the makeup. That’s off the charts on this ballclub,” Johnson said. “Performance is a direct function of makeup meeting ability.”

Rational expectation for the Nats is mid-80s wins and a respectable near miss at the playoffs. This just isn’t a team with enough offense or experience to reach the postseason, especially with Strasburg shut down around Labor Day, right? The best reason to suspect more is Johnson. He had a dramatic influence in his first full years with the Mets, Reds and O’s. He’s said if the Nats don’t make the playoffs, “they can fire me.”

And the Nats just sent Lannan to Class AAA to put Detwiler in the rotation until Wang gets back. Why? Detwiler, a sixth overall draft pick, has potential star stuff. This sends a message: We’re not kidding. Sentiment and money aren’t paramount, but winning extra games is crucial.

A post-Strasburg rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Wang, Edwin Jackson and Detwiler might still make the playoffs and dream of advancing.

The team’s fans are comparably excited, but with a lot more anxiety and skepticism. What do you make of a team with head-snapping highlight ability — especially with the addition of pure-stuff lefty Gonzalez and the likely arrival of Harper — before they have even had a winning record?

“I’m a Cub fan. I grew up near Wrigley Field. I get it. I know how people in this area feel. ‘Don’t talk. Show me,’ ” Rizzo said of generations of delayed gratification by Washington fans. “Go out and perform. The players have to improve. Projection is a project. And I have to be a better GM.”

So far this spring, the Nats are certainly trying. Rizzo is obsessively punctual. In Viera, he got to a 9 a.m. meeting with Johnson and his coaches at 8:55. As he came in the door, the meeting had already ended. “What happened?” Rizzo said. “The meeting begins when Davey starts talking,” he was told. “When was that?” Rizzo asked. Answer: 7:15 a.m.

Each day, Rizzo had to arrive earlier not to miss his own meeting. One day, with no game scheduled, he showed up at 8 a.m. The baseball talk continued all day until 6 p.m. Finally, Rizzo said, “Hell, I’m going home.”

Nobody knows just how frickin’ bueno the ’12 Nationals will be. But there will definitely be plenty to talk about. And many a night, nobody’s going to want to go home.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/
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