That may be the team’s largest long-term strength, its most appealing quality, but also, as seen last October, it’s key learn-on-the-job vulnerability.
Because the Nats became so good so fast last season, it is easy to miss what is, for me, their central fascination. Last year, the Nats had MLB’s youngest pitching staff, yet led the National League in ERA anyway. They also had the second-youngest position players.
It’s not just Bryce Harper, 20, and Stephen Strasburg, 24, who are emerging before our eyes — part mystery but all possibility. Most of the team has as yet undetermined “ceilings,” plus everybody in the minors, too.
Just how young are the Nats? Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak recently said that players probably peak between 28 and 30. By that measure, 20 of the 25 Nationals who are expected to make the opening day roster have never played a full MLB season in their prime. Even Ryan Zimmerman, who seems like a gray beard, just turned 28 last September.
In fact, nine Nats will be 26 or younger, including Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen, Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa, all 25, and Jordan Zimmermann who’s 26. Ian Desmond, Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler are all 27.
When a team this young also has the game’s best record and plays above .600, their potential is universally acknowledged. But with that comes the responsibility to develop it. If the Nats think they’ve arrived, when they’re only partially formed, there will be trouble. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
Storen typifies the Nats’ learning curve. After missing months because of an injury, was he prepared, in the broadest sense, for Game 5, pitching for the third straight day? Ready or not, he must deal with that loss. “That’s how you get the salt in your veins,” he said this week. “Fold up or get better.”
The Nats are filled with young players who must become old salts, and quickly. Most of them are still works in progress. Most of their best players are still learning their craft and don’t pretend they are masters of the game.
Most genuine contenders — such as the Tigers, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels — spend spring training getting in shape and hoping to avoid injuries.
They aren’t learning rudimentary lessons in how to hold base runners (Strasburg) or adapting to a new defensive position (Harper) or undergoing revamping of their hitting style (Espinosa) or being instructed in the basics of how to make the double play pivot without getting killed.
“The middle infielders have to pass my footwork test,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “They don’t learn how to play the position properly because in high school and college these days the base runners have to slide straight into second base — no takeouts or roll blocks — or the ump calls an automatic double play.”