Washington Nationals show depth matters as much as having surefire all-stars


Ryan Zimmerman connects on an RBI double during the third inning against the Cubs. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist July 5, 2014

When you analyze the Washington Nationals, no one jumps out as an all-star candidate. They haven’t produced eye-catching statistics. And in the big picture, that’s not a problem.

Although the Nationals don’t have any obvious all-star picks — the rosters will be announced Sunday night — they do have a deep club, which has overcome a spate of injuries to remain near the top of the National League East. Despite lacking star power, the Nationals are finally healthy and still could fulfill their World Series aspirations. There’s a lot to like about an ensemble cast that was assembled well.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Among regulars, starting pitchers and relievers, the Nationals have several players having solid seasons. Closer Rafael Soriano and setup men Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard form the foundation of the major leagues’ second-best bullpen. Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg lead a rotation that has championship potential, especially with Doug Fister rolling since he returned from the disabled list. Any young player could learn something from steady infielder Anthony Rendon. First baseman Adam LaRoche has rediscovered his groove.

The team approach was a hit in Saturday’s 13-0 drubbing of the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park. The Nationals spread the work in winning for the sixth time in seven games. They got another impressive start from Gio Gonzalez and contributions from throughout the batting order. It was quite a show.

After Friday’s series-opening loss, the Nationals again looked like a team capable of playing at the game’s highest level. Depth helps. “We’ve worked hard on putting the right combination of players together,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “and not being totally dependent on just one or two players.”

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Bryce Harper's comments about Manager Matt Williams's lineup are potentially damaging for a team that just got back to full strength on Monday night. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Any general manager would prefer to have an all-star at every position. In big league history, there have been many loaded teams — several New York Yankees clubs immediately come to mind — that won World Series titles. Teams that have several all-stars in a season aren’t guaranteed success — but it doesn’t hurt.

This season, the Nationals don’t have a “top-10 player in all of baseball on our roster,” Rizzo acknowledged. “We have a lot of guys who play the way we want to play.”

Rizzo’s sharp approach to roster building was on display Saturday.

The Nationals used a six-run third to break open the game. In the inning, Rendon had a great at-bat punctuated with a run-scoring double. It’s fun to watch a young player who has such a focused approach at the plate. High-priced veteran Jayson Werth then followed with a timely hit to drive in Rendon.

Bryce Harper’s return Monday marked the first time since opening day that the Nationals were at full strength. Now, with holes filled, the batting order is applying more pressure on pitchers.

Not surprisingly, the Nationals are excited about the improvement on offense. They should be. Things figure to get even better once Harper finally gets comfortable after missing two months following left thumb surgery.

Harper’s return requires Manager Matt Williams to find creative ways to deal with an outfield logjam. As Harper reminded everyone, the situation is not ideal. When the Nationals pound 19 hits in a blowout victory, however, having the whole gang back together is worth it.

“It’s [about] getting used to each other,” Rendon said. “Hitting after the same person for a good little while, getting used to how they work counts, and how many pitches they’ll take, we’re just trying to get into rhythm with each other.”

Against the Cubs, they were humming.

On the mound, Gonzalez pitched eight scoreless innings in his third consecutive victory. Like Rendon, Gonzalez is confident the Nationals are headed to a good place. “You look at what Matt has to do . . . it’s just basically having fun putting pieces together,” Gonzalez said.

When the left-hander dominates batters as he has recently — he increased his scoreless innings streak to 22 — it’s worth noting that the Nationals were among few organizations with enough expendable talent to trade for a starter of his caliber. Same goes for Fister.

If Fister (7-2, 2.93 ERA) hadn’t missed so many starts, it’s natural to wonder where he would be headed. To the all-star game?

“The season is long, which is why you really find out about your organization,” Rizzo said. “The season tests your entire organization. It tests your roster. You find out a lot about your 40-man and your 25-man [roster]. You look at teams that have lost middle-of-the-lineup bats or rotation guys like we have . . . it’s hard.

“To me, [the Colorado Rockies] are a prime example. They played so well the first two months of the season when they had a healthy roster. All of a sudden, they start losing key guys. All of a sudden, they went from staying close [in the NL West] to being [12] games out of first place in a blink of an eye.”

Even without a bunch of stars, the Nationals were in a strong position to cope with their problems. That’s the point of building a good team.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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