Last year was supposed to be a season of waiting for the Nationals — waiting for Stephen Strasburg to recover and waiting for Bryce Harper to mature. But that’s not exactly what happened. The Nationals played constantly compelling baseball, and by the end of the season observers were wondering — hey, are the Nats actually half-decent?
Yesterday we presented five of the Nationals’ top stories in 2011. Below are the remaining five. Feel free to provide your own list in the comments. Thanks for reading all year long.
5. Davey Johnson named manager
Johnson sputtered at the start once he took over for Jim Riggleman, but ultimately he won over the clubhouse and won his share of games. General Manager Mike Rizzo adores Johnson, and players did to. It was a no-brainer, then, that he’ll start 2012 as the manager of the most talented Nationals team since baseball returned.
Worst case in 2012: Johnson was sharp for his full 2011 tenure. But over the course of a full season, it turns out that 11 years away from the game has an effect. A perfect relationship begins to sour.
4. Bryce Harper’s first professional season
He was dominant at Hagerstown, got hurt in Harrisburg and was excellent at the Arizona Fall League. More so, he gave a glimpse of what to expect once he gets to Washington. Harper blew a kiss to the pitcher after he hit a home run; showed up at the Futures Game in a rented Astin Martin; earned an ejection by screaming in an umpire’s face; joyously tossed his helmet in the air after he hit a walkoff home run; tweeted his support of the Yankees during the playoffs; and named his puppy, a Christmas gift, Swag. And the show is just getting started.
Best-case in 2012: Harper gets about a month of seasoning in Class AAA, thereby delaying his free agency one extra season. By mid-May, Harper has so thoroughly obliterated pitching in the International League that it would be a charade to keep him there any longer. They promote him May 14, the start of a seven-game homestand against the Padres, Pirates and Orioles. His stats, at 19 and the youngest player in the majors, he strikes out a lot but becomes an adequate middle-of-the-order bat, hitting .265/.331/.510 over the final two months of the season.
Worst case in 2012: The unexpected happens – Harper, for the first time, does not find a way to be the best player on the field. The advanced approach he finds at Class AAA stifles him, and his adjustment takes months, not weeks. He finally snaps out of a long slump, but not until August. The Nationals make him a September call-up, and he struggles for a month in the majors. He’s still 20 and still looks like a future star, but there is more doubt and the Nationals’ plans for him are delayed.
Last week, the Nationals made one of the biggest transactions in their brief history by trading four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Losing the combination of Derek Norris, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone may someday haunt the Nationals. But Gonzalez gives the Nats one of the most desirable rotations in baseball – Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez are all 26 or younger and all under control for at least four years.
Best-case in 2012: The addition of Gonzalez makes the Nationals a real, live contender for the first time since baseball returned. Gonzalez, like many pitchers his age, fixes any lingering control problems and, now in the National League, his ERA actually drops to 3.03 over 215 innings. The Nationals ride an electric trio of young arms to playoff contention, and the future looks even brighter.
Worst case in 2012: Taken out of Oakland’s cavernous ballpark, Gonzalez loses confidence and, worse, his already high walk rate – 4.1 per nine innings over the past two years – shoots up. He still pitches 180 innings, but Gonzalez wins just 10 games as Peacock settles in as a solid No. 3 starter in Oakland and Cole dominates Class AA in the second half.
2. Jim Riggleman quits
It had little impact on the Nationals in the long term, since Riggleman likely would not have been the Nationals’ 2012 manager no matter how 2011 turned out. But Riggleman’s stunning resignation still ranks this high on sheer shock value. It was the craziest story of the Nationals’ season, maybe of the entire baseball year, and it led to Johnson’s return to the dugout.
Best-case in 2012: Riggleman, now managing the Reds’ Class AA team, finds happiness in Pensacola and, by 2012, is back in the majors as a bench coach.
Worst case in 2012: Riggleman deeply misses his old job and finds nothing but regret in the minors. Teams remain scared off by his departure from the Nationals, and a good baseball man spends the rest of his career in the minors.
1. Stephen Strasburg returns
The best night of the Nationals season came in a loss. It didn’t matter much what happened Sept. 6 after Strasburg left the mound following five two-hit, no-walk, four-strikeout shutout innings against the Dodgers. Strasburg had returned with a new style, dialing back his fastball in exchange for enhanced command. He seemed to already have perfected it on the final day of the season, when he struck out 10 Marlins in six innings.
Best-case in 2012: Strasburg dominates like it’s 2010 all over again. The extensive shoulder strengthening Strasburg’s rehab allowed will protect him from any significant injury to his shoulder, which would be even more devastating than Tommy John surgery. The Nationals space out Strasburg’s starts as they realize they have a shot to make the postseason, and he still has enough innings left in his arm to start the first playoff game in Nationals history.
Worst case in 2012: Strasburg struggles as he adjusts to throwing his fastball a tick or two slower, and without that extreme velocity his other pitches suffer. He is merely quite good as opposed to great, and he tires sooner than expected and throws about 140 innings instead of 160.
There is, of course, a worse case than that. But it feels too cruel to even mention it.
Honorable mention: Nyjer Morgan traded to Milwaukee; Ryan Zimmerman misses two months; Tyler Clippard makes the all-star team; Drew Storen saves 43 games; Ivan Rodriguez steps aside; Livan Hernandez throws his likely last game with the Nats; Chien-Ming Wang returns, re-signs; Adam LaRoche signs, has season-ending shoulder surgery.