The Nats Haven’t Been 100% All Year, With Or Without Strasburg

The main assumption of those that argue that Stephen Strasburg should pitch for the remainder of this season and deep into the post-season is that this could very well be the last chance the Nats get at the post-season for a long time. It is obvious that things happen, that things go wrong, but things have happened and gone wrong in 2012. To understand how badly they have gone wrong think about how a line-up of Espinosa, Harper, Zimmerman, Morse, LaRoche, Werth, Desmond, and Ramos would have performed had they all been together at one time. Now think about how many times that line-up, or some variation, will take the field in 2012.

That’s right, it won’t. Not once will the Nationals be able to put their best position players in the line-up all at the same time, and for most of the season the Nationals have been without two or three of their projected regulars. Tuesday night in San Francisco the Nationals line-up was missing Desmond, Ramos, and Morse. The night before, when the Nationals put up 14 runs, they were missing Desmond, Ramos, and Werth. The Nationals have missed significant time from significant players all season long, and yet they have endured.

Why then would a similar string of bad luck and injuries have different results in future years? It could be that as unlucky as the Nationals have been with the position players they have been lucky with the pitching staff. Some of that could be because Davey Johnson has used Craig Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny in a manner that has limited both his starters’ innings and the back of the bullpen’s innings.

A lot of the Nationals future is tied up in their pitching staff. The first member of the top three to become a free agent is Jordan Zimmermann after the 2015 season. If the Nationals don’t lock him up that is when the window starts to close, but waiting in the wings to prop it open are Alex Meyer and Lucas Giolito, and that is only if the Nats don’t re-sign Jordan Zimmermann. Every one of their own players that they ink long term extends that window just a bit.

Now consider this about the Nationals future. Next season Strasburg won’t be on an innings limit, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler will have addition years under their belts, Harper will have worked through his adjustment period, Gio Gonzalez will still be Gio Gonzalez, and Alex Meyer, Anthony Rendon, and Brian Goodwin will all be that much closer to the majors. As bright as the Nationals present is the future is blazing.

The Nationals will have a couple small conundrums to deal with this off-season. They are going to continue their search for a lead-off hitter that can get on base and possibly play centerfield, but what they do about this might have a lot to do with how quickly they project Brian Goodwin to reach the majors or if they think Eury Perez could hold down the position or if they want Werth and Harper to rotate in that position while Moore or Morse sit in left. There are a lot of options and the worst of them isn’t bad.

What the Nats do in the outfield is almost directly tied to first base. If they do sign a free agent or make a trade for a centerfielder/lead-off hitter then Adam LaRoche’s fate is sealed as the only place left to put Morse would be first. It could be though that LaRoche is the one who rejects the Nationals, and who could blame him when his biggest rival for big dollars at first base is 36 year old and oft injured Lance Berkman. After LaRoche and Berkman the names get less fun. There is converted catcher Mike Napoli and no power James Loney, and then there is Aubry Huff and Brad Hawpe. If LaRoche thinks he can do better than the one year and ten million he would pick up from accepting his option with the Nationals then he would be dumb to not test free agency.

Even if LaRoche isn’t back and no centerfielder is added then the Nats will have an outfield of Morse, Harper, Werth and Tyler Moore at first. Even the worst case scenario for the Nats for 2013 is better than the best case scenarios that were once imagined. The Nats are no longer counting on retreads, has-beens, and never-weres to somehow find themselves in a curly W. The Nationals are built for the long haul, and unless something goes terribly wrong they will be back.

Shutting down Strasburg might anger some. It might codify the Moneyball message that the play-offs are viewed as a crap shoot. That getting there is more important than who is playing when you do. And most importantly that the best way to maximize the chance of winning is to not settle to get to the post-season once, but to build a team that is strong in the majors and in the minors that can get to the post-season multiple years in a row, and maybe, just maybe, one of those years enough players click at the same time and that 11 games are able to be one before three or four are lost.