For those who think that the Nats are lucky or ahead of schedule or a dubious proposition to reach the playoffs in future years, stop and smell the 12 home runs they dropped on the Cubs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. After those drubbings, Chicago Manager Dale Sveum said, “That’s just men playing against boys right now” and “this is by far the best team we’ve played all year.”
Men against boys? The Nats are baseball’s second-youngest team.
When Stephen Strasburg pitches his next-to-last game Friday, don’t forget the most important reason he’s being shut down: The Nats are close to building an exceptional team, not just a very good one. They want to maximize all the odds of a long run as a dominant club.
This is how great baseball projects look at the beginning. If you don’t get this far, with your own fans in disbelief and foes stunned to realize they are not just beaten but outclassed, you never make the whole journey. But if you do, it’s amazing.
The Orioles had baseball’s best record from 1960 to ’83. The Braves won 14 straight division titles. The Phillies, a joke for much of a century, just won five straight NL East titles. Boston has just six losing seasons in the last 44 years. St. Louis has been over .500 69 times in 91 years: 76 percent winners!
Six months ago, it looked like by 2013 or ’14 the Nats might be a team with such a chance. Now it already has happened. As Ryan Zimmerman says, “We haven’t done anything yet.” And they haven’t left their first permanent mark.
But after 137games, the Nats are on a 100-win pace. More important, from a 30,000-foot perspective, they’ve done it despite injuries and without even one player performing above his previous best level or above what his potential appeared to be on Opening Day.
Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen all have ERAs at the same levels they had in ’11 or in multiple previous seasons. None is a surprise. True, the rotation has been abnormally healthy. But John Lannan was always waiting at Class AAA to fill a gap. And as counterbalance, everyday players were abnormally injured.
Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, as a group, are slightly below their career-long offensive production per at-bat. Factoring injuries, they’re far below projections. All four have had 30-homer years. In ’12, just 63 combined so far.
Three young players with big obvious talent are all panning out: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper. But no talent evaluator would have been surprised if you said they would have an OPS-plus (on-base plus slugging adjusted to ballpark) of 121, 101 and 109 this season (100 is MLB average). As a group, you’d expect them to trend even higher in future.