Will The Washington Nationals Play Meaningful Games In September?

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: Drew Storen #22 of the Washington Nationals works the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on September 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Washington Nationals won, 3-1. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Asked earlier this winter what his goal was for the 2012 Nats, skipper Davey Johnson said he was aiming for nothing short of a pennant, and he told reporters he believed, "the talent is there," for the 2012 Washington Nationals to make a run in the NL East. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, who started the winter saying the Nats were a pitcher and an outfield bat away from contending, told reporters after introducing left-hander Gio Gonzalez to the nation's capital's last month that even without adding a slugger (though they'd considered signing Prince Fielder), he believed that it was possible the 2012 Nats could improve their offense and compete. "That other bat may be a healthy Adam LaRoche," Rizzo argued, "A healthy full season Ryan Zimmerman and a back-to-Jayson Werth-Jayson Werth. I think that with the maturation of our young core, of [Wilson] Ramos getting better, [Danny] Espinosa getting better, [Ian Desmond] getting better, just by maturing and playing another season and with the continued success of Morse, LaRoche getting better, Zim playing a full season and Jayson coming back to his career norms, I think we have addressed the offensive part."

And don't forget the general manager reminded reporters, "We do have a power left-handed bat by the name of Bryce Harper in the wings, waiting to be fully-developed and help us on the big league level." And that was all before the Nationals signed 28-year-old free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal. The addition of Jackson on a 1-year/$11M contract the Nats' GM said in a recent MLB Network Radio interview, was, "... a bit of a value for what we got on a 3.5-4.0 WAR player," and as Rizzo told reporters shortly after the deal was announced, the team thought they had an innings shortage with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Chien-Ming Wang all in various stages of recovery, so the signing, "... not only fixes the innings-shortage," Rizzo explained, "it also gives us a quality standard that we feel can compete with any team in the division."

"I always see places that need an improvement," Rizzo had said after Gonzalez's introductory press conference, "But, with that said, we like our ballclub and our goal is to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season in September and beyond."

The Nats themselves aren't the only ones with high hopes for what the team can accomplish in 2012. MLB.com's Peter Gammons wrote yesterday, in an article entitled, "Turning point isn't just a talking point in D.C.", that, "The game wants Washington to succeed. The folks who run it want Strasburg and Harper to be good -- really good." Mr. Gammons continues to explain that what MLB really wants is for, "... the NL East to have one of the most competitive, compelling pennant races, with four teams thinking about the postseason on Labor Day,":

"... a race that would highlight young stars like Harper, Mike Stanton and Jason Heyward; veteran stars like Chase Utley, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes; one certain future Hall of Fame pitcher in Roy Halladay; and a lot of other guys people pay to see, like Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Gonzalez, Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson."

Are the Washington Nationals there yet though? Have they added 8-10 wins to their lineup with the pitching additions, more of the same from Morse, a healthy Zimmerman and LaRoche, a rejuvenated Werth, eventually Harper and the improvements they're expecting from Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond? Can Washington compete for the Division in the NL East with the roster as it's currently constructed, or at least compete for the Wild Card, or even the second Wild Card if they have one?

NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman calculated earlier this winter that over the last sixteen years, "... the average win total for teams that just missed the playoffs is 88.8." The Braves would have taken the second Wild Card in the NL last season with 90 wins. Can Washington make another ten-win jump this season? With Miami beefing up, the Braves a playoff team last year if not for an epic collapse and the Phillies still considered the team-to-beat in the NL East, will there be any chance of the second Wild Card emerging from the tough NL East?

By "meaningful games" in September, the Nats' GM, obviously, isn't talking about playing the spoiler role against other teams vying for a postseason berth as Washington has in the past. (Hey, Mets! Hey, Braves!) The Nationals think they can win now, though winning in 2013 with what is hopefully an innings-limit-free Strasburg, the center fielder/leadoff man they're looking for and an established Bryce Harper seems a more likely scenario to many preseason prognosticators.

MLB's Mr. Gammons' colleague at MLB.com, Paul Hagen, listed the Nats as the fourth of six NL teams to watch in an article on Monday entitled, "Intriguing teams to keep an eye on in 2012." The Nats have an improved rotation with Gonzalez and Jackson, a bolstered bullpen and with all the offensive parts mentioned above, "This could be the year they break through," Mr. Hagen writes. The only problem?

Sixth of six on Mr. Hagen's list of intriguing teams are the Philadelphia Phillies, who've won, "Five straight division championships." No.4 on the MLB.com writer's list? The Braves, who will learn from the missed opportunity last year according to manager Fredi Gonzalez, who's quoted in the article saying, "'... it's got to help us going forward.'" No.1 on the list of intriguing teams in the National League? The Miami Marlins of course. Last year's 5th place team in the NL East added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to a 72-90 win team which will move into a new home and this year will be guided by former White Sox' skipper Ozzie Guillen. The 2012 Fish, Mr. Hagen writes, will be improved and, "... competitive in one of baseball's toughest divisions."

"The last time Washington won a pennant was in 1933, six months after Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic inaugural speech," MLB.com's Peter Gammons wrote yesterday. Since then the nation's capital lost the original Senators, the second Senators and eventually major league baseball all together from 1971-2005. Washington, D.C.-based teams have just two winning seasons since 1952, Mr. Gammons notes. MLB may want a winner in Washington, but no one wants it more than the nation's capital's baseball fans. The last winning team in D.C., however, was the '69 Senators, and their 86-76 record was only good enough for fourth in the AL that season. It's not going to be easy, but knowing there's even a chance has the baseball world talking and the nation's capital hoping...

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