Before the end of an early November interview with ESPN980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro, back even before the Washington Nationals had announced that Davey Johnson would return to manage the team in 2012, the then-68-now-69-year-old skipper said that he was already waking up at night thinking about the new season and who would be his Opening Day starter on April 5th in Wrigley Field. "Well, you guys know," Johnson said, meaning all-things considered it will be 23-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg facing the Cubs in Chicago in game one of one hundred sixty-two on the 2012 schedule. But one thing the manager said had to be considered was the weather. "If it was thirty-two degrees maybe it might be someone else, you know" Johnson joked. (ed. note - "For the record, the average Chicago temperature in early April is between a low of 40 and a high of 58.")
"I mean he really had a rough finish," Johnson deadpanned referring to the end of Strasburg's 2011 campaign. The Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick made six starts in the minors last summer as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, walking three and striking out 29 in 20.1 IP, then returned to the majors with 5.0 scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 6th. In 5 starts and 24.0 IP for the Nationals, Strasburg had a 1.50 ERA, 1.28 FIP, 2 walks (0.75 BB/9) and 24 K's (9.0 K/9). 17 starts and 92.0 inning into his major league career, Strasburg is (6-4) with a 2.54 ERA, 1.87 FIP, 19 walks (1.86 BB/9) and 116 K's (11.35 K/9). Johnson lobbied for Strasburg to make the last start of the season against the Marlins as his inning-limit approached and the right-hander responded by ending the year with six shutout innings against Florida in which he struck out 10 and gave up just one hit and the only two walks he surrendered in the majors in 2011.
After Strasburg, at least according to what D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said when he acquired Gio Gonzalez from the A's this winter, the Nats' new 26-year-old left-hander will make his first start for the Nationals on Saturday April 7th, followed by Jordan Zimmermann in the Sunday matinee on the 8th. Monday night in New York? Edwin Jackson. After that? Chien-Ming Wang? Another Strasburg start? Ross Detwiler? John Lannan? Well that's what Spring Training will decide, and all of this is, of course, assuming everything goes as planned, barring any setbacks, or hiccups, or injuries, etc.. According to the Nationals' official Twitter (@NationalsPR), closer Drew Storen, set-up man Tyler Clippard, "Jackson, Zimmermann, Wang, Detwiler, Lannan, [Brad] Lidge and others," (as many as 20) are already in Viera, FL with pitchers and catchers due to officially report on Sunday.
Drew Storen's hair is longer. Jordan Zimmermann and Storen are still wearing "Beast Mode" shirts, Chien-Ming Wang's got a Beatle-esque bowl cut going. Edwin Jackson's already tossed a few in front of pitching coach Steve McCatty (in the picture above). It's about time to get started...
FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal wrote this morning in an article entitled, "Spring Training promises intrigue", that in spite of all the talk about Bryce Harper (#whynot) heading into Spring Training this year, and in spite of Davey Johnson's stated desire to have the 19-year-old start the season in right field, "Don’t count on it happening."
"Even if Harper enjoys a monster spring," the bow-tied FOXSports.com reporter writes, "the Nationals have everything to gain by delaying his promotion until June." Mr. Rosenthal then goes on to explain the familiar service time, arbitration and free agency concerns with Harper, before suggesting that finding a center fielder, "... something they’ve actually spent the entire offseason trying to do," would allow the Nats to avoid rushing Harper up, but as of 4:06 pm on February 17th, no new center fielder has been signed or acquired.
ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, while writing that the Nationals might not be ready to make the first World Series appearance by a D.C.-based team since 1933, does, however, note that, "... with Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and a full season of Stephen Strasburg now injected into the pitching portion of this equation, the Nationals are at least ready to wreak some havoc in the NL East." With or without Harper is Mr. Stark's big question? Mr. Stark has the Nationals tied with the Miami Marlins atop the NL East on his list of most-improved teams this winter. The ESPN analyst says that though the Nationals aren't likely to challenge the defending NL East champs, if they're able to, "... add a center fielder somewhere along the line, there might not be a position on the field where the Phillies are dramatically better." (ed. note - "Mr. Stark also says the Gio Gonzalez trade was the winter's second best behind the Yankees/Mariners' 'Pinero/Montero deal.'")
The Nationals got a B+ grade on their offseason moves from Mr. Stark's colleague at ESPN (and former Nats' GM) Jim Bowden today in an article entitled, "Grading the offseason, National League."
Only the Marlins, D-Backs and Reds got better grades from the former MLB executive, who said that with the trade for Gonzalez and the one-year deal with the 28-year-old Edwin Jackson, "... the Nats have put together a strong enough starting rotation to compete for the playoffs," in 2012, and, according to Bowden, "The young rotation led by Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann should allow the Nats to be contenders for at least the next five years." It's a new year for the Nationals and a new feeling for Nats fans, who, for once, don't see their team written off as unlikely to contend from day one. And it all starts, RIGHT NOW! Or on Sunday, officially...