- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2011

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Sitting in a dugout thick with South Florida humidity Wednesday afternoon, manager Davey Johnson offered perhaps the truest statement about the 2011 Washington Nationals.

“I felt in spring that this club was not ready to win,” Johnson said. “I think coming into 2012, there’ll be very few questions. When that happens, you have a chance to contend.”

The Nationals head into the offseason with more optimism than they’ve had maybe in all seven years they’ve been in Washington. They have a young core of players who spent all season establishing themselves, and they believe they have the talent to shake things up in the National League East.

“The bar has been raised,” general manager Mike Rizzo said following the team’s final game of a season that ended with an 80-81 record. “We start thinking about 2012 on the plane ride home.”

Said ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg: “We have the ability. Now we’ve just got to prove it to everybody. You still have to go out there and win some ballgames. We’re still improving. We’ve got to stay hungry. We haven’t won anything, yet.”

Biggest questions heading into the offseason:

Will Davey Johnson return as manager? The answer to this one should be clear soon. Chances are that Johnson will be back. He’d like to, and Rizzo has the utmost respect for him. The players enjoyed his style, and a full season at the helm would be more of a true indicator of his ability to manage this group.

Will they do what everyone seems to know they should in extending Ryan Zimmerman? If this is not at the top of the to-do list, they’re looking at the wrong list. In addition to being the bedrock upon which almost all of their previous success was built, Zimmerman continues to be one of the best players in the majors. Even limited to 101 games because of an abdominal injury, Zimmerman (.289, 12 HR, 49 RBI) maintained consistency at the plate and revamped his throwing motion through his rehab process. It was a troubling transition at times, but by the end of the year his defense was back to its usual elite level. The future is bright, but it will dim significantly if the Nationals can’t lock Zimmerman up past the 2013 season.

Will they get the blue-chip leadoff-hitting center fielder (or any center fielder) they’ve been searching for? With a thin crop of free agents, and if they plan to call up Bryce Harper early in the season, they could opt to pursue corner outfielders (such as Jonny Gomes or Laynce Nix) to play right field while Jayson Werth mans center. When Harper arrives, both could fade into a bench role. Rizzo could attempt to work out a trade for someone such as B.J. Upton, long the object of his desire, but the price may not be worth it for a one-year player. This is the top of their wish list, though, so you can bet they’ll make a significant effort to find an answer.

Will they make another splash on the free agent market like they did with Jayson Werth? The top free agents are first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. If they leave St. Louis and Milwaukee, it seems unrealistic either would land in Washington. The Nationals have a logjam at first base with Adam LaRoche expected to return healthy, Michael Morse proving more than adept at the position and Chris Marrero’s play in September suggesting he could handle it as well. Plus, if their first priority is re-signing Zimmerman, it would be difficult to see them also allocating the $200 million-plus it would take to sign Pujols or Fielder. Stranger things have happened, though, and the Nationals have a recent history of surprising people, as anyone who remembers the announcement of Werth’s contract will recall.

Best signs of 2011

Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos. Up the middle, the Nationals never have been stronger. With three first- or-second-year players solidifying themselves this season, the Nationals have one of the best defensive combinations through the middle of the infield in the league. All three have shown how potent they can be at the plate as well.

The Nationals‘ pitching staff - without Strasburg and with an innings-limited Jordan Zimmermann - finished with the sixth-best team ERA (3.58) in the National League and tied for seventh overall. It was the best mark in organizational history. The Nationals went 80-81 but were 27-27 in one-run games and, even with their superb pitching, opponents outscored them by 19 runs. They often worked without significant run support and by and large performed admirably.

Zimmermann became an ace in his own right while Strasburg goes into the offseason healthy and feeling as effective as ever. Ross Detwiler, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock also asserted themselves in September - making a case for all three to compete for a spot in the 2012 rotation. The pitching staff is shaping up to be one of the best in the league next year.

• Turns out, Morse is the player everyone was hoping he could be. In a career year that also ended as one of the best in the major leagues, he matured into a feared slugger who honed his approach at the plate. This year could have turned out dramatically different for Morse, who seemed to squander his first shot at an every-day role with a .211 average on May 1. Instead, it ended with a .303 average, 31 home runs and the eighth-best OPS (on-base plus slugging) in the National League at .910.

Top five needs for 2012

Center fielder: It’s no secret that a bona fide center fielder — and preferably one who hits leadoff — has been on the Nationals‘ wish list for some time. They came close to acquiring Denard Span from Minnesota at the trade deadline but ultimately decided the price was too high. There really isn’t anyone exciting who is expected to become a free agent, so if the Nationals are dead-set on finding one they’ll most likely need to do so via a trade. Werth was solid in center over the last six weeks, and he likely would be a candidate for the job if the Nationals can’t secure someone and instead decide to add a corner outfielder.

Better bench production: It’s a favorite saying of Johnson’s that it “takes 25 guys to win a pennant.” If that’s true, the bench is one of their biggest areas in need of an upgrade. It combined for a .222 average with just 16 extra-base hits (five of them home runs). As pinch-hitters, those numbers are worse: .186 with five extra-base hits.

One more starting pitcher: Whether that’s getting the deal done with Chien-Ming Wang or going out to get someone else — or both. The Nationals are set up well with Strasburg and Zimmermann at the top of their rotation with John Lannan, Detwiler, Milone, Peacock and, presumably, Wang in the mix for the final three spots. But another arm thrown into the mix could never hurt.

Offensive consistency:The Nationals spent most of the season waiting to see their offense jell. There were highlights, of course, namely Morse’s breakout season and impressive production out of rookies Ramos and Espinosa, along with the second-half surge of Desmond out of the leadoff spot. But as a unit, they rank in the bottom half of the National League in almost every category, including the second-worst team batting average (.242) ahead of only San Diego and tied with San Francisco.

Jayson Werth to be Jayson Werth:Werth’s production was down astronomically from 2010. His average dropped from .296 to .233, his on-base percentage from .388 to .332 and his slugging from .532 to .392 as he hit 20 fewer doubles and seven fewer home runs. He took on a lot in a lineup surrounded by mostly rookies when Zimmerman and then LaRoche went down, but his production never rebounded fully. There’s no question his 2012 needs to be better.

2011 Nationals who will be free agents:

Chien-Ming Wang:The Nationals have already begun talks to retain Wang, whom they helped nurse back to health after significant shoulder surgery in 2009. After completing his remarkable comeback and improving in each of his 11 starts, Wang said he’d like to stay in Washington and the Nationals seem inclined to keep him in the fold as a nice addition to their rotation in 2012.

Livan Hernandez: Hernandez has made it clear he’d like to return to the Nationals even if it’s in a long relief role and he’s certainly an organizational favorite. That said, the Nationals will need to evaluate if they truly have enough room for Hernandez. If the ongoing investigation of him on a money laundering charge is not resolved that could be a factor as well, though the Nationals have not indicated it would be to this point.

Ivan Rodriguez: There’s a good chance we’ve seen Pudge play his last game in a Nationals’ uniform. He’s looking for more playing time and the Nationals want someone to be a backup to Wilson Ramos. Rodriguez can still play, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign elsewhere.

Jonny Gomes: Gomes, who the Nationals traded for this July, is a Type-B free agent so the decision to return next year will likely be up to him. Because of the potential draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere, the Nationals are almost sure to offer him arbitration. If he’s kept in the mix, he’d be a veteran addition to the outfield in either corner.

Laynce Nix:Nix was a steal as a minor league free agent last season and spent a decent amount of the year as the Nationals’ starting left fielder and a middle-of-the-order bat. The Nationals have already exchanged figures with Nix on a contract for next year, but talks are at a preliminary stage.

Rick Ankiel: Ankiel played phenomenal defense this year, showing off perhaps the best outfield arm in the major leagues on many an occasion. His offense has been a bonus, especially his stretch from July through August, but his price may be too high to retain him as a fourth outfielder. He made $1.5 million this season.

Alex Cora: Cora has no plans to retire after this season and has said he’d be happy to return to Washington in the bench role, knowing that if the team was in the heat of a pennant race, he’d have been used more often for his defense off the bench and not just as a pinch-hitter. Either way, he plans to play somewhere next season and he’s been valuable as a veteran infielder working with Desmond and Espinosa.

Todd Coffey: Coffey was a good veteran to have in the bullpen this season but the chances the Nationals dip into that well for another year are slim. Their stockpile of arms makes guys like Coffey — who has been both very good and very bad for stretches — expendable.