- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If this spring feels a little different, D.C. baseball fans, maybe it’s because the Washington Nationals might still be playing meaningful games in September … and perhaps beyond. Think about it: How long has it been since the Local Nine brought a pennant race to our doorsteps? Not in my lifetime, certainly, and probably not in yours.

Remember the first season Ted Williams managed the expansion Senators (1969), the one everybody still talks about? Well, Williams’ Wonders might have won 86 games that year, but they also finished fourth in the American League East, 23 games behind Earl Weaver’s Baltimore juggernaut.

No, you’d have to go back to 1945, a mere two-thirds of a century ago, to find the last time a Washington club seriously vied for the pennant. At season’s end, only 1 1/2 games separated the second-place Senators from the Detroit Tigers. Of course, that was the last year of World War II, and baseball had a kind of thrift-store look to it. The Senators had four knuckleball pitchers, and the third place-team, the St. Louis Browns, had a one-armed outfielder.

Anyway, here we are, 67 years later, and the Nationals, in their eighth season in Washington, have folks wondering if the playoffs might be within reach. That reach, by the way, doesn’t have to be quite as long as in the past because a fifth postseason berth is now up for grabs. Thus, it’s theoretically possible for the Nats to finish third in their division — as they did last season — and still qualify for the opening round.

Stephen Strasburg will be shut down once he reaches about 160 innings. He started five games in 2011 in his return from elbow surgery. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
Stephen Strasburg will be shut down once he reaches about 160 innings. ... more >

All Davey Johnson and his players have to do — again, theoretically — is find a way to get from 80 (their win total a year ago) to 88 (the average number of wins by the National League’s fifth-place team in the past decade). If they can do that, they stand a good chance of having a 163rd game.

Hope, then, becomes a process of addition for Nationals followers. Where does the club find those eight extra victories that will put it in the playoffs?

Stephen Strasburg is a good place to start. Even though he’ll be limited to 160-or-so innings because of his September 2010 Tommy John surgery, you’ve got to believe he’ll be more productive than Livan Hernandez (8-13 in 175 1/3 innings) was last season. So what’s Strasburg worth? Two victories? Three victories? More?

And what about Gio Gonzalez, the All-Star left-hander who came over from Oakland in a trade? If Gonzalez wins his usual 15, 16 games, what’s he worth to the Nats? As much as Strasburg? The same as Strasburg? Less than Strasburg? However you calculate it, he’s a plus.

Then there’s Edwin Jackson, another new arrival. Jackson might not be a No. 1 starter, but in the past four years he’s averaged 12 victories. And 12 victories, I’ll just remind you, is more than any Nationals pitcher had last season (John Lannan, 10).

Also, doesn’t Jordan Zimmermann, who was shut down in September last year (see Strasburg), figure to win more than eight games his time around? Heck, you could make the argument that the Nats will find those eight extra victories in just their improved starting rotation.

But pitching isn’t an independent variable. The team has to hit much better than it did in 2011 if it wants to take full advantage of this impressive set of arms. And frankly, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t. Adam LaRoche, for instance, had averaged 23 homers and 81 RBI in his career before his first season here was all but wiped out by injury. If he returns to that level, that’s a lot of additional pop in the order. Ryan Zimmerman, meanwhile, is capable of much more than 12 dingers and 49 ribbies if he doesn’t miss 60 games again.

As for Jayson Werth, does anybody really think he’ll follow one below-average season with another, or is he more likely to go back to being the 132 OPS+ guy he was in his final three seasons in Philadelphia? My money’s on a rebound year.

Finally, there’s the Johnson Factor. What exactly does Davey add to the equation? Just this: In his 12 full seasons as a major-league manager, his club has finished with a winning percentage of .543 or higher nine times. And a .543 winning percentage, my friends, translates into 88 victories - the Nationals’ magic number, give or take.

Maybe the Nats won’t get there. I’m convinced they will.

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