“Third Place Is No Great Shakes . . .”

You would think that if anyone knows the history of the Washington Nationals, it must be Davey Johnson. And yet, immediately after the Nationals clinched a 3-1 last game victory against the Marlins, Johnson told the press that finishing third was not his idea of a great season. He’s right of course, but for many of the rest of us, the 2011 season is accounted a spectacular success — especially when you compare it to where we’ve been.

The best example of the Nats’ improvement came on Wednesday, with rehabbed righty Stephen Strasburg pitching six more-than-solid innings (he held the Marlins to a single hit, while striking out ten), and the Nationals scoring just enough to get their 80th win. That’s eleven more than last year, when the Nats were dead last. If third is “no great shakes,” then just imagine what fifth feels like.

Of course, Nationals’s fans don’t have to imagine it — they’ve lived it. But now, it seems, the era of blanket franchise apologies and the constant talk of building the bankrupt farm system (it’s built), are history. Third place? We’ll take it. Two years ago, at a CFG confab in Houston, we proudly wore our Curly W hats into a local bar, plunging into the midst of a group of Astros fans, who tittered away at our expense. “What does it feel like to root for the worst team in baseball?”

No more. Now that particular honor belongs to the Houston nine, who finished the year with 106 losses. The Nationals are, finally, a good team — even a very good team. They are better than the Marlins or Mets, better than Colorado, or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Chicago. You never compare yourselves to losers, the pundits say, but to the best. Yeah, okay. But if 2011 is any indication (and it is), being the best is not that far off.

Let’s Not Get Carried Away: The Nationals need hitting, and in the worst way. Their close-out 3-1 victory came against a last place team that looked like they didn’t wanna be there. How many hits did these “no great shakes” Nats get? Five. That’s the same as the night before. There are free agents to be had, with big bats, but the solution is at home . . .

The Nationals finished right in the middle of the N.L. East, but they were 12th in run production and thirteenth in hits — which is lousy. There’s some pride in finishing sixth in the N.L. in team ERA, but there’s this caveat: they seem to pitch poorly against teams they should beat (yesterday, granted, was the exception), and their starters continue to give it up in the middle innings . . .

Okay, sure, the Nationals have a great bullpen, really they do. And they better. With two rehabbing arms as their two top starters, everyone is counting pitches. That isn’t going to change next year, when “Strasmas” works his way through his first full season. Which means that Henry, Tyler, and Drew (& Co.) are going to continue to pile up appearances . . .

So while the Nats need a bat (and Mike Rizzo has said so), they also could use another “insurance” arm. That’s not so easy to get. Everyone will want pitching in return, and will focus on one of Nationals relievers. The challenge will be what it always is, to get something without giving up too much. That was the key to the July trading deadline, which Rizzo & Co. handled just fine. When Minnesota asked for Storen, he said “no.”

That won’t happen in the off-season, but it’s clear now, there are some arms on this team that are simply off limits. Drew Storen, who threw 75 innings and notched 43 saves, is one of them. Yeah, okay. Michael Morse is the team MVP. But Storen is a close second, and he’s followed by Tyler Clippard, one of the best (and perhaps the best) set-up men in the game. So our advice to Mike Rizzo is pretty simple. When it comes to “Clip and Save,” do yout imitation of Nancy Reagan and “just say no” . . .

  • http://twitter.com/nats_prospects Nationals Prospects

    While I’d agree the farm system is improved, I’d be lying if I said it’s been rebuilt. We’re still thin on position prospects and there are gaps, particularly at SS and RHSPs.

    Any chance I can get added to the blogroll?