There's a lot to be excited about if you are a Nationals fan.The team fell just 1 game shy of a .500 record, good for their 2nd best record since moving to Washington. Patrick Reddington is the editor at SBNation's Nationals' blog, Federal Baseball, and he was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about the team for us.
On Bryce Harper and His Eventual Debut:
MLBDD: Clearly, we had all heard just how talented Bryce Harper was. That said, how do you feel about his overall performance this season, and do you think we will see him in Washington before the end of 2012?
PR: There's a noticeable pattern developing with Bryce Harper which has him adjusting slowly to each new level before quickly showing he's capable of competing with and excelling against each step up in competition. The same thing has happened at each step so far, from his JUCO days to the AFL part-time in 2010, Spring Training with the big league club and Class-A Hagerstown, where he had a .318/.423/.501 line before he was moved up and was the youngest player at Double-A. And all of this as an 18-year-old in his first professional season. After a .238/.303/.325 July, Harper was picking it up at Double-A in August with 14 hits, 3 triples and 2 HR's in 49 at bats (.286/.368/.510) before he injured his hamstring and was shut down for the season.
When pressed in an interview last year to predict when Harper would make his MLB debut, Mike Rizzo compared him to Justin Upton and suggested Harper could potentially be in the majors as a 19-year-old and be an All-Star at 20, which is bold, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got a look late next year. I'd be surprised if he was somehow up in the Nats' outfield before that though. It wasn't exactly a painless transition to the outfield from what I've heard and seen, but he's got a cannon of an arm that's been impressive as his bat at times. The high K totals are also of some concern, but how can you not be happy with what he's done so far and the way he approaches the game.
My Thoughts: It's really hard to remember sometimes that Harper was just 18 years old for the 2011 season, but still put up all those crazy numbers. I don't really see a reason for the Nationals to rush him, but if he repeats his performance in 2012, I don't know how they are going to be able to justify keeping him in the Minors.
Read about Patrick's thoughts on the Nationals' draft class, Strasburg's road to recovery, and more after the jump...
On the 2011 Draft Class:
MLBDD: The team had Anthony Rendon fall to them at #6, but he wasn't the only top pick they ended up drafting. How do you feel the team did in the draft this year with signing all of their top picks?
PR: Anthony Rendon, arguably the best hitter in the draft, 6'9'' right-hander Alex Meyer at no. 23 with one of the two picks they got as compensation for Adam Dunn signing in Chicago (AL), outfielder Brian Goodwin with the 34th pick (also a Dunn pick) and then Matt Purke with their 3rd Round pick, 96th overall...and I've heard good things about 4th Round pick LHP Kylin Turnbull... and Matthew Skole, a 3B and the Nats' 5th Round pick impressed in the New York-Penn League. After drafting and signing Bryce Harper, LHP Sammy Solis and paying to convince 2010 4th Round pick A.J. Cole to sign instead of going to college last season in another strong draft class, the Nats got a haul at the top of this year's draft and payed to make sure the players signed.
I think the Nationals really outdid themselves with Purke though. After setting a precedent the previous season by giving A.J. Cole, a high school right-hander and 1st Round talent who fell to the 4th Round because of "signability concerns" a well-above slot deal, the Nats drafted and signed Purke two years after he'd failed to reach an agreement with the Rangers when they made him a 1st Round pick in '09. Washington signed him for 1st Round money and gave him a major league deal after he agreed to an MRI arthrogram to convince the team he was healthy. Purke and Rendon were well-regarded (no.1-overall-ish) prospects before they each had shoulder issues. If healthy, the Nats added two quick-to-the-majors-type players in another deep draft.
My Thoughts: The Nationals have shown a willingness to spend on the draft, and it really could be something to see in the coming years. I'm not entirely sure where they play Rendon, as he was a 3B in college, and that position is currently held by Ryan Zimmerman. That said, if his bat is as special as it sounds, they'll find a place to put him. It's a nice problem to have.
MLBDD: We've seen the Nationals bring a pitcher back effectively from Tommy John surgery (Jordan Zimmermann). How do you feel about how the Nationals have moved Stephen Strasburg through his rehab? Do you think they might have rushed him back?
PR: After watching Jordan Zimmermann for a full season this year after he came back on the same schedule the previous season, I have no problem with the way the Nats are bringing Stephen Strasburg back. Zimmermann had a really strong year and Strasburg was even more impressive in his short stint at the end of this season than Zimmermann had been in late 2010. If anything, I think the Nationals held Strasburg back. And while he was out he got into ridiculous shape because he said he thought he wasn't quite as prepared physically for a full season as he should've been.
For two years now the Nats' top pitching prospects successfully avoided one another, now barring any setbacks for either of them Strasburg and Zimmermann are going to be 1-2 atop the rotation next year. Strasburg will be on an innings limit, and the Nationals have been pretty clear they'll stick to it regardless how the season goes next year, so they're being as careful as they can with the 23-year-old potential ace, but they clearly recognize he's a once-in-a-generation-type talent so I think they've been as cautious as possible at every step.
My Thoughts: The scariest part to me is not the idea of these two at the top of the rotation, but the idea that they could go out on the market and get themselves a top-flight starting pitcher. Regardless of how the lineup plays out starting out the year, if they were to add a starting pitcher like C.J. Wilson, they would definitely be a force to reckoned with in the NL East.
On the Major League Team:
MLBDD: The team has a great core of young players now at the Major League level. Is there one player on the team who you think still has more to show us than he already has?
PR: I think Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond all fit that description but Espinosa and Ramos were rookies this year, Desmond was in his second full season. Desmond's had two years now where he's recovered for strong second halves after struggling early and he's improved significantly defensively at short after leading the league in errors in 2010, but he just hasn't put it all together for a full year yet. Everything you hear behind the scenes is that he's a leader in the clubhouse and an asset to the team in that sense, but he strikes out way too much and still makes a lot of errors in the field.
From July 1st through the end of the season Desmond had a .281/.328/.399 line with 15 doubles and 5 HR's in 80 games and 330 plate appearances. A full season of that with his plus range and plus arm and you've really got something at short, but another season where he struggles early, strikes out a lot and makes everyone wonder if he's a potential star or a slightly above average major leaguer and the Nationals will have to start thinking about where he fits in the middle of their infield.
My Thoughts: It's hard not to like what the team has done to this point. They have eased Ramos into action with one of the (if not the) best catchers of the past 20 years. They've continued to let Espinosa and Desmond try to play through their struggles, and are seeing signs of improvement. If they can go out and get themselves a young center fielder, they will be set up the middle for a long time.
On Possible Acquisitions This Offseason:
MLBDD: The team seems like they are right on the cusp of being competitive in the NL East. Is there one addition you'd like to see them make that you believe would help get them closer to that goal?
PR: I don't know if they're a starting pitcher and outfield bat away from competing as Mike Rizzo suggested at the end of the season, but that's what they need to continue to improve and keep rising in the NL East. The pitching is hard to find and it's a relatively-thin market out there this winter so I'd like to see the Nationals (sign Yu Darvish and) go after a legit outfield bat to play alongside Michael Morse and Jayson Werth until Harper's ready to play in the majors. Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes, etc, are fine 4th outfielders, but they need a legitimate everyday outfielder next year. Preferably a center fielder with OBP skills for the top of the order, but since those are as scarce as no.1-type starters, I'd settle for just getting the best outfielder they can. I'm wondering if the time Werth saw in center late this season wasn't in some ways preparing for the possibility that they might have to settle for a corner outfielder.
The big free agent bats are at first base this winter and are going to be prohibitively expensive, so I'm not sure if the Nationals will find what they want without making a trade. I do, however, think they have some pitching and infield depth in the system that they could use to acquire what they need whether it is a front-end starter or an outfield bat, and I think the continued development of the talent they already have will have them competing in the near future.
My Thoughts: He's absolutely right that they need an outfielder, and probably an innings-eater type starting pitcher in my opinion. It helps that Jayson Werth can play at least a decent center field as needed, which should help their flexibility. Something else to remember is that the team also has 1B Adam LaRoche returning from injury next season. While he may not be the end-all answer for the team's offense, he should help improve the team if he is healthy.
Thanks to Patrick again for answering our questions. You can find his writings over at Federal Baseball.