Nationals’ Opening Day: High hopes for a winning season
April 3, 2011
Sports Leader Board
The Washington Nationals have never finished better than .500 (69-93 last season) in the team’s short six-year history. The Nats’ inability to secure a winning record may be coming to an end. After a strong off-season, coupled with the infusion of a highly talented youth movement, Washington has a bright future that they hope will translate to seasons filled with winning records starting in 2011.
The Nationals made a splash at the Winter Meetings by signing third baseman Jayson Werth to a monstrous seven-year $126 million contract. The Nats hope the 27 homers, 85 RBIs and 106 runs the 31-year-old produced for the Philadelphia Phillies last season will carry over to Nationals Park in 2011.Werth will be surrounded by capable bats, including third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and free agent pickup Adam LaRoche. The team looks to weather the loss of first baseman Adam Dunn to free-agency. Dunn hit 38 long balls and batted in 104 runs a year ago.
“I think [the Phillies] are going to miss Werth’s bat,” said Eric Richardson, a Phillies fan who lived in Washington for twelve years. “Werth can be a cornerstone for Washington, but I just don’t see him being that piece that can get [the Nats] to a championship in the next five years.”
That piece may be Bryce Harper — the 2010 No. 1 overall pick — whom the Nationals intend to build the team around. Harper, 18, will begin his career in single-A Hagerstown and is not expected to play for Washington this season. However, if his spring performance is any indication, (.359 batting average and 5 RBIs in 13 games) it will not be long before the franchise slugger makes the jump to the majors.
“The combination [of Werth and Harper] will be good,” said Richardson. “It’s a different game, not playing with an aluminum bat,” said Nate Komra, a resident of Fairfax County. “It’s never a lock that Harper is going to perform like he did when he was younger and live up to his expectations. He’s one of the attractions that can really bring a lot of attention to the Nats.”
The other attraction is pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, who may also be the team’s biggest loss in 2011. After having one of the most successful rookie seasons for a pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball in 2010, Strasburg suffered a torn elbow ligament late in the season and is expected to miss most of this season. Strasburg was easily the best pitcher on the team, despite only appearing in 12 games. His eye-popping 92 strikeouts in 68 innings will be sorely missed. Strasburg was also a fan favorite with each of his starts at Nationals Park coming before a sold-out crowd.
“The Nationals have made some good draft picks,” Komra said. “All you can ask for is a gradual improvement over seasons. Strasburg’s great; I hope he can come back and really bring his career back.”
But there are other less high-profile players who give the Nationals a legitimate shot at a winning record this season. While Werth, Zimmerman and LaRoche have all made the All-star Games, players such as infielders Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and outfielder Rick Ankiel will reinforce a lineup that could surprise many teams in the National League. Veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez is again expected to start opening day behind the plate for the Nats, and his experience and clubhouse leadership will be a major asset for the team.
While the offense has the potential to be dynamic, the rotation must attempt to overcome the loss of Strasburg. Pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan are both young and expected to have breakout years. Ace Livan Hernandez is coming off a successful 2010 campaign when he finished with a 3.66 ERA. However, Hernandez is better suited in the middle of the rotation than at the front of it and a lack of a true ace could keep the Nationals from eclipsing .500 wins. Hurlers Tom Gorzelanny and Jason Marquis will most likely fill in the final two spots, but neither is expected to dominate and will most likely lose their jobs to younger pitchers late in the year.
“I would hope the Nats do well,” said Joey Craft of the District. “Baseball is America’s past-time so you would hope the Nationals will step up and get a good team and pursue the pennant and the World Series…Go Nats!”