Inside Look: Washington Nationals

The Mets host the Washington Nationals for a three-game set this weekend, and the series loser will likely be in the NL cellar come Monday.

Bet you didn’t think of that, did you? Kind of scary, but true. Both teams are 1-2 on the year, and (barring rainouts) the series loser will be at best 2-4. Everyone else in the NL East already has a 2-1 record, so … do the math. These are the things that keep lunatic Mets fans awake at night.

But don’t worry, it’s still early. VERY early.

With Washington in town, I called on Harper Gordek, fellow ESPN SweetSpot blogger and the man behind Nationals Baseball, to answer a few questions about the up-and-coming Nats. My questions are in bold, his answers in the light-blue boxes.

1. The biggest buzz surrounds someone not on the 25-man roster: Stephen Strasburg. How do you feel about Strasburg starting the year in the minors, and do you expect to see him at some point in 2010?

It’s the right move for a couple reasons. Since Strasburg has never pitched in the minors I do think you should see what he’ll do against a decent level of competition actually trying to win games and not “work on something”. Should he be fine? Sure. Am I 100% certain of that? Not until I see it. Pitching is a funny thing. Also unlike some, I’m not for keeping a kid in the minors just to get that extra year of contract control. If they would help you get a couple more wins and those wins could make the difference, they should be on your major league team on Day 1. However, a couple wins to the Nats is going to be the difference between 72 and 70. There’s no harm here.

Barring some crazy minor league result or injury scare, he’ll be with the team this year. How soon is probably based on how the team is doing. The better they are doing the longer they may wait, but if he’s not up by the time the team is back from the All-Star break, I’d be shocked.

2. The next-most buzzworthy player is Ian Desmond, who won the starting shortstop job over a somewhat expensive Cristian Guzman. Please give us your quick analysis on Desmond and if you think this was the right decision for the Nats and for Desmond’s development.

In a nutshell he’s a shaky fielder with good pop at the plate. You can forgive the fielding (to a point) but before last year there was no reason to think he could maintain an acceptable average in the majors, hitting around .250 in the minors. All of a sudden though, he exploded with a .330 average. It’s quite possible last year was a fluke, but given his age (24), Guzman’s contract situation (gone after this year), and the fact the Nats’ top 2 offensive propsects are also middle infielders, it was of interest to see what Desmond could do sooner rather than later. He didn’t necessarily need to win the job outright like he did, but he needed to play a good amount of Major League games. I think it’s fine for Desmond’s development. He’s been in the minors since 2004 and moved up steadily. This year would have been a AAA/MLB year following the pattern, so it’s not a big diversion from his progression up to this point.

I think he’ll be a low average, decent pop kind of guy (say.. .240 with 15-20 HRs) this season, and if he’s not brutal with the glove he’ll be the Nats SS for a couple years at least.

3. I’m slightly concerned that the Nats can jump out of the cellar — and finish the year above the Mets. Am I crazy, or do I have valid reason to be worried?

Well, that’s more a Mets question than a Nats question, isn’t it? For the Nats, they should win a good number more games this season, say 10 to 15. They stocked the bullpen early with adequate arms and they have a should-be stud (Drew Storen) in the minors. They brought in a few non-terrible, innings-eaters with potentially decent arms (Jason Marquis, Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang?, Jordan Zimmermann?) to show up during the year. None of the moves on offense (Pudge, A Harris/Taveras/Morse platoon) actually change anything from an lineup that was slightly above average last season. (The catching and right field situation was awful last year, too)

Mostly though – the Nats were unlucky last year. They were well under their pythagorean record and their peripheral stats, like how they hit/pitched with RISP, seem to also suggest they should have been better. I think if they rolled out the same schlubs they did last year that a 67+ wins season would be reasonable. Given their other changes… 70+ is likely, though I’ve thought this before. Personally, I think the Mets will be better than 70-75 wins though.

4. The postseason is probably a pipe dream for Nationals fans this year. But, what do you want to see from the team in 2010, and when do you expect to see the Nats make a serious push toward “meaningful games in September” ?

I think we should see them really take a long look at the development of what they have in the minors to see what that means for the positions currently filled by Marquis, Dunn, Willingham and any other older decent starter they could trade. Can they be young AND respectable the next couple of years? Unlike what some people might believe, I don’t think you have to deal these guys. There is no bucket with X amount of dollars to spend and when that’s gone, that’s it. A team can support the majors and minors well at the same time. The only question is if it is necessary. The Nats need to find that out by August. If not, then some more smart, short-term contracts could be in order to make sure the team isn’t an embarrassment in the next couple years.

I still think the Nats are further off than they think unless everything works out, far enough off that I don’t feel confident putting any date on it. After 2012. The depth in the minors still isn’t there and the front office doesn’t show any signs of trying to spend a lot of cash to fill in gaps, so really it depends on how lucky they get with injuries and development.

5. Who will be the most surprising performer for the Nats in 2010 and why?

Surprising? I’ll take a leap and go with Josh Willingham. Everyone is looking at Nyjer Morgan to be the difference maker in the Nats outfield, but if you take a look at his stats it’s suprising how quietly solid Willingham’s been year after year. Above average power, good patience, an acceptable batting average. He’s basically Jayson Werth at the plate (who everyone seems to love now, don’t they?). I don’t think he’s ever had that one year where everything falls right for him though, usually fading in the 2nd half while fighting through little injuries. He should have a .280 30+ HR season in him someday before he starts to fade. I’ll say it’s this year.

Great stuff — thanks again to Harper Gordek. Be sure to check out Nationals Baseball for in-depth coverage of the Nats and Harper’s excellent insight.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.