The Redskins tend to dominate Washington’s sports coverage, and early April was no exception, as the team drafted last year’s electric Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III. Next on the calendar comes the NHL playoffs, wherein the Capitals have exceeded expectations and are currently locked in a struggle with the top-seeded New York Rangers in their quest to advance to the conference finals. It is an exciting time to be a Washington sports fan.
Unlike in past years, in which the thrilling spring season gave way to months of sports irrelevance as a city, this year’s summer downtime may finally be infused with fan enthusiasm and, more importantly, victories. The Nationals, sole occupier of the summer sports scene, have not had a winning season since moving to Washington in 2005 (they finished 81-81 the first year and have had losing seasons since), with last year marking only the second non-last place finish; however, this year’s version is much improved.
Amid such ignominious company, Bryce Harper’s recent steal of home may have been the most exciting moment for the Nationals since they moved to Washington. I wrote in this space last year about the excitement surrounding Stephen Strasburg’s first start and how it symbolized a turning point for the franchise. Strasburg was acquired through a disappointing process – Washington only possessed the top draft pick due to owning the league’s worst record – as the Nationals hit rock bottom, with a record of 59-102.
The next year, the team could not climb at all, finishing with a near-identical record of 59-103 and once again losing its way to a #1 draft pick. This time, the prize was junior college sensation Bryce Harper, who had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a mere 16-year old. Strasburg and Harper, pitcher and batter, strikeout king and home run masher – the two seemed to fit together like ball and glove as they immediately were thrust into the roles of dual franchise saviors.
Just as Strasburg’s dazzling first start may have been a franchise turning point, Harper’s ascension to the majors and rapid growth are similar indicators of his talent. His steal of home epitomized what he brings to the team: on a basic level, runs; on an intangible level, hustle and effort; on an organizational level, fans, who will come in droves to see the talent described by Sports Illustrated as “a scouting director’s perfect prospect.” Now, though, it is the fans who view Harper as the perfect prospect to lead their team to victory.
Being able to pick Strasburg and Harper was a result of more than just bad play and the worst record in baseball, though. Acquiring such talent was incredibly lucky, as well. Consider the history of right-handed pitchers who were picked first overall, as was Strasburg. The five picked most recently before Strasburg were Paul Wilson, Kris Benson, Matt Anderson, Brian Bullington, and Luke Hochevar.
Wilson, drafted by the Mets in 1994, completed his career having never pitched a full season with an ERA under 4.00, and in his lone major league season with his drafting team, his WAR (wins above replacement) was -2.5. No matter how badly one bashes the WAR metric, it does offer a reasonable glimpse at a player’s overall performance, and a negative rating is no good reflection on a player’s season; Wilson, then, clearly did not live up to expectations as a top pick.
Picked first in 1997, Anderson did not provide his drafting team, the Tigers, with much more production. He never started a game in the big leagues, and his career 5.19 ERA accurately portrays the young pitcher’s career-long struggles. Like Wilson, Anderson posted negative WAR for his team, accumulating -0.5 wins above replacement with Detroit.
The trend continued with the next draftee, Bryan Bullington. Pittsburgh’s top pick in 2002, Bullington pitched 81.2 career innings before moving to Japan’s Central League. Like his predecessors, Bullington’s cumulative WAR with his drafting team was negative (-0.3).
The most recent member of this group, Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar, still pitches for the Royals, and just as he has since being drafted, he still struggles to retire hitters. His career ERA of 5.46 and season-to-date ERA of 9.00 leave much to be desired from a top draft pick.
The fifth member of this lamentable quintet is Pittsburgh’s top pick in 1996, Kris Benson. Benson had the most Major League success of the five, finishing 4th in Rookie of the Year voting and pitching well for several seasons with Pittsburgh. Still, though, Benson had only one season with a sub-4.00 ERA, and the Pirates were most likely not expecting their #1 draft pick and prospective ace to become best known for his wife’s antics.
Fortunately for the Nationals, Strasburg does not appear destined to follow in the footsteps of those five. Rather, he has returned full-strength from Tommy John surgery, capably filling his duty as staff ace.
Even though the team’s front office was fortunate to have had the #1 picks when Strasburg and Harper were available, it has compounded that luck with smart personnel decisions. Most notably, Strasburg is not alone in the ranks of dominant Washington starters. As of Saturday, fifteen pitchers in the majors had ERAs under 2.00, and four pitch for the Nationals. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler joined Strasburg in this elite category (Zimmermann’s ERA jumped above 2.00 after his most recent start against Philadelphia), forming a solid rotation that has been at the forefront of the Nationals’ improvement. The Nationals took a risk by surrendering top prospects Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole in exchange for Gonzalez, who so far has proven himself to be worth the sacrifice by coupling his swing-and-miss pitches with an increased command.
Detwiler, meanwhile, was a surprising selection to make the rotation at all, with highly-paid, longtime starter John Lannan receiving a demotion to Triple-A. With each start, though, Detwiler reaffirms management’s faith in him; he actually owns the team’s best ERA (1.59), which places him fifth in the entire league.
While the season is still young, the decisions made by the front office have worked to perfection thus far. Last offseason, General Manager Mike Rizzo prophesied, “I think we’re an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division;” with Harper in the outfield and the complete reworking of the starting rotation, with the additions of Gonzalez, Detwiler, and Edwin Jackson, Rizzo’s assertion looks accurate.
Originally intending on giving Harper time to develop in Triple-A rather than rushing him to the majors, Rizzo abandoned the plan in the face of the rash of injuries afflicting the team’s lineup. Harper, whose struggles in his limited time at Triple-A had encouraged doubters of his Major League readiness, has proven to be a needed spark for the ailing lineup, and even though his early call-up may move his eventual free agency up a year, his production now is much more important for a contender.
In that same vein, trouble looms on the horizon in the form of Strasburg’s innings limit. Rizzo has adamantly maintained that Strasburg will be capped at 160 innings this year, meaning his star pitcher will not be available for the stretch run in September, to say nothing of a possible playoff appearance. Strasburg’s health has been a problem in the past, and if the Nationals remain in contention, there surely will be intense debates between the win-now and save-his-arm camps over what to do with the staff ace.
Still, it is entirely possible that such a problem will not emerge and that the Nationals will falter after such a strong start. The season is still in its opening stages, and teams often surprise with quick starts only to fall back to mediocrity. The Nationals already suffer with one of the worst offenses in baseball, and the persistent injuries to their top hitters only exacerbate this problem. Michael Morse, last year’s best weapon, has been sidelined all year and does not look to return anytime soon; Jayson Werth, whose hot start showed his ability to rebound from last year’s terrible performance, will miss three months with a broken wrist; Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ best position player for years, has struggled with his own injuries; and even Adam LaRoche, the team’s most consistent hitter over the season’s first month, has caught the injury bug and missed a week of games.
It is also entirely possible that the team’s dominant pitching staff will regress, especially once Strasburg is shut down for the season, that the Braves will continue their hot streak of late, that the Phillies and Marlins will rebound from slow starts and perform as expected by preseason predictors. Just like their first season in Washington, when they contended for most of the year before fading in August and September, the Nationals’ winning start might be a simple mirage, a product of small sample size and a relatively weak opening schedule.
But the Nationals are finally a topic of discussion. ESPN has started to pay attention; so, too, have D.C.’s fans. And in a city starved for baseball success – iterations of Washington’s baseball teams have not made the post-season since 1933 – mere relevance is a step in the right direction. Even in a worst-case scenario, at least the Nationals will enjoy some coverage this summer and prolong the inevitable frenzy about Redskins’ training camp.