Loving the Nats -- even without Strasburg

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
12:43
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Stephen Strasburg made his final start of the season for the Washington Nationals on Friday night, and that will be the last we'll see presumably of him until spring training. Oh, we'll see him in video images as the debate rages on over whether the Nationals made the right decision in shutting him down. And we'll undoubtedly see him throughout the postseason sitting in the Nationals' dugout, cheering on his teammates.

It will certainly be an odd image, that of a perfectly healthy pitcher, arguably the ace of the staff, wearing a warm-up jacket over his jersey and sneakers instead of spikes.

Maybe the Nationals didn't expect to be here back in March. Maybe they could have instituted a better plan to limit Strasburg's innings and still have him available to pitch in October. But here's the thing: Even without Strasburg, the Washington Nationals will be the team to beat in the National League. Here's why:

1. Their rotation is still four deep, and you only need four starters in the postseason.

Considering the success of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, you can argue that Strasburg has been the team's third-best starter, or that at least those two are his equals. Run prevention for the three essentially has been identical, but Gonzalez and Zimmermann have both averaged more innings per start, making them incrementally more valuable.

Gonzalez is a worthy No. 1 and has been pitching like one of late with a 1.87 ERA over his past six starts. He even matches up well against Cincinnati's right-handed-heavy lineup, as his big curveball works as a neutralizer; he's allowed a .572 OPS versus righties and .630 against lefties.
[+] EnlargeGio Gonzalez
AP Photo/David KohlAt 18-7 with a 2.98 ERA, Gio Gonzalez is pitching like an ace for the Nationals this season.

Beyond those top two, I love Ross Detwiler as the No. 3, an underrated lefty with a 94 mph power sinker. His 3.15 ERA is legit, even if his strikeout rate isn't high. He gets ground balls and limits home runs. He's good. Edwin Jackson is another big arm. He is coming off his World Series ring with the Cardinals but pitching with more consistency than he did a season ago.

Put it this way: If the Reds are the Nationals' main competitor, I still like this Strasburg-less rotation over Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey.

2. The offense is healthy.

For most of the season, the Nats were missing Michael Morse or Jayson Werth or Ian Desmond (not to mention catcher Wilson Ramos, who is out for the year), but those guys are healthy right now. So while they're only sixth in the NL in runs on the season, you can argue the lineup Davey Johnson is running out these days is better than a No. 6 offense.

I also like the balance of the lineup. Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche provide power from the left side, switch-hitter Danny Espinosa has some pop and Roger Bernadina and Chad Tracy can be effective lefty bats off the bench. Compare that to the Reds, who have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce from the left side and nobody else.

3. Ryan Zimmerman can be the guy to carry them.

Every playoff team needs a guy it can rely on for the big hit or home run, and Zimmerman is hitting like a legit middle-of-the-order guy right now, with a .335 average and .954 OPS in the second half.

4. The bullpen is good and deep.

It doesn't get much attention, but this unit had been underrated all season. Five relievers own ERAs under 3.00, and that doesn't include former closer Drew Storen, who is back and could be a big weapon come October. In Craig Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny, the Nationals also have two relievers who are comfortable pitching multiple innings, another potentially valuable asset for the postseason. As for closer Tyler Clippard, maybe he doesn't throw 102 mph, but with a .164 average allowed he's not exactly chopped liver.

5. History

Didn't we just learn last year that you can win it all without your ace? The Cardinals won the World Series even though Adam Wainwright missed the entire season. Sure, the Nationals are a better team with Strasburg, but it's still a team game. It's all about getting hot at the right time, and the Nationals have the talent to do that -- even without Strasburg.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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