Nationals looking more formidable in NL East

Posted: February 02, 2012

Last in a series


MAYBE Jayson Werth knew what he was doing, after all.

A year removed from his decision to take the money and run from the powerhouse Phillies to the power-starved Nationals, Werth's total postseason deficit is one crushing NLDS defeat at the hands of the Cardinals.

And no, the Nationals will not have a Holy Trinity like Halladay, Lee and Hamels in their rotation. But, despite a purge of recognizable if unproductive veterans, they might have a formidable club.

For the second straight year, the Nats made a serious run at an offseason prize when they pursued Prince Fielder, the consolation prize for teams in the Albert Pujols sweepstakes. Last season, Werth was the No. 2 free agent behind Carl Crawford. Fielder landed with Detroit.

Perhaps as important, they went after, and got, lefthander Gio Gonzalez in a significant trade. That's the same Gio Gonzalez who completed the Phillies' trade of Jim Thome to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. The White Sox, who drafted Gonzalez 38th overall in 2004, got Gonzalez back the next year as part of the Freddy Garcia deal with the Phillies and sent him to Oakland in 2008.

Gonzalez, 26, went 31-21 with a 3.17 earned run average and 368 strikeouts in 65 starts with Oakland the past two seasons, his third and fourth in the majors.

By comparison, Cole Hamels went 24-21 with a 3.66 ERA and 364 strikeouts in 65 starts in his third and fourth seasons, with a considerably better ballclub.

The Nationals locked up Gonzalez with a 5-year, $42 million deal as soon as he hit D.C. That means he is expected to pitch in tandem with terrifyingly talented Stephen Strasburg for the next half-decade.

Strasburg, you might remember, blew through the majors for 12 games in 2010 (5-3, 92 strikeouts in 68 innings), got hurt, then came back from elbow surgery in September and held opponents to four earned runs in five starts.

Gonzalez might turn out to be the biggest bargain of the offseason. Hamels matured into a consistently better pitcher after he reached Gonzalez' age and experience marks.

The Nationals' pursuit of Fielder is another indicator that this is not the same old Expos/Nationals doormat. The Nats also are trying to extend cornerstone third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the division's new Scott Rolen . . . and maybe better.

The bullpen reeks of promise. Setup man Tyler Clippard managed an All-Star appearance after shaking off three blown saves in April. Lefthander Sean Burnett started getting lefties out again. And Drew Storen, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, converted 43 of 48 save opportunities.

Then again, these are the Nationals. The rest of the rotation consists of hope: Chien-Ming Wang, Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan, the last a particularly tasty morsel for the Phillies (he's 2-12 vs. Philadelphia).

Storen, 24, pitched just 41 times in the minors before his 2010 call-up. He isn't exactly seasoned, and who knows how he might react if he has to pitch for a contender?

Wilson Ramos had a nice first full season, with 15 homers and 52 RBI in a less-than-full-time role . . . but catchers seldom carry teams, and Ramos played 113 games.

Michael Morse's breakout year has holes all over it. He was the Nationals' team triple-crown winner, and he hit .303 with 95 RBI, but 20 of his 31 homers came away from pitcher-friendly Nationals Park. He hit .237 in September of 2011, his first season with more than 266 at-bats.

They desperately needed a Fielder-type presence at first base to give Zimmerman some offensive balance in the infield.

And, finally, their biggest issue might just be Werth himself.

No longer protected by the presence of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez, Werth finished 2011 at .232 with 20 homers and 58 RBI.

He didn't get his eighth RBI until May 5, at the end of the Nats' first visit to Citizens Bank Park. He went 2-for-10 in that emasculating three-game series, which the Phillies swept, leaving the Nats at 14-17.

The Nationals committed $126 million to Werth over 7 years. They banked that Werth, after four solid seasons with the Phillies, finally would deliver on the lineup-carrying promise the Orioles, Blue Jays and Dodgers had once seen in him.

The addition of Fielder might have helped them realize a greater return on their investment in Werth. Acquiring Gonzalez at least puts them in the running in the division.

Maybe Werth did not just follow the money.

Yes, he did.

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