The All-Star Break has traditionally been a time for players and fans alike to catch their collective breaths after the first half of the season, putting a bow on the opening 3 1/2 months of play while simultaneously gearing up for the meat and potatoes of the schedule — the second half. For Washington Nationals fans, the 2012 break has been unlike any other in the franchise’s history in the nation’s capital. A first-place team, multiple All-Stars and the freshness of a new-found legitimacy throughout the baseball world have combined to make the Nationals more interesting than ever. But if you, as a Nationals fan, had a good time in April, May and June, buckle up. It’s only going to get better from here.
To recap, a combination of stellar pitching and the emergence of some young studs have propelled the Nationals into first place in the National League East, and moved most people’s internal timetable up by a year regarding when the team would be ready to contend. Longtime fans of the team will be doubly satisfied at where the Nationals stand at the break, for a couple of reasons.
First, it is such a marked contrast to any of the club’s previous campaigns in Washington. Usually at this point of the season, the Nationals are firmly ensconced in the NL East cellar, and the All-Star Game serves as a reminder of the club’s place in baseball’s hierarchy, as the token Washington representative stands alone during introductions and gets a blink-and-you-missed-him cameo in the late innings. The exception to this was the club’s inaugural season in 2005, when the team sat in first place at the break and had Livan Hernandez and Chad Cordero on the field for the All-Star Game in Detroit. But honestly, that club’s first-half success was a mirage, and most fans at the time, while enjoying the ride, knew that a fall back to reality was coming — which it did. A good comparison would likely be this season’s Baltimore Orioles, putting together a sneaky-good record while being outscored over the long haul.
Secondly, by tracking the progress of the club and its farm system, anyone could see this coming. The result of higher draft picks and quality player acquisitions, the Nationals success was on the radar, and seeing it play out almost exactly as Mike Rizzo and his front office have planned it is extremely rewarding. But the second half is where the real fun begins, and the Nationals and their fans can look forward to a lot of things.
The first milestone comes earlier than it has in the past. Over the last few seasons, much of the intrigue surrounding the Nationals in the second half has revolved around whether or not the team will sign its first-round pick. Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon have all tested the limits of the signing deadline over the last three seasons before finally inking a deal, and this season’s top selection, Lucas Giolito, has proved to be no different. A new collective bargaining agreement has changed the rules of the draft as well as the deadline, which comes later this afternoon, but it says volumes about the performance of the club to date that Giolito’s situation is not even close to the dominant second-half storyline.
In the past, speculation about the July 31 trading deadline has generally been surrounding which Washington players would be off-loaded to contending teams. This season, the Nationals are a contending team themselves, but the certainty of acquisitions isn’t as clear.
The biggest reason for this is Washington will be getting two former All-Stars back from injury. Closer Drew Storen has already started a rehab assignment after elbow surgery caused him to miss the entire first half, and should be back in the Nationals bullpen shortly after the break. Meanwhile, outfielder Jayson Werth is on track to return to the Nationals sometime in August after suffering a broken wrist in early May. Getting these two players back will be akin to picking up two new players — but without having to gut your farm system in the process.
Speaking of the farm system, while it served its purpose very well in the Gio Gonzalez transaction, it’s hard to believe the Nationals want to go that road again any time soon, sending multiple prospects away in a deal. It may take another year or so of restocking before the system could even withstand a trade like that again, but it’s unlikely that will be a huge issue, as Rizzo has repeatedly said he looks for players that would be able to help Washington win now while also contributing to the team’s long-term success.
Taking that long view, it’s hard to see what holes the Nationals would conceivably need to fill in the organization anyway. Werth’s return will make a full-time centerfielder of Harper, with Michael Morse shifting to left. With quality rookie subs Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi available, there’s no room for anyone to come in and take playing time. The infield is equally stocked, as Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond locked down on the left side, while Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche play on the right. The latter two might need periodic breaks depending on the opposing pitcher, but Moore and Lombardozzi again have shown themselves capable of filling in.
Much has been said about Washington’s quality pitching, and again, there is no place for anyone from outside to step in. The rotation has been baseball’s best and the bullpen has been almost as solid. Realistically, a bench bat and some major league catching depth may be the only areas addressed.
This is the time to start scoreboard watching, looking at games ahead or behind, wild cards and magic numbers. Every game takes on larger importance as the calendar counts down to September, where meaningful baseball games are gold. Even the spectre of shutting down Strasburg for the stretch run can’t really dull the enthusiasm surrounding this club right now. This long-time Expos fan is reminded of 1994, when that Montréal team stretched a two-game lead at the All-Star break into the game’s best record, ripping off a stretch of 20 wins in 23 games before Bud Selig and Don Fehr murdered the season.
However 2012 turns out, the pieces are in place for the Nationals to be in this position often in the future.