ESPN.com’s Buster Olney has been busy lately, counting down a number of rankings to lead off the year across Major League Baseball. Olney’s rankings have included looks at the top teams, lineups, infield, outfield, bullpen, and starting rotation. He’s also had quite a few notes and thoughts on the Prince Fielder speculation mixed in. Most of his posts are behind the ESPN Insider wall, but the Nationals have been mentioned repeatedly so let’s take a quick look at his latest.
Finishing off his rankings, Olney listed his first Power Rankings of 2012. Tampa leads the list for now, thanks largely to their impressive starting rotation which led the American League in ERA, strikeouts, innings, and WHIP in 2011. James Shields, David Price, and 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson all return and will be joined by a full season from Matt Moore. Either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann will fill the last spot in the rotation, depending on which one is ultimately traded. The team is far from complete, however, as they still have a number of holes in their lineup. Washington didn’t quite make Olney’s Top 10 but he does list them as the “best of the rest”, pending a Fielder signing.
Boston, who scored the most runs in the Majors in 2011, has the best lineup in baseball. I’d guess there is a better chance we see a rebound season from Carl Crawford than from Jayson Werth in 2012, so the Red Sox lineup could be even better. Washington didn’t warrant even an honorable mention at the end of the list, but once again I have to believe that Olney would bump them into the Top 10 with a Fielder signing.
The best infields came next, with Texas taking the top spot. Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler all ranked near the top players at their positions in most defensive metrics and the trio can produce at the plate too. Michael Young is a more than serviceable backup and Mitch Moreland could show improvements this season. Washington comes in 9th on his list, thanks largely to the team’s inevitable versatility.
"It’s hard to know what the composition of this infield will be in two of three years, or maybe even next year. Some rival executives strongly believe that Washington will be the eventual landing place for Fielder.Between Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, and Anthony Rendon, the Nationals have a lot of options."
It comes as no surprise that the Nationals didn’t make the best outfield list. It’s one area which remains incomplete. To date the organization still only has four outfielders on the 40-man roster: Werth, Roger Bernadina, Bryce Harper, and Eury Perez. Even factoring in Morse, who’ll likely be playing left field regardless of a Fielder signing, and there is still a need in the outfield, particularly for a center fielder. Olney names Arizona as having the best outfield in baseball. Justin Upton is primed for another breakout season (just imagine what he’d cost on the trade market right now) and Chris Young, Jason Kubel, and Gerardo Parra round out a fairly strong group of outfielders.
The Braves’ bullpen led the Major Leagues in bullpen ERA in 2011, and with Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty the group leads off Olney’s best bullpens list. The Nationals come in 8th on the list, thanks largely to a strong bullpen ERA and a great season from Tyler Clippard.
Finally, we have the best starting rotations, led by the Phillies. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will put in their typical seasons in 2012. Cole Hamels could be primed for a big season, considering he’ll reach free agency next winter. Vance Worley had a solid rookie season in 2011. Washington once again comes in 8th on the list.
"In Jordan Zimmermann‘s first full season after Tommy John surgery, he threw 161.1 innings, and that’s the kind of workload the Nationals envision for Stephen Strasburg in 2012, as Strasburg continues to progress from his elbow reconstruction. Given that dynamic, you aren’t going to see a bunch of eight inning outings from Zimmermann and Strasburg – but they figure to be overpowering whenever they pitch. ….. And now the Nationals have Gio Gonzalez, who has emerged as one of the best young lefties in the game. It’s possible that a year from now, we will view the front three of the Washington rotation as the best in the Majors."
Olney capped his lists off with a look at some storylines worth following this coming season. One of the mentions on the list is whether the Nationals can turn Washington into “baseball’s capital”. The team is close to contending, will see the arrival of Harper sometime in 2012, and is widely viewed (as Olney continues to remind us) as the eventual landing spot for Fielder.
Speaking of Fielder, there was an additional post that dedicated a great deal of space to Fielder yesterday morning. Olney runs down some of the pros and cons – citing Fielder’s age, how he’d affect the lineup, and how’d he help change the view of Washington for other free agents versus having multiple large contracts on the books at once, his defense, and the team’s ultimate need to eat Adam LaRoche‘s salary in order to facilitate a trade (though Olney admits that in the bigger picture this is less of a concern, he also speculates Tampa Bay could be an option).