Stephen Walker: Nothing is certain, but Nats are built to last

In all the hullabaloo surrounding the Nationals’ decision to end Stephen Strasburg’s season, one common comment from the media outside the Washington area has been, “How can Washington shut down its best pitcher when they are so close to the playoffs? This is the team’s dream season. They may never be in this position again.”

The implication? The Nationals’ 2012 season, despite the fact that they currently own baseball’s best record, is a fluke, a one-year wonder of good fortune and youthful exuberance.

Putting aside the absurdity of the arguments with respect to Strasburg (let’s face it, we are all tired of this issue), are the Nats really one-year wonders or is their future as bright as Sunday afternoon’s blinding sun at Nationals Park?

In sports, nothing is guaranteed, especially in baseball where the cliche “everything changes everything” is rock-solid true. But in the free-agent era, four factors usually point to a team’s inability to repeat a stellar season. A team that cannot sustain winning seasons typically displays one or more of these factors:

* An older team, with many key players in their mid-to-late 30s.
* A large, inflexible payroll that forces a club to keep unproductive players on the roster and limits trade possibilities.
* A team that enjoys abnormally good health throughout a season.
* A team with a better record than their run differential suggests. (Run differential is simply the difference between runs scored versus runs allowed. Teams with a positive run differential usually have winning records. The greater the positive difference, the more wins. This is called the Pythagorean Theorem, invented and popularized by Bill James.)

Let’s look at the 2012 Nationals to see which of these factors, if any, apply.

A veteran-laden team.

With only six players above age 30, the Nationals have the second-youngest team in baseball. They have talented, youthful players in every spot in the starting rotation, every key role in the bullpen and every position except left field (Michael Morse is 30), right field (Jayson Werth, 33), and first base (Adam LaRoche, 32). The oldest starting pitcher, Edwin Jackson, is 28. The oldest bullpen member, Mike Gonzalez (34), does not play a key role.

Behind Werth, LaRoche and Morse, the Nationals have young players such as Tyler Moore (25) and Roger Bernadina (28). At the Triple-A level, Eury Perez (22) and Corey Brown (26) show promise as well as Double-A star Brian Goodwin (21). Key starters Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Kurt Suzuki and, of course, Bryce Harper are all 28 or younger. Steve Lombardozzi is 23. Wilson Ramos is 24. Strasburg is 23. Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, and Gio Gonzalez are all 26.

This huge list of players is more than enough. The Nationals are a young team, with capable replacements ready or near-ready for the few veterans who are entering the usual downside of their careers.

A large, inflexible payroll.

Other than Werth and a big offseason decision on LaRoche, the Nationals lack contracts that tie their hands. Most of their top players, such as Strasburg and Harper are years away from free agency. Zimmerman’s contract is fairly team friendly.

They must sign Zimmermann to a long-term deal (or justify not doing so) and decide whether or not to bring back Jackson. For the vast majority of players, though, the Nationals have ample flexibility. In addition, they have one of the game’s lower payrolls, with room to grow now that the new collective bargaining agreement gave the draft a more certain cost.

Over the next few years, the Nationals’ payroll will have to grow. Like all successful teams, they will need to make smart decisions, and enjoy good fortune, about which players to sign, which to trade and which to let go. But, for the next three years at least, this will not be an issue.

Good health.

Morse, Zimmerman, Werth, Desmond, LaRoche and Chad Tracy all missed significant time. Worse, Ramos, one of the game’s most promising catchers, suffered a season-ending injury. For solid medical reasons, Strasburg’s season is ending early and Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, and Sean Burnett all battled various injuries. Only the starting rotation has remained relatively healthy this season. Except for Ramos, the Nats are as healthy now as they have been all season. They have produced a great record despite injuries, not because they were spared many.

More wins than run differential suggests.

As of last night’s win over the Mets, the Nationals’ run differential is plus-130, the best in baseball by 16 runs over the Texas Rangers. The Nationals’ .617 winning percentage is not a fluke. They are a strong, complete team. The numbers back up what opposing teams, columnists and fans see.

All told, other than one questionable contract (Werth), the Nationals display none of the traits of teams who have one season in the sun, then fade. The last Washington team with a winning record, the 1969 Senators (86-76), experienced that unhappy fate. While no one knows the future, this Washington club looks built to last. The 2012 season may be the first of many wonderful summers to come in the nation’s capital.

Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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