Ted Leavengood: On NL mounds, youth being served

Watching Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler pitch for the New York Mets this past weekend, one has to be concerned about the quality arms that are sprouting like weeds around the National League. The Nationals still have the best threesome of starting pitchers in the NL, but the performance gap is narrowing.

The Nationals avoided Jeff Locke in their first series against the Pirates, but he is right behind Harvey in the ERA race. Harvey leads all NL pitchers so far in 2013 with a 2.00 ERA to Locke’s 2.06. But the Pirates are the team sporting the best ERA in baseball this season, not Washington. The weight of the back end of the rotation and the partial implosion of the bullpen has pulled the Nationals down to fifth overall with an ERA of 3.54. That figure trails all of the teams Washington will have to beat to win the National League this season: Atlanta, St. Louis and Cincinnati - the teams that are just a tick below the Pirates.

Pitching generally is becoming a more dominant force in the game as the average runs per game have been diminishing steadily for the past seven seasons. From a high in 2006 of 4.86, average run production has fallen to 4.23 for the first half of 2013. The figure rose to more than five runs per game during the height of the steroid era and has not been this low since 1992.

After scoring 23 runs in the past two nights, the Nationals may be pushing the numbers back the other way. Bryce Harper is back and can still carve out his niche among sluggers like Chris Davis who are mashing like it is still 1998. The ball does fly further in the hot days of July and it is a perfect time for the offense to get healthy.

As comforting as the offensive resurgence has been, the Nationals will still depend on Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez to put the team on an equal footing with the very best. There is a keen competition this season at the top and the contenders are almost all young and hungry.

The Braves have Julio Teheran who is only 22 with huge upside. Atlanta, Pittsburgh and St. Louis all have built their success on pitching, pitching and pitching. To compete, Washington is going to lean on its top three starters, and they will need help.

The best teams have strong bullpen arms, as well. The Pirates’ Jason Grilli has been almost as dominant as Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel. Mark Melancon sets Grilli up and he has been just as nasty, sporting a 0.89 ERA at the halfway mark. The Mets and the Brewers may not be able to throw that kind of arsenal at the Nationals, but to play against the best teams, Washington is going to need every arm it can muster.

And that is why young pitchers like Taylor Jordan and Nathan Karns are so important - not just to the future of the Washington Nationals, but to 2013, as well. Which one will emerge as the next Zimmermann? The next Strasburg? Can Ross Detwiler finally prove that he belongs in that same company?

Major League Baseball may be in the middle of another period like the 1960s, when many of the best athletes took the mound and dominated the sport. More than a dozen pitchers from that era have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. The likes of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan have not been seen in the past two decades, but there are many young pitchers today that aspire to wear their mantle.

Last season, the Nationals set the trend in the shift back toward dominant young pitchers. But the competition is keeping pace. If the Nationals are to stay ahead of the trend line, they will need a stronger effort from the entire pitching staff. The catalyst could be the other first-round draft pick out of the 2009 draft, Drew Storen. Davey Johnson said that he is learning to pitch, not just trying to blow guys away. A resurgent Storen would give Washington an important weapon going forward for the second half.

If Storen, Detwiler and the other young arms can rebound, it could well be the Nationals’ young staff that has the other teams singing the blues come September.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’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 MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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