In the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is by far my favorite holiday of the year and is now just a couple days away, I figured I’d start off a string of blog entries listing what various people affiliated with the Nationals have to be thankful for during this holiday season.
These few days tend to be fairly quiet ones on the baseball calendar, as the closer we get to Thanksgiving, the more front office execs start to table trade negotiations or talks with agents until after the holiday has passed.
Let’s hope that tradition continues this year, as I’d really love to avoid opening up the laptop at the Thanksgiving dinner table and blogging or tweeting if the Nationals make a move of some kind. I might get a drumstick to the face from my sister if I pull that stunt.
Hopefully, this run of blogs will give us something to discuss even if there’s no real news that comes out in the next few days.
Anyway, I’ll start this theme off with Matt Williams, the Nats’ new skipper and a guy who will be managing his first affiliated team less than three months from now when he heads down to Viera, Fla., for spring training.
Here are three things that I think Williams has to be thankful for, and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts or suggestions in the comment section below:
1. A starting rotation that’s already pretty strong
A shaky starting rotation can be a manager’s worst nightmare. If you’re given a handful of hurlers who put your team behind in games by allowing runs in bunches and have trouble working deep into games, you’re left needing to find a way to stop the bleeding in the early innings. That leads to a tired, overworked bullpen, and it often leads to a high loss total.
The Nationals’ starting rotation isn’t set just yet, but a strong foundation is already in place for Williams to inherit. He has three legitimate Cy Young contenders in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimermann, all guys who are 28 or younger and are capable of delivering 200-inning seasons. Williams also has a high-ceiling lefty in Ross Detwiler, who will be determined to show he can stay healthy and deliver big starts for this team in 2014, and a handful of other intriguing rotation options in Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Ross Ohlendorf (and on a lesser level, Sammy Solis, Matt Purke and others).
General manager Mike Rizzo could still add another starter via free agency or a trade to bolster this group, but even as is, the Nats have the makings of a strong starting five, which should take a lot of pressure off Williams. The deeper the starters can go and the more quality frames they can put up, the fewer times Williams will need to try and mix-and-match with relievers in the mid to late innings.
2. A core of young players ready to hit their peak
Sure, the Nationals have a few players on their roster who have already shown their full ability in the big leagues, and we have an idea of what those players should deliver in a given season. Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano would probably fall into that category, and Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span and Tyler Clippard might be on the fringe of that group, as well.
But the Nats’ roster is also loaded with players who have less big league experience and are either nearing their peak or right in the prime of their careers, giving Williams a core group that could really take off in the near future and carry this team to big things.
We still probably haven’t seen the best out of Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos and others. Zimmermann and Ian Desmond have played at an All-Star level recently, but it’s not a stretch to assume that they could take another leap in the next couple years.
Harper tore up the league in the first month of the 2013 campaign before injuries derailed his season, to an extent. At 21, his next season could result in huge offensive numbers. Strasburg pitched his first full season this year, and if he can avoid the DL, might be in for big things in 2014. Same for Ramos and Rendon, who have battled injuries but have loads of talent. If these guys all continue to make strides and play to their potential, Williams’ perch in the Nats dugout could yield a pretty enjoyable view.
3. His team is ready to win now
How many managers get a chance to take over a team that is expected to go deep into the playoffs in the skipper’s first year? Not too many, but that’s the situation Williams steps into.
Despite their issues during the 2013 season, I think we can all agree that the Nationals don’t need a major rebuild to get back into the postseason. They don’t need to spend years developing young talent. They don’t need to battle through 100-loss seasons or start from scratch, trying to build the organization into a contender. They’ve already put in that work and they’re already there.
Bo Porter had a really rough season in his first season in Houston. Mike Redmond’s rookie campaign as a big league skipper didn’t go too well in Miami. There are loads of other managers who are in charge of teams that lack funding and talent. Williams isn’t one of them.
This puts pressure on Williams, of course. His team isn’t just ready to win, it’s expected to win, and if the Nats don’t deliver, Williams will likely get a large share of the blame. But if you ask him, I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.