Washington, D.C., fans don't have it so great. Their once-blooming hockey dynasty recently hit a wall, and now they're locked out. Their football team is 6-6 and elated because of how bad the past decade's been. And their basketball team, well, the less said about their basketball team, the better.
But none of Washington's troubled teams produced a moment quite as wrenching as the one in the top of the ninth in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, when a full crowd turned silent – so silent the Cardinals dugout made more noise than the entire stadium -- after Pete Kozma's two-run single to right. It was no fun to see the Cardinals headed back to another Championship Series, but more than that, it was no fun to see a band of mostly likable upstarts lose. Setting aside all the minor annoyances Washington produced -- the Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate, residual Expos guilt, most everything Bryce Harper said or did — this was a team most everyone could root for. They had baseball's best record in a truly joyous, unexpected season, and then they lost.
So how are the Nationals supposed to ensure that never happens again? They appear to be well on their way. They've made just two moves so far, but what moves they were: Washington traded for the Twins' Denard Span and signed Dan Haren to a one-year, $13-million deal.
The Span move does a lot. First, as one might expect: Washington gets Denard Span. He's great on defense -- Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both love him -- and he's a fine leadoff man. He takes walks (career .357 OBP) and steals a handful of bases (17 last year). And he's affordable: The Nationals will pay Span just $11.25 million over the next two years, and they have a 2015 option for $9 million. Meanwhile, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan, older free agents with similar skills and just a bit more power than Span, will average $11.5 million in salary per year in their new deals. The Nationals got the better bet.
But the Span addition works on another level. It shifts Bryce Harper to left field, which improves the Nationals' outfield defense substantially. Mike Morse had become downright Willinghammian out there. Morse, for now, moves to first. If Mike Morse is your first baseman, you're not in bad shape: He's a .295/.347/.492 career hitter. But the Nationals had someone even better at first base last year. Adam LaRoche -- yes, goofy, hangdog-faced Adam LaRoche, the first baseman so ineffectual he was traded straight-up for Casey Kotchman in the prime of his career -- hit .271/.343/.510 with 33 homers for Washington in 2012. LaRoche is now a free agent. He reportedly wants a three-year deal; the Nats want to keep him to two. Now, with Span sliding Morse to first, Mike Rizzo has a viable alternative he can use as leverage in his negotiations. The spare part instills every bit of the general manager's bluster with the weight of truth.
But if I were in charge of the Nationals, I'd sooner let LaRoche walk than pay him $13 million or more per season on a multi-year deal. Paying a 33-year-old first baseman because of his career year is like buying a heavily used pickup truck because it just completed a cross-country haul. Don't invest more in the thing; just thank your stars you got what you did, and move on. Stick Morse at first and grab a low-risk lefty platoon-type fellow -- the Nationals already have Chad Tracy on their roster, but come on, he's Chad Tracy; how about Travis Hafner instead? -- for insurance's sake. Do that, and hire a witch doctor to pray for Wilson Ramos's knee. Kurt Suzuki, who is the Nationals' planned starting catcher until Ramos proves he's healthy, isn't the hitter Ramos is.
But it isn't the bats that make the Nationals a special team. It's their pitching staff. To their gang of four young, good starters -- Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg -- they've added Dan Haren, who, circa 2009, was one of baseball's best aces. He tailed off a bit with age, injuries and his transition to the American League, but he'll spend 2013 presumably healthy and back home on the senior circuit. Think of all the starts he'll get to make against the Miami Marlins. They'll be like Triple-A games, only with fewer fans in attendance. And it's a one-year deal, an expensive but not future-plans-altering cameo.
There's just one big offseason question for Washington's staff, and it has nothing to do with player acquisitions: How are the Nationals going to get more innings out of their starters? Haren eats innings, so if he's healthy, he'll be fine. But no Washington starter cracked 200 innings last year. (I don't know if you guys read about this, but there was a cap on Stephen Strasburg's innings.) The Nationals had to pass a lot of games off to their bullpen early.
That didn't matter last year, because the bullpen was so good (a 3.23 ERA and 470 strikeouts in 515.1 innings of work). Bullpens are notoriously temperamental, but the Nationals’ should be fine in 2013, so long as they make the right tweaks. One member of last year's crew, Sean Burnett, a fine left-hander, has defected, and the Nats are already hard at work trying to replace him with J.P. Howell. That's not a bad idea. They might as well try throwing a little cash at another lefty, too, whether it be Mike Gonzalez (who succeeded for Washington last year and might be accordingly expensive), or someone low-risk, like Pedro Feliciano. And they should add a righty, too, if they find one they like. So long as they stick to one-year deals, and stay far, far away from a sentimental reunion with Miguel Batista, they'll be fine.
But back to the rotation. The Nationals should win the East again in 2013 with the roster they have. They need not swing any more trades or splurge on another free agent; they're there. Yet they could be a supremely special team, a real juggernaut, if they found some way to stretch their young arms out. If I were GM, I'd assemble all the orthopedists and physiologists I could find, and hell, I'd even invite Leo Mazzone -- if he'd first take a Benadryl to calm down -- and we'd devise a plan to turn these five into the '71 Orioles. Too bad that isn't the company Mike Rizzo seems to keep.