By Anthony Castrovince
His club was just swept by the Phillies, the Braves are lurking (distantly but persistently) and ahead is a three-game series in the other Washington, against a hot Mariners team that will be running its three-headed rotation monster out on the mound this weekend.
Matt Williams, therefore, must have far more on his mind than his October rotation and lineup. Right now, this is the sort of topic only we over-thinkers on the outside are consumed by.
So, let's consume it for a second, shall we? After all, going into action Friday, Williams' Nationals had a 93.6 percent chance of winning their division, so it's not like we're getting too pie-in-the-sky with the postseason chatter. They have the most comfortable division cushion in the National League, and it's a testament to their depth that they pose perhaps the most interesting of October alignment dilemmas.
Come to think of it, the Nats might be the best team in baseball right now, that stinker of a Philly series notwithstanding. Sure, that's a transient title that has wound its way through San Francisco and Oakland and Detroit and Milwaukee and Los Angeles at various points in this long season. And what really matters is who's claiming that title at the finish line.
Right now, though, it's the Nats.
They're averaging 4.51 runs per game since the break (only the A's and Pirates are slightly higher). They're showing a remarkable flair for the dramatic, with five of their last eight wins coming in walkoff form. And when you consider the contributions they're getting from the recently acquired Asdrubal Cabrera (.808 OPS in 23 games) and Matt Thornton (7 2/3 scoreless innings), to say nothing of the performances of post-2012 arrivals Denard Span, Doug Fister and Anthony Rendon, they might even be a little bit deeper and more well-rounded than they were in that 98-win season.
Undoubtedly, they're more experienced, having tasted both the thrill of baseball's best regular-season record and the chill of seeing a dream season come unraveled in that year's National League Division Series against the Cardinals. Probably even more motivated.
The rotation, though, is the big separator here. With the injury issues currently impacting the Dodgers and Tigers, with the middling numbers posted by that revamped A's squad in the second half so far, with the questions that arise about the guys following Seattle's big three of Felix Hernandez, Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma, I would take the Nats' starting five over anybody else's in the present tense.
Injuries can alter the equation, of course. And the mere process of writing these words is offending whichever of the baseball gods has the Nation's Capital in its jurisdiction. But if Williams' club can hold onto its edge over the Braves (primarily by taking care of business when they meet each other six times in mid-September), the rookie skipper Williams will have the luxury of aligning his starting five however he sees fit.
That is simultaneously thrilling and daunting, and one would imagine that some early conversation is taking place among the Nats' coaches, because September will be the time to line these guys up right.
How should they do it?
Well, you've got to start with Jordan Zimmermann, the heart and soul of this starting staff. At 28, he's having the best season of his career. It doesn't show in the 9-5 record that he'll take into Friday's start in Seattle, but his ERA, at 2.93, is more than a shade better than the 3.25 mark he had in last year's 19-win campaign. Beyond that, he's posted by far the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.83) and FIP (2.80) of his career. He had a 12-strikeout shutout of the Padres earlier this year that, by one objective measure (Bill James' Game Score), was the best start in team history.
Then you've got to go with Doug Fister, right? As impactful as any of the many winter moves in MLB last offseason -- not just for the Nats club that acquired him but for the Tigers team that gave him up -- Fister has made Mike Rizzo look like a genius. There was concern when Fister turned up with elbow trouble in spring training, but he's got a 2.29 ERA with just 16 walks and 78 strikeouts in 126 innings since May 14, his second start of the season. He did get knocked around a bit in his last two outings, so that's a trend worth monitoring, but a pertinent point is that Fister has generally been nails in the October environment, with a 2.06 ERA and 3-1 record in his last seven postseason starts.
Now, here's where it gets a little more tricky. In no way, shape or form am I suggesting Stephen Strasburg should be out of the Nats' postseason rotation, but you can't peg him as the No. 1 and it's awfully hard to mount a compelling argument for him as the No. 2.
Strasburg has had a wildly inconsistent season -- leading the league in strikeouts, sure, but also generating, per FanGraphs.com, the highest sOPS+ (133) among qualified starters this year. For the uninitiated (don't blame you), this is a way of saying that the quality of hits against Strasburg this season have been 33 points better than league average (and this is also explained, in part, by a line-drive percentage six points higher than it was a year ago).
Still, you can't skip past Strasburg. Six times this season, he's gone at least seven innings and allowed just one earned run or less. That doesn't happen by total accident. If you're the Nats, you just hope it happens when it matters most.
The real dilemma rests in the decision between the veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez and the sensational sophomore Tanner Roark.
Roark, per Baseball-Reference.com, has been the Nats' most valuable pitcher this year, with a 4.4 WAR mark. He has 12 wins, a 2.81 ERA and a 1.086 WHIP. These are good things.
Alas, he also has 166 2/3 innings pitched, after working a previous career-high of 159 1/3 innings between the Majors and Minors last year. Which means that, with a month left in the season, Roark is already in unchartered workload territory.
Maybe the Nats can manipulate that workload down the stretch, and Roark, at 27, is certainly more fully developed (and less reliant on velocity) than Strasburg was when the Nats famously shut him down in 2012. But can you run Roark out there in October, with as many as 200 innings under his belt, and expect him to maintain his stuff and stamina? Doubtful.
Gio is the right choice here, no matter what the statistics (a 3.86 ERA and 1.302 WHIP) might say. He'll have a relatively fresh arm because of an early season injury that has limited him to 22 starts thus far, and he'll offer a left-handed look the rotation will sorely need on that stage.
Who knows how much thought Williams has given to this, but hopefully the above serves as an answer worth considering. If we were really generous, we'd tell Williams how to handle what could be a looming lineup controversy, assuming Ryan Zimmerman returns in September, as planned. Zimmerman, Rendon, Span, Cabrera and Bryce Harper can't all fit in the same lineup, after all.
But we'll have to settle that matter another time. I mean, we don't to be accused of thinking too far ahead.