It has just been a little under a week now since the Washington Nationals season ended, and even though the Nationals playoff hopes were long ago slashed, it is admittedly still hard to believe it is over and the month of October remains bare on the team's official site's calendar. For a day or two after the Nationals 3-1 season finale victory, the parrots still cooed and squawked in their cages about an upcoming 2012 season that will be "historical" and the team has finally turned the corner. The shroud of the off season seems to have finally put those birds to bed, though not the dreaming.
The whole idea of a fully functioning, well greased baseball machine working in Washington seems almost unbelievable. Not counting the inaugural 2005 season, Nationals fans have been dredging the bottom of the baseball abyss for the past five years looking for a black smoker or hot vent that would shoot them into the upper reaches of the Major League ocean. They might have finally found one in the 2011 Nationals team. After hovering around .500 all the first half of the season then dropping off almost to the point of no return after the All-Star break, the 2011 Nationals roared back to a 80-81 and thir- place finish in the NL East, their highest final standing since baseball returned to D.C.
Many variables went into making such a positive finish possible for the team. Some of those include youngsters like shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa starting to mature in their roles, outfielder Jayson Werth silently joined the land of the living again after a first half of the season near the Mendoza Line and the Nationals' rotation got upgrades in the return of pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang. The Nationals' late-season call-ups like Chris Marrero, Brad Peacock, Tom Milone and Steve Lombardozzi even got in and contributed.
It was a huge show of progress for the team. It is safe to say this is the best Nationals team since that inaugural 2005 season, or at least the most promising because they've never had this much young talent before. In 2012, they potentially could have eight of their first round draft picks on the roster at the same time if guys like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Alex Meyer work out. Incredible. So it's easy and OK to get ahead of ourselves and believe we will be StubHubbing playoff tickets this time next year.
However, we need to reel in expectations a bit, at least as we get closer to Spring Training and the 2012 season. A lot can happen positively or negatively over the offseason, and while the Nationals foundation is hardening, it hasn't set yet. There is still a lot of work to be done and decisions to be made. While this team made incredible strides in 2011, it is also the same team that couldn't hit a lick with runners in scoring position and has guys like Doug Slaten in the bullpen.
The following is a list of three off season thoughts that you might have thought about, but don't really want to because you are still swooning from the 2011 season. Again, a lot can change, so these might be void after awhile, but the offseason is meant for debate, discussion, creative ideas and deep, Zen thoughts.
What If Davey Johnson Isn't The Guy At Manager?
Davey Johnson is expected to continue managing the Nationals in 2012 even after the Nationals hold an off season manager search complete with a short list of candidates, but is he really the man for the job? General manager Mike Rizzo loves Johnson and fans are excited because Johnson got this team on the winning track towards the end of the season. But former manager Jim Riggleman did the same thing in 2009 after he took over for Manny Acta when the Nationals finished the season on a seven game win streak. We all know what happened after that. Johnson is a different breed from Riggleman though and won't chicken out under the pressure, but he is getting on in his years and he has been with the team in some capacity since 2006, so therefore he has been part of the "losing culture" that Werth detests so much. One has to wonder if maybe new blood is needed, even at the danger of changing the manager scheme once again.
What If Michael Morse Can't Do It Again?
It is no secret that the backbone of the 2011 Nationals was first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse. He had a sensational career season, hitting .303 with a team-leading 31 home runs while playing in 146 games. It was easy to jump on the Morse Code bandwagon in 2011, but can he do it again in 2012? No doubt pitchers will pay more attention to him next season and he won't have the element of being an unknown. If he can't replicate his 2011 results in 2012 the Nationals offense will be hurting.
What If The Nationals Can't Sign Ryan Zimmerman To An Extension?
If the Nationals can't sign their All-Star third baseman and face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman to an extension to keep him in Washington for his career, then I can't think of anything closer to franchise suicide. To not do so would mean the team loses the respect of both players and fans. Fortunately, I think it gets done, but if it doesn't, not all is lost. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman and has a close to MLB potent bat.