Zuckerman: Where do Nats rank in NL East?

Zuckerman: Where do Nats rank in NL East?
January 21, 2011, 4:38 pm
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Friday, January 21, 2011, 11:35 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
CSNwashington.com

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Having added a 126 million right fielder, a back-of-the-rotation starter, a couple of relievers and several veteran bench players, the Washington Nationals appear to have improved over the offseason. This franchise may not be ready to win quite yet, but those back-to-back, 100-loss seasons from 2008-09 are looking more and more like a distant memory.

Improved or not, though, the Nationals won't start turning heads until they start overtaking their rivals in the NL East. They've finished last in the division three straight seasons and five times in six years since arriving in town.

Have the Nationals improved enough this winter to escape the NL East basement? Let's rank Washington's projected 2011 roster within the entire division...

LINEUP
The Nationals' lineup is far from their biggest concern. It's solid in the heart of the order with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. It's got a couple of promising young infielders in Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa who should improve as they gain experience. Left field will be a revolving door, and center field remains a question mark with Nyjer Morgan needing to bounce back from a wretched 2010. Overall, this is probably an average major-league lineup.

It doesn't, however, stack up to the overpowering lineup the Phillies trot out on a nightly basis, and it probably won't produce as many runs as the Braves and Marlins will. The Nationals should, however, pose a more consistent and more reliable threat at the plate than the Mets, who are still counting on several injury-prone veterans to carry the load.

NL East rankings: 1. Phillies, 2. Braves, 3. Marlins, 4. Nationals, 5. Mets

ROTATION
This remains a problem area for the Nationals, who won't have Stephen Strasburg anchoring the rotation for nearly all of 2011 and have no other legitimate, front-line starter in the mix. The unit should still be improved from last year, with Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis healthy, John Lannan back to form after an inconsistent 2010 and Tom Gorzelanny stabilizing the back end.

But the Nationals' rotation doesn't rate higher than any other NL East rotation. The Phillies have the best starters in the game, with four true aces in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. The Marlins have an ace in Josh Johnson and solid depth in Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez and Rocky Nolasco. The Braves have a strong 1-2-3 punch of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson. The Mets have more question marks, but they do have a strong No. 2 starter in Mike Pelfrey and an ace in Johan Santana (who is expected to return from shoulder surgery in June).

NL East rankings: 1. Phillies, 2. Marlins, 3. Braves, 4. Mets, 5. Nationals

BULLPENHere's where the Nationals start comparing favorably to the rest of the division. Last year's relief corps posted a 3.35 ERA, fifth-best in baseball, and most of the unit returns. There's no established closer, but Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett all excelled in the late innings. Doug Slaten is another reliable left-hander. Recently added Todd Coffey is a reliable veteran, and young right-handers Henry Rodriguez and Collin Balester bring serious heat.

The only NL East club with a better bullpen last year was Atlanta, though that team saw closer Billy Wagner retire. The Braves' relief crops remains strong and deep, though, with youngsters Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters expected to take over late-inning duties and Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill rounding out a solid group. The Marlins had a surprisingly effective bullpen themselves last year, though there's been some turnover this winter. The Phillies are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, but the rest of the group is shaky. And the Mets don't know what they're going to get out of beleaguered closer Francisco Rodriguez, just one of several question marks in Flushing.

NL East rankings: 1. Braves, 2. Nationals, 3. Marlins, 4. Phillies, 5. Mets

BENCH
The Nationals had one of baseball's least-productive benches last season, and improvement in this area was a major point of emphasis over the winter. GM Mike Rizzo has done a nice job bolstering the group, signing veterans Rick Ankiel, Jerry Hairston, Matt Stairs and Alex Cora. Michael Morse (who will platoon in left field) provides a strong right-handed bat. And no matter which catcher (Wilson Ramos or Jesus Flores) wins the backup job, he should produce significantly more at the plate than Wil Nieves did in the past.

Truthfully, none of the other NL East teams is going to boast as strong of a bench as the Nationals. The Braves have one reliable bat in Eric Hinske. The Mets have a couple in Willie Harris and Scott Hairston. The Phillies don't really need much of a bench with the thunder they've got in their lineup. And the Marlins haven't invested much in their corps of reserves.

NL East rankings: 1. Nationals, 2. Braves, 3. Mets, 4. Phillies, 5. Marlins.

So, where does this place the Nationals in the grander scheme? Clearly, this roster isn't ready to compete with the Phillies, who should be heavy favorites to win their fifth straight division title. And it's probably not yet on par with the Braves or Marlins, each of whom should contend for the wild-card in 2011.

But the Nationals do appear to have enough to overtake the Mets. Some of that has to do with the mismanagement that took place in New York the last few years, leaving new GM Sandy Alderson with an overpaid and underperforming roster that can't easily be dismantled. But some of it also has to do with the subtle improvements Mike Rizzo has made this winter.

The Nationals may not be ready to win -- or even finish in the top half of -- the NL East. But they may be ready to escape the basement in 2011, a necessary first step toward loftier goals down the road.