Well-rounded Nationals built to win in postseason
Washington has top-flight rotation, deep and powerful lineup, shrewd manager
Take a moment and imagine a baseball team built for postseason success. You'd want a couple of stud starting pitchers at the front of your rotation, and three or four shutdown relievers for the late innings. You'd want a team that catches the ball, and probably one that can produce runs in quick sequence without needing a bunch of singles in a row. It would be nice to have a lineup that features numerous threats, rather than two or three guys for opponents to focus on.
To top it off, a tactically adept manager would be an awfully nice complement to all that talent.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the 2012 Washington Nationals. Even with Stephen Strasburg out for the remainder of the year, the Nats have exactly the kind of roster and manager to thrive in baseball's second season.
Nothing's a given, of course. In baseball, more than any other major sport, the best-laid plans can quickly go awry. But certainly no other National League team can check off all the essential boxes the way that Washington can.
It begins, as is the case for any team wishing to go deep into October, with the starting rotation. It's possible to win a pennant or even a World Series without an ace or two, but it's extremely difficult. Washington will almost surely lead with Gio Gonzalez, budding ace and one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in all of baseball, as its Game 1 starter.
Following him will be Jordan Zimmermann, giving the Nats two of the seven NL starters with sub-3.00 ERAs this year. Zimmermann doesn't dominate hitters like Gonzalez does, but he has better control and is awfully effective in his own right. The Giants are the only NL team currently in playoff position with a comparable 1-2 punch.
This year, though, rotation depth should be a little more important than it's been in the past, and Washington has that, too. No team other than the Nationals has even two of the top 10 in the NL in ERA. Washington has four, of whom three will pitch in the postseason. Top to bottom, the Nationals' pitching staff ranks third in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings.
With only one scheduled travel day in the Division Series, clubs will almost certainly be using four starters in that round, as well as throughout the playoffs.
Washington's third and fourth starters? Edwin Jackson, he of 162 strikeouts and big-time stuff, and Ross Detwiler, ninth in the league in ERA. It's exceedingly unlikely that the Nats will ever face a significant starting rotation disadvantage in a playoff game, unless their opponent is off rotation and starts an ace against their No. 3 or 4.
When the starters come out, they'll hand the ball to relievers who are just as well-suited for October baseball. These guys miss bats, and manager Davey Johnson has multiple options from both the right and left sides. Even the current drama in the Washington bullpen is a sign of strength. It's only because the Nats have Drew Storen on hand that they would consider sliding Tyler Clippard out of ninth-inning duties.
And behind those pitchers, the fielders catch the ball. Outfield defense has been a bit of an issue, with some shaky showings in left field and Bryce Harper learning on the job in center. But the infield is excellent all the way around. And, overall, they've done a very strong job as a team, ranking fourth in the Major Leagues in defensive efficiency rating and sixth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the latter according to Baseball Prospectus).
As for the lineup, it may be the most stealthily good part of this team. The pitchers are their calling card, but the offense is better than people seem to realize. The Nats are second in the NL in home runs and third in slugging.
That's a good way to win in October, even if you've heard otherwise. You don't get a whole lot of opportunities to score runs when facing some of the best pitching, and hitting the ball a long way ensures that you take advantage of those chances.
The Washington lineup is also multifaceted. It's equally potent against left- and right-handed pitching, and features threats from top to bottom. Jayson Werth leads off. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, with a combined 40 home runs, hit sixth and seventh. Opposing pitchers can't key on two or three main threats. There are no breaks.
Even the non-roster factors favor the Nats. They've got a strong chance at having home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They have a manager in Johnson who has won a World Series and who is one of the shrewdest tacticians around. And they're 23-12 against the other four NL teams currently in playoff position -- the Braves, Reds, Giants and Cardinals.
Once again, remember that absolutely anything can happen once the postseason starts, and sometimes October makes no sense at all. But if you're looking for a team to take very seriously for a deep run in October, look at the likely NL East champions. They've already shown they're built for regular-season success, but they have a pretty good template for next month as well.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.