The Nationals are wrapping up their strongest first half since 2005, when they went into the All Star break 19 games above .500. That year, the Nats finished in last place in the National League East with a .500 record.
Many believe the 2012 Nats are different. They appear built for the long haul and a big reason is their strong starting pitching. But there are some questions surrounding the Nationals when they return from the break. I sat down with Nats GM Mike Rizzo to discuss his second-half plans.
It's been very clear from day one that Nats ace Stephen Strasburg will be shut down around 160 innings pitched. At the break, he stands at 99 innings. As my MASNsports.com colleague Byron Kerr pointed out, Strasburg is projected to reach his limit sometime around the first week in September. So what's the plan to fill the void in the rotation once he's shut down?
"We feel that the rest of our rotation is very strong," Rizzo said. "We've got three guys in the rotation that could be top-of-the-rotation guys on a lot of ballclubs. We've got great depth in the system. We've got a 10-game winner and a 3.77 ERA last year in John Lannan in Triple-A for us, so we feel good about where we're at. We've got good depth. We've got high ability guys in the rotation and I think we'll fill the void from within."
Reading between the lines, that probably means the Nats aren't going to be big buyers in the starting pitching department, but will they stand pat at the trade deadline unless blown away by a trade offer?
"We really like the ballclub that we have," said Rizzo. "The construction of the club was meant to play meaningful games in September and beyond, so we like the makeup of the ballclulb and the chemistry of our club. But if there's a way to improve the ballcllub and do so for the long term - we're not going to make any knee-jerk, short-term decisions, but long-term stuff that can improve the ballclub - we have no problem with that."
Key injured players are expected to return after the All-Star break, like closer Drew Storen and outfielder Jayson Werth. Davey Johnson will also see his bench bolstered when Chad Tracy is activated off the disabled list. How much of a boost will their return give the club?
"We consider (Werth and Storen) two trades at the trade deadline," Rizzo said. "To have our five-hole hitter in Jayson Werth, our big catalyst for our offense, a two-way player, and we have a rookie who had 43 or so saves last year coming into the bullpen with a fresh arm and really a hunger to get back in the game, (that) will really be good for us."
My guess is the Nats don't make any big moves at the trade deadline. As Rizzo alluded to, a GM would be hard-pressed to find available players who will have the same impact Storen or Werth will. It's nice to see Rizzo isn't caught up in the idea of improving the ballclub by making arbitrary moves just because he can.
There's no question Strasburg will be hard to replace, but if the Nationals' bats continue to produce runs the way they did in the week leading into the break, and the bullpen continues to be a strength, I think this Nationals team will be a force in the playoffs - even without their ace.