The season is not even a tenth of the way through, but the Washington Nationals have come out of the gates hot, posting an NL East-leading 9-3 record. The pitching staff has been nothing short of brilliant thus far, posting a Major League-low 1.99 ERA. While the team hasn't shown a lot of power (just six home runs) or speed on the basepaths (five stolen bases), their hitters have displayed great patience at the plate (.344 OBP is 2nd in the major leagues) and have a done a good job of putting the ball in play (tied-9th with a .258 BA). Is the team's 9-3 start a mirage, or could this team contend with teams like the Phillies for an NL pennant?
The starting rotation has been simply amazing to this point, as starters Steven Strasburg (1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP), Gio Gonzalez (2.04 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) and Edwin Jackson (2.57 ERA, 0.64 WHIP) have been flat-out dominant this season. Gonzalez was acquired from Oakland this past December, and signed a 5 year, $42 million extension with the team that will keep him with the Nationals until 2016. Jackson signed a one-year deal with the Nationals in February. The team has also received above-expected production out of starters Jordan Zimmerman (1.29 ERA, 0.79 WHIP) and Ross Detwiler (0.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP).
The bullpen has also been steady this season, with Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez and Tom Gorzelanny have yet to allow an earned run in a combined 13.2 innings pitched. The team will miss closer Drew Storen, who is on the 15-day disabled list due to a sore right elbow, but Brad Lidge should still be a solid fill-in until Storen returns.
The team has a solid middle of the lineup, as Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth both have above average pop in their bats. Werth (.341 BA, 4 RBI) is looking for a bounce-back season after a disappointing first year in D.C. (.232 BA, 20 HR, 58 RBI) after signing a seven year, $126 million deal. The Nats also have some solid young players in shortstop Danny Espinoza and second baseman Steve Lombardozzi that should develop into solid players. Mixed in with the stars and youngsters are steady veterans like first baseman Adam LaRoche (.333 BA, 2 HR, 12 RBI), outfielders Rick Ankiel, Ian Desmond and outfield/first baseman Xavier Nady. The team should also get a boost from first baseman/left fielder Michael Morse, who's currently on the DL with a strained right lat. Morse was stellar in his first full season in the majors in 2011 (.303 BA, 31 HR, 95 RBI), and could give the team a solid five-hole hitter behind Zimmerman and Werth.
Washington has played what seems like a fairly easy schedule thus far, facing the Cubs (3-8) and Mets (7-4) on the road before hosting the Reds (4-7) and Astros (4-7). The only team on that list expected to contend for a postseason berth out of those teams is Cincinnati, who the Nationals took three of four from this past weekend.
The next couple of weeks for the Nationals will be telling, as they face the Miami Marlins (5-6), Los Angeles Dodgers (9-2), Arizona Diamondbacks (7-3) and Philadelphia Phillies (5-5). Only the Dodgers series will be played away from Nationals Park, but will be facing two playoff teams from a year ago, and two others that are potential playoff contenders this season.
Even if the lineup doesn't improve from its overall middling statistics (which I think is unlikely considering the eventual return of Morse, as well as a possible debut from phenom Bryce Harper), as long as the team is able to continue getting quality pitching performances from its starters, the Nationals will be a team to reckon with come playoff time.