Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How far can the Washington Nationals go without Stephen Strasburg?

Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg moved to 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA on the season with a dominating performance over the Atlanta Braves last night.

Strasburg tossed six innings of one-run ball with ten strikeouts all while enduring a 51-minute rain delay. He is up to 145 1/3 innings on the season and closing in on the shutdown point established by Nats' management of somewhere between 160-180 innings.

No matter the number, Strasburg will not be on the mound in the playoffs assuming the Nationals don't completely crumble down the stretch. The Nats currently hold the top spot in the National League by two and one-half games over the Cincinnati Reds and their lead in the NL East is up to seven games over the Braves.

I'm not going to enter the debate of whether the Nationals are taking the right approach with their prized arm. They are going to do it and there is nothing anyone else, including Strasburg can do about it. Debating it seems pointless.

Can the Nats go far in the playoffs without Stephen Strasburg?
(Image: Scott Abelman)
What I can do, is look ahead and estimate how far the Nationals can go in the postseason without their ace. Here is what we know about the team minus Strasburg. They have four other starters to turn to who are incredibly capable, a deep bullpen and a more than competent offense.

The rotation in the postseason will be led by Gio Gonzalez who the Nationals traded for in the offseason, acquiring the lefty from the Oakland A's as part of their offseason purge. Right behind him is Jordan Zimmermann, who is two years removed from his Tommy John surgery. The next two pitchers are oft-traveled Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler who has stepped up nicely this season.

The bullpen is led by closer Tyler Clippard who wrestled the job away back in May after years of being the Nats' top set-up man. He is backed by Sean Burnett and now Drew Storen, who recently returned from the disabled list after missing most of the season due to elbow surgery.

While the pitching staff is the predominant reason for their record, the Nationals offense sits toward the top of the second-third of the league in many categories. This is not a pitch-only team. They have received a career-year from their shortstop Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman is putting in another fine year. They have benefited from solid seasons by Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche. Bryce Harper's call-up gave the team a boost as soon as he stepped on the big-league diamond. Jayson Werth is back in the lineup after a lengthy DL-stint and has picked up right where he left off.

So, how will the team respond without Strasburg? Can they rely on the other four starters to get the game to a formidable bullpen? Will the offense produce enough runs to win tight games which typically dominate postseason results?

The team is a combined 16-10 versus the top six teams currently in or near position to reach the NL side of the postseason (see right). The Nats are 6-2 in games Strasburg started against the same collection of teams. So, the team has fared well with and without Strasburg against potential opponents in the postseason. Also, the run differential favors Washington in total, though it is slim against the Reds and negative against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Based on the chart it seems the Nats match up a bit better against the three teams directly behind them in the league's cumulative standings through last night. Right now, St. Louis is on the outside looking in while the Pirates and Dodgers would play to determine who would be the Nats' first-round opponent if the season ended after last night's games. Interestingly, these are the teams that gave the Nats the most trouble so far.

They didn't do much on offense against the Pirates and the Dodgers flat out shut down the Nats in a three-game series in L.A. in late April when the Dodgers didn't seem to lose. That said, neither the Dodgers nor the Pirates are playing as well as they were earlier in the season, while the Nats are flourishing and sit 31-games over .500.

By the looks of it, the Nationals have a very good chance of reaching going far in the postseason should they get by their first-round opponent. While it would certainly be easier to have the ability to throw Strasburg twice in a five-game series and possibly three times in a seven-game series, the Nats seem more than capable of handling these teams based on regular season results.

The long and short of it is this; the Nationals are going to miss Stephen Strasburg during the playoffs, no one would contend otherwise; however, they are not being carried by Strasburg alone right now. The team is well-balanced and confident. Those are two characteristics that can take a team a long way in the playoffs. Let's hope for Strasburg's sake this is not a one-time thing for the Nationals, but the first of many successful seasons, of which the rest will have him on the hill when it matters most.