2012 was quite a season for the Washington Nationals, and there are big things that happened this year which should get you fired up for next season. This season was a huge step forward, 18 more wins than 2011, so there are a ton of good things that happened. I’m going to focus on the things that are big steps forward, and very likely to make next year another great season. Since there’s so much, I’ll start with the pitching, and move on to the position players in the next post. I’m not purposely going position by position, I’m really just trying to talk about the big, sustainable improvements from previous seasons. So the first thing we found out this year, that should excite us going in to next season is…

Stephen Strasburg can be the best pitcher in baseball

He isn’t quite there yet, but he showed that it is quite possible, not just an “oh maybe some day if he does this…” kind of thing. His ERA was 3.16, good enough for 10th in the NL and he had 197 Ks, which ranked him 7th. But before he was shut down for the year, he was top 3 in strikeouts all year, and usually in first or second. And while his ERA looks good, it actually is a bit distorted. One of the reasons that the Nats felt so comfortable shutting him down was that he was losing steam by the end of the year.

He wasn’t bad for a starter in the majors, but he was bad for Stephen Strasburg. His ERA in games after his 20th start was 4.29, with 46 K and 16 BB in 42 IP. Up to start #20, his ERA was 2.76, with 151 K and 32 BB in 117 1/3 IP. He was starting to tire, unsurprising because he hadn’t ever pitched much more than that, and, I’m not sure if you heard, but he was actually coming off a major surgery. His early season numbers would probably have given him the Cy Young award if he kept it up. And next year, if things progress with his health the way the organization thinks it will, he may be able to do just that.

Gio Gonzalez is an Ace

Don’t let a couple of playoff starts give you too many doubts. This guy did it time and time again all year, against big competition in big games. He will probably finish second in the Cy Young voting, a legitimate team ace. But he’ll be an ace without all the pressure of being one, because they already have Strasburg. Going in to this season, nobody knew how Gio would pitch. He dominated for much of the season, and finished tied for 4th in Ks and 6th in ERA. He took a big step forward this year, and he is a large part why the Nats will go into next season with what many people consider the pitching staff in the majors.

Jordan Zimmermann might be the best in the league

Not the best pitcher in the league, the best #3 pitcher in the league. It’s now been two seasons since his Tommy John surgery, and two seasons of greatness. He might not strike a ton of guys out, but he gets guys out. Since the beginning of 2011, he’s made 58 starts, has a 3.05 ERA and a 128 ERA+. Those are only one set of numbers but those show the results of the inputs, and the results are as good as almost any pitcher in the league. He could have better numbers than many team’s number one pitcher, and he’s the Nats #3 guy. He rounds out a top of the rotation that is pretty hard to beat.

Ross Detwiler emerged as a legitimate starter

He isn’t a front line guy yet, and he may never be. But at age 26 the former first round pick showed up as a guy who can give you better than league average stuff over the course of a year. His ERA of 3.40 was 13th among NL starters. Some regression may be in store, as his FIP of 4.09 ranks him in the middle of the pack among MLB starters. Still middle of the pack is better than most teams #4 pitchers, so if he just does what the FIP predicts, the Nats are in good shape. But if in 2013, after finally having a season as more or less a full time starter (he had 27 this year) he improves a little bit, which might also be expected, than any regression could easily be countered by maturation. It’s not to say he’ll jump ahead of any of the three in front of him, but he may actually be as good as he was this year, or very close to it. If that’s the case, the Nats will have the best top 4 in the league, almost without question.

For me, that’s it on the pitching side of things. There were some nice pieces from the bullpen, but bullpen’s are finicky. I can’t tell if Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen matured into great relievers this year, or if this was a very common good year for a reliever, and next year will be not so good. I don’t know if Christian Garcia is really a shutdown guy, or if he is just deceptive enough to fool guys the first time through the league (and if he is, he might be moved to the rotation, so then the jury is really still out on him). If they are this good, you can bet this team will once again be able to win a ton of games with or without much help from the offense.

By Charlie