Washington Nationals' 2012 Future Looks Bright but Challenges Lie Ahead

Christopher ConnorsCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2012

Stephen Strasburg fires a fastball on Sunday July 15th against the Miami Marlins.
Stephen Strasburg fires a fastball on Sunday July 15th against the Miami Marlins.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Following a dazzling first half of the Major League season, the Nationals are looking for their second half encore to come in the form of a National League East division title and a berth in the 2012 MLB Playoffs. The Nats currently have the best pitching staff in Major League Baseball, permitting the least amount of runs.

Washington starters also possess the lowest earned run average (ERA) of any starting pitching staff in the game. This helps to explain Washington's +65 run differential, which is tops in the National League.

However, the Nationals have scored the 22nd most runs in baseball, only nine more than the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros. Any way you look at it, the Nats are a bottom-tier hitting club, with some significant challenges ahead.

First, the bad, on the hitting side, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has regressed considerably in this, his eighth big league season. Zimmerman's below-average numbers at the midway mark come at a time when many were expecting him to enjoy one of the finest seasons of his already, highly productive career.

Zimmerman has been a budding star since he was taken fourth overall in the 2005 MLB draft by the Nationals. The former University of Virginia slugger has produced several high-caliber seasons inside the Beltway, which, by comparison, make his first half even more puzzling.

The Nats received a shot in the arm when Michael Morse made his season debut in early June. Morse has been no slouch at the plate, yet he hasn't shown the overall hitting prowess he displayed last season when he belted 31 homeruns and finished the season with a .910 OPS. Morse resides in the clean-up spot of the Washington batting order and is being counted on to send plenty of long fly balls way out of Nationals Park this summer.

First baseman Adam LaRoche and shortstop Ian Desmond have surprisingly emerged as the top two hitters in DC and have carried the lineup in several games this season. Desmond is in the prime of his career at the ripe age of 26 and is displaying beastly power from the shortstop position, leading the Nationals' lineup with 17 homeruns.

Normally, that many big league bombs through the first half of a MLB season is territory reserved for the likes of slugging first basemen and corner outfielders. However, Desmond is showing he can rake in the middle of the Nats' batting order, comprising quite the infield duo with the veteran, LaRoche.

Of course Bryce Harper has made so many of the headlines in the nation's capital this season and rightfully so. Harper, a hitting prospect with a ceiling as high as any big league player since Alex Rodriguez, came into the big leagues in late April with a flourish of hits and tons of excitement. After starting scorching hot, Harper has cooled down somewhat since his arrival, though remains a potent weapon at the plate and in the outfield.

The Nationals face an epic dilemma with stud pitcher Stephen Strasburg and must decide if the potential for winning a World Series in 2012 outweighs planning for the future. Nationals' management appears ready to play things more conservatively by confining their burgeoning, elite ace to an inning's limit. The National League's top team said repeatedly, prior to the season, that they will restrict Strasburg to a 160 innings limit. If things are left up to the southern California native, though, they'll need to pry the baseball from his tight grip.

Gio Gonzalez and the "other" Zimmerman, Jordan, are coveted young arms that are under Washington's control, for what the team hopes are many more stellar seasons to come. Zimmerman currently is fourth in the National League in ERA and 12th in innings pitched, while Gonzalez is tied for second in strikeouts, behind only Strasburg, and tied for first in the NL in wins. With both players at the young age of 26, the Nats are in excellent shape moving forward.

Help should be on the way come August when Jayson Werth is due back in the Nats lineup. Though Werth has not provided the pop in the middle of the batting order that DC baseball fans craved when the team signed him to an outlandish $126M, seven-year deal prior to the 2011 season. Washington closer, Drew Storen, may also return in the coming weeks, following surgery in April for a bone chip in his elbow. The Nats previously lost promising young catcher, Wilson Ramos, in mid-May after he tore his ACL while chasing a passed ball.

Washington ownership's interest in the team has reached new heights in the last several years as the Nationals have made a considerable effort to re-invest money into their players on the field. The moves have been encouraging and the results have paid off. Since the 2008 season, the Nats payroll has jumped nearly $40 million and the team has made many successful runs at big-time free agents. The club's record has also improved markedly each season, raising optimism that the Nationals are a team of the future and the present.

The Nationals cruised into the All-Star break, winning six of nine, setting themselves up with a four game lead in the National League East. In order to fend off the charging Atlanta Braves and the stubborn New York Mets, the Nationals pitching staff will need to continue dominating opposing lineups. Washington must also overcome injuries and slumps to some of their younger players,= if they hope to see the red, white and blue bunting and bright lights of October in DC.