Are the Washington Nationals the Next Tampa Bay Rays?

John Botelho@JohnBotelhoSJCorrespondent IIApril 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22:  Adam Dunn #17 of the United States reacts after hitting a fly ball out against Japan in the semifinal game of the 2009 World Baseball Classic on March 22, 2009 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Japan defeated the United States 9-4.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Recent history has seen a number of teams turn their franchises around in short order.  A few years ago, the Tigers had lost more than 90 games in eight of the 10 seasons prior to winning the Wild Card and AL Pennant in 2006. 

Last year, everyone’s whipping boy, the Tampa Bay Rays, avoided over 90 losses for the first time in franchise history.  In capturing the AL East, it was just the second time they finished better than dead last in the division. 

The Washington Nationals could be the next team (even if it’s not until 2010 or 2011 before they do so) to make the jump from being a squad you feel bad for to one you’d rather not seeing on the other side of the field from your favorite team.

This idea might seem laughable given their ability to dwell in the cellar recently, but a closer look will prove other wise.

They boast a solid lineup without a glaring hole to fill anywhere on the field.  Throw in ages and likely development and they have an offense that could be down right scary very soon.  Don’t believe me, check it out:

C Jesus Flores:  Without question, the team’s weakest bat.  Flores is just 25 though, and entering his third year at the big league level. 

He’s already shown that he can be at least serviceable behind the plate, and his offensive abilities will likely increase to about .270 with 12-15 homers as he matures.  Not too shabby for someone who dons the tools of ignorance.

1B Nick Johnson/Josh Willingham: Both players have 25 homer power, and when healthy, Johnson has been a doubles machine in the past. 

These two hitters are very capable at getting on base, and have posted OBPs of .361 (Willingham) and .415 (Johnson) in their careers.

2B Ronnie Belliard: He has become a very quality 2B option since joining the Nationals.  In his two seasons in Washington, he has reached double digits in homers each year, while hitting .287 and .290 respectively.

3B Ryan Zimmerman: Even if it feels like Zimmerman has been around forever and failed to reach the expectations the Nationals had of him when they drafted him in 2005, people must realize that as he enters his 5th MLB season that will play the majority of it at just 24 years old.

He has already showcased over 20-homer power, the ability to hit 40 doubles, and hit .287 in his best year.  As Zimmerman matures he could improve on all of those numbers and become one of the elite third basemen in all of baseball.

SS Christian Guzman:  Guzman had all but disappeared from Major League Baseball after hitting a meak .219 in 2005.  He has re-emerged as a very good shortstop, capable of hitting well over .300 as he has done so since rejoining the Nationals in 2007.  He's not the stolen base threat he used to be, but who is going to complain about a shortstop who hits .315 and plays above average defense?

LF Adam Dunn: Dunn is the most proven player on the roster and provides Washington with one of the best power hitters in baseball in the middle of their order.  He’s going to continue to knock crush 40 big flys a year while knocking in more than 100 runs. 

His presence will allow other players (Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge) develop and reach their potential.

CF Lastings Milledge: After coming over from the Mets last season, Milledge began to showcase exactly why the Mets made him a first round pick out of high school in 2003.

He still has star potential, and swatted 14 homers and stole 24 bases last summer.  Consider that he turns 24 the day before opening day, and its not out of the question that he could become a 20-20 player as soon as this year.

His power totals will continue to increase for a few years, and he could become a very similar to a healthy BJ Upton.

RF Elijah Dukes: His question marks are mostly off-field ones.  His baseball talent though finally had a chance to shine through last season.  He is just 24 years old and in 133 career games has blasted 23 home runs and drawn 83 walks.

With more playing time, he could develop into an on-base plus slugging machine in the next few years and could easily become an annual 30-homer threat.

As it stands their pitching staff isn’t quite as ready as the offense to make the jump towards overall success.  It does however have at least as much promise and with any luck at all could become one the NL’s best staffs.

At the top, the Nationals have John Lannan and Scott Olsen, who are just 24 and 25.  The two have already shown that they can be formidable big league pitchers and will move towards the back of the rotation in D.C. as their top prospects begin to reach the big leagues.

One of those prospects has already arrived.  Jordan Zimmerman will open the season as the team’s No. 5, but his ceiling is that of an ace. 

Very few pitchers have the ability to throw four above-average major league pitches, but he is one of those guys.  He’s already shown enough ability that Washington is willing to plug him into the last spot despite never pitching above AA.

Throw in Ross Detwiler, Jack McGeary, and Collin Ballester (all of whom have been branded with the upside of a future front line starter) and they could boast a rotation known for putting opposing offenses into slumps. 

Add in Shairon Martis (who will also assume a rotation spot this year) and the Nats should have zero problem filling out a viable starting rotation.

Oh yeah, the pitcher who could be not only their ace but one of the best arms in all of baseball isn’t even in the system…yet. 

Steven Strasburg is lighting up radar guns and making scouts and fans alike drool as he just mows hitter after hitter down at San Diego State.

Through April 4, he was 6-0 with a 1.49 ERA and an incredible 94 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.  He’s allowed just 27 hits and 10 walks in that time while allowing opposing teams to hit a paltry .160 against him. 

Despite the ridiculous money figures that have been thrown around this year, Strasberg and the Nationals will ultimately agree to terms before the Aug. 15 deadline.

Fans can expect to see him dueling in a big league uniform by mid-May of next year and his presence will immediately give the Nationals one of the better rotations in the NL. 

Beyond the offense and budding pitching staff, the Nats bullpen is also nothing to scoff at.  They’ve added Joe Biemel, who's had an ERA under four every year since 2005.

Garrett Mock struck out more than a guy an inning his debut season last year whil putting together an ERA of 4.17.  Saul Rivera has been an innings-eater whose never posted an ERA over 3.96. 

The best arm they have in the pen will be their closer of the present and future.  Joel Hanrahan struck out an incredible 93 batters as a reliever last year. 

He uses a two-seam fastball in the mid-90s and a wipe-out slider to send hitters back to the bench disappointed.

The Nationals are on the verge of removing the laughing stock stigma they’ve worked so hard towards developing this decade.  Given that the answers to their problems are all already in house (except Strasburg who will be in short order) it won’t be long before emerge as a young and talented team capable of beating anyone. 

If management wants to expedite the winning process they’ll look to add another big time arm to take pressure off of their young arms next off-season. Whether that happens or not, they will be a team that causes fits for others by 2011.


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