For the Washington Nationals, the future is now.
A wave of homegrown talent led by Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann has improved, matured and finally made their postseason debuts. Now, this group can realistically contend for a World Series title, as early as this season.
But there is a new crop of young stars right behind them. Players such as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon hope to keep this team well above .500 for years to come.
Here is a ranking of nine of the Nationals' young players, in ascending order according to their potential for success. To appear on this list, each player must be less than 25 years old as of today, and must be on the Washington Nationals' 40-man roster.
Some of the players on this list will not begin the 2013 MLB season with the Washington Nationals, but with inclusion on the 40-man roster, they can be called up at any time.
Carlos Rivero was claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies in December 2011. Rivero has been playing professionally for seven years, but he is still only 24 years old and has yet to play at the big-league level. He mostly plays on the left side of the infield, but he can also play a corner outfield position.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson is pleased with Rivero, but he knows the options on this team are limited for the versatile Venezuelan (via Amanda Comak of The Washington Times):
We like him. The probability of us losing him is probably pretty good, but I’m playing him, because anybody in that room I’m going to play where I know they’re capable of playing...If he looks real good, that opens up more options for [general manager Mike Rizzo]. And if he doesn’t look so good, maybe we can keep him.
Rivero may not fit in on the Nationals' roster, but he will surely find a home with another major league team.
POTENTIAL: Utility Infielder/Outfielder
Chris Marrero has some MLB experience, earning 109 at-bats in 31 games during the 2011 season.
But Marrero is still considered a prospect. The first baseman is ranked fifth by MLB.com among the Nationals Top 20 Prospects, the top prospect at that position within the organization. And according to Baseball America's Top Prospects of the Decade for the Nationals, Marrero was the best prospect in 2008.
But Marrero's career has not panned out as either the first baseman or the organization would have hoped. ESPN's Keith Law assessed Marrero's prospects:
Marrero is going to have to hit to establish himself as a big league regular, as he's limited to first base and doesn't add much value there on defense, but I don't see his bat playing every day there. He has average to above-average power but has a slow bat with poor hand speed, and in the minors he's done most of his damage at the plate against left-handed pitchers. He could hang around for a long time as a platoon bat or below-average regular.
Marrero may struggle to start for this franchise, however, as the Nats have moderate depth at first base with the signing of Adam LaRoche, the emergence of Tyler Moore and the possible move from third of Ryan Zimmerman.
POTENTIAL: Career Backup
Eury Perez is the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals system, according to Baseball America's list of Top 10 Prospects for the organization. Marc Hulet of FanGraphs.com delves a little deeper with his analysis of this speedy Dominican:
Perez spent most of 2012 in double-A but also appeared in 40 triple-A games late in the season. He hit more than .300 at that level and stole 20 bases; that earned him a 13-game cup of coffee in the majors where he stole another three bases in as many tries. He should return to the triple-A level to open 2013 although a trade of Michael Morse could start to lessen the log jam in front of him. He has the ceiling of a fringe-average, everyday center-fielder but is more likely to end up as a valuable fourth outfielder and pinch runner.
Now is the time for Eury Perez to prove himself with the Nationals. There is a little more breathing room in Washington's outfield, but it won't last long. The Nationals' system is full of quality center-field prospects, including Brian Goodwin, Michael Taylor and Destin Hood.
POTENTIAL: Depth Outfielder
Currently 23 years old, Sandy Leon will turn 24 on March 13. Leon played 12 games for the Nationals in 2012 but is still considered a prospect by Baseball America. The scouting service judges him the best defensive catcher in the Washington Nationals system.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com explains further, while ranking Leon 13th among the Nationals' Top 20 Prospects:
An outstanding defender with plus catch and throw skills -- he has a career caught stealing rate in the Minors of 46 percent -- the switch-hitter has made excellent strides with the bat, especially in 2012. He tore up three levels on his way back from injury...
A good defensive catcher can always find work, and Sandy Leon's progress at the plate will help increase his playing time.
POTENTIAL: Platoon Starter
After being called up late in 2011 for only 13 games, Steve Lombardozzi was a key part of the Nationals' bench in 2012, the so-called Goon Squad. Lombardozzi played in 126 games, seeing time at second base, left field, third base and shortstop.
The son of a former major leaguer finished the season hitting .273 in 384 at-bats, with a .317 OBP to go with 16 doubles, three triples and 27 RBI.
For Davey Johnson and the Washington Nationals, Lombardozzi was a good problem to have last season. He gave the Nats' options in the middle infield, and kept pressure on incumbent second baseman Danny Espinosa.
But headed into the 2013 MLB season, Lombardozzi is not satisfied with coming off the bench, as he told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:
I want to be an every-day guy. I’m fighting to be the starting second baseman. That’s where my head is at now. I know we all want to play, but we all want to win, too. We want to make it to the playoffs and go all the way this year. I...want to help this team win.
The only question regarding Lombardozzi is whether the Washington Nationals will be the team to grant him his wish.
Drafted by Washington in the third round of the 2011 MLB draft, Matt Purke is ranked eighth by MLB.com among the Nationals' Top 20 Prospects, placing him third on that list among the nine pitching prospects mentioned.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com explains the considerable risks and tantalizing rewards of developing this tall left hander from TCU:
Purke was a first-round pick in 2009, but he ended up going to Texas Christian University. He seemed destined to be a top pick again in 2011, but a shoulder issue dropped him to the third round, where the Nationals rolled the dice with an above-slot deal. If he’s healthy, he’s worth it -- a southpaw with a plus fastball, a plus slider and a pretty good changeup -- but it will all come down to his health. The 2012 season put that fact in the spotlight. He made his Minor League debut on May 30 after building up arm strength in extended spring training, but he was placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis two weeks later and didn’t return to action.
Needless to say, Matt Purke is a project. But if the Nats stay patient, it could pay off in the long run.
POTENTIAL: Middle-of-Rotation Starter
Anthony Rendon is the next homegrown star for the Washington Nationals, soon to follow the likes of Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen.
Rendon was first on Baseball America's list of Nationals' Top 10 Prospects for 2013. The scouting service also listed the 22-year-old as the best hitter for average in the Nationals system, as well as the hitter with the best strike-zone discipline and the best defensive infielder. And for Baseball America's list of Top 100 Prospects in all of baseball, Rendon checked in at No. 30.
However, James Wagner of The Washington Post explains that Rendon's propensity for getting injured is causing the Nationals to be deliberate with his development:
But Rendon’s professional career has been halted by injuries, something that Nationals want him to overcome this season. They want him to show that he can play stay healthy and get the at-bats in the minor leagues he has missed because of injury. Last season, he fractured his left ankle in the second game of the season with Class A Potomac and played only 43 games, reaching Class AA Harrisburg by the end of the season. He missed a season early in college with torn ligaments in his right ankle and dealt with a shoulder strain in his senior year at Rice.
Nationals fans will have to wait to see this impressive hitter at the MLB level. But once Anthony Rendon makes his debut, expect to see him with the big club for quite some time.
POTENTIAL: Perennial All-Star
At the tender age of 20, Bryce Harper has already accomplished more than any other position player on this list that has MLB experience, despite being more than two years younger than the next youngest player in that group.
When compared to Chris Marrero, Sandy Leon, Eury Perez and Steve Lombardozzi, Harper has more career at-bats, runs scored, home runs, RBI and stolen bases than all four players combined, with a better career batting average as well.
But Harper should not be compared to mere mortals such as these. This precocious talent deserves to be measured against a baseball luminary such as his boyhood idol, the inspiration for his uniform number.
Number seven himself, Mickey Mantle.
Over 18 seasons, Mantle's 162-game average included a .298 batting average, 23 doubles, five triples, 36 home runs and 102 RBI, to go with a .557 slugging percentage (Baseball Reference). The end result was 2415 hits, 536 home runs, 1509 RBI and enshrinement in Cooperstown.
If Bryce Harper achieves these career milestones, expect him to achieve the same legacy as his hero.
POTENTIAL: Hall of Famer
The day before Stephen Strasburg made his MLB debut on June 8, 2010, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated said of the phenom that "he was being called by some the best pitching prospect in the history of the game."
So far, the big right-hander has begun to live up to the hype. In 45 career starts over three injury-hampered seasons, Strasburg is 21-10 with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, along with 313 strikeouts.
If Stephen Strasburg fully realizes the enormous potential that comes with his other-worldly talents, he could go down in baseball history as a once-in-a-generation flamethrower known for an intimidating mound presence and an unmatched competitive fire, not to mention complete and utter domination of opposing hitters.
In fact, Strasburg's career numbers could rival those of a pitcher from the same mold:
POTENTIAL: First Ballot Hall of Famer