Signing Stephen Strasburg Was Key, but Nationals Still Have Work To Do

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Signing Stephen Strasburg Was Key, but Nationals Still Have Work To Do
(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

I will admit that I was a skeptic. A pessimist. It's in my nature. My wife doesn't call me "Eeyore" for nothing.

I did not think the Washington Nationals were going to sign Stephen Strasburg.

I was wrong.

We all heard the stories of how Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, wanted to use the Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jose Contreras international free agent contracts as models for Strasburg, upwards of a $50 million contract!

Preposterous. At least that's how it turned out.

The two sides agreed upon a four-year, roughly $15 million contract at 11:58 p.m. and change last night.

"We didn't even need that last minute," team president Stan Kasten joked. At least they can joke about it.

So congratulations go out to everyone involved. First, to Strasburg himself. He'll never have to work a real job for the rest of his life.

Next, to the Lerners. This is a huge show of good faith to the fans—and to the rest of baseball—that they really are open for business and dedicated to producing a winner, not just revenue.

Congrats also to Stan Kasten.

He got a responsible deal done, one that will allow Bud Selig to say that the Nats paid a record deal to an amateur but did not "blow up" the entry draft.

To Mike Rizzo as well. It might not be enough to land him the permanent title of general manager with this team, but it will be enough somewhere else.

And a hearty congratulations to all the hardcore fans of the Washington Nationals. This day was for you. You would have had every right to jump from this ship had today arrived full of excuses, just like it had always been. I even have a draft of the column I would have written had the signing not happened.

It is not pretty.

But now, it's not necessary. The Nationals and Scott Boras really surprised me. Very pleasantly, I might add.

But I want to take this opportunity to caution Nationals fans, again, because it's my nature.

This is just the first step, albeit a very important one, in building a competitive, title-contending team. This team as it is constructed is still dead last in the majors in team ERA and just lost its No. 2 pitcher (Jordan Zimmermann) to Tommy John surgery until 2011 at the earliest.

One can envision going into the 2011 season with Strasburg, John Lannan, and Zimmermann at the front of the rotation, but three starters only get you so far. They still have to find two more arms to be able to really compete.

Sure, there are plenty of candidates, but every team has a handful of pitching prospects. Finding out which ones are big leaguers is tough, and I'd say we know little more about Shairon Martis, Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler, or Collin Balester than we did at the beginning of the season.

Craig Stammen and J.D. Martin have been pleasant surprises for their successes at Syracuse this year, but both lack the ability to "miss bats," as they say, and have to be at the very top of their game every time out in the bigs to have any success—a very high margin for error.

Further, the bullpen is a patchwork ensemble, thrown together during the season in emergency-like fashion after the previous GM completely ignored it last offseason. It's been turned over three complete times this season, and while the latest collection has been fairly solid, the pen still needs attention over the winter.

Which bring us to the position players.

There's enough offense on this team to be competitive with some quality pitching behind it. Nyjer Morgan, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes, Jesus Flores—that's a solid core to start with.

But the key this offseason is going to be finding players in the middle infield that can catch the ball and not be liabilities with the bat. If you can find one that really contributes both ways (cough, Orlando Hudson, cough), so much the better.

Team defense overall needs to be improved, and it starts with finding a shortstop and second baseman this team can count on, on a daily basis, to catch and throw.

While the organization likes to boast of their improving minor league system, there really isn't much by the way of middle infield prospects. Ian Desmond projects as a backup at best, and Danny Espinosa is still a long ways off.

Cristian Guzman is not a major league-quality defensive shortstop anymore. He simply can no longer make the play to his left (up the middle) and can only go to his right when his bunions aren't acting up.

I'll admit, when he's on one of his streaks, he's very fun to watch at the plate. But for all his hot streaks, his empty batting average only masks the fact that he's a below-average offensive player in today's game as well, with a .329 OBP and 96 OPS+ this season.

Alberto Gonzalez has proven this season that while he had enough talent to play defense in the majors, his lack of concentration—in the field and at the plate—has shown that he probably does not have the mental makeup to really succeed at this level. He's a backup at best.

All this is a digression from today's main point: Rejoice! Rejoice that the Nats finally, ultimately got one right! This signing means as much off the field as it eventually will on the field.

But Nats fans, please temper your expectations. One player does not make a championship team. One needs to look no further than Strasburg's hometown team, the San Diego Padres, to prove that point.

Last year they had one of the game's very best pitchers in Jake Peavy, and one of the game's best young hitters in Adrian Gonzalez, and still finished with 99 losses.

There's plenty of work left to be done. The Nats won't compete for the playoffs next season. But they have two offseasons to find a suitable double-play combo, some reliable bullpen help, maybe a veteran starting pitcher, and get Jordan Zimmermann healthy.

Oh, and by that point, they'll have to re-sign first baseman Adam Dunn.

Too much to ask for? Well, I didn't think they would sign Strasburg, so what the heck do I know?

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