Strasburg was outstanding in his rehab assignments and is clearly ready to face MLB hitters. However, at 65-74 the Nationals are well out of the race and it would seem to make little sense for them to rush their best player back into action.
Or does it?
Strasburg's return to the majors is about more than scrapping together a few extra wins during a lost season. It's about showing fans that the Nationals are serious about competing, if not in 2011 then next year or the year after that. It's a symbolic move to show the baseball world that the Nationals of old are not the Nationals of the present or future.
The Old Washington Nationals
Washington, D.C. was awarded the Nationals franchise in 2005, bringing baseball back to a city that had been deprived of the sport for 33 years.
However, since their inception, the Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) have been one of the worst teams in all of baseball.
After posting a .500 record in their first season, and still finishing in last place in the NL East, the Nationals have gotten progressively worse. They haven't posted a winning record in franchise history and have finished dead last in five of six seasons.
The Nationals (playing as the Expos at the time) suffered a self-inflicted blow when they traded away three future All-Stars (Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips) for a plump Bartolo Colon. Colon was great down the stretch for Montreal (3.31 ERA in 17 starts), but it didn't stop the Expos from missing the playoffs once again.
In fact, the Nationals/Expos have only made the playoffs once (1981) in 43 seasons of baseball, a streak of futility that would make even a Cubs fan feel sympathetic.
Since then the Nationals have compiled a roster featuring a patchwork farm system and short-sighted free agent signings. Even their attempts to sign high-impact players (Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira) have been thwarted because nobody wanted to play for a losing team.
The Nationals had become a baseball wasteland.
The Present Washington Nationals
In 2005 the Nationals drafted a slick-fielding third baseman by the name of Ryan Zimmerman fourth overall in the MLB draft. In less than three months after being drafted Zimmerman was already on the big league club and well on his way to becoming a franchise player and one of the best all-around players in the game.
The selection of Zimmerman was just the beginning. The Nationals knew that if they couldn't convince free agents to sign in Washington, the only way they could field a competitive team was by developing from within.
So that's exactly what GM Jim Bowden did.
He drafted Chris Marrero (2006), Jordan Zimmerman (2007), Ross Detwiler (2007) and Danny Espinosa (2008). His successor, Mike Rizzo, added Drew Storen (2009) and Strasburg (2009), with several more top prospects on the way.
The Nationals also made several smart trades, acquiring reliever Tyler Clippard from the Yankees for Javier Vazquez. Rizzo did his part by adding catcher Wilson Ramos in a deadline deal last season and grabbing infielder/outfielder Michael Morse in a 2009 trade.
There have have been some misses (Christian Guzman, Jayson Werth) but on the whole the Nationals are letting their young talent speak for itself—and what it's saying has all of baseball terrified.
The Future Washington Nationals
Strasburg may be the poster child for the future of the Nationals, but he's just a piece of the puzzle.
Marrero, a power-hitting first baseman, made his MLB debut earlier this season and looks poised to take over the first base job long term. Brad Peacock, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, should get a shot to claim a spot in the Nationals rotation later this month. LHP Tom Millone, RHP Craig Stammen and RHP Cole Kimball have all played well in their MLB debuts.
The embarrassment of riches doesn't end there, either.
The big name in the Washington farm system today is Bryce Harper, the first overall pick from the 2010 draft. The 18-year-old dominated minor league pitching in his professional debut and could be suiting up for the Nationals by this time next year.
The Nationals also hit a home run in the 2011 draft by selecting infielder Anthony Rendon, the consensus top college hitter in the draft, and hard-throwing righty Alex Meyer. Both of these players could be in Washington by 2013, adding to an already impressive young core.
What sets the Nationals apart from other young teams, however, is money. The Nationals have never been afraid of spending money and are going into 2012 with a payroll of approximately $50 million. That leaves more than enough cash to extend some of the club's top young players and still sign several impact free agents.
Strasburg can't carry this team single-handedly, but the point is that he doesn't have to. The most important thing for the Nationals right now is to get used to the idea of winning and being competitive.
There may not be a single player in all of baseball who is as capable of instilling those values in a club as Strasburg. An army is nothing without its general, and tonight the Nationals finally get theirs back.