There Is Hope for Washington Nationals Fans

Brian CarsonCorrespondent IMay 29, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the New York Mets on April 26, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Cheer up Nationals fans. A brighter future is just around the corner.

Think I'm kidding? I'm not. No this is real optimism, not some pie-in-thy-sky act.

The Washington Nationals, despite the fact of an MLB worst 13-33 record, a bullpen that couldn't get a little league team to go three-up, three-down, and a surprisingly porous defense, is looking very much like the Atlanta Braves circa 1990.

And we all know what Atlanta went on to do:  win 14 consecutive division crowns, five National League pennants, and one World Series title in 1995. They did it by allowing a young starting staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery to struggle early in their careers, knowing that a big payoff was coming.

Notice the pattern, besides Stan Kasten being Washington's president?

The Nationals have the youngest starting rotation in baseball. John Lannan is the veteran of the group and this is his second year. Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, and Craig Stammen are all rookies.

That's a nice young group of arms. Not one of them is older than 25.

Throw in likely number one pick Stephen Strasburg, and you have a rotation that could be the best in baseball in a couple of years.

Forget the future for a minute and focus on the now. The stats speak of the potential this Nationals rotation has.

Lannan (2-4, 4.11); Martis (5-0, 4.86); Zimmerman (2-2, 6.07); Detwiler (0-0, 2.45); and Stammen (0-1, 5.56), have a combined 9-7 record with a 4.82 ERA. The rest of the pitching staff is a dismal 4-26 with a 6.50 ERA.

Lannan, an 11th-round draft pick in 2005, has turned out to be a major find. The lefty doesn't have overpowering stuff. He relies on pinpoint control and can eat innings. He is the ace of the staff.

Martis came to the Nationals in 2006 in the Mike Stanton deal and hasn't been a disappointment. He has above average stuff and a composed mindset on the mound. He's a rookie who doesn't get rattled.

Zimmermann, a second-round pick in 2007, could be the future ace of the staff. He's extremely polished and poised on the mound, throws strikes, and generates good movement on his pitches.

The first inning has been a struggle for him, but once he settles down he does well. He's a power pitcher with 47 Ks in 46 innings.

Detwiler, a first-round selection in 2007, has been the biggest surprise so far. After struggling in the spring, the left-hander was called up after Scott Olsen went on the DL and has pitched exceptionally well.

His pitching arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball (90-94 mph); a sinker; a curveball; and a developing changeup. Detwiler has done so well Olsen may not have a job when he comes off the DL.

Stammen is a late bloomer who was a 12th round pick in 2005. He came on last season when he developed a four-seam fastball. Stammen is a pitch to contact guy. He doesn't have overwhelming stuff, but he has very good command and control and likes to induce ground balls. He joined the rotation after the debacle known as Daniel Cabrera was let go.

Strasburg could be the missing piece of the puzzle. The junior from San Diego State is arguably the most dominating pitcher in the history of college baseball.

This season the right-hander is 13-0 with a 1.24 ERA, with 180 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 102 innings. Opponents are hitting only .164 against him.

Strasburg has all the credentials of a pitching phenom. He has a fantastic fastball that can hit 102 mph, and a devastating slider that sits around 94 mph and at most times seems untouchable. More importantly, he has complete control over all his pitches. Most scouts say he could be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the majors right now.

The Nats will have to shell out some serious green to sign him, but you can't turn down the chance to get someone of his caliber.

The bullpen, on the other hand, may be the worst in the history of baseball. With the exception of Ron Villone, not one reliever has an ERA below 5.00. They have blown a league leading 12 save opportunities, and own a 3-22 record. The 'pen has been completely re-built twice this season and the results are still the same.

Washington is last in the league in pitching and defense, but this team does have potential. Thanks to its solid hitting and young starting pitching.

The lineup of Christian Guzman, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Eljiah Dukes batting one-through-five can compete with anyone in the bigs. Jesus Flores is emerging as one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, while Anderson Hernandez is a solid starter at second.

This team needs to gut the bullpen, shore up the defense, let the young starters grow on the job, and maybe make a managerial change.

If all these things happen, if everything falls into place, the Washington Nationals could become a pennant contender very, very soon. And these dismal days of summer will be just a faded memory for Nationals fans.


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