Strasburg's Return Part Of Nationals' Master Plan

WASHINGTON - Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

As of Monday night, the Washington Nationals are 25 games out of first place and 16-1/2 games away from the wild card. They're ten games under .500, which is notable because the last time the Nationals finished over .500, they sold poutine in the stands.

But things are looking up, the story goes. There's Bryce Harper rocketing through the farm system, doing things teenagers shouldn't do. The Nationals were delighted when top college prospect Anthony Rendon fell to them in this year's draft, and they didn't shy away from other pricey amateur players, spending $15 million on their 2011 draft class. And Stephen Strasburg is returning to action on Tuesday night, ready to strike out a few lepers before he heals them. In a couple of years, if everything goes right, the Nationals could be contenders.

Again, that's a common assumption. But it could be total nonsense. The Nationals might not start contending in a couple of years. They might do it next year.

In order for the Nationals to make up 25 games or so on the Phillies, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will probably have to get in a tandem-bike jousting accident with Chase Utley and Shane Victorino. (Don't worry! It's for charity!) Every season, there's a team like the Diamondbacks that comes out of nowhere and surprises baseball, but the Nationals are in an especially tough spot. Both the Braves and Phillies look well positioned for next season, and the Marlins always seem to have a tough pitcher or three. The Mets are, uh, one of the eight teams in R.B.I. Baseball, and no one will ever take that away from them. It's a little silly to think the Nationals will contend.

But they could. The Nationals will start the offseason with an enviable offensive core, with burgeoning up-the-middle sensations (Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa), a legitimate superstar (Ryan Zimmerman), and mystery players who could be All-Star quality (Mike Morse, if he's for real, and Jayson Werth, if his decline isn't). The sinkholes at short and center have made the offense below-average this season (a 91 team OPS+ compared to the NL average of 95), but because of the overall youth, that offense should improve. And if Rendon and Harper arrive quicker than expected, there could be reinforcements from within.

With Strasburg coming back to complement Jordan Zimmermann at the top of the rotation, the Nationals will need to find three more starters. They'll have in-house options, with reclamation projects (Tom Gorzelanny, Chien-Ming Wang), soft-tossing, homegrown types (John Lannan, Tom Milone), and a former first-rounder (Ross Detwiler). There will be several interesting rotation battles in the spring if they don't trade some of that back-end depth first.

While the Nationals weren't a team that was just a piece or two away when they signed Werth for residuals and 80 percent of the box-office take, they could be just a piece or two away now. Ownership isn't shy about spending, and they could even take on a contract that another team isn't keen on keeping, like Wandy Rodriguez's. There's no rush -- it's not like any of the above-named players are going anywhere soon. But if the Nationals decide to make another win-now move, don't look at them as crazy as you did when they signed Werth. They certainly did deserve that criticism at the time, but they might be glad they have him next year. They probably won't feel that way when his contract expires in 2093, but there's still time for Werth to help a team over the next couple of years.

Stephen Strasburg's return is good for attendance and fan morale now, and it's supposedly good for the long-term health of the Nationals as well. But don't look past what he means to the 2012 Nationals, too. He's a legitimate ace on a team that can already hope for a wide assortment of players to be above-average or better. There are a lot of teams you'll expect to contend next year, and most of them probably will. There will be at least one team that sneaks up on you, though. With a surprising collection of talent, the Nationals might be that team.

Well, not now that I've spoiled it for you. Also,"Rosebud" is a sled that symbolizes Charles Foster Kane's lost youth and innocence.

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