Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Washington Nationals

VIERA, FL - MARCH 02: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals looks on from the dugout during a Spring Training game against the Florida Marlinsat Space Coast Stadium on March 2, 2011 in Viera, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

This winter the Washington Nationals committed $126 million to right fielder Jayson Werth, but that was just one early step toward relevance for a team that's never had a winning season.

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Washington Nationals.

Committing $126 million to Jayson Werth this winter was a cry for relevance.

Since moving from Montreal six years ago, the Washington Nationals have not enjoyed a winning season. Their best season (81-81) was their first season (2005). In their six seasons, the Nationals have finished last five times, and next to last. In 2008, their first season in their new ballpark, the Nationals finished 13th in the National League in attendance ... and the attendance has not improved since.

The Nationals -- leaving aside Stephen Strasburg's dozen glorious starts last summer -- have been irrelevant for almost every moment of their short history.

There are two ways to become relevant: 1) win, or b) spend great sums of American dollars.

Winning is hard. Spending great sums is easy, if you're a billionaire and the good citizens have built you a shiny home for your millionaires.

The idea, of course, is that relevance will somehow lead to winning. And as the latest edition of  points out, the Nationals do have a recent model to emulate. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost 119 games. Then they started spending money, and in an eyeblink they were in the World Series. Did a great deal of that money wind up going to players whose performance didn't measure up? Absolutely. But when you reach the World Series, you don't begrudge much that's come before. So the Tigers probably considered almost every penny well-spent.

Are the Nationals heading in the same direction? Is there any chance they'll be playing in the 2013 World Series?

It's easy to assume they don't have a chance in hell ... but then again, what would we have said about the Tigers after they lost 119 games? The Nationals lost only 93 games last season.

Consider:

At third base, the Nationals have Ryan Zimmerman, probably the best young third baseman in the league.

In the middle of the infield, the Naitonals have 25-year-old shortstop Ian Desmond and 23-year-old second baseman Danny Espinosa. Desmond's been disappointing to this point, but is young enough to improve. Espinosa might be one of the best young players nobody ever talks about, having reached the majors after just two full seasons in the minors.

Of course, the Nationals' most interesting players won't be on the Opening Day roster, with Stephen Strasburg rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Bryce Harper heading to the minor leagues because, you know, he's 18 years old.

The Nationals were relevant 12 times in 2010, every time Strasburg took the mound. They added a modicum of relevance with the signing of Jayson Werth, however inflated his contract. But true relevance won't come until Strasburg's back in the rotation and Harper's in the lineup and showing his big-time power.

At best, all this figures to happen sometime next spring or summer. But even that won't be quite enough. Not for winning. Once you get past Strasburg and Harper, there aren't any obvious impact players in the system. So winning will probably require one more big financial outlay, perhaps for a first baseman or a starting pitcher.

As we've seen, though, the organization isn't afraid to spend. Or overspend. What price is relevance?

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