The 2010 version of the Nationals for the majority of fans meant only one thing, Stephen Strasburg. And while he was as advertised during his 10 starts last year, he will be shelved for the 2011 season with Ligament Replacement aka “Tommy John” surgery on his right elbow. This roster has also been revamped with a larger emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. Gone are players such as fan favorite Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Cristan Guzman and recently, the Nyjer Morgan experiment was deemed a failure by GM Mike Rizzo and was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers near the end of Spring Training.
In their places are a new crop of players in which one was given a 7 year 126 Million dollar deal in former Philadelphia Phillie and World Series Champion Jayson Werth. Most observers believe the Nats overpaid for him, but as it goes when your a team that is a perennial doormat, sometimes you may have to overpay to get top-level talent to come to your team, which I believe the case was here but that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the best all around talents in baseball today. He is a 5-tool (Hits for Power, average, a solid throwing arm from the field, solid Gold Glove defense and underrated base running skills) athlete and its never a bad thing to have great athletes on your roster. Another Free Agent pickup to directly replace Adam Dunn is 1B Adam LaRoche. He wont hit tape measure HRs as Dunn did for his 2 seasons here but he is one of the best defensive 1st basemen in baseball and his presense alone in the field should help cut down on the errors the team accumulated last season and instill a little more confidence in budding star SS Ian Desmond and rookie 2B Danny Espinoza, who replaces 2010 starter Cristan Guzman. LaRoche also has some pop in his bat as well hitting 25 HRs and driving in 100 runs as well.
The Cornerstone of the infield, and franchise, is the most underrated superstar in the game in 3B Ryan Zimmerman. The perenial All Star and Silver Slugger award winner is the type of player franchises build around and this has been the case with the Nats. He is basically guaranteed to play stellar defense, hit over .300, drive in over 100 runs and hit 30+ Hrs long as he’s healthy. I’m sure GM Mike Rizzo’s #1 priority (if it isnt, it should be) is to sign Zimmerman to a long, Werth-esque extension before he hits the Free Agent market after the 2012 season. The outfield will feature the aforementioned Werth, another FA pickup in Rick Ankiel and my choice for breakout player on 2011, Michael Morse, who hit 15 Hrs last season in a reduced role when he only saw action in 98 games and in this spring hit at a .361 and tied for the Major League lead with 8 spring dingers. If that pop in his bat can translate into the Regular Season and give Manager Jim Riggleman the confidence he had in him to give him the starting job over Roger Bernadina, this could end up a special year for the Nats offense.
The pitching staff on the other hand, is a mixed bag. You have the veteran Opening Day Starter Livan Hernandez and holdovers such as Jason Marquis who is trying to rebound from an awful 2010 campaign, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny who was picked up in the offseason in a trade with the Cubs as 4 of the 5 members of the rotations. The 5th member of the rotation is the wild card named Jordan Zimmermann. Now 19 months after his OWN Tommy John surgery, he has shown flashes of why the Nats brass think so highly of him. He was outstanding in the spring with an ERA under 3.00 and electric stuff that almost looks Stras-like. He has the stuff of a 20 game winner. Will that occur in 2011? Probably not, but imagine the top of the rotation in 2012 having a healthy Strasburg AND Zimmermann…as a fan, you can finally state that your team can compete every game with the best of the best pitchers and lineups. The Bullpen was a pleasant surprise last season, with players such as Tyler Clippard, Scott Burnett, and the OTHER 2010 1st rd pick in Closer-of-the-Future Drew Storen. If the ‘Pen can equal the success of last season, along with better defense and possibly a better starting rotation, this team could easily win 10-15 more games next year and truly compete for the division title in 2012.
And in 2012, expect 2011 #1 overall pick and Uber-prospect Bryce Harper to make his debut with the big club. Harper is a 18 year old dynamo of a player who has been compared to the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez and Darryl Strawberry in the type of impact he can have on a franchise from the day he puts on a major league jersey. There have been inklings that have mentioned him in the same breath as Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. That has to bring a ton of pressure along with it but if his 1st forte into the “Major League” experience shows, he can compete as he spent Spring Training with the big boys and hit .389 with the big boys. He was assigned to Single-A Hagerstown to start his career so if you want to see him before he is on the national stage in DC, check him out there.
All in all, this team keeps improving every season. Gone are the days where there were players who couldn’t make most teams Triple A affiliates, this team has a lot of young major league talent. Now is the time for those pieces to start their journey from afterthought to a solid team. a .500% mark this season would gladly be accepted as a benchmark for team success in 2011 which is obtainable if everything stated above falls into place.