The Washington Nationals start play today with a record of 61-64. They eclisped a milestone of sorts last week without anyone recognizing it, which I guess should be taken as a good thing. Two seasons ago, in 2009, the Nationals won just 59 games. In years past, the mere fact that the Nats moved past a previous year’s win total with so many games left to play would have been cause for celebration. Last season, they picked up 10 wins for a total of 69 victories. Barring an historical collapse, with 37 games remaining this season, the Nats will have a hard time not passing the second-best win total in the franchise’s short history in D.C., the 73-win season of 2007.
If they simply maintain the .488 winning percentage pace they’ve acheived thus far, the Nationals would end up with 79 wins. It’s a pretty impressive feat, gaining 20 games in the standing over the course of two seasons. It speaks to two things, really: 1) The 2008 and 2009 teams were brutally bad, both at the major league level and throughout the mostly ignored minor league system; and 2) The current version of this team is on the verge of something pretty good.
It’s hard to say this team is on the verge of something great - or terrific or special - just yet. There’s a long way to go from 79 wins to the 90-plus it’ll take to truly compete for the playoffs in the National League. There are too many holes for general manage Mike Rizzo yet to fill. There are too many young players trying to find their way at the big league level. And there are too many minor leaguers still getting their feet wet, learning how to be a professional athlete first and a ballplayer second. But the Nationals are actually making progress in each of these categories - and not on some esoteric, hidden level. But real progress that can be seen, measured, projected and, yes, even anticipated.
The starting rotation next season will be topped by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. That’s an enviable place to start building a playoff contending rotation. Throw in Ross Detwiler at the No. 3 spot and John Lannan at No. 4, and you’ve got something there for next year. Then Rizzo can either promote from within if he thinks Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Brad Meyers or Shairon Martis is ready. If not, maybe Chien-Ming Wang or some other veteran fills the fifth spot, eating innings every five days. That’s a pretty solid five (or seven) but probably not a playoff rotation, especially since Strasburg will be shut down at 160 innings as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, much like Zimmermann will be this season .
But the following year, it’s not too hard to squint and see Sammy Solis, Matt Purke, Alex Meyer, A.J. Cole or Robbie Ray staring to make some noise. See, that’s how you build a pitching staff. You keep drafting arm after arm, stockpiling talent throughout your organization. If you’ve done your homework, two or three out of 20 will turn into real, quality, starting major league pitchers. They aren’t all going to succeed, that’s just not how it works. Some guys can’t handle the everyday-ness of being a pro athlete. Some guys get hurt. Some aren’t what you thought they were when you drafted them. But you keep drafting and keep aiming high and keep developing and then, if you get lucky, you’ve got the makings of a playoff rotation.
The Nationals already have two pieces of that puzzle in Strasburg and Zimmermann, health willing. By opening day of 2013 we’ll have a pretty good idea of who will be joining them. The Nats have picked up 20 games in the standings in two seasons, but it will take picking up another 10-15 to truly be considered a contender. And those wins will have to come from arms the Nats are currently growing in the minor league system.
Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.