By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Once Washington Nationals fans awoke Tuesday morning to find what the ace fairy had left under their pillows -- a 6-foot-5, right-handed pitcher named Stephen Strasburg -- it suddenly became permissible, even mandatory, to extend the fantasy into the future: to the day, perhaps not as far away as it seemed just 36 hours ago, when the Nationals are no longer the worst team in baseball, but instead are on the cusp of contention.
Whatever date you might have thought was the soonest possibility for a contender to take form at Nationals Park -- perhaps 2012? 2013? -- it is likely your timetable moved up Monday night, when, just shy of midnight, the Nationals came to terms with Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick of the June draft, to a record-setting $15.1 million contract.
"I think it certainly speeds them up by a year," said former New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles general manager Jim Duquette, asked to gauge the impact of the Strasburg signing on the Nationals' timetable for contending. "Most people probably would've thought 2013 was reasonable before this. Now, maybe 2012 is about right. Before, there would have been a lot of skepticism about 2012."
But as long as we're dreaming big here, what about 2011? By then, Strasburg presumably will have a full year of professional experience under his belt. Jordan Zimmermann, heretofore considered the franchise's best pitching prospect, should be back from elbow surgery. And the Nationals will be out from under $20 million in 2010 salary obligations to outfielder Adam Dunn and shortstop Cristian Guzmán.
So, is it out of the realm of possibility to wonder whether . . . ?
"You can't get me to look past 2010," said Nationals President Stan Kasten, cutting off the question. "There are things we are looking to do to improve our team -- maybe sign a veteran for the rotation. Maybe a little more help defensively. Maybe an arm or two for the bullpen. But we can find those things. This is really doable. I'm not talking about '11. I'm talking about '10."
Meantime, the Nationals, understandably, are trying to keep expectations under control for their newly signed phenom, whom many observers considered to be the best amateur prospect they had ever seen.
"You can't look at one piece and attach big significance to it, except in terms of PR," Kasten said. "This isn't the NBA, where one player transforms a team. No one player has ever changed a baseball team. . . . Will [Strasburg] be a huge part of building a winner here? We think so. We hope so. We certainly paid him like we thought so. But a baseball team is 25 guys out of 250 [players in an organization]. I believe that."
If Strasburg is everything he is supposed to be -- a big "if," given the checkered history of previous "Phenom of the Century" types and the significant rise in competition from the Western Athletic Conference to the National League -- the Nationals, in one sense, may have gotten the best bargain in history: a true No. 1 starter for the price of $15.1 million, when the going rate on the open market for such creatures (at least proven ones who reach free agency) is about seven or eight times that.
True No. 1 starters -- aces -- are the hardest commodity in baseball to come by (the Nationals, in fact, have not had one since arriving in Washington in 2005), and the most difficult to win without. Imagine the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies without Cole Hamels, or the 2007 Boston Red Sox without Josh Beckett. And for teams that aren't among the richest in baseball, the only way to acquire one is the hard way: by drafting and developing one.
"Top of the rotation guys -- they impact you for three days: the day he pitches, the day after, and the day before," Duquette said. "That's because you use your bullpen differently [on those three days]. The day before your number one pitches, you say, 'I'm going to use my bullpen hard because I've got my ace tomorrow.' And if he gives you seven or eight innings, your bullpen is rested for the day."
Current baseball executives are unable to speak freely about Strasburg's impact on the Nationals, because of tampering rules that prevent them from discussing other teams' personnel, but one National League scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Nationals, with Strasburg now in the fold, could be a .500 team by 2011.
"Can they be contenders? No. But can they be competitive? Yes," the scout said. "They're going to have to go out and get a bullpen, two or three pieces. That's the next concern. And they're going to have to find a few more core pieces [in the lineup], especially middle infielders. They have some guys who can play in the big leagues, but to contend they're going to have to go get some front-line talent."
Most talent evaluators agree the Nationals, in terms of position players, have two bona fide long-term cornerstones -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Jesús Flores, both of whom are 24. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan (29) and left fielder Josh Willingham (30), productive players who are slightly older but still under team control for the near future, could also be major contributors on a 2011 team. But that still leaves first base, second base, shortstop and right field.
One American League executive said he believes the Nationals are amassing a cache of young pitchers that is large enough and talented enough to use as trade bait to fill holes in its lineup.
"That's when you see a franchise really take off -- when they've acquired the depth [in young pitching] to spin some of those guys off [in trades] for big-time hitters," the executive said. "I don't know that [the Nationals] are there yet, but this guy [Strasburg] gets them closer."