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Thomas Boswell: Nats Need to Make Most of This Horrow Show

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This year, after adding Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, the Nats are on pace to score almost 100 more runs than in '08, even though catcher Jesús Flores missed nearly the whole season and leadoff revelation Nyjer Morgan played just 49 games.

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"We've fixed the offense this year. With Nyjer here all next year and Jesús back, we should be better," Zimmerman said. "Now we need to do the same thing with our pitching and defense -- give up about 100 less runs."

The Nats' pitching, with the worst ERA in baseball entering Thursday (5.12), has been so horrid this season that a 100-run improvement might not be as tough as it sounds. They're on pace to give up 73 more runs than any team in the NL. So, just improving enough to be tied for the absolute worst would be transforming. After being beaten over the head with a bat, just being kicked in the shins is almost fun.

Besides, by midseason, Strasburg and No. 10 overall draft pick reliever Drew Storen may be up from the minors to stay.

And, about that time, the Nats look like they'll be getting the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.

Strasburg, without knowing it, has been making a nice impression while hanging around the team, though he hasn't thrown a pitch yet. "I asked him if he played golf," Zimmerman said. "He said, 'Yes,' but he didn't play as much as he wanted 'because golf is so expensive in Southern California.'

"I didn't say anything," Zimmerman said, grinning at a $15.1 million man who frets about greens fees, "but considering all the things he could've said, I was thinking, 'Good answer, kid.' "

At least the Nats don't dispute that they can afford to do what both their own players and their fans want. The Nats have so many contracts coming off the books they can spend an additional $20 million a year on free agent salaries in '10 and still have the same cheap $61.4 million payroll that placed them fourth from last in baseball in '09. And a $65- to $70-million payroll is still pretty conservative. After all, the median MLB budget is $80 million for middling towns such as Milwaukee, Toronto, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Even a $97 million budget doesn't crack the top dozen.

"That's all public. I can't disagree," Kasten said. So, the Nats' feet are to the fire. They claim that's where they want 'em to be.

The Nats' plan -- oh, yes, those pesky plans do evolve, don't they -- now includes, at the least, two starters for the rotation. One may be Hernández, a bargain-basement type, if his final month goes decently. But the other should be a middle-of-the-rotation type for a good team -- meaning a possible Opening Day pitcher by the Nats' standards. Who? There's seldom been such a huge class of established free agent starters.

Rizzo is looking at a list that includes Jason Marquis, Randy Wolf, John Lackey, Cliff Lee, Jon Garland, Kevin Millwood, Tim Hudson, Brad Penny, Joel Piñeiro, Braden Looper, Jarrod Washburn, Brandon Webb, Brett Myers, John Smoltz and more. "Some of them have club options that may be picked up," Rizzo said. "But that's a long list. We're going to get one of them."

In a sense, it's sad when a team with 23 games to play has little to think about but the hopes of the offseason or word next month from the Arizona Fall League on how a class that includes Strasburg and Storen looks in the flesh.


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