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For Washington Nationals' real fans, September call-ups hold much promise

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 12:32 AM

If you care about the Washington Nationals only because of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, stop reading. Come back in '12 when the Nats might, once again, be a team with a national buzz.

No hard feelings. Being a general sports fan, not a baseball nut, is a prerogative granted under the Constitution. No apology needed for abandoning the Nats 11 weeks after semi-adopting them. Put away those Nos. 37 and 34 jerseys till they're trendy again.

However, for the rest of us, who are stuck on baseball for life and aren't ready to flip an "off" switch for 12 to 18 months, it's time to call a halt to the stages of Strasburg grieving.

We denied his original shoulder injury was much of a red flag. We got angry when he grabbed his forearm in pain; some even told him to suck it up. We bargained that it was all just a flexor-tendon strain. And we plunged into mandatory sports depression when the 22-year-old faced Tommy John surgery.

But in baseball, always so annoyingly lifelike, there's another game every day. So, it's necessary to reach acceptance in a hurry.

Luckily, Sept. 1 is one of the game's symbolic days: it brings the expanded roster. The Nats' future - the complementary players who determine whether they become exciting contenders or just Strasburg-Harper spear carriers - will be on display this month.

If you think the Nats had a remarkable crop of rookies with Strasburg, closer Drew Storen, shortstop Ian Desmond and outfielder Roger Bernadina, as well as late-blooming slugger Michael Morse, you've only seen half the land rush for '11 starting jobs.

Later this week, the Nats will call up catcher Wilson Ramos and middle infielder Danny Espinosa. Both are 23 with prototype physiques for their positions. The Nats assume they'll be fixtures in the lineup for years - maybe by next season, 2012 latest.

Get used to them. Ramos is a 220-pound rock of a backstop who has thrown out as many base stealers (45 percent) as legendary Yadier Molina did in the bushes. The Nats gave up an all-star closer in Matt Capps to get Ramos in a trade with Minnesota.

Recently, General Manager Mike Rizzo watched on the Nats clubhouse TV as Capps saved a game for the Twins. "I love Capps, everything about him - makeup, competitiveness, great guy in the clubhouse. Attaboy, Matt," he blurted after the last out. "But when you can get a catcher like Ramos to build around, you've just got to do it."

The best prospect in the organization, however, may be Espinosa, who was the second player in organized baseball this year to reach 20 homers and 20 steals. He now has 22 and 25, plus a glove so reliable in the minors that he projects to less than half the errors made this year by Desmond. "And Danny has an even better arm than Desmond, if you can believe that," said Rizzo.

Then why did Espinosa, from the shortstop factory at Long Beach State, switch to second base recently when he moved up to Class AAA? "Our stat people and our scouts both think that Desmond now has the best range of any shortstop in baseball, even better than [Troy] Tulowitzki" in San Diego, Rizzo said. "For me, it's going to take a lot to get that kind of range off of shortstop."

So, when you're making out that '12 lineup, include Desmond, Espinosa, Ramos, that guy Ryan Zimmerman, and, after a season of consistent improvement, Bernadina, too. And remember that Harper will be as old on opening day 2012 as Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. were when they got their jobs for good.

As soon as we've glimpsed Ramos and Espinosa, next week, Yunesky Maya, the expatriate star of the Cuban national team, will make his big league debut for the Nats. The 29-year-old right-hander, who should be in his prime, is expected to be in the Washington rotation for years, starting now. Since Maya has only started three minor league games, how can the Nats be so sure?

Are all the new Nats scouts who arrived last winter correct in analyzing the talents of Ramos, Espinosa and Maya? Has the Rizzo brain trust got it right? We're about to start finding out. This trio is not "penciled into" the Nats' future. Their names are written in ink. They will have to erase themselves.

If the Nats are lucky, we are about to get a look at their three most talented starters who are not named Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann, now back throwing 94 mph after his own Tommy John surgery, had the best performance of his young career Tuesday night - six innings, one hit, no runs and a career-high nine strikeouts. Lefty Ross Detwiler, the No. 6 overall pick in the '07 draft, also will join Maya on the mound this month.

How on earth will there be enough room for them all, as well as John Lannan and Jason Marquis, who are finally pitching decently, as well as Scott Olsen and Livan Hernandez? In some games, the Nats may piggyback two starting pitchers, spring training style, with one going four innings and the other three.

Remember, as you watch this month, that the Nats are finally able to make distinctions among their starting pitchers that they could never imagine in the Mike-Bacsik past. It may be reassuring to have four pitchers in Lannan, Hernndez, Marquis and Olsen who have all had multiple 190-inning-plus seasons. But all four have something else in common: career ERA's of 4.13, 4.39, 4.56 and 4.78, respectively. The current National League norm is 4.08.

The days when the Nats sought "innings eaters," a euphemism for below-average pitchers who helped avoid a horrid record, may finally be past. Now, they want ERAs that start with "3," not "4." Zimmermann, Maya and Detwiler are going to get every chance to show that they can be in the former category.

"A few days ago, we ranked dead last in 'six-inning starts.' We were first in 'most different starters,' " said President Stan Kasten, his staff saved from disaster by Hernndez alone. "That's a burden on the manager, the bullpen. You're in constant danger of being in disarray. I don't know how we've got 57 wins.

"But this rotation could get fixed really easily, really quickly."

If Strasburg had never missed a start all season, he'd be hitting his innings limit now and the Nats' season-ending discussion would be exactly what it is now: Where are the winning players who must be developed to surround those two No. 1 overall picks?

"We have the pipeline now that it has taken years to build," said Kasten. "We've joined the group of teams that have good consistent farm systems that produce players every year."

We'll see. The jury is out. But, for the next five weeks, Nats fans will be watching another crucial trial of their franchise's Plan. Starting this week, new exhibits will be entered into evidence.

A Ramos and an Espinosa, a Maya and a Detwiler and a rebuilt Zimmermann, all of them mixed with more late-season data on the true value of Desmond, Bernadina, Storen and Morse.

It's not as thrilling as standing for another Strasburg "K" or watching a 500-foot Harper home run in batting practice. But it certainly is fascinating, and important, if you actually like baseball.

boswellt@washpost.com

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