Washington Nationals might finally give baseball something to talk about, win or lose

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:48 AM

Since last season, three things have happened to the Washington Nationals that matter in the long run: Stephen Strasburg's elbow surgery has been a success - so far; Bryce Harper, at 18, hit .343 against major-league-ready prospects in the Arizona Fall League; and owner Ted Lerner spent $126 million on one free agent.

All these developments point toward a period in Washington baseball that will be filled with anticipation, trepidation and exactly the kind of theater this city missed for a third of a century.

When you're close to Washington, it's easy to underestimate the huge impact of a small number of people on a team's whole future. Fans notice that Adam LaRoche and Tom Gorzelanny just arrived. That's nice, but it's noise. When baseball people gather, at a World Series or in spring training, they look at a bigger picture. In that context, the Nats look like they are just a couple of years and a couple of "ifs" - albeit big ones - from joining the sport's adult conversation. That last happened in the 1930s.

What's different this time is the scale of the stakes. In sports, it's unequivocally better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But in Washington, baseball fans haven't even been given that chance. Nobody under 90 can remember a Washington team that was worth more than a slow dance. Soon, grand passion, or pain, may beckon.

If a genie gave a franchise three wishes, you might ask for a pitching ace, a young cornerstone slugger and a billionaire owner willing to spend to put a team around them. Just 17 months ago, the Nats didn't have any of them. Now, they're close to having all three, plus two of the game's better everyday players in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. By late September, Strasburg may be back on the Nationals Park mound, Harper could be up from the minors and Lerner will presumably be ready to spend again next winter.

However, as in all page-turners, the plot doesn't have to work out this way. In time, Strasburg's name might be almost too painful for fans to say aloud. His first game might literally be his best ever. Harper could stumble over any pitfall that awaits prodigies. And Lerner may end up muttering, "Do I really owe Werth $21 million in 2017?"

Is the Nats' prognosis optimistic or pessimistic? Wrong question.

What's headed our way is more exciting and ambivalent than taking sides in a bar argument. We're about to see the first piece of D.C. baseball history in generations that carries real weight.

That drama will start sooner than most expect. By August, somewhere in the minors, Strasburg probably will be pitching again, the first step toward finding out if his future is more like Roger Clemens or Kerry Wood. This will be a hold-your-breath thriller so intense you may wish it were a novel rather than a reality where an unhappy ending happens to a real person and a whole franchise.

How precarious is Strasburg's path back? The doctors say history predicts an 89 percent chance of a full recovery. Nine pitchers in last year's All-Star Game came back from the same Tommy John surgery. Sounds very good.

However, as we learned this week from Adam Kilgore's story, 4 1/2 months after his ligament-replacement surgery, Strasburg is right on schedule: which means he's limited to "throwing" a softball a foot in the air. He's allowed to flip it with his fingertips as long as he doesn't twitch his elbow.

I don't go to movies that scary.

If Strasburg makes it back, consider his potential instant impact. In his first five seasons, Dwight Gooden went 17-9, 24-4, 17-6, 15-7 and 18-9. When you add a .700-plus pitcher to your rotation (and thus subtract your worst starter, too) the combined effect can take a .500 team to 90 wins and postseason contention in just one year.

While every Strasburg progress report will make our hearts skip, Harper may be causing palpitations, too. Scouts are sometimes accused of herd-think.

But when it comes to the greatest of young hitters, they usually nail it. After his five weeks in Arizona, against prospects two to five years older, Harper's stock actually rose.

Yes, the sample size was limited: six extra-base hits in nine games. AFL rules held him to two games a week. But every eye was on him every day side-by-side with many of the best from Class AA and AAA ball. Some are now ranking him the No. 1 hitter in the minors at any level - and he hasn't even played in the minors yet.

Premature praise can be a kiss of death. But I say: Hitters can hit. Remember Strasburg in Viera last spring? That'll be Harper next month in Nats exhibition games.

It'd be criminal not to give Harper seasoning. He needs to go somewhere in the minors and slug .600 for 500 at-bats. But some of the all-time greats have shown that the road doesn't need to be long.

At 18, Mickey Mantle hit .383 at Joplin. Then at 19, he was on pace for 200 RBI, so the Yanks called him up. At 20, he was third in the AL MVP vote. Both Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were up to stay at 19, too, and stars at 20. At 19, minor leaguers had Ted Williams so confused he only slugged .701. The next year, the AL held him to 145 RBI.

Normally, I don't plague teenagers with such crazy precedents. But Harper was on the cover of SI at 16 and wore a black-on-black suit with velvet lapels to his $9.9 million signing news conference. So I think he is already either immune or doomed.

So, be excited, curious and worried. But be patient.

I hate to be the bearer of perspective, but best case, it's likely to be 2013 before Strasburg and Harper click together, the rookie class of '10 truly matures and Lerner has had two more offseasons, not just one, to fill out a playoff-contending roster. It takes at least that long - with luck.

But things are different this time. After generations, D.C. has a team with key characters so large and stakes so high, that it will succeed - or fail - on a grand scale.

For a town that has endured 75 years without a baseball team worthy of so much as a goodnight kiss, the day is approaching when Washington will finally get a chance to love or lose.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company