Posted: Thursday April 26, 2012 11:57AM ; Updated: Thursday April 26, 2012 1:15PM
Ben Reiter
Ben Reiter>INSIDE BASEBALL

Rise of the Washington Nationals (cont.)

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Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper was sent to Triple-A during spring training but it won't be long before he's wearing a Nationals' uniform for good.
AP

The result was back-to-back 59-win seasons, in '08 and '09. While the No. 1 picks those miserable records produced were well earned, the timing of them was exquisite, as rarely does any draft contain such an obvious franchise-changing phenom like Strasburg -- let alone another, the following season, in Harper. "Luck of the draw," says Rizzo.

The Nationals' final starter, Edwin Jackson, represents a more recent development in Washington's plan to reach long-term, sustainable contention: an increasingly robust participation in the free agent market, at its highest levels. The Nationals made a bid for Maryland native Mark Teixeira during the winter following the 2008 season, before Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees, but they made their first major splash two winters ago, when they signed former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth for seven years and $126 million. Rizzo insists that he pursued Werth primarily for his on-the-field contributions, and while Werth disappointed in his first season with the Nationals, batting .232 with 20 home runs and 58 RBI's ("Obviously, statistically, not going to be satisfied with the numbers," Werth says), he has hit well so far this season: a .292 average and an .833 OPS, both second on the team.

But there was another reason Rizzo coveted Werth. "I think other people saw it more symbolically than I did, but it did kind of tell the world that we're going to be players in the free agent market, that we're an up and coming team," he says.

Prince Fielder saw them as such, as they were a top contender for the slugger's services this winter before the Tigers made him a Godfather offer of nine years and $214 million. "We had interest in him until the numbers, in our minds, got beyond where we could go," Rizzo says. The 28-year-old Jackson, though, viewed Washington as a viable destination, and spurned another suitor's multi-year offer to sign a one-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals in early February.

As the Nationals continue to improve, they will be even more willing to sign future Fielders, and to further increase their major league payroll. The Nationals' payroll is currently baseball's 11th lowest, at $81.3 million, but even so, Rizzo is not surprised that his club has so far found success. "We thought, this winter, that we were going to compete," he says. "Our goal is to play meaningful games in September and beyond."

To do that, the Nationals will need their starting pitchers to continue leading the way. Washington's rotation, according to fangraphs.com, has an average fastball of 93.8 miles per hour, making it cumulatively the hardest throwing since velocities began being recorded in 2001. Strasberg's heater averages 95.7 mph, baseball's fastest, but he insists it's not all about speed. "Velocity, it doesn't mean anything," he says. "Guys can hit it. We're not out there trying to just throw as hard as we can, light up the radar guy. We're out there trying to pitch."

Still, notes Rizzo, his collection of power arms is one sign of a franchise on the upswing. "We used to have sinker, pitch-to-contact guys," he says. "That's who you get when you're not elite."

While there is little reason to believe that the Nationals' deep, hard-throwing rotation will collapse any time soon, there is also little reason to believe that it can continue to pitch to its current standard, as, if it does, it would finish the season with an ERA that is more than three-quarters of a run lower than the best rotational ERA ever recorded, that of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals. That rotation included a pair of Hall of Famers, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, and pitched from a 15-inch mound, which baseball the following season lowered to its current 10 inches partially as a result of its (and particularly Gibson's) success.

Indeed, if the Nationals are to reach their first-ever postseason this year, they will likely need their lineup to carry more of the burden than at present. Washington currently ranks tied for 20th in the majors in runs per game, at 3.6,, and might further struggle if a sore shoulder forces third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise's longtime centerpiece and No. 3 hitter, to the disabled list. The eventual return from injury of Mike Morse, a Rizzo find who hit 31 home runs with 95 RBIs last season, should help, but so too could the promotion of a player who, at 19, would be the league's youngest by nearly 22 months: Harper.

"We'd like a little more lefthanded presence in the lineup, and he's the piece," says manager Davey Johnson. Although Harper has not statistically impressed through his first 17 games in Triple-A -- he's hitting .239, with one home run and two RBI's -- Rizzo insists that he has not looked overmatched there. His Nationals debut could occur in a matter of weeks. "We're not going to hold him back," says Rizzo. "We think he's that special, as far as ability level. When he's ready mentally, physically and emotionally to come up to the big leagues, perform in the big leagues and stay in the big leagues, we'll bring him up."

Strasburg agrees that Harper is on the cusp, and will fit in seamlessly. "Harp's a good guy, and in a lot of ways, we're a lot alike," he says, in his rapid monotone. "He's the type of player that wants to go out there and not just beat people, but kick the crap out of them. So do I, absolutely."

When Harper does arrive, he will find a club very different from even the one that drafted him two years ago. "He's going to be coming into a team that's already young and talented, and he's just going to add to it," says Werth. "The nucleus of this team is set, and it should be here for a long time."

"It used to be that when you were at home and said hey, I play for the Washington Nationals, you'd kind of say it into your fist," says shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the organization's few holdovers from the pre-Lerner and Rizzo days. "Now that everything's moving in the right direction, you can say it with your chest out."

In the coming years, Desmond's rib cage should only further expand, as the front office's disciplined, nuanced rebuilding strategy has produced a club with all the components of -- and, in particular, the starting rotation of -- a perennial contender. In fact, the Nationals might currently be in the early stages of something that in Washington D.C. is usually reserved for political families: a dynasty.

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