It’s been five years — longer than it sounds — since the Nationals had a winning record this "late" in the season.
Since that season, their first since moving from Montreal to D.C., burying Youppi in a shallow grave, and dropping "Expos" for something more evocative of the nation’s capital, the Nats have persisted as something of a punchline. They’ve won a paltry 59 games in each of the past two seasons, and fan support and civic enthusiasm have befitted a team that won 59 games in each of the past two seasons.
That’s to say nothing of the Nats’ central role in the Latin American bonus-skimming scandals and the team’s recent refusal to make stadium rent payments to the city. Yes, as infancies go, this one has been colicky and characterized by stunted growth.
A glance at the standings, however, gives rise to optimism. No, there’s nothing especially notable about a .500-ish record, but when it’s the Nats? It’s something.
And it’s also a sign of things to come. Indeed, the Nats have struggled mightily in their brief life, but for a number of reasons, better days are almost certainly ahead.
First and foremost, there are the modest successes of the season to date.
The Nats won’t challenge for the NL East crown in 2010, and in all likelihood they’ll wind up with a losing record. However, this is a genuinely and markedly improved team. Ryan Zimmerman, as he progresses toward his prime seasons, is going to grow into one of the five or so top players in all of baseball. He’s the best defensive third baseman in the National League, and he’s just beginning to realize his offensive potential.
Nyjer Morgan is one of the best defensive center fielders around, and the Nats realize how valuable his glove is given the many young, developing arms that are on the way. As well, Morgan isn’t a bad hitter by up-the-middle standards. Yes, Morgan is 29, but his type of skill set tends to last.
And, although the guys about to be named almost certainly won’t certainly be a part of the organization long-term, value additions like Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Matt Capps prove GM Mike Rizzo can be resourceful and enterprising.
And then, of course, there is St. Stephen. When it comes to the peculiar skill of throwing a baseball over a five-sided plate and making guys with bats look foolish, Stephen Strasburg has more gifts than a rich kid on Christmas morning.
He’s blessed with a fastball that touches 100, breaking stuff that’s just about perfect and a polished change that belies his youth. Throw in a pitcher’s frame and an ace’s stamina, and you’ve got something like the Platonic Ideal of a pitcher.
In terms of ceiling, Strasburg is peerless in today’s game. In the interest of delaying Strasburg’s service-time clock, the Nats are keeping him in the minors for the time being, but he’s ready now and, barring injury, a future ace of the first order. He has been promoted to Triple-A Syracuse and is scheduled to start his first game there on Friday. It’s also encouraging that the organization has been careful — in the "full of care" sense of the word —with Strasburg’s usage and workloads. He’s the kind of talent — conspicuous, hyped, with visually arresting stuff — that will help the team’s flagging attendance.
Yet there is more to the Nationals’ farm system than "merely" the top pitching prospect of his era.
• Derek Norris, a catcher drafted out of a Kansas high school in 2007, has tremendous offensive potential. He’s battled a hand injury this season, but he has done nothing but hit as a pro.
There’s some question as to his ability to remain at catcher, but his bat figures to play — and play well — at any position. He projects as the kind of impact, middle-of-the-order bat the Nats need.
• Stanford product Drew Storen looks like a future shutdown closer at the highest level (he was recently promoted to Triple-A). They’ll have quality shortstop options for years to come in rookie Ian Desmond and polished minor-leaguer Danny Espinosa. Aaron Thompson has upside as a hard-throwing lefty in the high minors. And Eury Perez is a toolsy 19-year-old outfielder in the "keep your eye on this one" category.
• That’s to say nothing of "graduated" pitching prospects like John Lannan and the injured Jordan Zimmermann, who should be important parts of the organization for seasons to come.
• And soon to be added to the fold will (almost certainly) be Bryce Harper. Think of Harper as the catching analog to Strasburg — the best many scouts have ever seen. Presently, Harper is punishing the ball for the College of Southern Nevada, and he’s doing so despite being much younger than his peer group. Harper has advanced skills behind the plate, and his bat is already something of a legend. Provided the Nats do the smart thing and draft Harper in June with the top overall pick, that will give them not one, but two, "once in a generation" prospects in the system.
Let us also not forget that the Nationals — despite the fits and starts and an (understandably) listless fan base — play in a top-10 media market and a slice of the country that boasts high levels of discretionary income.
In other words, this is not and never has been — despite Peter Angelos’ best efforts — a market consigned to failure. The Nationals are, slowly and methodically, getting better on the field, and they’ll soon boast two of most exciting and gifted young players to come along in, well, maybe forever.
So, as it odd as it sounds, wrap your head around this truth: The Washington Nationals are soon going to be a very good baseball team.