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August 19, 2009

Future Shock

A Nationals Recovery Plan

by Kevin Goldstein

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On Monday night, the Nationals did the best thing possible for the future of the organization by signing the number one overall pick of the 2009 draft, Stephen Strasburg. While they once again have the worst record in baseball, the club has been showing signs of life, with a winning record since the All-Star break, and while there's certainly nowhere to go but up, there are signs of life here. It's impossible-if not downright stupid-to say the Nationals can be the next Rays or anything, but there is plenty of evidence that thing are moving in the right direction, and as early as next year, they won't be the laughing stock of major league baseball. Here are three recommendations.

1. Keep Doing What You Are Doing With Young Players

The youngest rotation in baseball gets a little bit younger and a whole lot more talented with the addition of Strasburg, who realistically should be up at some point in the early part of the 2010 season. Current "ace" John Lannan is hardly that, but he is at least a solid number four or five type, while Garrett Mock might be finally putting up the numbers to match what have always been above-average scouting reports. While it will take an extra year for Jordan Zimmermann to return to action following elbow surgery, he'll add a fourth starter to the rotation in 2011, and while it's not exactly the youth and depth in young pitching that you'll find in Oakland and Texas, it's still an impressive group. As far the bullpen in our nation's capital, fellow 2009 first-round pick Drew Storen is moving quickly, and righty Clint Everts is close to being one of the better feel-good stories around after being all but written off after numerous elbow problems.

The Nationals do have a core of young talent to work around in the lineup as well. Ryan Zimmerman, one of the better third basemen around, is only 24 years old, and he's a plus-plus defender with a strong bat who is highly similar to Scott Rolen in his prime. Catcher Jesus Flores (also 24) looked to be taking a big step forward before suffering a shoulder injury in May, and while it seems like he's been around forever, ultra-talented yet troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes is only 25 years old. That's a healthy young core group, and with underrated semi-veterans like Josh Willingham, Nyjer Morgan, and Cristian Guzman in the order as well, the team has a chance to fill out a lineup card next year that features few superstars, but also few automatic outs.

How does one fill the holes? By following a philosophy that worked well last year...

2. Take Advantage Of The Depressed Free Agent Market Again

Remember when Adam Dunn was going to get that huge deal last winter? That never materialized, as the fantasy strategy known as "stars and scrubs" now is being using in the free-agent market, as the truly monster talents get truly monster deals, leaving little money for players just below that. Contracts like $5 million for Bobby Abreu to the Angels and $3.38 million for Orlando Hudson to the Dodgers have proven to be some of the best bargains in the game, as is the two-year $20 million deal the Nationals gave to Adam Dunn. With Austin Kearns and Dmitri Young coming off the payroll this winter, Washington will have a bit of cash to spend, and if they exercise patience once again, they can easily supplement the group of youngsters with valuable, productive vets.

3. Your Future GM Has Been Under Your Nose For Three Years

There has been lots of speculation in recent days about the General Manager position in Washington, as the Nationals have been conducting interviews and may make an announcement as early as this week, with many believing that Jerry DiPoto, Arizona's current Director of Pro Scouting, is the favorite for the job.

No offense to DiPoto, who is an excellent evaluator of talent in his own right, but the man who deserves the job has had the interim tag in front of his position since March, and that's about five months too long. You see all that young talent in Arizona? That was assembled during the watch of Mike Rizzo. Notice how the talent well has dried up a bit for the Diamondbacks? That's no coincidence, either. One of the most respected men in the industry, and one of the best evaluators of young players both within his own organizations and others, the fact the Rizzo has yet to be named the permanent general manager in Washington is laughable, and letting him go would potentially be as damaging to the organization as any player-related move.

The Nationals are not on their way to a sudden 90-win season, or becoming America's darlings with a young, media-savvy front office, but there's talent here, both on the field and among the decision makers if they simply stick with what's slowly working, as opposed to looking for that magic bullet.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article.

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