I've been dialing back my writing a bit lately, in part because of real-life demands but also because I frankly didn't want to harsh everyone's buzz. The Nationals have been a fun team to be a fan of this year, with likable players overperforming and more wins than losses. And you even get to do a little scoreboard-watching and think about things like wild card races and standings.
In the middle of all that, who wants to listen to someone like me making snide remarks about how this is mostly a small sample-size blip?
As I've discussed many times before, my outlook as a fan is that I root for championships. Getting from 70 wins to 81 wins is nice, but unless it's part of a progression to 90-95 wins and contention, I'm just not that enthused.
I grew up as a Cubs fan and a Packers fan, and I saw the Cubs in '84 and '89 and the Packers in '89. Those teams were fun while they lasted, but the '85 Cubs and '90 Cubs and Pack were rough hangovers. It was watching the Packers and the Bulls in the '90s that made me want more than the occasional fluke-y playoff run. I want my team to be well run enough to contend and stay in contention over a sustained period of time.
With the exception of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, the Nationals players who are contributing to the surprise run of .500 baseball are almost surely not the core of a contending team here in DC.
Dunn is 30 and is not likely to age well. Willingham is 31 and also doesn't have the kind of career trajectory you'd expect to carry into his mid-30s. Livan Hernandez, Cristian Guzman, and Ivan Rodriguez are all almost done. Nyjer Morgan turns 30 in July. Scott Olsen is damaged goods. Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard are useful guys to have around, but they aren't going to keep doing what they're doing now.
Bottom line, the vast majority of the Nationals' current roster is guys who are going to be getting worse, not better, over the next two years.
When Stephen Strasburg arrives, we'll see add another piece of a future contender. Jordan Zimmermann is another. But then that's pretty much all the help we're going to get from the minors for a while. Derek Norris will be the top prospect in the system, but he's still a year or two away at best. Bryce Harper won't be here till 2013 or later.
Right now, based on run differential (no, you can't just subtract Jason Marquis), they're 20-24. That's a 73-win pace. Let's be generous and spot them another 5 for good faith and say they're a 78-win team now.
Where does the improvement come from to get to 90 wins? Strasburg can do a lot. If he's the 2009 Zack Greinke, he can add 9.4 wins. And that's not out of the question. The guy is that good.
But let's be reasonable and say he adds 5 wins next year--something like Chris Carpenter or Josh Johnson last year. That gets you to 83 wins. Hope for Jordan Zimmermann, but he's still got a long road back.
Then start subtracting for all the players who will likely be at least a little (maybe a lot) worse while waiting for the next wave of premium minor league talent: Livo, Pudge, Dunn, Willingham, Capps, Clippard, Olsen, Morgan, Guzman, Kennedy... basically the whole team.
Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy the team is doing better. Remember, I was the #1 guy rooting for Mike Rizzo to take over this club. And I was at the game Saturday cheering in the rain when Adam Dunn knocked in the game-winning run with a base hit past the left fielder the Orioles use at second base.
But for all the progress they've made putting a respectable product on the field, I don't think they've made much if any progress assembling the a future contender, putting together the core of elite talent that will get better and peak together and win for a sustained period of time. From that perspective, they've added Strasburg to Zimmerman, and that's about it.