Friday, August 27, 2010

Enough Mourning... Now Back to Rebuilding

Almost exactly a year ago, Nationals fans got the worst possible news: Tommy John surgery for Jordan Zimmermann, then emerging as one of the top 25-30 pitchers in baseball. Today, it's deja vu all over again.

But guess what? (Here comes the positive spin--you know I'm always here to find the silver lining.) A year goes by pretty fast. And you just don't lose that much sleep when there's nothing to play for and your team is in no position to compete anyway, as the Nationals were in 2010 and will be again in 2011.

Seriously, how much time did you spend this season fretting over the games the Zimmermann didn't start? If you're a prospect hound or a season-ticket holder, you probably noticed the difference. But if you're like the vast majority of Nationals fans, you're thinking, "well, they weren't going anywhere anyway..." (And that's before you even think about how the guy who filled Zimmermann's spot in the rotation is sporting a fine 3.36 ERA in 169 innings pitched.)

So Strasburg won't pitch in 2011, and there's a new risk factor increasing the likelihood that he doesn't fulfill the otherworldly expectations we all had after watching him blow away 14 Pirates in his debut.

But assuming that Strasburg, like most Tommy John survivors these days, comes back as good as new, the Nationals are no further from contention today than they were two days ago. The year 2012 now becomes the optimist's target date for a breakthrough, with 2013 more realistic still.

In fact, that season--the final year of Ryan Zimmerman's contract and Bryce Harper's age 20 season--is really the year the team has to be gunning for, and all their assets should be managed with that season in mind.

That means the most important question when it comes to Adam Dunn is whether you believe he can maintain his current level of solid, sub-all star value through his age 33 season. It's possible, but it's a bad bet.

It also means that Mike Rizzo should be building the team with a close eye on the anticipated free agent classes of 2010 and 2011. First base is loaded over the next two years, so there's an easy back-up plan in case Dunn flops or the team decides to trade him or let him go for the draft picks.

The draft is another area that again becomes relevant to the team's strategy for building a contender. Since the team is headed for likely another top five draft pick in 2011, maybe the #3 overall, they have another great chance to land a premium talent through the draft. And the early scouting of the 2011 draft says it's a class stacked with college bats--exactly the class of players most likely to be able to contribute quickly.

The Nationals have a lot of problems to solve. But now, they have a clear timeline for addressing them. By opening day 2013, the team must solve the following list of problems. They have plenty of tools to do it, but it's going to require a very strong run of player management decisions--the very list of decisions that will define Rizzo's tenure as GM:
  • Find out if Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa can be the double-play combo for a contender
  • Find at least two more top-40 starting pitchers, either through trades, player development, or free agency, to go with Zimmermann and Strasburg. No one else in the organization--not Lannan, Detwiler, whoever--should be counted on for more than one rotation spot at most.
  • Identify the catcher of the future from among Wilson Ramos, Derek Norris, and Jesus Flores.
  • Find an outfield. Gotta pencil in Harper for one of those spots, but Josh Willingham is running out of team-controlled years, and Nyjer Morgan won't be any better at age 32 than he is now.

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