Nationals’ buzz hinges on Strasburg

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues at No. 26 with the Washington Nationals.

2009 record: 59-103
Finish: Fifth place, National League East
2009 final payroll: $69.2 million
Estimated 2010 opening day payroll: $60 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Before the excitement gets too far out of hand, the following regards the Washington Nationals. So, Matt Capps(notes), the team’s freshly minted closer, please accept this early nomination for Hyperbole of the Year.

“I wanted to find an opportunity to win right away,” he said upon signing with the Nationals. Capps, a burly reliever, pulled off a mighty impressive feat: He went from the second-worst team in the National League, Pittsburgh, to the worst, Washington, and was ecstatic to have done so.

The reality: The Nationals are not going to win this year. Which is fine, as long as Capps can live with $3.5 million giving him ample reason to sign. The good news: They’re not going to lose 100-plus games, either, and such progress comes from a mixture of smart long-term planning as well as short-term moves that aren’t terribly smart but serve the purpose of pushing the Nationals toward respectability.

Jason Marquis(notes) is about the most mediocre pitcher imaginable – a 99 career ERA+ (100 is average) – and somehow the Nationals justified handing him $15 million. Ivan Rodriguez(notes) can barely hit the weight he carried as Pudge, and the Nationals threw $3 million at him. To Capps, that is progress, because the names are recognizable, and most Nationals’ aren’t.

General manager Mike Rizzo, a genuinely bright baseball mind, sees the signings as price-of-doing-business transactions. He wants to avoid 100 losses again, not just to make himself look good but to remind others that this isn’t nearly the team it was.

REALITY CHECK

The Year of Strasburg is nigh, and as much as Capps was elated to see Marquis signing with Washington, the fan base in D.C. is a sliver more excited to see Him. And so deified is Stephen Strasburg(notes), the 21-year-old right-hander, that the capital H fits.

Whether Strasburg does likewise on the Nationals’ opening day roster will be the story of spring training in Viera, Fla. The No. 1 pick in last season’s draft has the stuff, certainly, his 100-mph fastball and 90-mph slider each major league ready. Whether Washington chooses to give him some Triple-A seasoning depends on how he pitches during spring training, where scrutiny and pressure will pick up.

Lesser known is Drew Storen, the reliever Washington chose nine picks after Strasburg, and perhaps an even faster mover. Storen finished last season with 12 1/3 shutout innings at Double-A, and he’ll force himself into the Nationals’ bullpen one way or another.

The Nationals won’t win until they get good pitching, and John Lannan(notes) alone doesn’t qualify. Their minor league pitching landscape beyond Strasburg and Storen is barren, and the Nationals are unwilling to pursue the top-end free agents to fill that vacuum.

Hope remains, this being D.C. and all, and it comes in human form. Strasburg means everything to this team, inasmuch as one man – a rookie, no less – can constitute such excitement. His starts, whether in April or May or whenever he arrives, will sell out. His jerseys will litter the stands. He will make the Nationals relevant again.

The Year of Strasburg can’t start soon enough.

NATIONALS IN HAIKU
Better than last year
And now they have rally cry
Stephen, get here stat!

NEXT:Houston Astros

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 14, 2010