Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Washington Nationals.
2011 record: 80-81
Finish: Third, NL East
2011 final payroll: $68.3 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $80 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 14th
Hashtags: #teamboras, #leftFielder, #everydayisstrasmas, #lightsout, #hurryharper, #jaysonsrevenge
In 2009, when the Nationals lost 103 games, their pitchers allowed 874 runs. Two years later, they cut that total by 231 runs.
That is why GM Mike Rizzo (with owner Ted Lerner's money) has Washington standing somewhere close to contending, to where those No. 1 picks and empty sections at Nationals Park and viewer-less TV broadcasts are beginning to amount to something.
In a division where the Philadelphia Phillies probably aren't aging quite fast enough, funny, neither are the Nationals. Except, while the Phillies are hoping to hold onto the primes of their impact players, the Nats wait for prospects to become grown men, or at least grown ballplayers.
With a mind on buying time for his youngsters, Rizzo dabbled in the Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt and Prince Fielder markets, but perhaps without the commitment he held, say, a year ago, in the Jayson Werth market.
Instead, he upgraded his rotation by trading four well-regarded prospects to Oakland for 26-year-old left-hander Gio Gonzalez, then signed him to a five-year, $42 million extension. It was the largest-ever contract for a first-time arbitration eligible player. Gonzalez had found himself over the past two seasons with the A's, winning 15 games in 2010 and 16 in '11.
[ Fantasy: Five Pressing Questions for Washington Nationals ]
And while he sacrificed some of the better arms in his system for Gonzalez, Rizzo still has at least a couple good ones in lefty Matt Purke and righty Alex Meyer, college pitchers from the 2011 draft.
We come to the point in our rankings where a second wild card might hold serious interest.
Here's the thing: The Nats aren't making up 22 wins on the Phillies. Not yet. But, in a league where two of the postseason qualifiers lost their best hitters (Milwaukee and St. Louis), and where the Atlanta Braves don't seem all that interested in doing much, and where the NL West didn't exactly light the winter on fire, the Nats might have a shot.
They picked up 10 wins in '10 and another 11 in '11. If '12 treats them anything like that …
They'd be close, if not in.
So here's what has to go right:
• Center field. Who plays there might depend on whether Bryce Harper, at 19, is ready for the big leagues after 387 minor league at-bats. Davey Johnson believes Harper is ready. Rizzo says that if Harper shows him something in spring training, he won't be afraid to start the arbitration clock. If Harper makes it to opening day, he'll be the right fielder, Mike Morse the left fielder and Werth the center fielder. If Harper starts the year in Triple-A, Werth probably moves back to right and Roger Bernadina or Cameron – at a spry 39 – could play center.
• First base. Prince didn't work out, but Adam LaRoche is standing by. His 2011 season undone by shoulder surgery after 43 dreadful games, he is only a year-and-a-half removed from a 25-homer, 100-RBI season in Arizona.
• Left field. Morse is a beast. He'll have to be again.
• Third base. Healthy, Ryan Zimmerman runs the offense. Injured, he hits 12 home runs in 101 games.
• Right field. Look, Werth was in the right place at the right time and got an amazing contract. Maybe he's not a $126-million player. But he's not what he was in 2011, either. He's due for a bounce-back season.
• Opening day starter. Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery for his first full big league season. In five September starts, all held to under 80 pitches, he allowed 15 hits in 24 innings and struck out 24.
There is only one, and that is Bryce Harper.
Great stroke, great arm, great speed and great head for the game.
And, yet, only one year of junior college ball and one year in the minors, including all of 37 games above A-ball.
The Nationals can take their shot with him in April, hope he figures it out, hope he can live with the occasional failures, when he's perhaps overmatched for the first time in his life.
Maybe it's worth the risk.
Because there's another part of his game that's equally great: his unshakeable certainty.
Nationals in Haiku
He's Junior, A-Rod,
In an age of overkill,
Bryce, what don't we know?
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