Nationals are dealing in the futures market

Ryan Zimmerman is one of the Nationals' few established players

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.

2010 record: 69-93
Finish: Fifth place, NL East
2010 final payroll: $71.9 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $67 million

Offseason action

Dipping is a dangerous and powerful addiction, and Stephen Strasburg(notes) should be praised for trying to kick the habit of inserting tobacco in his mouth for hours on end. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo engaged in another kind of dipping, just as buzz-generating and potentially dangerous.

Rizzo dipped deep into the free-agent pool and came away with a big fish: outfielder Jayson Werth(notes). Actually, the seafood analogy doesn't apply because Werth's seven-year, $126 million contract makes the world's most expensive fish seem like the world's biggest bargain. The deal, struck on the eve of the winter meetings, flabbergasted rival executives. Rizzo, though, recognized an indisputable element of team-building: Top free agents won't sign with a chronically losing franchise unless they are vastly overpaid.

The Werth signing was designed to give the Nationals traction in the market and hopefully a few more victories per season. So they splurged this once. Maybe they'll have to do it again in a year, and maybe their roster will offer enough upside that an attractive free agent would sign for something less than the premium handed a player who turns 32 in May yet has fewer than 3,000 major league at-bats.

And just maybe it'll be a top starting pitcher, because that's what the Nationals sorely need. Strasburg is recovering nicely from Tommy John surgery but won't be a factor in 2011. The only starter acquired during the offseason was Tom Gorzelanny(notes), a soft-tossing lefty who posted solid numbers in 2007 but hasn't done much since. Overtures to more substantial arms – Cliff Lee(notes), Carl Pavano(notes), Jorge De La Rosa(notes), Zack Greinke(notes) – were rebuffed. The Nats couldn't even lure guys coming off injuries: Brandon Webb(notes), Jeff Francis(notes), Justin Duchscherer(notes) and Chris Young all signed elsewhere.

New first baseman Adam LaRoche(notes) won't replace all the power numbers lost when Adam Dunn(notes) opted to leave, but the well-rounded Werth will be a boost. Rick Ankiel(notes) could run into a few fastballs. Veteran utility players Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) and Alex Cora(notes) provide insurance for a young middle infield.

Reality check

Draft day in June could be exhilarating again in Washington, something to dream about. The Nationals used the No. 1 overall pick the last two years for Strasburg and teenage slugger Bryce Harper(notes), paid them a total of $25 million, and voila, a future was born.

This year they pick sixth, and in a draft chockfull of premium college pitchers, the Nats almost assuredly will get an arm that by 2013 or 2014 could plug into a rotation led by Strasburg and including Jordan Zimmermann(notes),, John Lannan(notes) and current minor-league prospects A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis.

By then Harper will be the everyday right fielder. By then the middle infield of Ian Desmond(notes) and Danny Espinosa(notes) could be a strength instead of a question mark. By then either Wilson Ramos(notes) or Derek Norris(notes) could be the league's best catcher. By then Drew Storen(notes) could be an All-Star closer. By then Ryan Zimmerman(notes) – the team's best player – might have agreed to another long-term extension instead of dashing out the door.

For now, though, the Nationals are staring at another last-place finish. An immediate, albeit modest, goal would be to crack the 70-win barrier. They improved by 10 victories last season, from 59 to 69, but that was with the intoxicating promise of Strasburg permeating the franchise.

He's on the shelf for 2011, and it's possible the team takes a step backward before surging forward. The Nationals are all about 2013 and beyond, all about something to dream on.

Nationals in haiku
Strasburg and Harper
Zimmerman and Zimmermann
Werth is relative

Next: Detroit Tigers