Full disclosure: I am a devoted if hapless Nationals fan, so this post may strike some people as overly optimistic. But after a half-decade of baseball futility in Washington, when our best season was an 81-81 debut that boasted Jose Guillen as our most valuable position player, any inkling of progress merits some celebration.
The Nationals have more than an inkling. They are currently at the transitional stage between afterthought and contender--the middle ground of respectability. A recently ended eight game win streak has them tied for third with the Mets (aided by the floating-belly-up Marlins), and in the performance of several players we can discern what lies ahead.
First off, Michael Morse has vaulted himself into the All-Star conversation since he took over the first base job from Adam Carlos-Pena-wouldn't-sign-with-us-so-this-is-our-backup-plan LaRoche when that journeyman went on the disabled list on May 22. Over 63 games Morse is batting .309 with 13 home runs and a .837 slugging percentage. Second baseman Danny Espinosa has 13 home runs on the season and has been solid defensively--his .237 batting average is not what you'd like to see, but it looks better when you consider that the league average for second basemen is an anemic .257 and that his batting average on balls in play is well below the league average. He is also slugging a robust .470.
Those two could both bolster a solid middle of the order with perennial All-Star candidate (and criminally underrated) third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Jayson Werth, whose extravagant and foolish albatross of a contract doesn't discount the fact that he is having an uncharacteristically bad season, with his average and on-base percentage both about 30 points below his career average.
Jordan Zimmermann is finally beginning to look like the rotation anchor he was drafted to be in his return from Tommy John surgery: he has lowered his ERA in each of his last nine starts and in that span has given up more than two runs only once, when he gave up three over six and a third innings. Speaking of Tommy John surgery, Stephen Strasburg should be fully rehabilitated by the end of the season. The talent he flashed last year before simultaneously blowing out his arm and emotionally paralyzing thousands of Nationals fans was an exceedingly rare confluence of several factors that simply might not be there anymore, but even if he returns at 90% he should be dominant for years to come. Zimmermann and Strasburg's batterymate Wilson Ramos--who the Nats pilfered from the Twins last season in exchange for closer Matt Capps--is emerging as one of the best young catchers in the league.
Then, of course, there are the kids. Concerns about Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon's injury history allowed the Nats to snag him at the sixth pick in this year's draft, giving them perhaps the best hitting talent in the draft. And Bryce Harper, while he may be immature and classless and arrogant (not altogether unexpected for someone who Sports Illustrated compared to LeBron James before he was old enough to vote), promises to be a formidable hitter at the least.
That leaves the Nationals in prime position to land slugging first basemen Prince Fielder after his near-inevitable parting with the Brewers at the end of this season. Most of the league's big spenders already have first basemen locked up in long-term contracts, and the Nationals have both the free payroll and the promise of a bright future to lure Fielder to Washington. There is always a risk in signing a slugger with his body type to a long deal, given the rate at which those hefty frames break down, but at 27 Fielder has several prime years ahead of him.
Building a winning baseball team takes time, particularly when you are saddled with the legacy of the Montreal Expos. But for the first time since they emigrated to the banks of the Potomac, the Nationals are showing tangible signs of becoming a contender.