Coming into 2010, the Nationals were the worst team in the league for two seasons running, and it was hard to expect much more this year. They are in last place, once again, sitting 6.5 games out in the tightly competitive NL East.

But the standings don’t show the progress. Inept GM Jim Bowden was replaced by the more-ept Mike Rizzo, and the team has started to take shape.


This Year Gives Hope

The Nationals are no longer the worst team in baseball. Until a recent sweep by the Astros, Washington was bobbing right around .500.

The middle of the lineup is solid. 3-4-5 hitters Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham all have slugging percentages over .500. Zim’s is over .600, and Willingham is second in OBP,  trailing only King Albert Pujols.

The bullpen is stupid good.

Matt Capps has 17 saves and a 2.81 ERA. Tyler Clippard has seven wins and a 1.77 ERA. Four of the top five relievers have K/9 rates above 8.0 and ERAs below 4.00.

Ian Desmond, the talented young shortstop, is ably adjusting to his starting role.

Livan Hernandez, the old fan favorite, is mowing down opponents like a landscaper on rocket fuel—his 2.15 ERA ranks sixth in the league.

Relief ace and 2009 first round pick Drew Storen quickly bushwhacked through the minors, and has started chopping through the majors.

And then there’s The One. The Fireball King, the Habanera Hurler, the Shoulder-bullet Sharpshooter, the Strikeout Service Station.

Stephen Strasburg.

In 55.1 minor league innings, over two different stops this season, Strasburg has a 1.30 ERA, seven wins in 11 starts, a 65:13 K:BB ratio, and has allowed a .158 opponents batting average.

And he throws 102 MPH, with good command of his secondary pitches.

And let’s not forget the Nationals have the first overall pick in this month’s draft, where they will take Bryce Harper—whom Sports Illustrated calls baseball’s LeBron.

There are enough pieces in place now. The Nationals can start thinking about contention.

When you ask what the Nationals still need, the answer is no longer “everything.”


So what do the Nationals need?

A better rotation.

Strasburg will be an ace. John Lannan is a solid 4-5 starter, filling a role. Marquis, when he gets back, could provide a quality arm.

But Washington still needs two good starters to fill out their rotation.

Maybe Jordan Zimmermann, who was punching out batters like an office supply store before Tommy John surgery last season, can be part of that bridge. But recovery from that surgery takes 12 to 18 months.

The Nationals likely won’t know whether he’s fully recovered until 2011.

Familiar prospects like Ross Detwiler, Colin Balester, and Shairon Martis are like lottery tickets—it would be great if one turned out to be a winner, but don’t hold your breath.

The quickest way to pitching help is through trading.


Who’s available?

Roy Oswalt

Oswalt is a proven veteran—unlike any other pitcher in the Nationals’ organization. He’s still putting up great numbers—a 2.78 ERA and 9.08 K/9 this season. And Oswalt said he would accept a trade to the Nationals.

But he is owed a lot of money.

For a team that needs to rebuild, like the Astros, this is exactly what midseason trades are for—clearing money off the books and getting new prospects in return.

The biggest obstacles to an Oswalt trade is Houston’s stubborn refusal to go into rebuilding mode, even as it has become increasingly obvious that the Astros are not quite market ready, and their R&D department lacks impact prospects.

To counteract this, the Nationals will likely have to give up decent prospects and take on most or all of Oswalt’s $16 million salary next year. Washington will also be on the hook for whatever portion of the $15 million Oswalt is still due this year.

Who might the Nationals offer for Oswalt?

Chris Marrero, former first round pick and slugging first baseman, has been mentioned. So have pitching prospects Shairon Martis, Brad Meyers, and Drew Storen. With both Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy under control, the Nationals could even move Ian Desmond.

Ideally, their payroll flexibility would mitigate against having to give up too many prospects. But moving Marrero, Martis, or Desmond—or even two of the three—to acquire Oswalt would still be a net gain.


Tom Gorzelanny

Recently bumped from the rotation, the Cubs don’t seem to have much faith in Gorzelanny’s 3.66 ERA, or his 9.23 K/9. Gorzo had one quality, 14-win season with the Pirates in 2007. But then he became injury prone and was written off.

But in roughly 100 total innings over the last two seasons, he’s looked better than ever.

Gorzo is in the first of his three arbitration years, which means the Nationals would have control of him until 2012. Salaries usually increase in arbitration, but still represent a discount from the free agent market. The Nationals need arms, so asking about him—as long as they’re not giving up more than a Shairon Martis-type—makes sense.

Mark Buerhle

This is a long shot, but there have been some articles considering a possible Mark Buerhle trade.

Like Oswalt, Buerhle is owed a lot—$14 million in both 2010 and 2011—but would bring proven success to the Nationals. The White Sox are far out of contention, and if they consider 2011 a rebuilding year, Chicago might be willing to move Buerhle.

The package for Buehrle would look similar to the Oswalt deal. The Nationals’ ability to take on salary would be crucial, as their prospects are not quite grade A.

Marrero or Desmond might need to be packaged with a couple prospects in the low minors, like low-A outfielder Destin Hood. A deal like this would make the most sense if Buerhle agreed to extend his contact with the Nationals.

Other pitchers, like Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, might be available in July. But, given the Nationals’ Hail-Mary chances, it makes the more sense not to break the bank for a one-year rental.

There’s hope for the Nationals yet.

Wouldn’t it be uplifting if they were finally in a position to add talent this summer?

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