Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/3/12

2012 Outlook – 52 (T-15th)

The last time the Washington Nationals even sniffed a playoff berth was the first season they were the Washington Nationals: 2005. The move from Montreal was most unfortunate for those north of the border, but baseball in the District of Columbia was excited for baseball, as 2.7 million people filled the turnstiles to watch the Nationals. And they competed, holding first place for 53 games. Washington was even within three games of a wild card slot as late as September 17th, but a 4-9 finish doomed the first Nationals to an 81-81 final record. It is still the best effort the former Expos have managed.

No longer is it a question of if the Nationals can get over the .500 hump but when they will. Last year’s squad finished at 80-81 despite losing Stephen Strasburg for nearly the entire season and Ryan Zimmerman — the only holdover from that 2005 squad — played just 101 games. Bryce Harper time is on the horizon and could come as soon as this season. Mike Morse showed great potential as a power hitter and Wilson Ramos is a promising young catcher. There’s even a solid rotation behind Strasburg, featuring fellow youngster Jordan Zimmermann, blockbuster trade target Gio Gonzalez and free agent get Edwin Jackson. The bullpen headlined by Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard is strong as well. There’s a lot to like about this 2012 Washington Nationals team.

That said, they play in one of baseball’s deepest divisions and will have to compete with the Phillies, Braves and Marlins for NL East honors, and this is not a team without holes. Ian Desmond has struggled at shortstop for two years in a row. An Opening Day outfield of Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Jayson Werth (thanks to Morse’s injury) contains maybe one starter on a typical playoff roster, and Adam LaRoche‘s best days are well behind him. These shortcomings will probably be too much for the Nationals to overcome in the National League’s most competitive division.

2013+ Outlook – 55 (T-9th)

The Nationals won’t have a young lineup this season — between Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel, Adam LaRoche, Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady, there’s plenty of age to go around. But almost all of the key pieces are 27 or younger — Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Henry Clippard. This is a core of young, cost-controlled players who will define the franchise for at least a few more years.

And then there’s the fruits of the early draft picks the Nationals have had thanks to their poor performances over the last few years. A few of those fruits went over to the Athletics in exchange for Gio Gonzalez, and so Washington’s farm system no longer showcases the depth it did in recent years. Still, it’s nearly impossible to beat what the Natoinals have at the top in Bryce Harper and 2011 first rounders Anthony Rendon and Alex Meyer.

The lack of depth is one thing that pushes the Nationals’ ranking down to merely ninth, but if some of their lesser prospects — think Steve Lombardozzi or Destin Hood, among others — can develop into useful parts at the major league level, they’ll be able to produce one of the majors’ deepest young teams over the next three seasons.

Financial Resources – 54 (T-8th)

The Nationals haven’t been a big-payroll club since they’ve moved from Montreal — where revenues were ever dwindling along with the Olympic Stadium crowds — but salaries in the nation’s capital are on the rise. The Nationals have $83 million in obligations for 2012 according to Cot’s Contracts, up $29 million from just five years ago. They’ll need to keep increasing payroll in order to retain all the young talent on hand — they’ve already handed out a $100 million extension to Ryan Zimmerman to go with Jayson Werth’s $121 million deal.

Luckily, they’ll have some time. Desmond, Storen, Espinosa and Ramos haven’t even hit arbitration yet. Zimmermann and Clippard are just in their first season. Strasburg is already paid on a major league deal — $4.875 million for this season — but will have four seasons of arbitration (likely a Super Two in 2013) remaining. Gonzalez also is paid on an arbitration scale in his five year, $42 million deal — it doesn’t hit eight figures until 2015.

With Forbes ranking the Nationals as the 16th-most valuable franchise in baseball — largely due to market size — there’s reason to believe the Nationals can get the revenue they’ll need to keep a significant portion of this core around. Especially if they start winning.

Baseball Operations – 46 (T-20th)

Mike Rizzo has brought in one big time free agent, that of course being Jayson Werth and his massive contract. As the Nationals were also in on Mark Teixeira, it wouldn’t surprise if the move was a mandate from ownership to bring in a highly visible free agent.

His action in free agency has been otherwise minimal — small veteran pieces like Rick Ankiel and Ivan Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang that hardly give us enough of a look to truly judge his talent evaluating abilities. He’s also made one huge trade, sending four top prospects out for Gio Gonzalez. It is a move that has been met with mixed reactions, as Gonzalez can be a polarizing pitcher. Yes, he’s been excellent the last two years, particularly in the lens of ERA, but it’s impossible to ignore his propensity for the walk. Again, Rizzo hasn’t really made enough moves for us to get to know him well.

In the other aspect, drafting, Rizzo and the Nationals have done well with the cards dealt to them, getting Stephen Strasburg to the majors and infusing the organization with top talent like Harper and Rendon. The tougher tests will come as the Nationals have to draft in the double digits in the first round, but prior to the Gonzalez deal the Nationals had developed a deep system thanks to players beyond those early draft picks like Derek Norris and A.J. Cole (both fourth round picks).

The Werth contract will be a black mark on Rizzo until (and perhaps beyond) the time the Nationals are a winning franchise. Part of that is simply because his team hasn’t had to make many hard decisions with Rizzo in the front office. As the Nationals approach relevancy on the field, Rizzo will need to prove the Werth deal was an exception, not the rule.

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