Turning point isn't just a talking point in D.C.
The winning pieces are starting to come together for Nationals
All this is premature; we all get that. We get that Stephen Strasburg has thrown 24 Major League innings in 18 months, that Bryce Harper is 19 years old and has played in 37 games above the South Atlantic League and that Chien-Ming Wang has won five big league games in three years.
We understand that, just as we understand that the Nationals have not had a winning record in their seven seasons in Washington -- you have to go back to Montreal to find that the last time the franchise had a winning record was 1996. No one wants to hear about the latest poll on what the rest of the country thinks about Washington, or that in their 11 years prior to moving to Texas, the second rendition of the Washington Senators had one winning season, or that after World War II, the previous Senators had precisely one winning season (78-76 in 1952) before Calvin Griffith took them to Minnesota in 1961.
That's two winning records in 33 seasons involving three different franchises.
That said, Harper hasn't taken batting practice in scenic Viera, Fla. Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Jordan Zimmermann haven't thrown a bullpen session yet.
But as players gather this week in Florida and Arizona, there are few more compelling and fascinating teams than the Washington Nationals. Baseball is entertainment, and entertainment is built around stars, and every one of Strasburg's starts in 2010 was on some form of national television, while Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. And that's before getting around to the fact that Ryan Zimmerman may be the Scott Rolen of his generation.
Davey Johnson will open a camp with Strasburg and Zimmermann having full rehabs behind them and Wilson Ramos having had a full year of handling a Major League staff. General manager Mike Rizzo traded for an All-Star left-hander in Gonzalez, signed Jackson and his 200 innings, signed Brad Lidge for further bullpen support behind Drew Storen, and has a pitching staff whose depth and upside at least creates a discussion in a division that houses the Phillies, Braves and Marlins.
That's a lot to swallow when one considers that the only National League starting staff that threw fewer innings than the 928 2/3 of the Nationals was Pittsburgh (another reason an A.J. Burnett trade to the Pirates would make sense).
The game wants Washington to succeed. The folks who run it want Strasburg and Harper to be good -- really good. They want the NL East to have one of the most competitive, compelling pennant races, with four teams thinking about the postseason on Labor Day, a race that would highlight young stars like Harper, Mike Stanton and Jason Heyward; veteran stars like Chase Utley, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes; one certain future Hall of Fame pitcher in Roy Halladay; and a lot of other guys people pay to see, like Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Gonzalez, Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson.
There are a lot of blinking yellow lights the Nats have to pass before Labor Day, beginning with the caution that must be applied to Strasburg, Zimmermann and Wang. That's what Rizzo and Johnson realized before they traded four prospects for Gonzalez and signed Jackson -- they're both 200-inning pitchers who will allow Johnson to proceed with caution with his other starters. The depth of the bullpen -- Storen, Lidge, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, Chad Durbin and Tom Gorzelanny -- is another safety net to help insure that if Washington has to beat Philly, Atlanta or Miami come September, Strasburg will be physically able to compete.
There are issues in the lineup. Ian Desmond's .298 on-base percentage and 139-35 strikeout-walk numbers are not good. Danny Espinosa struck out 166 times; Jayson Werth 160. They would love a leadoff-hitting center fielder, but if Harper is ready, then Werth can play the majority of the time in center and Johnson can use Rick Ankiel, whose metrics place him as an elite defensive center fielder, as he can.
The last time Washington won a pennant was in 1933, six months after Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic inaugural speech. Baseball would love nothing more than for Strasburg, Harper and this team to give the sport and the town something to shout about. It's what the phrase "pitchers and catchers report" is all about.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.