What happened to the Nationals bright future?

The Nationals disappointing 2013 season has widely been viewed as an aberration–growing pains, perhaps, for a young team with a bright future.

Now, some people aren’t so sure.

ESPN today released their “future rankings”–the outlook for all MLB teams in the next five years based on factors like quality of major league roster, depth of the farm system, and finances.

Six months ago, the Nationals placed fourth in ESPN rankings, largely because they returned a young roster with the best record in baseball in 2012.  Now, the Nationals have plummeted to 14th.

Here is what ESPN had to say:

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As a fan, it’s not worth getting upset about rankings like these.  Media-generated power rankings are simply gimmicks to produce content necessary to fill the 24-hour news vacuum.

Still, this bothers me a little bit.  How did the Nationals fall so far, so fast?  Surely, their 70-68 record puts them in the middle of the pack for this season.  But these are future power rankings.  Many of the reasons the Nationals placed 4th six months ago are still present.

Here is what ESPN said last March:

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Strasburg, Harper, and Gio were cited as the Nationals big building blocks for the future and all three have produced this season.  Strasburg has put up a 2.85 ERA with 174 strikeouts in 164 innings.  Most importantly, since he’s on pace to pitch over 190 innings, he’s shown a durability many doubted as he recovered from Tommy John surgery last season.  He is 24, and is under team control until 2016.  Counting Jordan Zimmermann and Gio, the Nationals have three affordable aces under team control for the next two seasons.

Ian Desmond, playing the most important defensive position at an all-star level, is locked up until 2015 as well.  Bryce Harper is putting up numbers at age 20 (.275/.378/.507) that rank among the all-time greats for players of his age.  He is under team control until 2018.

In short, the Nationals still have multiple young building blocks and, most importantly, the financial flexibility to put pieces around them.  Dan Haren’s $13 million dollar salary comes off the books after this season.  Adam LaRoche, Denard Span, and Rafael Soriano all have relatively large salaries that come off the books after next.

Looking at ESPN’s methodology, the biggest fall for the Nationals since March has been the category “management”, which measures ownership, front office, and coaching staff.  Their relatively low ranking probably factors in Mike Rizzo’s numerous miscalculations this season (Haren, Soriano, Espinosa, the entire Nats bench).  But fortunately for the Nationals, all of Rizzo’s mistakes are fixable.  None of Rizzo’s disappointing free agent imports signed a long-term deal, and back-end starters and productive bench people are much easier to find than front-end starters and up-the-middle defenders, where the Nationals are adequately stocked.  Considering he put together the best team in baseball in 2012, the Rizzo criticism this season is exaggerated.

ESPN also probably dinged the Nationals “management” ranking because they don’t have a manager for 2014.  If true, this would be a little unfair, since you cannot judge an unknown.  Besides, the Nationals promise to get the best-available candidate considering the talent in place.  Most new managers take over rebuilding projects.  The Nationals are the rare situation where a manager can take over a team built to win now.

Finally, under the “management” banner, the Nationals ownership has shown a willingness to invest in the team.  Ryan Zimmerman was given a long-term contract two full years before free agency.  Jayson Werth next season will hit the halfway point of his $126 million deal.  Most importantly, since those two are still producing–Werth at a MVP level–there is very little “dead” money preventing the Nationals from locking up Desmond, Zimmermann, and Strasburg as they get closer to free agency.

There are, of course, question marks about the Nationals future.  Their farm system is still relatively shallow (this was known six month ago).  They still have holes to fill.  But it doesn’t take a homer to realize the Nationals five-year outlook isn’t that different than it was six months ago.

No matter what ESPN says to fill their insatiable 24-hour content vacuum.








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