QUESTION: How soon do you think the Nats could realistically be in a pennant race?
2010: 5 (4%)
2011: 57 (45%)
2012: 50 (40%)
2013 or later: 12 (9%)
I guess we can safely say there's only minimal belief the pieces could all fall into place this year and produce a surprise pennant run on South Capitol Street. But I guess we can also say with some conviction that fans are optimistic it could happen in the near future.
My personal take on the matter? I think it's entirely possible the Nats could contend in 2011. I'm not saying I think it's a certainty, far from it. This team still has a long way to go to even approach respectability. But in my mind, it could become reality if the following five things come true...
1. STEPHEN STRASBURG BECOMES A TRUE ACE
You can't win without good starting pitching, there's no way around that. And realistically, you can't make a real run without a legit No. 1 atop the rotation. Among those currently employed by the Nats, only Strasburg has a real chance to become that guy. I know it's unfair to put this kind of pressure on a 21-year-old kid who still hasn't thrown his first pitch in the minor leagues, let along the major leagues. But every indication from every talent evaluator and coach who has seen Strasburg pitch leads me to believe he will be as good as advertised ... provided he stays healthy. Assuming he makes his Nats debut sometime in the middle chunk of the 2010 season, he'll have time to take a few lumps, learn what it takes to get big-league hitters out and then return fresh in 2011 ready to assume his place atop the rotation.
2. JORDAN ZIMMERMANN RETURNS STRONG FROM TOMMY JOHN SURGERY
While you obviously need a No. 1 starter to have a chance at success, you also need quality arms through the rest of the rotation. John Lannan and Jason Marquis are pretty safe bets to provide quality innings over the next two years, but the Nats still need someone else to emerge from the pack. Zimmermann is the most-likely choice from the group. Before he was shut down last summer with elbow pain, the rookie right-hander looked like a legitimate big-league pitcher, one of the few true power pitchers in Washington's system. His surgery was a devastating blow to the organization, and there's virtually no chance he'll make a substantial contribution to this year's team. But by the time 2011 rolls around, Zimmermann will be 18 months removed from surgery and ready to resume his career path. If he pitches the way everyone believes he can, he'll be a solid No. 2 behind Strasburg in the Nats' rotation.
3. ADAM DUNN SIGNS A CONTRACT EXTENSION
Word got out last week that Dunn and the Nats have begun preliminary talks about a long-term deal, and that may be the best news fans will hear all winter. Dunn is due to become a free agent at the end of this season, but he's clearly expressed a desire to stay in D.C. rather than test the open market. He's going to want some serious money, as anyone who was a virtual lock to hit 40 homers, drive in 100 runs and draw 100 walks every year would. But it should be obvious now that Dunn is worth the price. Is a complete, five-tool player? Not even close. But he's one of only a few legit cleanup hitters in baseball, and his defensive work at first base was far better than anyone could have imagined. Yes, top prospect Chris Marrero could blossom into a better hitter over time. But Dunn is more likely to help this team win in 2011 than a rookie Marrero.
4. SOMEONE STEPS UP TO BECOME A POTENT NO. 5 HITTER
Though the Nats' offensive production is the least of their worries right now, let's not kid ourselves and proclaim this one of baseball's most-dangerous lineups. It does have a good table-setter in Nyjer Morgan, a legit 3-4 combo in Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn and some good complementary hitters behind them. But what this lineup really lacks, in my mind, is a legit No. 5 hitter. I'm talking someone who you can pencil in for 25-plus homers, 90-plus RBI and at least a .280 average. For a couple of months last season, Josh Willingham looked like that guy. But the Hammer tailed off considerably during the second half and wound up posting his standard career numbers: .260-24-61. In a perfect world, he'd be a No. 6 hitter. So who else could step up and take the No. 5 spot? Elijah Dukes. We've all seen what he's capable of producing; we just haven't seen it in long enough spurts. This is a huge year for Dukes, who will be extra motivated because he'll be arbitration-eligible next winter. If he makes the step up, he can be that guy. If not, the Nats may need to look elsewhere for a big bat.
5. ONE OR TWO KIDS BURST ONTO THE SCENE
For the Nationals to become contenders by 2011, they're going to need some more help from their farm system. We've seen a few guys in bits and pieces so far, but we need to see more. Can Drew Storen become a top-shelf closer, or at least a strong setup man for Matt Capps? Can Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa be a productive big-league shortstop (or maybe second baseman)? Can Chris Marrero force his way into the lineup, whether Dunn is still around or not? Can anyone out of the pool of promising young pitchers (Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Shairon Martis, Matt Chico, Brad Meyers) make the leap and become successful on the major-league level? If Washington is going to experience a pennant race in 2011, at least one or two of these guys are going to need to play a significant role.
There you have it. I'm interested to hear what you all think, beyond what you've already stated in the original poll.