The last time the Nationals fielded a .500 team was in 2005, their first season in Washington; that year, they still finished in 5th place in the NL East. Over the next five seasons, they posted respective win totals of 71, 73, 59, 59, and 69, finishing in fifth place in their division in all but one year. In 2011, though, they made huge strides forward. In 161 games, they came as close to reaching .500 as they have in recent years, finishing 80-81 (with a Pythagorean record of 79-83). Their rebuilding process has gradually started to yield results, as they look to be playoff contenders in the near future.
In Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa, Washington had two of the best rookies in all of baseball in 2011. Ramos, acquired from the Twins in the Matt Capps trade, made a strong case for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .267/.334/.445 while playing excellent defense at catcher. Among rookies, he finished second in the National League in fWAR.
The NL rookie leader in fWAR? Well, that would be his teammate, the aforementioned Espinosa -- who like Ramos is under team control for the next several years (with about a year of service time, he projects to be a free agent in 2016, presumably), and figures to be a major factor in the Nationals’ future plans.
Then we get to Ryan Zimmerman, one of the most underrated players in baseball. At 27 years old, he’s established himself as one of the best third basemen in the game, excelling on both defense and offense. By Ultimate Zone Rating, he’s already saved over 50 runs with his glove thus far, and he's got a career wRC+ of 119. From 2006 to 2011, Zimmerman’s first six full seasons, he racked up 29.4 wins above replacement, just narrowly missing the top-ten. He’s signed through 2013 on a bargain five-year $45MM contract.
Oh yeah, and there’s Mike Morse (free agent in 2014), acquired from the Mariners back in 2009 in exchange for Ryan Langerhans; he had a breakout season in 2011, hitting .303/.360/.550 (147 wRC+) while posting 3.4 fWAR. The 29-year-old now has a career .369 wOBA to his name in nearly 1300 plate appearances.
Lastly, Jayson Werth figures to be a National for many years to come. He had a disappointing season after signing a monster seven-year deal, but the career .264/.360/.464 hitter adds a lot to Washington’s lineup.
Not to mention that Bryce Harper, widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball, is set to make an impact quite soon.
Then there’s the pitching. Stephen Strasburg is easily one of the best pitchers in the majors (when healthy), throwing with an incredibly rare combination of fantastic stuff and command. And their number-two, Jordan Zimmermann, finished tenth in the National League in FIP (thanks in large part to a fantastic 4.7% walk rate). The young duo forms a strong 1-2 punch at the top of Washington’s rotation.
After years of disappointment, Washington looks ready to contend in the very near future. They’ve formed the core of what could be a very exciting team to watch for years to come.