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A Look to the Future: Your 2013 Washington Nationals

ATLANTA - JUNE 28:  Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 28, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - JUNE 28: Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 28, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Sorry about the hiatus, but we'll jump back on the horse with one of the more exciting organizations in baseball right now. People don't always list Washington when they think about teams that could really be building towards something special, but few teams can offer up as many legitimate franchise cornerstones.

Not only do the Nationals boast arguably the best pitcher of this generation and a top-level third basemen, they also have a prospect with upside so tantalizing that he was dubbed "Baseball's LeBron" by some media outlets. If you can name me a trio in baseball as exciting as Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper, please, come forward. 

Obviously, when you have a 25-man roster, you're going to need to find a lot of help even if you have three legitimate superstars. It's something that Omar Minaya has really had to learn the hard way. But let's see what Mike Rizzo and company could build by 2013, and who could be surrounding Washington's new Big Three in a couple years.

As a healthy reminder, I'd just like to mention that these lineups DO NOT include any sort of speculated free agent, trade or draft acquisitions that could happen before the 2013 season, and one could almost be guaranteed that by the time that 2013 comes, each team will have acquired some new players through free agency, trades and/or the draft. That being said, these are still exceptionally useful looks at how the teams will look by 2013, so we can have a better idea of what kind of players each organization is lacking in, and which players they'll be more likely to target through free agency. Like, as commenter backtocali noted on Baltimore's post, the Orioles could possibly look to sign a Prince Fielder-type to make the 1B/DH situation a bit easier to deal with, as he'd be an obvious upgrade on Snyder/Reimold and with so many young players presumably there should be a good amount of payroll flexibility, too. But for this exercise, we're sticking purely with players that are either in the organization already or have been drafted this year with a reasonable likeliness of signing (so yeah, there's no Zach Lee for the Dodgers. Sorry). Additionally, after the trade deadline I'll probably do a few posts covering how trades changed these outlooks, particularly on teams where impact prospects could be dealt or acquired.

Here are links to the previous installments on the 2013 Oriolesthe 2013 Piratesthe 2013 Astrosthe 2013 Indians, and the 2013 Mariners, if you missed 'em. And thanks for reading, comments and questions are always welcomed in the section below.

The Starting Lineup.

Catcher: Derek Norris, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: Advanced Single-A

If you don't buy into Norris' presence here, it's probably because of concerns about his receiving and footwork behind the plate. Because if Norris can stay at catcher, he projects to have one of the best bats among backstops in all of baseball.

Norris broke into the top prospect discussion last season by putting up a .286/.419/.519 line with 30 doubles, 23 home runs and 89 walks in 543 plate appearances for Single-A Hagerstown. The performance was good enough to be ranked No. 31 on Keith Law's preseason Top 100, where Law praised Norris for his raw power, arm strength and advanced approach as a hitter.

People presumably aren't nearly as high on Norris now, as his progress has slowed in Advanced Single-A. Offseason hand surgery has apparently sapped some of Norris' power so far in 2010, as his .233/.411/.374 line suggests. But he's still posting very strong walk rates along with reasonable strikeout rates, and catchers with his kind of upside offensively are quite rare.

If Norris makes it to the big leagues in this role, he'll presumably be an offensive catcher that depends mostly on walks and homers to provide value, similar to someone like Mike Napoli. And I'm guessing that the Nats would take that, because Napoli is essentially an above-average everyday catcher year-in, year-out.

First Base: Christopher Marrero, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: Double-A

Marrero's an interesting case, to be sure. He was drafted 15th overall by the Nationals in 2006 and was regarded as one of the 30 best prospects in baseball by Baseball America coming into the 2008 season. But year after year of decent performance has left evaluators wondering whether Marrero will ever take the strides necessary to reach his potential. 

Marrero's showed some surprising consistency in the minors, putting up OPS marks between .768 and .824 in all four of his pro seasons. Now in Double-A, he's batting .296/.351/.448 with a 29/68 K/BB in 383 PA. Those are somewhat underwhelming numbers for a 22-year-old first baseman, although he's picked it up since the beginning of June: .351/.412/.491 with a 16/26 BB/K in 178 PA. 

The former first-round pick will likely never reach the lofty ceiling that was placed upon him out of high school, but there's still a lot to like about Marrero, and he still projects as a potential everyday player at first base. 

Second Base: Ian Desmond, Opening Day 2013 Age: 27, Current level: MLB

The middle infield is definitely a weak spot in the organization, as the duo that the Nats send out in 2013 is somewhat underwhelming. Desmond, currently Washington's everyday shortstop, was drafted by the Expos in the third round of the 2004 draft.

But it took Desmond nearly three years to adjust from high school ball to the minors, as he struggled offensively until a breakout 2007 in Advanced Single-A Potomac. The Nationals spent the next two years directly challenging Desmond. They moved him up to Double-A for 2008, and he split most of 2009 between Double-A and Triple-A before arriving in D.C. last summer. He certainly deserved the call-up, as he was batting .330/.401/.477 in the upper minors.

Desmond was given the everyday job at shortstop coming into this season, and for the most part he's struggled. He's flashing some power (.136 ISO), although that's not nearly enough to make up for a near-.250 batting average and a 5% walk rate. But his defense has been solid and ZiPS projects improvement in the second half (.317 wOBA), so all is not lost.

With a move to second, Desmond's glove could potentially play much better, although he's still going to need to make the necessary offensive adjustments in order to hit enough to play everyday. But until someone like Jeff Kobernus starts to really hit in the minors, Desmond is the obvious choice for this slot.

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman, Opening Day 2013 Age: 28, Current level: MLB

By far the easiest selection that I have to make. 

He put up a 6.6 WAR season last year, he's on pace to top that this season, and he's locked up through 2013 for a reasonable amount. He's exactly the kind of cornerstone that every franchise wishes they could build around.

Zimmerman is often overshadowed by some of the game's other great players, but he's truly emerged as one of the game's elite the past two seasons. Few players in the game can combine elite-level defense like his with near-.300 batting averages, double-digit walk rates and legitimate 30+ home run power, but the Zimminator is on pace to do that for a second consecutive season now.

There are few truly special players in the game that get less attention than Mr. Zimmerman here. Hopefully Strasburg can deflect some of his hype his teammate's way.

Shortstop: Danny Espinosa, Opening Day 2013 Age: 25, Current level: Double-A

Espinosa is an interesting case, as most evaluators seem to buy into him as a good utility infielder at the very least, but they're equally as skeptical about his ability to hit enough to become a regular. Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider said as much in discussing Espinosa's Futures Game performance, while Keith Law praised Espinosa glove but mentioned that, "despite being a switch-hitter he offers little offensively, with poor plate discipline and a tendency to hook the ball from both sides of the plate."

So basically, if you buy into Espinosa's bat as good enough for everyday action, then you probably buy into Espinosa as an everyday shortstop. Beyond his bat, he's solid defensively at shortstop with the potential to be above-average. He also offers above-average speed, but he needs to refine his base-running skills, as he's only 47-for-65 on SB attempts in 2009/2010. 

Espinosa's Double-A line sits at .257/.335/.432, with 29 walks and 82 strikeouts in 359 plate appearances. Obviously, he's going to need to make improvements as a hitter from both sides of the plate in order to make it to the big leagues as a regular, and the lack of a plus tool is a concern, but at this point he's still the team's shortstop-of-the-future.

Left field: Michael Burgess, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: Advanced Single-A

For this one, I kept going back and forth between Burgess and Justin Maxwell, but I opted for Burgess' upside. Plus, if the Nationals don't want to give Maxwell playing time now, when he's 26-years-old and hitting quite well in Triple-A, then there's a chance that he'll never get a real shot in D.C. 

Burgess was taken 49th overall in the 2007 draft out of a Florida high school, and immediately established himself as one of the better position player prospects in the farm system. Armed with big-time power potential, a plus throwing arm and the willingness to take a pitch, Burgess has mostly been held back by poor contact skills. 

Now in his third stint in Single-A Potomac, Burgess appears to be finally making some adjustments, as he's struck out in just 20% of his plate appearances after putting up rates of 25% and 31% in his previous two stints at the same level. The power isn't fully manifesting itself in games yet, but there should be a lot of room for improvement in his .266/.351/.428 line. And maybe that improvement is coming now, as he's 8-for-13 with a double, two home runs and a walk in his past three games.

Burgess will never be a high-average hitter, but he could offer solid plate discipline along with good power and defense in left field, which should be enough even if he's batting .250 or so.

Center field: Nyjer Morgan, Opening Day 2013 Age: 32, Current level: MLB

When the alternatives are lower level options like Eury Perez and Destin Hood, it just seems easier to go with the incumbent who nearly put up a 5-win season in 2009.

His numbers are down big-time this season, but as David Golebiewski of FanGraphs showed last month, a good deal of that can be attributed to bad luck on balls in play. He still projects as a roughly .290/.350/.370 hitter, which is more than solid for a player with Morgan's defensive skills and plus speed. His defense (-1.5 UZR) and base-running (21-for-34 on SB attempts) have been pretty ugly this year compared to last season, but I think it's still fair to assume that Morgan is an above-average defender in center field, although maybe he's not quite top-level like his 2009 UZR would suggest.

If Morgan is still Washington's center fielder by 2013, he's obviously going to have to start playing better than the essentially replacement-level performance he's offered so far in 2010. But that seems fairly likely, and the team is seriously lacking in terms of quality CF prospects. So Morgan is here, until someone forces something else.

Right field: Bryce Harper, Opening Day 2013 Age: 20, Current level: Unsigned first-round pick

Yeah, this one is me being optimistic. But if the Nationals are officially giving up on Harper as a catcher and committing to him as a right fielder, is it totally crazy to think that he could make it to the big leagues by 2013? I mean, maybe a little, but how the hell was I going to do this exercise and exclude a guy of his magnitude? 

Harper's only 17, but he's already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, won the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur baseball player in the country, and been drafted first overall in the 2010 draft. We've simply never seen a hitter this talented in the days of non-stop tweeting and blog updates. 

While playing for the College of Southern Nevada, Harper played catcher and used wooden bats against older competition...   and he batted .443/.526/.987 with 31 home runs and 98 RBI in 66 games. The previous single-season home run record at CSN? Twelve.

Harper is clearly a transcendent talent like few we've ever seen before, and if we're lucky enough to watch him develop, he'll be doing laser shows in D.C. before long. 

The Starting Rotation.

No. 1: RHP Stephen Strasburg, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: MLB
No. 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann, Opening Day 2013 Age: 26, Current level: MLB (Disabled List)
No. 3: LHP Ross Detwiler, Opening Day 2013 Age: 27, Current level: MLB (Disabled List)
No. 4: RHP Craig Stammen, Opening Day 2013 Age: 29, Current level: MLB
No. 5: RHP Bradley Meyers, Opening Day 2013 Age: 27, Current level: Double-A

Washington definitely has some intriguing arms behind Strasburg, but most of them are either already in the majors, on the MLB disabled list, or in the lower minors. There just isn't really much potential for top-of-the-rotation performance, though, particularly beyond Strasburg and Zimmermann. 

With Strasburg, there really isn't much else to say. I can link you to his player page, I can let others discuss just how damn special this guy is, and I can inform you that FanGraphs considers him the third-most valuable asset in all of baseball. What I can't do? Use words to describe just how incredible it is to watch Strasburg throw a baseball. Seriously. Just go watch him. It's really fun.

Jordan Zimmermann has had a rough go around the past year or so. First, he's called up to Washington, only to become "The Other Zimmerman" as he has the same last name as the team's franchise player. Then, he bursts onto the scene with 91 masterful innings (3.39 xFIP) in Washington...   only to blow out his elbow, an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Now he's on his way back as not only the team's other Zimmerman, but as the team's other young stud pitcher, too. But Zimmermann had all the looks of a solid second fiddle to Strasburg before going down last season, and he's already thriving in rehab starts in the minor leagues right now. He could be back sometime in August, at which point the Nationals will actually begin their quest to build a quality rotation behind their beloved ace. 

Like Zimmermann, Detwiler has been on the mend for months and is finally finishing up his rehabilitation in the minor leagues. The former No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft had hip surgery in February, although he's already reportedly touched 94 in recent rehab starts with Double-A Harrisburg. Detwiler has long been considered one of the organization's most talented pitchers, and he made 14 starts with the club last season. The left-handed works mostly with a low-90's fastball and a change-up that sits 83-85. His control isn't very good and his breaking ball, a slow curveball, is mostly a show-me pitch and doesn't offer much projection. But there's enough there to believe that he can be a solid starter in the NL, assuming that he comes back healthy. Particularly when you factor in his athleticism and the fact that he's only 24.

Craig Stammen doesn't get talked about too much outside of Washington, but he could emerge as a long-term option for the back-of-the-rotation in an organization that could really use some pitching depth. Both fans and the media alike have been frustrated by Stammen's inconsistency since arriving last season, but he's also putting up the underlying statistics of a solid No. 4 or 5 starter. His career ERA sits at 5.29 thanks to an ugly strand rate, but in 194 innings covering 35 starts in the past two seasons, his xFIP is a much more solid 4.37. He's been a significantly improved pitcher in 2010, too, with improvements in his groundball rate, strikeout rate, contact rate and whiff percentage thanks to the addition of a slider to his arsenal. He may never miss many bats, but right now he has the looks of a solid back-of-the-rotation pitcher.

This certainly isn't meant as a slight towards Meyers, but as sad as this might sound, the best pitcher in Washington's farm system right now might be Bradley Meyers. And that just sounds underwhelming. Taken in the fifth round of the 2007 draft out of Loyola Marymount, Meyers would spend the next two years thriving in the lower minors on his way to Double-A Harrisburg, where he's currently pitching. A strike-throwing righty that uses primarily a fastball, slider and change, Meyers missed the first month of 2010 after offseason surgery on his left foot. He returned to the DL roughly a month later with an injury to his right now, but the six starts he made between DL stints were masterful, as he struck out 35 while walking just 7 in 30 innings. If he can stay healthy, there's a whole lot to like about what Meyers brings to the table.

Closer: Drew Storen, Opening Day 2013 Age: 25, Current level: MLB

Taken with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, the Nationals took Storen under the assumption that he would sign quickly for slot money. The pick was unprotected, as it was compensation for the team's failure to sign Aaron Crow the year before, and the Nationals couldn't risk taking a difficult-to-sign player that could end up costing the team a first-round pick. 

Storen's made good on their investment so far though, as he made it to Double-A in his 2009 debut and is already a set-up man to Matt Capps in Washington's bullpen. Pitching primarily with a mid-90's fastball and a power slider in the mid-80's, Storen blew his way through minor league hitters to the tune of a 1.68 ERA with 64 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 53.2 innings. He hasn't pitched as well in Washington, where his 2.28 ERA isn't supported by a mediocre 1.75 K/BB ratio, and the fact that he hasn't given up a home run yet isn't remotely sustainable. 

But the Nationals drafted Storen as their closer-of-the-future, and he's done little to dispel that notion in the last year or so. I would honestly be surprised if Storen wasn't racking up saves by 2013.