"The Nats are doing pretty well without Strasburg," my father-in-law said to me, while wearing one of his many Baltimore Orioles t-shirts.
He's right. The Washington Nationals are just a few games under .500 this season. They have a winning record at home. Their roster is chock full of starter-quality players age 25 or under. The Nationals are right on track for their long-term plan to be contenders in the NL East within the next few years. If Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper continue to develop at the pace that fans and experts hope and predict, maybe the Nationals will someday even be World Series contenders. No, that's not hyperbole.
For a life-long Southern Maryland resident and Orioles fan like my father-in-law to even be mentioning the Nationals wouldn't have been expected two years ago. As the only major American sport without a salary cap, baseball is known for giving the fewest number of teams a chance to win. The rich get richer. If you're in a division with a high-spending team like the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies, you're probably not going to make the playoffs, and you're definitely not going to win a title.
There are exceptions though. The San Francisco Giants were an exception last year. The Florida Marlins were famously an exception in 2003. The Nationals have been taking steps towards becoming an exception the past two years as well.
Strasburg and Harper could upset the balance of the NL East. And they won't be alone. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman aren't going anywhere. Jordan Zimmermann would be a great addition to any rotation. Drew Storen will be a reliable reliever. Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond will each be valuable as role players.
That's not all though. The Nationals continue to add prospects with high ceilings. In the 2011 MLB Draft on Monday, the Nationals selected third baseman Anthony Rendon sixth overall, which could be a steal since Rendon was considered by many to be the best hitter available this year. Then the team added pitcher Alex Meyer at No. 23, who could be slotted either as a starter or a reliever, and outfielder Brian Goodwin at No. 34.
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the launch of this very website, SB Nation D.C. It was also the one-year anniversary of the day that Harper became a National. The website launch coincidentally happened to coincide with the 2010 MLB Draft, and all of this sites' writers and editors were gathered at a bar in Chinatown to celebrate. As it turned out, we weren't just celebrating the site; we were also celebrating yet another young phenom coming to Washington. At the time, I remember sharing a laugh with a fellow editor that we may have been the only bar in the country applauding a pick in the MLB Draft. Now it seems so much bigger.
We weren't just applauding a solitary moment in Washington baseball history. We were applauding the future. We were applauding the potential for greatness. We were pre-applauding. Preplauding.
We didn't know then, but now the Nationals look like they could be potential contenders within the next few years, once Strasburg is fully recovered from his injury and Harper enters the major league. Now Orioles fans are wondering if the Nationals are for real.
The Orioles are stuck in the middle. They're in a division that they have no chance of winning, yet they're never bad enough to get the first overall draft pick, which the Nationals were fortunate enough to "earn" the past two years. We shouldn't be surprised if we start to see more and more Orioles fans getting more and more curious about the Nationals.
Supporting a winner will be fun. The potential is there. As the Nationals' numerous prospects continue to develop, we'll soon learn if that potential can become a reality.