Now that the offseason has begun, let the speculation begin. This is the 2nd annual “Nationals in 5 years” lineup. Judging Nats prospects without being a scout is more inexact of course, and it’s a bit silly because, who really knows what moves will be made? But based on the current farm system, what some experts have said, their performance, and some intense guessing, I will predict the Nationals starting lineup in the year 2013. On to the future…

The Position Players

C- Jesus Flores – His bat wasn’t exceptional this past year, but at only 23, he is still rather young for a catcher. He showed the flashes of power and ability to hit that ensure him the starting job going into next season, and he looks like he’ll develop into a very good hitting catcher. He should be a cornerstone player on this team for years to come.

1B – Chris Marrero – He played full time at first base this past season, in a move to transition him from the outfield. His numbers aren’t great, but they do show promise. He still has time to develop into a power hitter, and he has shown a good amount of patience. 2008, his second season in high A ball wasn’t anything spectacular, but it wasn’t terrible for a guy who was only 19. Unfortunately he broke his leg this season which will slow his development some. He’s still one of the most highly regarded prospects in the Nats farm system and has plenty of time to develop.

2B – Esmailyn Gonzalez – Ok, so maybe this isn’t the normal pick. He’s a SS. And they currently have two young guys that they acquired this season that can play 2B. But 18 year-old Dominican phemon Gonzalez finished his second year in rookie ball in 2008. Splits of .343/.431/.475 in 181 ABs show a good patient hitter, with little power. That power may develop in time, and he could turn out to be a decent hitting middle infielder. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus says he’s a good not great defensive SS and a good not great hitter making him a good not great prospect. But that’s better than most of their prospects there, and its enough to be a starter. Also, Kevin mentioned his nickname is Smiley. How can you beat that? If he turns out to be a player that can do everything above average but not spectacularly on the Major League level, and there is someone that can really pick it at short, I’d advocate a switch to 2B for Smiley.

SS – Danny Espinosa – As Baseball America said, Espinosa has the glove to move quickly. Jim Callis called him a very good defender. And he has hit well all throughout his career, but it’s been in college with metal bats. This short season after the draft, he had a high average and a great OBP, albeit with no power. At 21, if Espinosa hits well this year, he could force the Nats to consider Gonzalez at 2B. If Espinosa really is a great defender, the Nats could use him on the major league team.

3B – Ryan Zimmerman – The man, the myth, the legend. These are different things in the DC area these days. His fielding is legendary, his hitting is more on the mythical side. That is to say, his bat has been overstated. Consistency is the key, he has worked to improve pitch selection, and I still think he can develop into a .300/.360/.500 hitter. Especially since he did more than that from August 10 on last year. 30 HRs a year seems very likely from the face of the franchise who just turned 24. It may seem a stretch, but he hit 24 HRs in a full season in ’07 at the age of 22, I don’t think 30 is a reach.

LF – Elijah Dukes – Here’s a guy who didn’t make the list last season, because he wasn’t a member of the team. I am hoping the full time police escort plus leaving his home town area has helped calm him down a bit – not being in trouble in a year is a small but important step he’s already taken. In terms of his ability, well he’s quite a player. His finals 2008 splits of .264/.384/.478 show a young power hitter with a great eye, and hide his even better production after the first two weeks. His 13 SBs add color to help us realize he is a 5 tool player who has a chance to be a star on this team.

CF – Lastings Milledge – Lastings started 2008 like gangbusters. Then he hit a protracted slump to the point that everyone said he really wasn’t that good. But Milledge, at only 23 years old, recovered nicely in the last half of 2008 to show that he could hit on the major league level. 14 HRs in a full season isn’t spectacular, but at his age there should be more to come. He still has the potential to be a great player, and his since he plays the weakest hitting outfield position, I still think he could end up being a top CF in the game at some point.

RF – Michael Burgess – This Nats biggest power prospect showed why people like him this year, and he showed why people don’t. With about 15% of his season spent at high-A, he showed some real power, slugging .521 despite hitting only .225, and in his time at low-A he hit .249 but had an ISO over .200 putting his slugging at .469. It’s those batting averages that people don’t like, and he’s not walking enough to completely ignore them. He strikes out alot, but he is very young and when he connects he hits the ball hard enough to make people think he could mash in the bigs, too.

The Pitchers

SP – Jordan Zimmermann – The class of the minor league pitching staff, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baseball America ranks him the team’s #1 prospect. He pitched so well in high A this year they shipped him up to AA, where he struck out a player an inning and racked up a 7-2 record with a 3.21 ERA. While he’s not quite ready for the major league squad, this 22 year old has showed the kind of promise that makes Baseball Prospectus see him as a mid-rotation starter by 2010. Of course, since this teams needs all the help it can get, he may be up sooner than that.

SP – Ross Detwiler – Detwiler struggled through much of his first full season in the minors this year. In fact, Baseball Prospectus called it “massively disappointing.” But he settled down towards the end of the season. He needs to show improvement in 2009, or he won’t make my “Nats of 2014” squad. But for now, the talent is there, and another season in the minors should help him along the way

SP – Colin Balester – Balester has already started to help in the majors. If helping means an ERA 3/4 of a run higher than league average. In actuality, the 22 year old pitcher made 15 starts, 7 of them you would call good, and had a league average ERA prior to his last 2 starts. The streakiness will likely go down, and he seems to be good enough to start in this league. If he shows any improvement he could be a #3 starter. He probably doesn’t strike out enough guys to be much better than that.

SP – John Lannan – Lannan may not be exciting, he’s probably not a future star. But he has already had very good success at the major league level. He’s still young, he’ll only be 24 next year, and he has already impressed. An ERA under 4.00 last season, giving him an ERA+ of 112 is enough if he never develops beyond that. He had some streakiness issues, but of his 31 starts he allowed more than 3 ERs only 8 times, which aint bad for his first full season. While I don’t see him every being the Ace of a squad, he already looks like a solid #3 or 4.

SP – Jack McGeary – As much as I’d like to include Stephen Strasburg in this spot, its too early, and who knows what 7 months will bring. So instead I put McGeary here. This guy is going to be going to Stanford and pitching part time which will hurt his development. His 4.07 ERA in rookie ball wasn’t terribly impressive either. But this past season, in 63 2/3 IP, McGeary struck out 69 and walked 16. McGeary is missing bats, and he is a lefty, which is always nice to see. He will likely remain less polished then other guys his age and experience level because of his commitment to school, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be good.

CL – Josh Wilkie – Joel Hanrahan isn’t listed here, because if he saves games for the next 5 years and the Nats don’t spin that for more prospects, he’d better be Mariano Rivera. And I don’t see that happening. There isn’t an obvious successor here, so I had to go out on a limb to pick someone. My choice from last season, Carlos Peralta, didn’t exactly look like the closer of the future this season. Wilkie pitched well, although as a 23 year old in high A ball, and finished the season with a 2.08 ERA and a 3:1 K:BB ratio. Other possibilities include Zech Zinicola, who probably walks too many people, Adam Carr, who was awful this year, and Yunior Novoa, who pitched very well at high A and AA.

Keep your eye on…

Destin Hood – He was drafted this year, and he’s barely played yet, but even if it is just rookie league – splits of .256/.333/.682 make you think this guy could hit. The 18 year out outfielder has years ahead of him in the minors, but he was considered a top 20 prospect in the Gulf Cost League this year by BA. They also said about him, “Hood could be a 30 homer guy in the future, as he has tremendous bat speed and makes adjustments well.” They also warn that he is raw, and has a long way to go to fulfill that potential.

Compared to last year

There are some new names on this last compared to last year. For all that is bad that can be said about Jim Bowden, one of the reasons he still has a job is 2 of the OFs on this list – Milledge and Dukes. This time last year neither was part of the Nats system. Some new guys (Hood, Espinosa) are on the list, and that has to do with good drafting, despite Aaron Crow not signing. Burgess made it this year, in part because Marrero moved positions, and part because he has shown power potential. Despite all of the issues this team has had, the addition of Dukes and Milledge makes it look more impressive than last year’s predictions.

By Charlie