Now that the offseason has begun, let the speculation begin. This is the 3rd annual “Nationals in 5 years” lineup, and it’s something I really enjoy thinking about. Of course, I’m judging prospects and predicting that there are no free agent acquisitions, both ridiculous for me to do. Unfortunately my goal of getting this out before BA does their’s didn’t work out this year, so feel free to accuse me of stealing from them. Just make sure you accuse them of stealing from me last year. Not that our lists are the same. Regardless, here’s my team based on the current farm system, and alot of  guessing:

The Position Players

C –Derek Norris – Last year, I had Flores in this place. And I think Flores still has a future for this team. But Norris is really impressing everyone, and 5 years will give him time to establish himself and work his way up. So don’t think of this as a knock on Flores, more of a nod to Norris. Norris had a great year, hitting .283/.413/.513 at single-A Hagerstown with 30 doubles and 23 home runs, leading the league in OBP and finishing 2nd in HRs. He was named the minor league player of the year by the organization. The 20 year old prospect also garnered other recognition, as Baseball America named him the #2 prospect on the Nats, the #4 prospect in the Sally league and the player of the year for the organization.

1B – Chris Marrero – His presence here was more doubtful last year, after the injuries of 2008. But he has recovered nicely and put together a strong 2009 season. Baseball America’s statement that his “best tool is his plus-plus raw power to all fields” is pretty enticing, and he’ll have to hit with power, because he will swing and miss, and he’s not a great fielder. But he’s got ability, and if they can develop him in to the true power hitter that they think he can be, he’ll be an asset for sure. For what it’s worth, he’s also crushing the ball in the AFL this year.

2BDanny Espinosa – I put him at second and Desmond at short basically out of seniority. We’ll get into Desmond later, but I figure they’ll each be in the middle infield. Espinosa is probably the better fielder, while Desmond has more range. So it kinda makes sense this way. Questions are still there about Espinosa’s bat, but he can hit with some decent power and gets on base a good amount. His hands are what people really like about him, he can really pick it. He hit better than expected this year in high-A, finishing at .264/.375/.460, and has looked strong in the Arizona Fall League. He also got an All Star bid this year.

3B – Ryan ZimmermanAfter a 30+ HR season (I called it) that people weren’t sure could happen, he finished 2009 with a Silver Slugger award and a well-deserved Gold Glove, if there’s such a thing. The cornerstone of the franchise for years to come, it’s hard to believe he’s still only 25 years old.

SS – Ian Desmond – Desmond was a strong prospect last year, but his performance in the minors surprised alot of people. Then he decided to come up to the majors in September and hit .280/.318/.561. Will he continue hitting this well? Who knows, but if he can keep up the power, continue the pitch selection ability he’s shown recently and maintain his incredible range, he’s going to be set at SS for a while. Riggleman, by the way, did comment that he wants a certain LASIK-eyed SS to move to 2B. So it appears Desmond will be starting at SS in 2010, unless someone is picked up off of free agency, which doesn’t seem highly likely.

LF – Destin Hood – Probably the closest thing to a surprise pick thus far, and I’m going this way for a few reasons. One is that I can’t imagine Dunn or Willingham here in 5 years, and the other is that I am not convinced Burgess is gonna figure everything out. So Hood, who is very young and very raw, gets the nod from me here. He’s athletic, he has power and he still developing. Burgess, on the other hand, has to show me he isn’t gonna strike out more than Mark Reynolds while hitting half as many homers. Hood will have a chance to show what he’s learned in low-A this year.

CF – Justin Maxwell – No offense to Morgan, who I like alot, but in 5 years he may be a formerly speedy outfielder at 33 years old. Maxwell has always been seen as a decent prospect, a power and speed combo guy, but he couldn’t stop striking out. He was called up in September and played well, while changing his swing to something more attuned to his tall frame. Next year may be tough – there’s a starters ahead of him – but he’s gotta prove he can hit well enough to stay on the team, at 26 years old it’ll be tough to change impressions in the seasons that follow 2010. All that being said, his HRs and ability to swipe a bag and patrol CF make his potential exciting.

RF – Elijah Dukes – 2010 is probably a make or break year for Dukes. He’s a “project” guy in the Bowden tradition, but he has stayed out of trouble since coming over to the Nats, and has shown flashes of greatness. He is a big man with real power, and showed it when he was sent down to the minors. He didn’t look nearly that good after being recalled to the majors, but even after all his problems he still has a great eye and looks for his pitch every time up. This year will hopefully be the year where he takes the next step and puts it all together on the big boy club.

The Pitchers

SP #1 – Stephen Strasburg – The man, the myth, the legend. Supposedly ready to save the franchise this year, he might not come up until midseason, just to keep his arbitration clock from starting. Not a bad idea, I certainly think he has a better chance of leading this team to the playoffs in 2016 than in 2010.  His only real pro experience has been AFL, in which he’s had one bad start, the rest have been very impressive. Not surprisingly, BA rates his fastball, his curveball, and his control as the best in the organization.

SP #2 – Jordan Zimmermann – His ERA wasn’t spectacular, but neither was the team, so the 23 year old probably qualified as the Nats’ second best starter in 2009. He’ll spend much if not all of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but with over 90% recovery rates, the safe bet is that he’ll come back and pick up where he left off. And where did he leave off? With an impressive array of pitches, just over a strikeout per inning, a 3:1 K:BB ratio, and an ERA+ of 91 (decent enough for a rookie year), he looks like a future top of the rotation guy.

SP#3 – John Lannan – Once again the Nats best pitcher, with a team this young this guy seems like he’s been around forever. In fact, he just finished up his second full year, he’ll only be turning 25 next year. With two seasons as a full time guy, he’s now got a career ERA of 3.91 in front of a poor defense and a team that hasn’t won much. Maybe it’s time to start recognizing that even if he’s not perfect and doesn’t strike out many guys, he’s a damn good pitcher.

SP #4 – Ross Detwiler – I may be the only one, but I’m still pretty high on Detwiler. He had a rough beginning of the year when he was called up to the majors, skipping AAA. After a few months, he was sent back down, where he really performed – a 3.10 ERA, 42 Ks in 49 1/3 IP, and a few too many walks (20) but nothing terrible. After being called up in September, he looked really impressive. The 1.90 ERA was a little deceiving, as he only struck out 10 and walked 11 in 23 2/3, but he was effective nonetheless. He’s only turning 24 next year, and still has time to improve, but as is he already looks like a starter. If he reaches his potential, he could move up this list.

SP #5 – Bradley Meyers – I kinda struggled a but with this one. I wanted to name someone else, but I doubt Olsen will be here, McGeary has taken a step back, Mock is starting to be too old to be a prospect (27 next year), I don’t think Stammen is more than a stopgap, Martis didn’t look good in AAA, Balester looks lost in the majors, so I couldn’t convince myself to pick any of them. I wanted someone who looks good, who looks like he might contribute. So, who’s left? You may not have heard much about Meyers, but the team has paid attention to him, and they named him their pitcher of the year. Meyers started out strong in single-A, and finished up in AA looking almost as good. Besides the 2.25 ERA, he had 108 K and only 32 BB, in 136 1/3 IP. As for the other group, I’d probably go with Balester and Martis before any of the other guys, due to their ages of 23 and 22, respectively.

CL – Drew Storen – Only a few months ago, this seemed like a stretch. He was a strong reliever, but not spectacular. However, he’s developed nicely in the last few months, and  has added some zip to his fastball. He profiles more as a guy who can strike people out than he did even in the spring. His fastball is hitting the mid-90s at times, and has good breaking pitches, a slider and a curve.  Oh yeah, he’s also basically been unhittable since becoming a pro, breezing through low-A, high-A, and AA with a 1.95 ERA and 8 BB to 49 K in 37 IP. I wouldn’t be shocked if he was closing before the end of 2010.

Other Players of Note

OF – Michael Burgess – Yeah, he fell out of my future team list, but that doesn’t mean he still won’t figure it out. He is a power hitter, and if he reaches his potential, he’s a 40 HR per year guy. The question is will he ever get there. But, at only 21 years old, he still has time.

RP – Josh Wilkie – He’s probably not ever gonna be a closer, but Wilkie can pitch. BA says he has the best changeup in the organization, and he could be a very effective reliever in the near future, may end up being on the big league team next season.

2B – Jeff Kobernus – If one of those SS prospects don’t work out, or even if they do, you may be seeing last year’s second round pick up in the big leagues in not too long. He was a college player this time last year, and he’s a line drive hitter with some power, and a good fielder. You’ll probably hear alot more about him next year, as he gets really his first shot to show off his stuff.

What’s amazing to me is how few of these guys are on the team right now. It makes sense, considering that they’ve had two 100+ loss seasons in a row. Still, it’s a little shocking to see how different this team will likely be in 5 years. But, those are the things that you have to accept, if you want to go from being terrible to being good. Hopefully these prospects will work out, and a few guys acquired in next year’s draft will be adding to the team as well.

By Charlie