The window of opportunity is one of sports writer’s favorite clichés. It is a metaphor that many sports fans buy into because teams do go from being bad to being good and then back to bad, but this isn’t always the case. The Cardinals and Giants are playing yet again in the NLCS, and the last time one of those two teams wasn’t in the NLCS was 2009 when the Phillies and Dodgers matched up in that series. The strange thing about the Cardinals three straight NLCS appearances is that they’ve all come after Albert Pujols left via free agency. That was supposed to be when their window closed or start to close, but by filling the gaps with smart free agent signings, trades, and prospects the Cardinals have remained good.
This is why it is silly when people talk about the Nationals window closing. Even if the Nationals were banned from making free agent signings, trades, or drafting new players they could put a decent team on the field after Desmond, Zimmermann, Clippard, Fister, Span, Strasburg, Ramos, and Storen have all left via free agency after the 2015 and 2016 seasons. This is why 2017 is the year most people pick for when the Nationals window will be closed, but even if the Nats fail to re-sign any of the above players and are banned from making player acquisitions they still have the ability to put a competitive team on the field in 2017.
Baseball America attempts to project future rosters when they release their top prospect lists for each team, but trying to project the rotation and starting line-up for a team two or three seasons out is near impossible, because in the real world teams aren’t banned from making acquisitions and prospects are just as likely to be used as trade chips as they are to make it to the major league roster. The 2014 starting line-up and rotation according to Baseball America in 2011 had Derek Norris at first base, Danny Espinosa at second, Eury Perez in center, and AJ Cole, Sammy Solis, and John Lannan in the rotation. A lot of it was right but just as much was wrong because teams do make acquisitions and that is how the Nats will remain good, but a solid base will remain even with no acquisitions required.
Let’s take a look at it. First the rotation, because that is the easy part. Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez are both still under contract for the 2017 season. They are the only current members of the rotation that are, but luckily for the Nationals two of their top three prospects also happen to be pitchers (Lucas Giolito and AJ Cole) and they drafted another one this season in Erick Fedde. That is five already but as we know pitching is the hardest thing to project and it’s unlikely that all three of those prospects end up as starters and Roark or Gonzalez could go bad long before the 2017 season. Good thing for the Nationals that they also have Blake Treinen, Austin Voth, Jefry Rodriguez, Reynaldo Lopez, and Felipe Rivero. Out of the ten starters I listed the Nats have a 2017 starting rotation and half a bullpen. Not all prospects will work out, especially pitching prospects, but with this many starters with high upside potential there are five that could be serviceable in the major leagues.
The line-up is the far more difficult part as not many of the Nats good prospects are position players, but they don’t have to be. The only four current starting position players under contract for 2017 are Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth. Of those four Jayson Werth is the only one not likely to be good enough to start anymore and Rendon and Harper will be very much in their prime and have the potential to be the best 3/4 combo in baseball.
Anthony Rendon had an excellent 2014 season, but the scary thing is he has the potential to be better. He has both the plate discipline and plate coverage to both hit for a higher average and get on base at a higher clip and at 27 years old in 2017 he’s going to be very much in his prime. As an MVP candidate this season he should be contending for an MVP in 2017 except that his teammate Bryce Harper is going to be an MVP at some point before then and could be a yearly recipient of the award baseball hasn’t seen since Barry Bonds retired.
People make a lot of Bryce Harper’s ceiling and 2014 being a disappointment. By 2017 Bryce Harper is going to be 24 years old and still not in his true prime, but if the 2014 playoffs showed anything it is what Bryce Harper is capable of when healthy. If Harper stays healthy for an entire season, and there is no reason to think he can’t, then he is going to have a .900 or even a 1.000 OPS over 150-162 games and those are numbers that can single-handedly carry a line-up. Pair that with a high average, high OBP contact hitter like Anthony Rendon and that is a one-two punch in the middle of the order to be envious of, and Ryan Zimmerman will still be around likely putting up an .750-.800 OPS of his own.
That is only three above average players with two of them possibly being great. That isn’t going to make a good line-up and it is unlikely that the Nats can have a good line-up without making acquisitions before 2017. If they had to fill out the rest from only the organization then Michael Taylor is going to be in center most likely playing excellent defense, hitting for low average, and parking 15-20 home runs. Steven Souza Jr., Ryan Zimmerman, or John Wooten could be the left fielder with the first two being more ideal and if Souza lives up to his tools he’s going to be a dynamic player continuing his success from AA and AAA into the majors. Most players don’t live up to their tools, but even if Souza is just a league average left fielder that is fine.
The infield is a different story. Since Souza is in left Zimmerman will be at first. At the age of 27 Rendon should still be able to play second base opening third for Drew Ward who right now hasn’t dominated a minor league level, but is only 19 and is projected to have a high ceiling as a power hitter. The middle infield is where the Nationals really lack talent. Stephen Perez is a defense first shortstop destined to be a defensive replacement floating from minor league organization to minor league organization only infrequently getting cups of coffee in the majors. Tony Renda was once considered a good prospect, but injuries robbed him of that shine and while he had a good season at class A Potomac this year no one seemed to notice.
The only player the Nats have in the middle infield that could be considered a jewel, even if it is a hidden one, is Wilmer Difo who hit .315/.360/.470 at low A Hagerstown this season. At the age of 22 is was the first time Difo has excelled in the minors and next season as he starts to move through the organization with be a real test for him, but as of right now he is projectable and has a chance to be the shortstop by 2017. That leaves second base to Tony Renda who at the very least will bring a decent glove to the position.
Pedro Severino is the 20 year old catcher of the future and one track to be the Opening Day catcher in 2017 once Wilson Ramos departs via free agency. Of all the position player prospects in the Nationals organization this is the one that can be said about. His .705 OPS for the 2014 season doesn’t look good, but that is league average for the Carolina League, he is only 20 years old and a catcher, and had a .926 OPS over the final three months of the season. While not likely to be a star, the floor for Severino is as a good defensive catcher with average offense for the position. Again if Rendon and Harper are as good batting three/four as expected then the rest of the line-up really only needs to be league average for their position.
It is hard to say exactly how many games this team would win and a lot of it would do with how close to their ceilings the prospects get. It is likely that only a handful of the ones mentioned above even make it to the majors, and the Nationals can count themselves lucky if one or two of them end up producing, but this exercise was to demonstrate that the Nationals window isn’t closing as rapidly as many think. Even if they are banned from making any sort of player acquisition between now and 2017 they have the ability to put a decent team on the field. One that probably couldn’t win a division, but could sneak in as a Wild Card team. Give them the ability to fill in gaps in this roster with free agents and trades and there is zero reason to think that the Nats won’t still be a contender in 2017.