I've been sitting on this idea for a while. Here's a quick look at what the local nine (well, roughly fifteen) might look like on opening day about eighteen months from now, the next time they might plausibly think about fielding a competitive squad, with their 2012 seasonal ages and guesses (where not currently signed) at the salary they might command in that season:
Catcher: Wilson Ramos, 24, near minimum
Ramos had an awful 71 games with the Twins' AAA squad in 2010, and didn't do much in the majors either, but had 20 games with the Nats' AAA team that were eerily similar to his encouraging AAA line in 2009 (.317/.341/.454 in '09, .316/.341/.494 with Syracuse in '10). That -- probably with a lower batting average and much closer to the 2009 SLG -- is right around what you might expect from him in the Majors someday, maybe in 2012. Coupled with reputedly strong defense, that would make him a well above average catcher. Derek Norris entered 2010 as one of the top catching prospects in the game, but batted just .235 (albeit with a .419 OBP) in high-A and is less than a year and a half younger than Ramos.
First Base: Adam Dunn, 32, $12 million
I've actually been dead set against the Nationals re-signing Dunn all along. It's hard for me to believe he's suddenly improved from the worst defender in the league at any position to an average 1B, and I've just assumed that he'd be more valuable to some AL team as a DH. But if 2012 is your goal, I'm not sure there's a better option. The organization's best 1B prospect, Chris Marrero, didn't have a huge year in AA and is pretty much stick-only himself. There are some good ones on the potential free agent list for 2012, but if you can see the Nationals landing Fielder, Gonzalez or Pujols, you should probably just stop reading now, because you and I aren't going to see eye-to-eye on much. If we're making a run at it in 2012, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think Dunn is the guy.
Second Base: Ian Desmond, 26, $1 million
Desmond played most of the year as a shortstop...but also saw some action in right field. He doesn't have a sterling defensive reputation, and his numbers didn't disagree. He could be better suited for second, where his bat will still be above-average (if his walk rate rebounds from a lower-than-expected 4.9% in 2010) but his glove won't be killing them. If Desmond doesn't pan out, free agent options include Kelly Johnson, 30 (who had a pretty huge year for the Diamondbacks in 2010 but is still just Kelly Johnson and probably won't be priced out of the Nats' reach), and Jose Lopez (who unbelievably will still be just 28; pre-2008 collapse, he was basically an established version of what Desmond will likely turn out to be). Rick Hague was drafted in the third round this season as a shortstop, but will probably stick at second base. He was drafted straight out of college, and had an encouraging pro debut, so he could also be the guy if Desmond pulls a 2010 Jose Lopez.
Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman, 27, $12 million
Zimmerman is reason #1 to have faith in this (2012) team. He's already been one of the three or so best players in the NL for two years running, and he may just be hitting his stride two seasons from now. And while 2012 is the first "expensive" year in his contract, he'll still be crazily underpaid. In this Nationals dream scenario, Zimmerman probably wins league MVP.
Shortstop: Danny Espinosa, 25, near minimum
Espinosa got his first taste of the big leagues in 2010, and reached base just 31 times in 122 plate appearances. But there were actually all kinds of encouraging signs; his 8.0% walk rate was fine, he hit six homers (32 per 660 PA, for whatever that's worth) and was mostly just victimized by a very low BABIP, which was never his problem in the minors. He's much better at short than Desmond, and he profiles as a pretty similar bat: average-ish BA and OBP, but with good power for a shortstop. He's got great speed, too, but needs to learn how to use it; he was just 25/38 in swiping bags between the minors and majors in 2010. If Espinosa doesn't pan out (and Desmond doesn't play here in his place), the free agent pickings are slim -- J.J. Hardy, assuming he's not released this offseason, and Jason Bartlett -- and the team's next best middle infield prospect, Jeff Kobernus, OPSed .662 in class A.
Left Field: David DeJesus, 32, $8 million
Finally have to get a little creative. Josh Willingham's bat has been great in his two years for the Nats, but his defense is uninspiring, and he feels like one of those guys who isn't going to age well. He's up for free agency in 2011, and if they bring him back at all, it probably shouldn't be for two years. DeJesus is just a year younger, but is a better defender, and before he got hurt, was having his best year with the bat. It's likely that the Royals trade him to a contender in 2011 (and the Nationals won't be that), but he's not the kind of guy who the Yankees or Red Sox would lock up to an extension after trading for him.
Center Field: Cody Ross, 31, $8 million
A similar mid-range free agent to DeJesus (assuming the Giants let him get to free agency). He's about an average fielder and about an average hitter...but the difference between an average player and 2009 Niger Morgan (with whom you have to figure the Nats part ways either this offseason or next) is gigantic. Outfield prospect Eury Perez is blindingly fast and will still be just 22, but he'll also be at least a year away (if his bat ever arrives at all).
Right Field: Bryce Harper, 19, $500,000
Is it a reach to expect him to be ready to start by opening day a year from now? Probably. But he's absolutely dominated everywhere he's been, and I have the feeling he might be one of those special talents who actually carries that all the way through (not that he'll dominate the majors at age 19, but he could be a well above-average starter).
Stephen Strasburg, 23, $3 million
Of course, it's impossible to know what to expect from a guy more or less coming straight off of Tommy John surgery. But this is the Nats' perfect world, so he comes back just as great as ever, in a full season. Doc-Gooden-in-1985 type stuff (though in nowhere near 276 innings, of course).
Jordan Zimmermann, 26, $1.5 million
The least talented guy on the whole team whose name starts with "Zimmerman," Jordan is still plenty good. 200-plus innings, 3.50 or so ERA.
Sammy Solis, 23, near minimum
Solis was the Nats' second-round pick in 2010, and experts viewed him as a first-round talent. He's a polished, finesse lefty who projects as a very solid number-three starter. With plenty of college experience, it's not at all crazy to imagine Solis immediately stepping into that role in 2012.
Ross Detwiler, 26, near minimum
Another former Nationals first rounder (they took him seventh overall in 2007), Detwiler has had an up-and-down, injury-riddled career, but he was phenomenal in limited time in the minors in 2010. 2012 feels like the time when he could put it all together and become a solid MLB starter. Or, A.J. Cole (another first-round talent the Nats grabbed in 2010, this one in the fourth round, and then surprised everybody by signing him) could progress shockingly quickly and fill the #4 spot at age 20. Or Brad Myers (minor league FIP under 3.00 in both 2008 and 2009, albeit in limited innings) could prove to be the real deal and break through at age 26 (if he hasn't already broken through in 2011).
Craig Stammen, 28, $1 million
Stammen has never been one of the Nats' many heralded prospects, but he's looking like a solid fifth (or better) starter going forward. His ERAs in the majors have been ugly, but his 2010 5.13 was driven by bad luck and/or bad defense (he had a much more palatable 4.06 FIP and 3.91 xFIP). His strikeout rate has been all over the place in his minor and major league career, but if he can keep it in the 2010 area (near-6), keep the walks under 3 and keep getting grounders at roughly a 50% rate, he could be an awfully useful fifth starter.
It's also certainly possible that the Nationals go out and bring in a veteran free agent, though it seems to me that the offense would be the better place to spend. Difference makers who are potential 2012 free agents -- and none of them strike me as being outside the Nationals' means -- include Edwin Jackson (28), Joel Pineiro and Wandy Rodriguez (both 33).
Closer: Drew Storen, 24, $800,000
Is Storen the best closing prospect in baseball right now, or the only closing prospect? I guess if he were the latter, he'd have to be both. He's got great stuff and is already a very good big league reliever. By 2012, it's reasonable to expect him to be even (much) better.
So that's not a team that looks like "the Yankees of the NL East," despite what Bryce Harper (no, seriously) says. But while it could use a few more bats, it looks like a team that could be pretty solid. One superstar in Zimmerman, a couple minor stars like Dunn and (my imagined version of) Harper, and just as importantly, at least an average bat for the position at almost every position, to go with pretty solid defense and an exciting pitching staff that could be, if things break right, the deepest and one of the best in baseball.
You're looking at a division in which the current reigning champs will be getting very old and paying their rapidly aging first baseman approximately a billion dollars a year for the next twenty years. The richest, biggest-market team is an almost unprecedentedly ugly mess that it would be almost impossible to fix before 2012. The Braves are likely to be entering a transition period over the next few years, and the Marlins are the cheapest franchise, and the one with the most disastrously poor owner, in all of professional sports.
I'm sure many of you would rather see me assign some WAR-type figures to the above and tell you exactly how many wins to expect, but we all know that'd be just as much of a guess as what follows: I think this perfect world Nationals 2012 team, in that perfectly winnable division, could win 88-92 games and a playoff spot. And that's not a lot of payroll; assuming you can lock down Zimmerman past 2013 and find a more long-term option at first base, it's easy to see it keep getting better from there.