Washington Nationals: Top 5 Stories Of 2011: 1. Winning With Youth.

There was little doubt that he was ready. Before the 2011 season even started, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was describing then-23-year-old Nats' backstop Wilson Ramos to MLB Network Radio hosts Kevin Kennedy and Mike Ferrin as, "... a front of the line, catch and throw guy with power and offensive capabilities." Washington acquired the Minnesota Twins' top catching prospect at the '09 Non-Waiver Deadline, sending then-Nats' closer Matt Capps to the playoff bound AL Central team. "I think that [Ramos'] upside is tremendous," Rizzo said, "he handles a pitching staff tremendously, he's wise beyond his years and he's a guy that the pitchers love to throw to...he gives a great target, he catches and throws and blocks and this guy is extremely strong, and he's going to be a gifted offensive guy."

The Nationals also had a 39-year-old future Hall of Fame catcher on their roster. Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman talked to Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez early this season and had what he described to reporters as "a great conversation" in which he told the 21-year-veteran catcher that Wilson Ramos was at a point in his development that he had to get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate. He was ready. Rodriguez, Riggleman said, "... completely understands that we have to develop [Wilson] Ramos' game,":

"[Ramos is] a young guy that is going to break in and we don't really want to break him in catching minimal games," Riggleman said, "So there's going to be a lot of days that Ramos is out there and Pudge is completely on board with that, Pudge wants to be a National, he wants to do whatever it takes. I think sometimes, probably myself, coaches, all of us who are not in uniform make the assumption that this is going to be a really tough transition, but until you talk to the player, you don't know. And when I talked to him, he wants to do whatever it takes for the Nationals to be the best we can be and however he can best help the ballclub, and it's one of the better conversations I've ever had with a ballplayer since I've been managing. He was just first class and it really just speaks to the quality of individual that he is."

Wilson Ramos would finish his first full major league season behind the plate by putting together a .288/.342/.471 second-half of 2011 which left the 24-year-old catcher with a .267/.334/.445 line in 113 games and 435 plate appearances. Ramos threw out 23 of 71 base stealers, 32% CS%, had a .993 fld% and finished second amongst rookies in the National League in WAR with a +3.1 rating, behind only Nationals' second baseman Danny Espinosa, who led all NL Rookies (and all rookies league-wide) at +3.5.

Espinosa, the Nats' 24-year-old second baseman, was described before the season by D.C. GM Mike Rizzo as, "... front-line, everyday, defensive shortstop in the big leagues," who, "... has a chance to be a rangy, live-bodied, exciting middle infielder with some power. A switch-hitter that can run, steal bases and we believe that he has a chance to be a Gold-Glove-caliber middle infielder." So Espinosa was going to play second and be given the same opportunity in his first full season in the majors as 25-year-old shortstop Ian Desmond (who turned 26 in September) had been given in his first full season with the Nats in 2009.

"We're excited about the two, there's going to be growing pains, we understand that, and we've told Espinosa exactly what I told Desmond at this time last year," Rizzo continued, "'You worry about your defense. You worry about preparation for the game, what you do on offense, we're going to be very, very patient with you and we know there's going to be growing pains and we're willing to grind through those.'"

Even when Espinosa struggled, and he did in the second-half, hitting in 23 of 84 September at bats (.274/.371/.429) to pull his 2nd Half slash up to .227/.310/.352, the second baseman was given the entire season to work through his issues. Though he didn't reach his goal of playing in every game, Espinosa appeared in 158 games in 2011. The '08 3rd Round pick out of Long Beach State University finished with a .236/.323/.414 slash, 29 doubles, 21 HR's, 17 stolen bases and 166 K's, committed the second-most errors amongst second basemen in the National League with 14 behind both Dan Uggla and Rickie Weeks (15), and tied (w/ Freddie Freeman - ATL) for the NL Rookie Lead in HR's with 21, which was the third-highest total amongst rookies league-wide. 

When the Nationals decided to see what they had in '07 1st Round pick Ross Detwiler, veteran lefty Tom Grozelanny was moved to the bullpen. Detwiler had worked his way back into the rotation slowly with Davey Johnson picking and choosing relief outings before making the 25-year-old Detwiler a starter again, only to see the lefty have his best stretch in the majors as the season came to a close. When Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery, Livan Hernandez, a veteran of 16 major league seasons, was shut down so that the 23-year-old '09 1st Round pick could get the innings he needed in.

When the Washington Nationals went (17-10) in September to lift their record from 63-72 to 80-81 at season's end, they did so with Strasburg, September call-ups like 23-year-old right-hander Brad Peacock, 24-year-old left-hander Tom Milone, 23-year-old '07 1st Round pick, first baseman Chris Marrero, 23-year-old MiLB Gold Glove winning second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi, 24-year-old set-up man Henry Rodriguez, 24-year-old '09 1st Round pick Drew Storen, Detwiler, Espinosa, Desmond and Ramos on the field. 18-going-on-19-year-old Bryce Harper is in the plans in the not-too-distant future. Ryan Zimmerman just turned 27. The Nationals spent on prospects again, coming away with yet another strong draft class. Building from within. Playing the kids. Winning with youth. 

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