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2011: The Year Of The Washington Nationals' Core.

Asked for the takeaway from the 2011 season last Wednesday in an interview on MLB Network Radio, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, before this past week's kidnapping ordeal, pointed to the continued development of the Washington Nationals' young core, including 24-year-old catcher Wilson Ramos, as one of the team's main accomplishments.

"The biggest postitive in my mind," Rizzo said, "was the way our young core players stepped up and really performed admirably. Ramos became what we thought Ramos was going to be. It looks like he's going to be a solid everyday catcher behind the plate for a long time for us. You have Danny Espinosa. Ian Desmond we thought took a great step forward. The emergence of Michael Morse was an important piece for us and we feel that with a healthy Ryan Zimmerman all season and a healthy Adam LaRoche at first base we feel that we've got a good core group of position players. We feel we're fairly set at a lot of spots this year. We feel that our rotation is pretty well filled-up and our bullpen is young, fairly inexpensive and very talented."

"It's just a tribute to the whole organization to be at this point," Davey Johnson said late this season as the Nationals surged with a 17-10 September to finish a game under .500 at 80-81 after they'd started the month eight games under at 63-71. "We lost two key veterans, one most of the year and the other about a half of the year and young guys that were trying to establish carried the bulk of the load. So, I mean, I tip my hat to everyone in the organization from scouts all the way down and the job they've done getting to this point, it's outstanding." 

"Having Zimmerman [out] and LaRoche out all year long," Davey Johnson told reporters at another point late this season, "It was tough on some of the other rookies. But now that everybody's coming back together, I think it's easier for everyone in the lineup to not feel like it's all on them." Danny Espinosa was arguably the MVP of the first-half of 2011 for Washington, but struggled down the stretch in his first pro season. When the team took off in September, the second baseman caught fire too, recovering from a .200/.298/.310 July and a .233/.307/.359 August with a .274/.371/.429 line in the final month of the year, though the power he'd shown early this season wasn't quite there and the strikeouts climbed. 

Wilson Ramos had a .288/.342/.471 second-half with 10 doubles and seven home runs in 47 games and 187 plate appearances, ending the year with a .358/.434/.582 stretch in September during which he hit six doubles and three home runs in 19 games and 76 plate appearances. The one big difference for Ian Desmond this season was his ability to cut down on the throwing errors he committed, down from 13 in 2010 to four in 2011. Otherwise he proved to be just about exactly the same player as he's been for the first two seasons in Washington.

The .253/.298/.358 line Desmond put up this season is only slightly off the .261/.303/.374 line he's averaged in his first two full-seasons, and he only got close to his career averages because of a .295/.329/.424 stretch in August/September after a .228/.279/.317 March through July. He hit 10 HR's in 2010, 8 this past season, 27 doubles in each of his first two years. Is the 26-year-old shortstop the player he showed he was capable of being at the major league level in '09 and the end of the 2011 season or the player he's been so far over the course of his major league career?

The biggest surprise of all, of course, was the breakout season by Michael Morse. The 29-going-on-30-year-old former White Sox and Mariners' prospect rescued from Seattle by a June '09 trade for Ryan Langerhans, rewarded the Nationals' faith with a 36 double, 31 HR, 95 RBI, .303/.360/.550 season in which helped lead Washington's offense. Davey Johnson is one of the people in the organization along with Mike Rizzo who always believed in Morse. "He's one of the first guys that I kind of warmed up to two years ago," Johnson said, "I remember, he probably doesn't remember, but I remember talking hitting to him out in the hallways." 

"He told me he was a shortstop," Johnson joked, "And I said, 'Bigger than any shortstop I ever saw.' But he went out and had a great year. When we made the shift from left field to first base and back to left field it didn't bother him a bit. He's been fun to watch." Morse, however, started and ended the season with slumps, posting a .211/.253/.268 slash in March and April and a .237/.297/.505 slash over the last month of the season. From May through August, in time spent predominantly at first, Morse had a .338/.397/.617 line.

Morse is expected to be back in left field when the 2012 season starts, provided that Adam LaRoche makes a full recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum and damage to his rotator cuff. Can LaRoche come back at 100%? Is the center fielder the Nats are searching for along with the addition of the 32-year-old LaRoche's .267/.337/.478 career slash, a full season season of Ryan Zimmerman and a has-to-be-better-(right?) Jayson Werth enough to allow the Nationals to compete in the NL East? Danny Espinosa led all Nationals in 2011 at +3.5 WAR, Morse was second at +3.4, Ramos, +3.1 and Ryan Zimmerman followed, with Zim at +2.5 tied with Jayson Werth though they were down from +7.2 and +5.3, respectively, in the previous season, with Ian Desmond at +1.4 up from +1.3 and Adam LaRoche an inconsequential -0.2 after consecutive seasons of +1.5, +2.5  and  +1.2 from 2008 through 2010. 

The Nationals are also reportedly in the market for a starter to add to their young and thus-far-relatively-unproven rotation that will likely include Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and either a veteran arm or one of Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone or Brad Peacock if no one else is acquired or brought back to vie for time in the starting rotation. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, and Sean Burnett will be back in the bullpen. The Nats' GM is confident that the team is closer than most people think. When it comes to adding to the mix, Rizzo told the MLB Network Radio hosts last week, "We're going to be careful with what we do. We aren't going to make any knee-jerk reactions. All the moves we make, we're going to stick to our plan. But we feel the plan could come to fruition sooner than expected." 

"We feel, I think for the first time since I've been around," Rizzo said, echoing sentiments expressed by Jayson Werth at the end of the season, "That every day we walk in that clubhouse we think that we're going to win the game. We feel that we can win the game and there's an expectation of winning the game when we leave the clubhouse and hit that field." How high are their sights set? Davey Johnson put it simply in a recent interview with the D.C. press corps. "A pennant," the Nats' skipper said, "Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League. I couldn't have said that last Spring. I didn't think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn't do just that."