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David Elfin On Sports: Nationals Aiming High

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Drew Storen #22 of the Washington Nationals

Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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It makes sense that the Washington Nationals are just 5-10 since they sat at .500 coming out of the All-Star break 17 days ago. That’s because the Nats nickel-and-dimed it at this weekend’s trade deadline.

There were none of the fireworks of last year when Washington traded All-Star closer Matt Capps and former All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman for four prospects, one of whom, Wilson Ramos, is already their No. 1 catcher.

This time around, the Nats shipped out veteran pitcher Jason Marquis, 32, and even more senior utilityman Jerry Hairston, Jr., 35, for a Class A infielder and a Class AA outfielder, neither of whom seems destined for Washington soon.

While Hairston’s absence won’t have a major effect, Marquis’ departure opens a spot in the rotation for next month’s expected return of fireballer Stephen Strasburg.

The other positive development was that closer Drew Storen, taken nine spots after top overall pick Strasburg in 2009, wasn’t traded away, meaning that not only are the Nats not totally giving up on this season’s final two months, they are serious about being a contender in 2012.

Storen staying put ensures a measure of stability for a franchise that has mostly lacked that quality for years even before coming to Washington in 2005.

The Nats have had three managers and two general managers during the past 25 months. Other than third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and starting pitchers Livan Hernandez (who has been traded and re-acquired) and John Lannan, the only current Nats who had worn a curly W on their caps before 2009 were All-Star setup man Tyler Clippard (two games), newly installed fifth starter Ross Detwiler (16) and backup catcher Jesus Flores.

But keeping Storen, who won’t even be 24 for another 10 days, sends the message that the Nats now truly have a core group, a foundation for a better future.

The 23-year-old Strasburg, of course, is the jewel of that nucleus along with 18-year-old Bryce Harper and Zimmerman, 26. But righty Jordan Zimmermann, 25, and Clippard and Lannan, both 26, belong as do: Ramos, 23, rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa, 24; late-blooming slugger Mike Morse, 29, and perhaps shortstop Ian Desmond, 25.

That’s six positions set for next year – once Harper is called up from Class AAA Syracuse — along with three spots in the rotation and the two most important ones in the bullpen. And of those 11 players, only Morse will be even 28 in 2012.

With 31-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche — on the disabled list for the rest of the year after an ugly Washington debut — sure to return along with 32-year-old free agent bust outfielder Jayson Werth, who’s $68 million contract makes him much too costly to cast aside, the Nats know how half of their roster will look next summer.

Yes, GM Mike Rizzo needs to find another arm or two for the rotation and a couple more reliable bats. And manager Davey Johnson, who took over when the less accomplished Jim Riggleman resigned in June, has yet to say that he’ll be back for a full season in 2012 at 69.

However, Storen’s presence on the roster after the trade deadline is yet another clear sign that the Nats are aiming well beyond this season’s respectability, a goal that seemed very distant just two seasons ago.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.

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