John Lannan was the Nationals’ Opening Day starter in 2009 and 2010. Washington went 59-103 and 69-93 during those seasons, the second of which Lannan spent part of in the minors.

So while shocking, Lannan’s demotion on Tuesday, despite his $5 million salary, is a serious sign of progress for the Nats, who open the season today at Chicago with presumed ace Stephen Strasburg on the mound.

Once it became apparent that Chien-Ming Wang was going to start the year on the disabled list, Lannan was seemingly set as the fifth starter behind Strasburg and fellow Tommy John surgery alum Jordan Zimmermann, as well as offseason acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. Instead, the 27-year-old New Yorker is now with Class AAA Syracuse while Ross Detwiler, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, joins the Nats’ rotation.

Lannan’s success has always been more about his bulldog attitude than his sterling stuff, but the one-time 11th-rounder has been good enough to post a 4.00 earned run average during his career 128 starts while averaging 179 innings over the last four years.

With Wang due back soon and Detwiler now ahead of Lannan in the pecking order, it’s possible that the franchise’s steadiest pitcher since the move to Nats Park in 2008 might never wear a Washington uniform again.

“I believe a trade would be the best solution for everyone,” Lannan e-mailed reporters yesterday. “I believe that I belong in a big-league rotation. I am a proven major-league starting pitcher, with a track record of success. I appreciate all the opportunities the Nationals organization has given me throughout the years. (But) I’ve done a lot for this organization through some tough times.”

Indeed, but Nats general manager Mike Rizzo and Co. think those days are now part of the franchise’s past.

Other than face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman at third base, the only players who’ll wear the road gray uniforms today at Wrigley Field who were also part of the 2008 Nats are Roger Bernadina (filling in for injured center fielder Rick Ankiel, himself a placeholder until top prospect Bryce Harper is ready for the majors), All-Star reliever Tyler Clippard and backup catcher Jesus Flores.

That such non-luminaries as catcher Josh Bard, second baseman Anderson Hernandez, right hander Garrett Mock and reliever Saul Rivera are no longer part of the organization is also a sign of progress for a franchise that came oh so close to its first winning season in Washington in 2011 and has higher aspirations in 2012.

Even with Ankiel, Wang, closer Drew Storen and last season’s slugging sensation, Michael Morse, opening the year on the (short-term) shelf, these Nats are simply a better ballclub than they have ever been.

Start with manager Davey Johnson, who replaced Jim Riggleman just before the midway point in 2011. Johnson has managed 11 full seasons for four franchises and posted winning records in 10 of those years.

Zimmermann’s ready for his first full season while Strasburg is due for a solid post-surgery 160 innings. Gonzalez rounds out an enviable top of the rotation while Storen, Clippard, fireballer Henry Rodriguez, the resurgent Brad Lidge and lefty Sean Burnett form what should be one of baseball’s best bullpens.

The lineup appears much less formidable, but Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and the double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have yet to hit the traditional peak performance (28-32 years while left fielder Morse seems to be a classic late bloomer. And neither right fielder Jayson Werth nor first baseman Adam LaRoche, both free agent busts in 2011, can be as bad as they were last season, right?

At the same time, the Philadelphia Phillies, who have won the past five National League East titles along with a World Series and a pennant, finally seem vulnerable. The question is whether Washington, Miami or Atlanta is going to be the team that catches them.

In any event, the eighth season since the national pastime returned to the nation’s capital promises to be an exciting one. Unless you happen to be poor John Lannan, who’s now a symbol of when the Nats were happy to settle for being average.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.