Carroll County Times

Commentary: Nats best, most interesting baseball team in region

They're in first place in the East, they're looking like one of the better teams in baseball at this early juncture, and fans throughout the region can catch their games on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

No, not the Orioles.

They're off to a pretty nice start, but if you want to see a team that's ready to contend for the postseason this year as it blossoms into one of the MLB's best in 2013 and beyond, you can go to Camden Yards - but then take a right and head southwest for about 35 miles until you hit Nationals Park.

Don't look now, but in nearby Washington - where nothing ever seems to get done - a team that lost more than 100 games in 2008 and 2009 has been successfully rebuilt on the fly.

The Nats had the best record in the National League through 13 games. Very small sample size, of course, but a good start can't be minimized in an NL East that includes four good teams but no great teams.

More important, they're constructed the right way. By drafting well, being aggressive on the free-agent market when that looked like the last thing they should be doing, and parting with prospects to make a run now rather than five years from now, they're doing everything their MASN partners have not.

With roughly 10 percent of the season in the books, the Nationals had the best ERA in the NL by more than half-a-run. They also led the league in strikeouts, WHIP and fewest home runs allowed.

The core four in their starting rotation - Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, and Gio Gonzaelz - all are 26 or younger, entering the prime of their careers.

The first three of them were high-round Nationals draft picks, coming of age together. This is not unique to Washington, of course - the Orioles had the same idea with a quartet of young pitchers last year. The difference is, the Nats weren't content to throw their young guys out there to sink or swim on their own.

They traded for Gonzalez, coming off an All-Star year in Oakland, for a number of prospects in the offseason. And they were willing to pay $11 million for Edwin Jackson, an experienced arm who's averaged more than 12 wins and 200 innings per season over the last four years and is still only 28.

Did they overpay for Jackson? Definitely. But they did what they had to do to get a player they thought they needed, the same approach they took the previous offseason, coming off a 69-win season, when they landed Jayson Werth in an oft-ridiculed seven-year, $126 million deal.

Obviously, Werth isn't worth that. But he's a solid player who fills a need and his signing sent a message: We are serious about winning.

What message did the Nats' neighbors to the northeast send by bringing back virtually their entire lineup intact from a year ago as they wait to overpay for a big-name free agent until they're already on the cusp of contending (which could be a long wait). Or by trying to get by with bargain-basement signings like Kevin Millwood and Justin Duchsherer the past few years. (Perhaps they'll have more luck with their Far East forays this season).

The Nats have already had some significant setbacks thanks to injuries. They'll survive without Drew Storen, closer being the most overrated position in the game, but the extended loss of Mike Morse hurts.

Of course, it's nice to have Bryce Harper, maybe the most can't-miss positional prospect since Alex Rodriguez, is just a phone call away at Class AAA Syracuse.

Even without Morse, they seem to have a passable offense led by young, home-grown, left-side-of-the-infielders Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.

Obviously, the Nationals haven't won a thing yet. Most likely, they're still a year away from being really good.

But they're already fun to watch, they should be in the playoff race deep into September, and they're loaded with young talent which should put them among the teams to beat from 2013-15.

They've also been kind enough to provide a nice blueprint for their MASN mates to follow.