VIERA, Fla. -- And so the polarizing power-hitting prospect has been dispatched for his first taste of Triple-A. For the Washington Nationals, this was the only reasonable Spring Training transaction for Bryce Harper, given the service-time stipulations that would have accompanied an Opening Day roster spot and then the overmatched at-bats he endured upon his return from a calf injury last week. Harper is absolutely expected to join and impact this Nats club at some point in 2012, but if and when he does, he can't be counted on to be more than a supporting piece of the larger puzzle -- a midsummer injection of energy and upside.
For the Nationals to truly be counted as contenders in an intriguing National League East, they'll naturally need a roster in which a prized prospect like the 19-year-old Harper operates more as a finishing touch than a centerpiece. And the good news emanating out of the Space Coast this spring is that the Nats have come a long, long way in putting the core pieces in place.
"We have a lot of work to do," newly crowned $100 million man Ryan Zimmerman said, "but from where we were three, four years ago to now, it's night and day." One guy with some perspective on where the Nationals were and where they are is veteran reliever Brad Lidge, who threw the final pitch for his Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series and is now telling anybody who asks that this Washington club is "probably the most talented team I've been on, and I've been on some great teams." Honest and accountable, Lidge isn't known to be prone to Spring Training crazy talk. So perhaps there is weight to his words. Still, those words come with a caveat. "Talent," Lidge said, "doesn't necessarily translate into anything during the season. It's based on what I perceive to be the potential to have an incredible team here for a lot of years. Now, how many wins does that translate into this year? I don't know. But there's no denying the talent." What has Lidge seen that would engender such big thoughts? "When I look at batting practice and how guys are hitting balls, I see guys who have about as much power as I've ever seen," he said. "We have four guys in the starting rotation who are among the hardest throwers in all of Major League Baseball. We have a bullpen that has, in my opinion, as much talent as any of them out there. I don't know if it's going to be this year or not, but this team is going to be in the playoffs for a while. I see the guys going about their business every day, and I like the prospects for the future." Nationals fans are all too accustomed to the idea of "the future" being the solution to their club's struggles. This franchise, since moving from Montreal, has enjoyed just one .500 season (its first year in D.C.). Last year's 80-81 finish was as good as it has been in the years since. Around the industry, Lidge's sentiment is shared by many evaluators, if only for the simple fact that two of the more prominent No. 1 Draft picks in recent decades -- Harper and Stephen Strasburg -- are both Nats property and ample building blocks. And the Zimmerman extension, which runs through at least 2019, ensures them of stability in the run-production and leadership department. Again, though, it's 2012 that is of immediate concern, and the lingering question is whether a Washington team that will get its first taste of Harper and only get about 150-160 innings out of Strasburg in his return from Tommy John surgery has the ability to add about eight to 10 wins to its 2011 total in order to be at least a Wild Card factor. As Lidge said, the rotation is stocked with ample arms. Jordan Zimmermann (average career fastball velocity: 93.1 mph, according to FanGraphs.com), Edwin Jackson (94.4) and, of course, Strasburg (97.2) are power arms, and if Gio Gonzalez can stabilize his command and control, he can be an elite left-hander. The rotation's depth was dealt a blow when Chien-Ming Wang, who had been throwing well in camp, strained his hamstring last week, but John Lannan, who would have been a trade candidate if not for the Wang injury, is a durable innings-eater. Or perhaps Ross Detwiler gets the call and Lannan's trade market is still explored. The rotation is backed by a bullpen that had the fifth-best relief ERA in the game last year, with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard forming a young and impactful closing-setup tandem, and Lidge, who struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings in his return from elbow surgery last summer, lending a hand in word and in deed. The lineup is where the biggest questions rest. The Nationals ranked 12th among the 16 NL teams in runs scored (624) last season, and rather than augment their offense with Prince Fielder (whose nine-year deal with Detroit was understandably too long for their taste), they focused more on run prevention than run production. Sans Fielder, the Nats will hold out hope that they get full seasons out of Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, who played a combined 144 games last year, that Jayson Werth's horrendous 2011 was an aberration and not the earliest sign of a contractual albatross, that Mike Morse's breakout 2011 (.910 OPS) was not a flash in the pan and and that Harper's midseason arrival provides a spark -- preferably in center field. The offense's X-factor is right up the middle of the infield, with shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa. Desmond is this club's expected leadoff hitter, and so that casts an even larger light on his .262 career average and .304 on-base percentage. The Nationals need him to have a much more steady third full season. And Espinosa's second-half slide (.227 average, .663 OPS) after a solid first half last season (16 homers, 52 RBIs, .793 OPS in 92 games) must prove to be an aberration. Some infield insurance exists in the form of prospect Stephen Lombardozzi, and Mark DeRosa will be playing the role of the wily veteran utility man. "If [Desmond and Espinosa] take the next step from an offensive standpoint," DeRosa said, "it will make our lineup really, really dangerous." The Nats reside in a dangerous division, one that is continually evolving even here in camp. On Monday came the news that Chase Utley won't be ready for the start of the season in Philly, another blow to an offense that will be absent Ryan Howard for at least a month and probably longer. The Braves have question marks up and down their rotation, and the Marlins could be competitive or combustible. Where the Nationals fit into all this is anybody's guess. But with two Wild Card berths up for grabs, a sterling starting staff and Harper on the horizon, anything seems possible right about now. "This team is very young," Lidge said, "and there's going to be young mistakes. But with that driving force behind you that makes you hungry and makes you want to win, those mistakes go away in time. I don't know if it's going to be this year or not, but this team is going to be in the playoffs for a while."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.