WASHINGTON – When Jayson Werth reclines in the chair in front of his locker before a game at Nationals Park, surveying his teammates and considering the future, he is glad to be here. Yes, the Nats have .engineered another late-season plummet, and no, Werth is not producing as he did in Philadelphia – but still, he feels part of an upwardly mobile group.
“I really like the players we have here,” said Werth, who .expects his team to contend next season. That is far from a ridiculous view, and he expressed it even before the goose-bump event in the second inning of Saturdaynight’s 8-7 win over the Mets.
With two on and one out, Nats pitcher Tom Milone – facing Dillon Gee in his first major league at-bat – launched a three-run home run over the right-field fence. Milone’s teammates sprung from the dugout to salute his trip around the bases, and later nudged him out for an extra ovation.BOX SCORE: NATIONALS 8, METS 7Ryan Zimmerman‘s bases-loaded, two-run single off Bobby Parnell – achieved after the Mets intentionally walked Roger Bernadina – decided the game.
But the rookie pitcher’s homer provided the night’s most sublime moment – and Milone is not even among Washington’s best youngsters.
With Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Drew Storen and owners willing to spend, this club is ascending. The Nats are one of four primary reasons why the next few years present a steep challenge for the Mets, despite the Mets’ strong late-season play.
The other three are easily identified: they are called the Phillies, the Braves and the Marlins. As the Mets plant farm system seeds, the rest of the National League East has watered its talent, and is ready to watch it bloom.
Now imagine how quickly divisional power would shift if the Mets lost one of their homegrown stars to an Eastern rival.
Although it remains unclear if Washington will ultimately be interested in Jose Reyes, some Mets insiders predict that the Nationals (along with the Angels, Red Sox and possibly Giants) will become strong contenders for the shortstop, whom the Mets hope to re-sign. They are certainly the only potential bidders for Reyes within the division.
The Reyes-to-Washington chatter does not stem entirely from the Mets; earlier this season, at least one longtime Nationals player lobbied ownership to pursue Reyes, according to a person familiar with that conversation.
The Nats have been open about seeking a long-term leadoff hitter, and adding Reyes could immediately launch them into contending status. But as Werth said, there is a belief in the clubhouse that even without adding free agents, the team is ready to rise.
They are not alone. The Marlins have several promising players, including a frightening man-child named Mike Stanton, who did not seem to mind Citi Field‘s dimensions last week, when he cranked an opposite-field home run into the second deck in right field.
The Phillies are old, but they are also rich and loaded with veteran pitching. The Braves have enough young arms, both on the big league club and in the minors, to succeed for years. The Mets have pitching prospects Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey, and while those youngsters might excel someday, they are still developing.
There are reasons to believe in the short-term, including Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis. The Mets’ performance in recent weeks has offered yet another reminder of Terry Collins‘ ability to motivate men not expected to succeed.
But if the team loses Reyes to Washington or anyone else, and is forced to wait a year or three to develop premium talent while cutting payroll, its 2011 garbage-time triumphs could be less of a promise, and more of a tease.
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