- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Did you like what you saw Saturday on the mound from 22-year-old Joe Ross at Nationals Park?

You may be seeing more of him — maybe a lot more next season. You may have been looking at one of the members of the Washington Nationals‘ 2016 starting rotation.

And he may not be the only new face in that rotation. He could be joined by either one of the two Nationals young phenoms currently at Single-A Potomac — Lucas Giolito or Reynaldo Lopez.

In fact, you will likely be seeing a much different Nationals roster next season, with maybe four or five new faces, as the organizations appears willing to say goodbye to four key players at the end of the year — a remarkable exodus of talent.

Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister and Denard Span will all have the opportunity to be free agents at the end of the season, and, unless something changes, the Nationals appear willing to let all of them walk — two-fifths of their highly-touted starting rotation and two starting position players, their leadoff hitter and their shortstop.

If it does play out that way, it will put general manager Mike Rizzo under the gun from Nationals fans, many of whom will be angry about the exodus and wonder how the Nationals will fill so many key positions all at once.

Well, you got a look at one of the answers Saturday in Ross, the San Diego Padres’ 2011 first-round pick, who after being called up from Double-A Harrisburg for the start, pitched well, allowing three runs on six hits and striking out four batters in five innings.

He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, when the Cubs clearly adjusted to him the second time around. But he appeared poised and confident, which is what manager Matt Williams was looking for.

“All in all, I think he threw the ball well,” Williams told reporters. “He was unfazed by the magnitude of it.”

Ross had posted a 2.81 ERA with a 2-2 record in nine starts in Harrisburg, and will likely have a chance to compete next spring for one and possibly two spots in Washington’s 2016 starting rotation. He may be joined in that competition by Giolito, the Nationals‘ 2012 first-round pick, and Lopez, the free agent Dominican youngster who has impressed Nationals officials and has been named one of the organization’s top five prospects by Baseball America.

The 2016 Nationals rotation could shape up like this: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and the last spot up for grabs. Or, if there is some other sort of personnel movement — a trade, or perhaps Roark remains in the bullpen, it could be two places up for competition in the rotation.

It is going to be a very interesting spring training next year in Viera.

Behind those starters, there will likely be two new young faces on the field in key positions for Washington — at shortstop and center field, if Desmond and Span depart as free agents — and one of them isn’t even here yet.

Shortstop sensation Trea Turner — a 2014 first-round draft choice — was the key part of the trade with San Diego this winter that brought Ross to Washington in the unusual deal that, because of baseball’s rules, kept Turner in the Padres organization because technically, players can’t be traded with a year of being drafted — but he remains Nationals‘ property.

He has been tearing it up for the Padres’ Double-A San Antonio squad, with a .325 average, five home runs and 30 RBI in 52 games, and soon, when he can officially be moved to the Nationals organization, he will be playing at Harrisburg, but may have a chance to compete for the starting shortstop job next spring.

The final piece of the new puzzle is center field, where Span has been excellent and also the engine that has driven the Nationals offense at leadoff. He will be a tough piece of the puzzle to replace. But you have been watching his replacement already — Michael Taylor — on this year’s team, and although he has struggled offensively in 41 games for Washington, filling in for Span first and now Jayson Werth, we’ve all seen enough moments offensively and defensively to believe that hype that we have heard about this five-tool prospect.

It’s all a gamble, but it’s also a testament to the player development system that Rizzo and has scouts have built, and it’s also the way good franchises with sustained success do business in 2015. It’s all about payroll flexibility, and the willingness to say goodbye to good, soon-to-be-very highly paid players and have a pipeline ready to replace them.

And how do you keep that pipeline filled? With the four — count ‘em, four — compensatory top draft picks the Nationals will receive in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft if Desmond, Span, Zimmermann and Fister, all likely Type A free agents, opt for free agency.

That’s how you avoid becoming the Philadelphia Phillies.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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