- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

It’s hard at this stage of the season not to be impressed with the Washington Nationals. A team that was overwhelmingly expected to lose more than 100 games and perhaps threaten some of the worst ballclubs in major league history instead has proved it’s no pushover and can compete with anyone.

But let’s not get too ecstatic just yet, OK? Sure, if the Nationals win 70 games this year, they will undoubtedly be considered a success. But from day one, wins and losses on this team really weren’t all that important. Rather, the goal of the 2007 Nationals was to show improvement over the course of the season and to identify key parts to the organization’s long-term rebuilding plan.

On the latter front, plenty of questions remain.

Washington needs to emerge from 2007 with an idea who from the 25-man roster fits in for 2008, 2009 and beyond. So far, only a handful of players definitely will return. Plenty of them definitely won’t. And several remain uncertain with a chance over the next 3½ months either to establish themselves as pieces of the puzzle or as extraneous parts that should be cast aside.

A look at which players fall into which category:

Part of the future: Ryan Zimmerman, Shawn Hill, Chad Cordero, Matt Chico, Jesus Flores.

Really, Zimmerman is the only sure thing on this list. The others probably are, though there’s still time for any of them to falter.

Zimmerman is the face of the franchise for the next decade (provided he and the Nationals can come to terms on a multiyear contract at some point). His batting average has dropped this season, but he’s still producing close to his rookie levels and remains a player the organization can build around.

Hill certainly looked like he deserved to make this list before he hurt his left shoulder. Provided he comes back strong — and all indications are that he should — he will become a rotation mainstay for several years.

Cordero’s strong resurgence the last month confirms his status as a quality closer, and though he still ultimately could be traded, it won’t be for lack of performance on his part.

Chico and Flores, meanwhile, have impressed as rookies who probably weren’t ready for the big leagues. They will continue to have their ups and downs, but both look like big parts of the future.

Definitely not: Cristian Guzman, Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Nook Logan, Ryan Langerhans, Robert Fick, Micah Bowie, Mike Bacsik, Jason Simontacchi, Jesus Colome, Ray King, Billy Traber, Jerome Williams.

While several players in this group (Guzman, Young, Belliard, Bowie, Colome and more) are performing quite well this season, none really figures to be part of the long-term plan. All are veterans who aren’t under contract beyond this season (except for Guzman, who has one more year left), and the Nationals aren’t expected to re-sign any of them.

Those players, though, still can help the long-term development of the organization if they are traded later this summer for prospects who eventually will fill out Washington’s major league roster in 2008 and beyond.

Not sure: Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider, Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns, Ryan Church, John Patterson, Jason Bergmann, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Levale Speigner.

These are the key players to watch as the rest of the season plays out. The organization believes all could figure into the long-term plan, but that’s only if each one continues to develop, shows consistency and stays healthy.

Johnson, Patterson and Bergmann understand that last part. If healthy, they are quality major leaguers who remain young enough to become mainstays for several more years. But can they stay healthy? And if not, when do the Nationals give up hope?

Health is not an issue with Schneider, Lopez, Kearns or Church. Consistent production is. All three have shown flashes over the last few years; none has shown he can do it regularly enough to ensure a permanent spot in the lineup. The next 3½ months will be crucial for all of them.

Rauch, Rivera and Speigner all look like solid relief pitchers, but all need to sustain success before they can be considered mainstays.

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