Nations: Future still bright for Nats, O’s

Tough weekend for Beltway baseball fans, no question.

The Washington Nationals saw their long-shot charge for an NL Wild Card spot come up short, and the Baltimore Orioles’ would need a lengthy string of miracles to get continue their season in the playoffs. Five out with six games left heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays? It’s just not going to happen.

It’s disappointing, for certain. Much was expected of both these ballclubs, the Nationals in particular. Washington seemed to have it all heading into this season — a lock-down starting rotation, an emerging offense led by young superstar outfielder Bryce Harper, a seasoned skipper directing the action in Davey Johnson. Unfortunately for the Nats, the Atlanta Braves, long the power franchise in the NL East, were in no mood to be dazzled by Washington’s youthful talent and genuine star power. The Braves did what they always do — trot out strong starting pitching, build on the offense throughout the season, and especially take care of business against their NL East rivals. Case in point — Washington managed just a 6-12 mark against the Braves this season, a sure sign that a Wild Card run was the best hope for the Nats.

Baltimore is soon to suffer the crueler fate, trapped in an AL East loaded with playoff contenders all intent on grabbing one of those Wild Card spots. The Boston Red Sox ran away with the division early on, leaving Baltimore, Tampa Bay and New York to scrap it out for that one-game Wild Card playoff. It may well be that none of them get in. The Rays held a one-game lead in the AL Wild Card standings heading into Tuesday’s first of three at Yankee Stadium. A last gasp by the Yanks in the form of a sweep could make things quite uncomfortable for the Rays, with the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers still very much in pursuit of a playoff spot.

That’s great for them, but is of little solace to Nats or O’s fans right about now. Here’s an idea that should cheer you up, though — both these teams are now positioned to be long-time players in their respective divisions.

Check out the Nationals. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (26 HRs, 78 RBIs, .281 batting average) and Adam LaRoche (20 HR, 62 RBIs, .237) offer steady production at the corners although both are strikeout-prone to an extent. Shortstop Ian Desmond, who truly delivered a breakout season with 20 homers, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases, gives the Nats offensive production at a position that is the envy of most other teams. Outfielder Jayson Werth (24 HRs, 79 RBIs, .318) isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the same can be said of Harper (20 HRs, 62 RBIs, .279). The Nats added a nice piece via trade by picking up center fielder Denard Span in the offseason, Wilson Ramos is an above-average hitting catcher, and rookie Anthony Rendon could be ready to push Zimmerman to the side at third.

On the mound, the Nats got a less-than-phenomenal effort from former super phenom Stephen Strasburg (7-9, 3.02 ERA in 176 innings). Strasburg has undeniable talent, and likely bounces back next year. Combine him with Gio Gonzalez (11-7, 3.39 ERA in 188.2 innings) and Jordan Zimmermann (19-8, 3.18 ERA, 206.1 innings) and the Nats have the makings of an elite rotation for years to come.

Starting pitching should be the area the Orioles address most aggressively during the offseason. Beyond Chris Tillman (16-7, 3.70 ERA in 194.1 innings), Baltimore got a slightly above-average season out of Miguel Gonzalez (10-8, 3.94 ERA in 164.1 innings), a slightly below-average season from Wei-Yin Chen (7-7, 4.03 ERA in 131.2 innings) and a terrible season from Jason Hammel (7-8, 5.07 ERA in 135 innings). Finding a top-flight starter, or two, should top the O’s offseason wish list.

At the plate, Baltimore can swing with the best of them. First baseman Chris Davis (52 HRs, 136 RBIs, .286) hasn’t let up his torrid power surge all season. Center fielder Adam Jones (32 HRs, 106 RBIs, .286) is a bona fide superstar, third baseman Manny Machado (14 HRs, 71 RBIs, .283) is on that same path, and the Orioles feature quality hitters like Nick Markakis (10 HRs, 51 RBIs, .270), J.J. Hardy (25 HRs, 74 RBIs, .260) and Matt Wieters (21 HRs, 76 RBIs, .232).

Both squads have some tinkering to do during the annual hot stove league, but a return to the playoffs for one or both certainly looks doable. Small solace this October, I’m sure.