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Can the Washington Nationals actually compete this year?

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At the start of the season, the Atlanta Braves made the decision to have Jason Heyward start the year in the big leagues. The move started his service clock early, which will make Heyward eligible for free agency one year earlier than most rookies, but also gave the Braves, which seemed to be contenders, a better chance at reaching the post-season.

The Braves currently sit 4.5 games back. They're certainly not out of the race, but they need to get their offense going if they hope to find themselves there. The Washington Nationals, surprisingly, have been the team making waves early on in the NL East. More than a month into the season, the Nationals sit 4 games above .500 and just 1.5 games out of the division lead. If the season ended today, they'd essentially be in a three-way tie for the NL wildcard spot.

Are the players that currently comprise the Nationals good enough to take them to the post-season for the first time in franchise history? That's obviously hard to say. The names on their roster don't quite jump out at you like anyone else in their own division, and it would certainly seem like their starting rotation has pitched a bit over their heads over the first month. Offensively, they're bolstered by Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, plus a collection of veterans and youngsters sure to have their ups and downs throughout the season.

The real story for the Nationals, like it's been for seemingly over a year now, is Stephen Strasburg. Since being called up to AAA, in two starts, he's pitched 12 innings and allowed one hit. I'm no scout or anything, but this guy seems pretty decent. When he gets the call-up to the Major Leagues, sure, he'll have a learning curve, but he certainly seems capable of having an impact similar to bringing in a top pitcher on the trade market. Those trades, of course, won't happen until around July, when their rivals like the Mets and Braves reach out and try to pull in pitchers that may be available like Roy Oswalt. The Nationals have a big advantage. They don't need to wait until July. They can make their move any day they'd like to. They can call-up their impact starter tomorrow if they wished.

The decision is of course confused by financial issues like the Braves faced with Heyward, as well as the difficulties of dealing with Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras. The argument to hold Strasburg down in the minors for another month is obvious in that it would keep him from being a super-two arbitration-eligible player, which means one less time having to negotiate with Boras over Strasburg's salary. But from seeing what he's capable of from his destruction of the minor leagues, you're left to wonder if the extra few wins Strasburg may be able to earn now, ahead of the added wins rivals are able to pick up on the trade market in a few months, could give the Nationals a big boost at being realistic contenders.