When I wrote the Crash/Soar post I half-jokingly said that I hoped Ryan Zimmerman would be the "soar" because it would be great to cover the undisputed best player in baseball.* But could this actually happen? What does a cursory glance at history tell us?
*If you didn't know Ryan's offense & defense have combined to give him the 9th and 4th highest WARs the past two years. That gives you a general idea of how good an all-around player Ryan has been. Top 10 certainly, Top 5 arguably.
It's hard to guess how he'll do defensively in any single year so let's focus on offense. One way to guess how Ryan will do at the plate is to look at similar players. Baseball Reference makes this kind of easy by providing us with the "most similar" players to Ryan. If we look at his "contemporaries" on the similar batters through his current age, we see a pattern emerge. Eric Chavez's best year? When he was 26. Hank Blalock? 26. Sheffield's best 2-year stretch? 26-27. This is interesting because Ryan's age for the majority of next year will be... oh come on, you know... 26!.
We see this even if we look at similar batters regardless of age. Both Dave Nilsson and Garrett Atkins had their peak year at age 26. Not every player agrees, but there isn't much disagreement that Ryan should be better in the next few years. Scott Rolen peaked 28-29. Brad Hawpe at 28.
On the flip side Fernando Tatis and Jorge Cantu peaked earlier but I'm really having a hard time seeing them as similar batters. David Wright so far had his best year at 24 but it's a bit too early to say anything for sure about him. (He actually took a step back at 26, though many blame the move to a new park.)
This isn't anything surprising. It's well known that baseball players generally peak around 26-29 depending. Since Ryan entered the league so young, I'm not surprised he matches up with several players that peak on the early side of that range. (much harder to peak at 26 if you enter the league at 25) History would suggest we're in for a few great years of hitting from Ryan. If his defense holds (and if Pujols starts aging) - the Nats could have the best player in the majors.
A couple "bad news" notes though. First, while Ryan could like see improvement over the next 3 years or so, it's far more likely to be small to moderate, rather than a breakthrough. .310 with 30 homers, or .300 and 35 is probably what we're going to see, not .330 and 40. (although in any given year anything can happen right?). Second, Ryan is almost certainly not going to be a slam-dunk, shut-your-mouth, potentially unanimous first-ballot type of Hall of Famer. These guys almost all tend to show incredible offensive skills at very young ages. In other words, they almost all have had better offensive years than Ryan's best one so far, at ages younger than Ryan is now. Sorry. He could still be an ordinary, let-me-think about it, ok he's in on the second ballot type of Hall of Famer. (Not really "bad news", is it? That's why I used quotes people)
The Nats are far from a perfect team, but they have a player that very well could be the all-around best player in the league a couple times in the next few years. That's something special. Don't let it pass you by worrying about Strasburg and Bryce.