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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #15: The Washington Nationals

Bud Selig was so sure about moving the Expos out of Montreal. He was so sure that he forcefully promoted the relocation and even contraction for years, despite protests from fans and the players union, dissent from other teams and MLB executives, and even massive lawsuits, some which charged him with racketeering. In an unprecedented and ethically dubious arrangement, MLB actually owned and operated the Expos for three seasons from 2002 until 2004, after which they became the Washington Nationals. In Washington, where there would soon be a new stadium (opened in 2008), Selig assured us that the franchise would become popular, competitive, and profitable.

2009, the fifth full season of Washington Nationals baseball, was the worst yet. Not only did the Nats post their worst winning percentage (.364) since moving to D.C., it was the franchises worst performance since 1976. And the putrid on-field performance paled in comparison to the shenanigans of the front office. Before the season even began a scandal with there South American scouting led to a host of firings and the resignation of the General Manager. At midseason, the Nats also fired their field manager, Manny Acta, who has since signed on to manage the Cleveland Indians. Frustration with the direction of the team caused an alarming rate of fan attrition, as attendance dropped to its lowest rate ever. Only 1.8 million fans paid for Nats tickets in 2009, that's over a million less than in their first season of existence. On one particularly sad day in early June, Randy Johnson picked up his 300th win in front of a crowd so small that the Nationals refused to release the attendance figures. This, my friends, is not a franchise headed in the right direction.

Free Agents:

Livan Hernandez (35) RHSP
Mike MacDougal (33) RHRP
Austin Kearns (30) RF
Saul Rivera (32) RHRP
Ron Villone (40) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Jason Bergmann (28) RHSP
Sean Burnett (27) RHRP
Jesus Flores (25) C
Wil Nieves (32) C
Scott Olsen (26) LHSP
Josh Willingham (31) LF

ETA 2010?:

Ian Desmond (24) SS
Justin Maxwell (26) OF
Stephen Strasburg (21) RHSP
Drew Storen (22) RHRP
Aaron Thompson (23) LHSP

Despite having one of the worst overall seasons in the franchise's history, there was one bright spot in 2009. Washington had earned the #1 pick in the June draft. With it, they selected what many believe to be the best pitching prospect of all time, the triple-digit phenom from San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg. Most scouts believe Strasburg is ready to pitch in the majors immediately. The fan base could use the thrill of seeing a massive talent every fifth game, but the Nats may choose to be cautious and slow his movement towards free agency by keeping him in the minors for a least a couple months (as the Rays did with Evan Longoria in '08 and Orioles did with Matt Wieters last season).

For much of the Nationals existence they have had to field a rotation of cast-offs and also-rans, relying heavily on guys like Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, and Tim Redding, pitchers who epitomize the AAAA player. Thankfully, after a number of high draft picks, the Nationals are ready to field a rotation with a lot of talent, though not a lot of experience. Strasburg (21) heads a group of freshman and sophomores which also includes Jordan Zimmerman (24), Ross Detwiler (24), Shairon Martis (23), Craig Stammen (25), and Aaron Thompson (23). All of these pitchers have the talent to become quality starters. It may not happen in 2010, but at least the potential is there and Nats fans can indulge a little hope every time out.

The veteran leadership will be provided by John Lannan (only 25), Scott Olsen (only 26), and recent, somewhat inexplicable free agent signing, Jason Marquis (31). What Marquis possesses is a rubber arm. He hardly every misses a start and he'll keep his team within striking distance for six innings a start. When the rest of the staff, including the bullpen, is young, such durability and consistency is valuable, even if the quality is, at best, league average. Lannan, on the other hand, is among the most unsung pitchers in the game. In two full seasons he has made 64 starts and posted a 3.89 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP, very quality production for a player who just turned 25 and plays for a decrepit franchise. His upside is Mark Buehrle-esque.

The Nationals bullpen became a running joke during the first half of 2009, and it was one of the main reasons Manny Acta got himself fired. The Nats converted only 57% of their save opportunities in 'o9 (worst in MLB), and that number was even lower before they acquired Mike MacDougal, who went 20 for 21 from June 17 to the end of the season. They were also last in the majors in bullpen ERA (5.09). So, it makes sense that they performed a full overhaul, trading, releasing, or not re-signing eight players who pitched 25 or more relief innings in '09, including MacDougal. The question now is, who's going to eat those innings.

The Nats signed Matt Capps, presumably to close, but though he is younger and has more upside than MacDougal, he is also more expensive and was among the least efficient closers in all of baseball for Pittsburgh last year. Washington also added Doug Slaten and Brian Bruney to fill out the bullpen corps (and will have a look a Eddie Guardado during Spring Training), but will probably rely most heavily on the development of Tyler Clippard (2.69 ERA, 67 K in 60 IP in '09), Garrett Mock, Jason Bergmann, Collin Balester, and their "other" 2009 first-rounder, Drew Storen.

Washington actually outscored traditional powerhouses like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros in '09, finishing in the middle of the pack in the NL. Adam Dunn did what he was paid to do, crushing 38 HR and driving in 105 runs. Ryan Zimmerman benefitted greatly from the improved protection, and at 24 posted his biggest season to date (.292, 33 HR, 106 RBI, 110 R, 888 OPS). Additionally, the Nats had to be pleasantly surprised by the production of Josh Willingham (24 HR, 863 OPS) and Nyjer Morgan (.369 OBP, 42 SB). If the Nats are to take a step forward offensively in '10, they will need those four to hold steady, and they will need improved production from Elijah Dukes and whoever is playing second base. It is unclear whether Washington has any more money to spend, but if they do, they could be bidders on the remaining middle-infielders, guys like Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez, and Kelly Johnson. Or, more likely, they could go after a utilityman, perhaps Chad Tracy, Jerry Hairston, or Adam Kennedy.

The signing of Marquis and Capps surprised pundits this winter, but the biggest surprise was the signing of 38-year-old legendary backstop, Pudge Rodriguez, to a two-year, $6 Million contract. Pudge's numbers have been in consistent decline since 2006, which isn't surprising, considering his age and the toll of his position. In '09 he managed just a 663 OPS, but he still manages the running game (35% CS in '09) and handles the pitching staff. The logic of this signing will come down to how the Nats use him. If he is primarily Jesus Flores' backup, tutoring a youngster who is, at 25, one of the better young catching prospects in the game (he posted an 877 OPS in limited action in '09), than the signing makes a lot of sense. If Pudge cuts into Flores' development by demanding the bulk of the playing time, than his presence is counterproductive.

I think that the Washington faithful can look forward to small step in the right direction in 2010, but the Nats are a long way from flowering the way that Tampa Bay has in recent years. They have accumulated a nice selection of pitching prospects, but they need to promote their offense as well. Next offseason will be critical, as Adam Dunn and Christian Guzman will enter free agency, freeing up a lot of cash. What the front office does with it may determine whether the Nats head towards becoming the Rays or the Royals.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
SS Christian Guzman (S)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
1B Adam Dunn (L)
LF Josh Willingham (R)
RF Elijah Dukes (R)
C Jesus Flores (R)
2B Willie Harris (R)
SP John Lannan (L)

SP Scott Olsen (L)
SP Jason Marquis (R)
SP Stephen Strasburg (R)
SP Jordan Zimmerman (R)

CL Matt Capps (R)
SU Tyler Clippard (R)
SU Drew Storen (R)
MR Brian Bruney (R)
MR Sean Burnett (L)
LOOGY Doug Slaten (L)
MOP Jason Bergmann (R)

C Ivan Rodriguez (R)
2B/SS Alberto Gonzalez (R)
2B/3B Adam Kennedy (L) FA
IF/OF Eric Bruntlett (R)
OF Justin Maxwell (R)

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