Ah, previewing the Washington Nationals. This one could definitely elicit that "Aw, do I have to?" response, but the Nats actually have sort of a soft spot in my heart for a few different reasons. Number one, I lived in DC for a little over two years and attended a handful of games both at RFK (terrible) and at Nationals Park (actually pretty nice, even if it was usually only a quarter or so full), so I at least sympathize with Nats fans, more out of feeling bad for them than anything else. Number two is quite a bit more tangential, but the original Nats (aka the Senators) went on to become the Twins, bringing Harmon Killebrew with them, so there's that. The history of this ballclub is pretty short, unless you care to go back into the Expos days (which I don't, particularly), and it has been a short history of general futility. Surprisingly, they managed an 81-81 record in 2005, their first season in the nation's capital, but any optimism that may have sparked is long gone. They've topped 100 losses in each of the last two seasons, but there may be some glimmers of hope on the horizon.
The team was so bad the even the jersey manufacturers stopped caring.
There's actually quite a list of players that the Nats let go this year, but keep in mind that the point of this section is "key" arrivals and departures. Actually, wait - none of the guys they lost actually qualify as "key," but I have to talk about someone, right?
Mike MacDougal (RP) - Non-tendered, signed MiL deal with Florida. MacDougal spent time in the revolving-door closer situation in Washington, and his numbers surprisingly weren't that bad. He managed 20 saves and a 3.60 ERA in 50 IP, but significantly outpitched his FIP, somehow managing to pitch around his ugly 31/31 K/BB ratio. This clears the way for Matt Capps to take over closer duties and hopefully bring some stability to the position.
Austin Kearns (OF) - Free agent, signed MiL deal with Cleveland. After seeing nearly 600 plate appearances per season in 2006 and 2007, Kearns' playing time significantly decreased over the last two years. He got only 211 PA's in '09, posting a putrid .195/.336/.305 line. They probably won't notice that he's gone.
Washington was actually quite busy in the free agent market this off-season, and while none of the signings are on the Adam Dunn level, many of the new hires figure to be significant contributors this year.
Jason Marquis (RHP) - Signed as free agent from Colorado. Marquis parlayed his All-Star season in 2009 into a tidy little two-year, $15MM deal, the largest the Nats' front office offered to a free agent. He posted a 4.04 ERA over 216 innings, which was actually very close to his FIP as well. He'll likely provide a mid-4 ERA and roughly 200 innings next year, which certainly has value, but the Nats likely could have gotten the same level of production elsewhere on a cheaper one-year deal. That said, he'll provide consistency that the rotation has been severely lacking.
Ivan Rodriguez (C) - Signed as free agent from Texas. This one was a bit of a head-scratcher. While certainly destined for Cooperstown, Pudge is a shadow of his former self, and giving him a two-year deal was generally regarded as pointless. His line last year was .249/.280(?!?)/.384. Sure, you could play the veteran leadership card, but this is another one of those could-have-done-better-cheaper situations.
Matt Capps (RHP) - Signed as free agent from Pittsburgh. As mentioned earlier, Capps is the favorite to take over closer duties. He's certainly got closer stuff, but it didn't necessarily translate into success last year. He converted 27 of 35 saves with a 5.80 ERA, but that number isn't as ugly as it looks, as he got burned by a whopping .370 BABIP. If he can keep the walks under control (2.82 per nine innings in '09) he should rebound.
Chien-Ming Wang (RHP) - Signed as free agent from New York. The former Yankees ace burned out spectacularly last year, pitching only 42 innings and posting a 9.64 ERA. Yikes. Sure, part of that was due to a .397 BABIP, but Wang was nowhere near the pitcher he once was and ended up having shoulder surgery on July 30. Signed to a deal worth only $2MM base salary, there isn't a lot of risk here, and if Wang can regain something close to his old form, this will be a nice pickup for the pitching-deficient Nats rotation.
Adam Kennedy (2B) - Signed as free agent from Oakland. Another cheap, low-risk signing, Kennedy can provide at least modest pop (11 HR last year) and decent defense, although UZR can't exactly figure out what to do with him over the last three years (-5.7, 21.8 and -11.4, respectively). Not a bad signing by any means.
Talent En Route:
Stephen Strasburg (RHP) - I'm not going to try to say anything about Strasburg that hasn't been said already. The guy is a stud. The biggest question seems to be when he'll join the big club, as it appears he'll start the year in Double-A. There are also questions about his mechanics and his college workload, but if he's able to stay healthy the sky is the limit.
Derek Norris (C) - Only 21 years old, Norris has already shown that he has plenty of value in his bat. In a full season at High-A last year, he raked to the tune of .289/.413/.513 with 23 HR. Like many power hitters, he strikes out a lot at 26.5% of the time, but appears to working on developing a more patient approach, in addition to honing his defensive skills. He might be a long way off, but could be a contributor in a few years.
Overall, the Nats' farm system is far from stocked with future talent, ranking only 23rd according to Keith Law.
2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:
As it stands right now, the Nats' opening day payroll will be right around $60MM, with a bulk of that going to Adam Dunn ($12MM) and Cristian Guzman ($8MM), both of whom will become free agents in 2011. Should either of them be resigned? I have to imagine not re-signing Guzman is somewhat of a no-brainer (he's getting older, plays sub-par defense, and for a top-of-the-order hitter, almost NEVER walks). Dunn will take more thought. He's an offensive force, having clubbed 38 HR last year while posting an OBP of .398, but his defense is historically atrocious, even when they try to "hide" him at first base. I have to imagine they'll try to re-sign him as the only real offensive threat in the order outside of Ryan Zimmerman, but the fact is that Dunn should be a DH in the AL. Regarding Zimmerman, he still has 4 years left on his 5-year, $45MM deal (money well spent), but there are also a large number of pending free agents in 2012, including the bulk of the players signed over the off-season. I think Washington would be wise to join teams like Cleveland in focusing on re-stocking the farm system and refraining from expensive veteran contracts, but outside of Marquis and Rodriguez (which, while not ideal, really aren't that bad), there aren't any horrendously expensive or risky contracts dragging them down at the moment.
The Future of the Nationals:
Over the next few years, the success of the Nationals outside of the consistency of Dunn and Zimmerman hinges on an interesting mix of fairly solid but overpaid veterans (Marquis, Guzman), pretty crappy and overpaid veterans (Rodriguez), low-risk but potentially rewarding investments (Wang, Kennedy) and elite prospects (Strasburg and....Bryce Harper?). Pitching, both starters and relievers, has been the weakness of this team; John Lannan has been the only consistent part of the rotation over the last few seasons but is in danger of serious regression from his 3.88 ERA in '09, particularly in light of his 3.88 K/9. They'll need Wang to bounce back, Strasburg to get the bigs sooner rather than later, and Capps to pitch like his 2008 self if they hope to have any chance of contending. I don't see it happening this year, but if they commit to developing the farm system and are able to free up money for a few impact free agents, they could enter the realm of respectability.