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September 20, 2010

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Washington Nationals

by John Perrotto, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade—whether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview of this season from Buster Olney, a take from Baseball Prospectus, a look toward an immediate 2011 move courtesy of Rumor Central and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview. You can find all the teams on one page by going here.

Now, it's time to kiss the Washington Nationals goodbye.

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The overview

Before Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow and needed reconstructive surgery, he'd thrown a total of 68 innings in the majors—and the rest of the Nationals' starters have struggled in more than 700 innings. The Nationals' rotation ranks 26th in ERA, an inefficiency that has placed a heavy burden on the Washington bullpen all year.

The Nats have also had problems getting consistent production out of the top two spots in their lineup: Their leadoff hitters rank 28th in OPS, while their No. 2 hitters are ranked 20th. Washington has gotten a lot of attention for drafting elite talent in recent years—Strasburg, Drew Storen, Bryce Harper—but remains a team with very little depth.

Ryan Zimmerman, however, continues to be one of the most unheralded stars in the big leagues, piling up power numbers, on-base percentage, and web gems. And while Ian Desmond has made a lot of errors, he continues to improve, hitting over .300 in the second half of the season. Jordan Zimmermann returned to the rotation after missing a year because of an elbow reconstruction, and in the time that Strasburg pitched, he demonstrated that he could also be as good as advertised.

It appears that the Nationals will lose Adam Dunn—who is responsible for more than a quarter of the Washington home runs this year—to free agency, which will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup. Somehow, the Nationals must find a credible hitter to bat behind Zimmerman, or else he'll become an NL version of Miguel Cabrera, a great hitter who is constantly pitched around. Zimmermann's development is crucial for the Nationals, who don't appear to have much in the way of high-impact pitching, now that Strasburg is going to miss most or all of 2011. —Buster Olney, ESPN Insider

Baseball Prospectus' take

What went right: Strasburg made his major-league debut on June 8 against the Pirates and struck out 14 batters in seven innings on his way to recording 92 strikeouts in 68 innings over 12 starts. The day before Strasburg's debut, the Nationals added another mega-talent by selecting the 17-year-old switch-hitting outfielder Harper with the first overall pick in the amateur draft. Zimmerman continued his march toward superstardom, Dunn had a big season in the home-run and walk departments, and Desmond showed promise despite a high error total.

What went wrong: Strasburg's elbow blew out in an Aug. 21 start at Philadelphia, and he underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery. He likely won't pitch in the major leagues again until the beginning of the 2012 season. The rotation was a mess beyond veteran workhorse Livan Hernandez. And despite banner years by Zimmerman and Dunn, the Nats struggled to mount a consistent offensive attack, ranking 13th in the National League in runs scored.

The key number: 62. The number of quality starts (six-plus innings, less than three earned runs) by the Nationals, tying the Royals for the lowest total in the major leagues.

What won't happen again: No Nationals players will come close to generating the hype of Strasburg—the days he started home games were called "Strasmas" in Washington—unless Harper makes a meteoric rise through the farm system. —John Perrotto, Baseball Prospectus

Rumor Central: 2011 options

The Strasburg effect: With so much of their future tied to the development of Strasburg, the Nationals must spend the winter telling their fans, as well as any possible free-agent signings, that a legitimate timetable for playoff contention remains in place. First of all, the Nats must replace Strasburg's innings, and possible solutions include Cuban defector Yuniesky Maya, Ross Detwiler, and Chien-Ming Wang (remember him?). Hernandez has already been signed for next season. Another possible option could be making a pitch for Javier Vazquez, who the Yankees will not re-sign. Vazquez was at his best while pitching for the Braves in the NL East, and he becomes more attractive should he slip to Type B free agency. Even before Strasburg went down, GM Mike Rizzo was telling the media that the club's biggest need was starting pitching.

Defense wins championships: The Nats never pulled the trigger on a deal for Dunn at the deadline and now appear poised to let the slugging first baseman walk after the season. It is believed that Rizzo is no longer willing to put up with Dunn's defensive deficiencies, even if he puts up another 40-home run season. Expect the Nats to make a strong pitch for free-agent-to-be Carlos Pena, who is a far better defensive first baseman. Washington has allowed 77 unearned runs allowed, second-highest in the majors, and a chunk of that is tied to Dunn's matador defense. The Nats will also demand better glove work from Desmond, who leads all major-league shortstops in errors, and could search for a midlevel free agent in right field if they decide that neither Roger Bernadina nor Michael Morse are long-term solutions. —Doug Mittler, ESPN Insider

Keep up with Rumor Central year-round here.

Organizational future

Nationals fans are already getting a taste of what Danny Espinosa can do, as his September showing in the big leagues has given him a leg up as next year's starting second baseman. The third-round pick is not a jaw-dropping athlete, yet he's combined for 40 home runs and 54 stolen bases in his first two full seasons in the minors, while impressing scouts with his max-effort style of play and mature baseball instincts. A lack of plate discipline has a chance to hinder his progress, but his overall skill set is rarely found in a middle infielder. —Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Washington Nationals,  The Who,  Washington,  Nats

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