Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 77-85, fourth place
Current record: 51-96, fifth place
First in war, first in peace, and last in the National League.
Buster Olney of ESPN.com’s Take
What went wrong: Have you heard about the ’94 Expos? Well, it’s kinda been all downhill since then, and rock bottom might have been this year, when the team dumped GM Jim Bowden and his top assistant, Jose Rijo, and found out that one of their best prospects had actually qualified for Social Security benefits (not really, but there was an age issue). The Nationals have developed very little frontline starting pitching, and played at the pace once blazed by the ’62 Mets for a while. By summer’s end, there was good stuff happening for the Nats: they hired GM Mike Rizzo full-time, and signed first overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg. They turned into a decent offensive team that played with some passion under interim manager Jim Riggleman. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will probably end this season leading the world in web gems.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Nats have become something of a punchline in Washington, a modern-day version of the Generals, and desperately need to change that perception. The ascension of Strasburg will help; if he’s as good as advertised, his starts could be Valenzuela-like events. They need to hire some more folks for their front office and their scouting staff. And they need to pick their next manager. Riggleman, again, has done well as the interim guy, but our Peter Gammons reported that a lot of the GM candidates in Washington were asked about the qualifications of Bobby Valentine, who has been a very good manager and a peerless marketer of the teams that have employed him. You need a good lobbyist in Washington, and Bobby V. will always be that.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
Bowden’s latest exercise in deck chair-shuffling didn’t lead to a better franchise in DC any more than it did in Cincinnati, as his uncanny knack for betting high on low-end journeymen pitchers continued to work out as badly as you’d expect. Manager Manny Acta wound up taking the fall when that pitching staff put up so many crooked numbers on the scoreboard that the league’s fourth-best offense couldn’t help but get swamped night after night. Rizzo’s trade for Nyjer Morgan helped at least make the Nats look more like a baseball team than a softball squad, while providing the pitching staff some small relief in center field.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Key Stat: 30th out of 30
Pick a pitching stat, any pitching stat in the BP suite of advanced pitching metrics, and you’ll find that the Nats are last in the majors. One of the only evaluative defensive metrics in which the Nationals aren’t MLB’s worst is Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency; there, they’re tied for 28th, and that’s merely last in the National League. It’s no wonder that they’ve used 29 different pitchers, because when you’re this bad, there’s at least the virtue of automatic interchangeability as you hunt and peck to see if there’s anything better. That has worked out well in select cases (Mike MacDougal, Sean Burnett), but then again, the team needs to apply the lesson learned from relying too heavily on journeymen in the first place, and avoid getting too attached to any of them.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Free Agency: After years of wondering where they’d find offense, the Nats are all about pitching heading into 2010. The Washington Post says the team will pursue two rotation arms this offseason, as the team hopes to find a little more stability before they promote you-know-who. Options? The budget says expect one name, and one innings-eating nobody. (Remember, the franchise needs to save a little cash to sign another top pick in 2010.) Doug Davis and Jon Garland will certainly get phone calls. And that innings-eater? To paraphrase Sir Elton: He shall be Livan.
Moves: When pitching is a priority, don’t forget the guy calling the game. The Nats need depth at backstop, so expect former franchise guy Brian Schneider to get a call; the Mets have told him they’ll no longer need him, and there are plenty of bad car commercials to be shot along the Beltway.
Who 2 Watch 4: Stephen Strasburg, RHP
Strasburg broke all records with his $15 million signing bonus, and then was introduced to Nationals fans in a ceremony that included a fireworks show. With this much hype, the question isn’t who he is, but when he’ll be ready. He’ll get his feet wet in the Arizona Fall League next month, and while many expect him to be in the 2010 Opening Day rotation, a smarter bet is a career path like Mark Prior‘s route to the majors in 2002, which consisted of 51 minor league innings before hitting the big leagues.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 30 of 51
Spent: Just under $11 million total (an estimate based on signing bonuses, not total guaranteed money
Hit: Strasburg. Either decision-to take him, or pass on him-was risky, and the Nationals deserve credit for doing what was right for their team and fan base, regardless of the risks. Washington also snagged fast-moving right-hander Drew Storen.
Miss: Washington failed to sign fifth-round pick Miguel Pena, a left-handed pitcher who is headed to a junior college in Texas. He was thought to be a very signable commodity coming into draft day.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com
The Bottom Line
There must be something in the water, because the Chesapeake Drainage Basin seems to bring out the worst in team owners when it comes to meddling and making little progress. Ideally, the Lerner family is ready to let Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten strap in for the long, thankless task of building the organization up from a few key players worth watching: Zimmerman now, shortstop Ian Desmond soon, and power right-handers Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann eventually.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .