2010 Washington Nationals
At Last, A Dreaded Decade Comes to an End

BaseballEvolution.com 2010 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 22, 2010

At the beginning of the last decade, the Washington Nationals were called the Montreal Expos and finished Y2K with a 67-95 record, which was good for fourth in the NL East. What would follow that 2000 season would become the worst decade for a major league baseball franchise since the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles: the Expos were left for dead by their owner, threatened with contraction, and moved to Washington as a franchise under the ownership of Major League Baseball. The Expos/Nationals finished in fifth place six times out of ten years in the last decade, including once after leading the NL East as late as July, in 2005.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the Nationals begin the new decade looking like a real live baseball team again. The Nats have bona fide stars; a real live manager, GM, and owner; and a young pitching prospect who may be the LeBron James of baseball. Things are definitely looking up for the Nats as they go into their first full decade in Washington. Unfortunately, “looking up” for the Nationals, in 2010, likely means having a chance to not finish the year in fifth place.

Reasons to Like the Washington Nationals in 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Ivan Rodriguez C
Jason Marquis SP
Andam Kennedy 2B
Eddie Guardado RP
Matt Capps RP
Tyler Walker RP
Brian Bruney RP
Miguel Batista RP
Chien-Ming Wang SP
Chris Duncan OF
Willy Taveras OF
Departed Pos.
Elijah Dukes OF
Mike MacDougal RP
Anderson Hernandez INF
Nick Johnson 1B
Josh Bard C
Austin Kearns OF
Julian Tavarez RP
1. The 3-4-5 spots in the batting order. In Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham, the Nationals have an extremely talented trio of hitters, all three of whom hit for power and get on base. After several seasons spent acquiring old Cincinnati Reds cast-offs under former general manager Jim Bowden, the Nationals actually did some legitimate talent evaluation in 2009 and ended up with a couple of guys in Willingham and Dunn who can not only drive in guys ahead them and protect Zimmerman, but can also get on base to create opportunities for the bottom of the order. Despite finishing with the worst record in the National League in 2009, the Nationals were actually right around the league average in most offensive categories last year. If this is something the team can build on, the Nats could be one step away to getting out of the cellar.

2. Stephen Strasburg. By all accounts, this guy is legit and he is ready. Truth be told, with the nasty personnel that the Nationals have in their rotation right now, Strasburg should probably be the Nats’ opening day starter. Unfortunately, there are other issues to consider and he will probably be a minor leaguer until May. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years we’ve seen Tim Lincecum hit the ground running and end up with two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons, and most people who are talking about Strasburg think he will be better than Lincecum.

Reasons to Not Like the Washington Nationals in 2010

1. Ivan Rodriguez. It is difficult to see what this guy still brings to the table. I thought it was a bad move when the Yankees acquired him in 2008, I thought it was a bad move when the Astros acquired him in 2009, and I think the Nationals have made a mistake picking him up for 2010. I-Rod has a mystique about him tied to his role in the most successful era of Texas Rangers baseball, taking the Florida Marlins to the World Series in his one year there, and then taking the Tigers to the World Series just a few years after their 43-119 season. But that I-Rod is a thing of the past. Is it possible that he has something to teach Strasburg? Maybe. But from where I sit, I-Rod is just another easy out at the bottom of the order who, frankly, hasn’t seemed to handle pitchers very well in the last few seasons.

Believe It
2. Starting pitchers other than Strasburg. Rather than dogging these guys, let me lay out the best case scenario for a rotation comprised of Strasburg, John Lannan, Jason Marquis, J.D. Martin, and some combination of Garrett Mock, Livan Hernandez, Shairon Martiz, Chris Balester, Chris Stammen, and Chien-Ming Wang: Strasburg fails to pitch a bad inning this spring and starts the season with the big club; Lannan gets his hits/inning under 1.0 and his strikeouts per inning over 0.5, and pitches 200 innings of 4.00 ERA; Jason Marquis benefits from a Coors Field bounce back and, for one season, has an ERA under 4.00; Scott Olson remembers how to keep the ball in the park and stay healthy; Shairon Martis somehow strikes out more guys than he walks; and Livan Hernandez pitches just well enough to get five innings of three run ball out of him from time to time.

Sadly, the things most of the guys need to focus on are things like “striking out more guys than they walk” and “striking out at least one batter every other inning.” This is the beginning of a list called “how to not pitch horribly at the major league level.”

3. The closer position. The Nationals have Eddie Guardado and Matt Capps in camp competing for the closer role. Guardado hasn’t pitched effectively since 2005 with the Mariners, and all Matt Capps did last season go 4-8 with a 5.80 ERA while giving up 73 hits in 54.1 innings.

4. The NL East. The Nationals play in a very strong division that features the two-time defending NL Champion Phillies, a very wealthy and talented-when-healthy New York Mets team, a pitching-strong Braves team, and a Florida Marlins team that always plays strong despite its small-market payroll. The Nationals can’t merely be solid and hope to compete in this division, and they simply must have pitching to get by some of the best offensive players in baseball.

Nationals Team Capsule

Other Notes About the Washington Nationals

Justin Maxwell
- Jim Riggleman is only the 13th manager in franchise history, and despite the lack of success of the Expos/Nationals have had since their inception in 1969, the team has had five managers last five or more seasons.

- Justin Maxwell would appear to be a dark-horse candidate for a breakout season with the Nationals. With the release of Elijah Dukes, the 26 year old Maxwell, an Olney, Maryland native, would seem to have the inside track to the starting right field job. At 6’5” and 235 pounds, Maxwell has a curiously low career batting average in professional baseball (in the .250s) but his career on-base percentage is almost 100 points higher. He has power and speed, so if he can keep from killing himself in the batting average department he might have a surprising season. And, for a player with his skill-set, Adam Dunn could be the perfect mentor.

- Willy Taveras is on the Nationals' roster this season, which can lead to no good. This is about 18 months too late, but: is Willy Taveras the worst player ever to lead his league in stolen bases? Low on-base speedsters are nothing new, but in 2008, with the Rockies, Taveras had a .604 OPS, which was good for a putrid 55 OPS+. He got on base just about 160 times, and stole a league leading 68 bases. To put these numbers in perspective, Jose Reyes finished second that year with 56 steals while getting on base about 270 times.

And check out this stat: In the last three years, the Rockies have won 90 games, 74 games, and 92 games. Guess which of those seasons the Rockies had Taveras batting leadoff. Last season, the Reds used Taveras as their primary leadoff hitter through game 111 of the season, at which point they were 48-63. Taveras lost his leadoff job, and the Reds went 30-21 the rest of the way.

- In the “so-far-so-fast” department, the Nationals have Chris Duncan in camp this spring. Just three years ago Duncan hit 22 homeruns in 90 games for the Cardinals while posting a 140 OPS+. Just three years later, he couldn’t keep the bat on the ball consistently. Obviously, the Nats are hoping that the 29-year-old Duncan can get healthy and get consistent, but I suspect this will go about as well as the Austin Kearns Reclamation Project went.

- My knock on Adam Dunn has always been that he takes walks and hits homeruns but is relatively useless in any sort of situational statistics. This isn’t unfounded – with the bases empty, his career numbers are .252/.361/.528. With men on base, his batting average drops to .246 and his OBP jumps to .409, then with men in scoring position his average drops again to .232 and his OBP jumps again to .421. Nevertheless, Dunn quietly had what was probably the best season of his career in 2009 as he set a career high in batting average and had the second highest on-base percentage of his career. More importantly, for the first time in his career he AVG/OBP/SLG numbers were all at their highest with runners in scoring position. We may have seen a new Adam Dunn in 2009 and, turning 30 in 2010, Dunn could potentially be one of the stars of the nest decade.

Outlook for the Season

This is a still a real "Look at the Bright Side" situation for the Washington Nationals. If nothing else, these guys will be fun to watch, and they truly have some pieces in place for a successful run of winnings seasons and playoff contention in the coming years. The Adam Dunn-Ryan Zimmerman-Stephen Strasburg Era is upon us in Washington, and with some additional building blocks this will be a good team.

Team Previews Index

Do you have a different take? Send your opinions to submissions@baseballevolution.com.