Okay, so at a time when most people are debating whether or not the Washington Nationals can even break .500 next season, this is going to sound more than a little crazy, but I think the Nats have an outside chance at contending next season.
I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but I am saying that it could.
Let’s look at the positives. First of all, the Nationals definitely have a high-powered offense. By most measures they’ve had the fourth or fifth-best offense in the National league this season, right up there with hard-hitting teams like the Phillies, Brewers, and Dodgers.
Second of all, the Nationals finally have a real GM. Mike Rizzo has just recently had the “interim” label removed from his title, and deservedly so, as he has done just about everything right since taking over for the hilariously incompetent Jim Bowden. Rizzo also has a track record of success as the scouting director of the Diamondbacks during the period they developed many of their current stars, and has a proven eye for talent.
Third, the Nationals have actually been quite “unlucky” this season by several measures, not least of which is their run differential, which suggests that they should actually have about 10 more wins than they’ve actually recorded.
Fourthly, the areas where the Nats most need to improve – the bullpen and on defense, are the areas most easily improved from season to season. In this way, it is possible to make a comparison between the 2009 Nationals and the 2007 Devil Rays. Both were terrible teams with terrible defense and terrible bullpens that drastically underperformed against an already terrible run differential. As you will recall, that Tampa Bay team went to the World Series the following year.
Now, the Washington Nationals are not in nearly as good shape as the Rays were coming off of that 2007 season, because their farm system is not as deep, but they do have a fifth and final advantage, which is that huge amounts of salary are coming off of their books, as several of the horrible Jim Bowden contracts finally disappear.
Indeed, the Nats have a ridiculously low $29 million committed to next year’s team. Add in the $2 million that will be going to Stephen Strasburg and about $15 millon in raises arbitration-eligible players and major league minimum salaries, and you’ve got a total payroll of $49 million next season, if the Nats do nothing and just stand pat with the players they have.
Given that the Nationals spent $62 million on payroll this season, even if they keep payroll steady, they have about $13 million to work with, even more if they were willing to bump payroll up a bit to say, $70 million.
So what do they need? Well, with the acquisition of Nyjer Morgan, the resurgence of Ryan Zimmerman, and the emergence of Josh Willingham, the Nats actually project to have a solid player at every position on the diamond in 2010, except second base, especially with the expected return from injury of catcher Jesus Flores.
Here’s how the Nats lineup would look:
C Jesus Flores
1B Adam Dunn
3B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Cristian Guzman
LF Josh Willingham
CF Nyger Morgan
RF Elijah Dukes
Pending the acquisition of a 2B, this is a very solid hitting lineup, and much improved defensively from what the Nats were running out there for most of this year, with Dunn at first base being the only glaring defensive liability remaining, and Morgan and Zimmerman both being defensive wizards.
So with a solid lineup and a much improved defense, what the Nats really need now is pitching. Here’s how their pitching staff stacks up, if the 2010 seasons started today:
SP1 John Lannan
SP2 Stephen Strasburg
CL Mike MacDougal
RP Tyler Clippard
RP Sean Burnett
RP Saul Rivera
Clearly, the Nats have an awful lot of holes to fill on their pitching staff. However with the emergence of Clippard, Burnett, and MacDougal, the Nats have actually managed to discover the kernel of a somewhat decent bullpen, which is no small achievement given how truly atrocious the relief squad was in the early months of the season.
The starting rotation is also not nearly as much of a mess as it may seem. Although the last three slots are very much still up in the air, the Nats do have a large collection of live arms to throw at them and see what sticks. Guys like Collin Balester, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin, Garret Mock, and Craig Stammen all appeared in major league games for the Nats this season, and all are still very young and still have upside, meaning it’s possible for any or all of them to improve next season to the point where they might actually be useful, and the guess here is that at least one or two of the group will.
So basically what the Nats need is a good or even ace starting pitcher, a good reliever or even closer, and of course a second baseman. If they can find these three things, and they can stay healthy, the Nats should be able to put up a good fight in the NL East, especially with the Mets in disarray, and the Phillies continuing to age.
Let’s look at a sample scenario.
First of all, we have to acknowledge that next year’s free agent market is pretty thin. Second of all we have to recognize that players intent on playing for a contender are not likely to want to come to the Nats. On the other hand the market is likely to be down again for at least one more season, owing to the continuing effects of the financial crisis, and the Nats do have some money to spend. Let’s give them a slight bump up to a total $65 million.
First, the Nats should go hard after John Lackey, the one good to great pitcher on the market. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like the Yankees will snap him up, given that they have a lot of good pitchers and are looking to cut payroll this year, but let’s give Lackey A.J. Burnett money, plus a premium, to make sure he comes to the Nats. This means $88 million over 5 years. Crucially, the contract will be backloaded, allowing the contracts given to Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman, and Willie Harris one year to come off the books, so Lackey gets $9 million in 2010, and an average of $19.75 million per year over the rest of his contract.
Next, the Nationals should focus on getting a reliever. I’m not a big fan of overpaying for closers, so I’m going to try to buy low on Kevin Gregg, who is coming off a disappointing season with the Cubs, by giving him a 2-year $8 million deal, which will pay him $3.5 million in 2010, and $4.5 million in 2011 (with $2 million buyout).
Lastly, I’ll make a run at a second baseman. I’ll focus on three possibilities – Felipe Lopez, Adam Kennedy, and Akinori Iwamura (if the Rays buy him out). All three are plus defenders, which fits into the emphasis on improving the defense, and decent enough with the stick. I’ll take whichever one is willing to sign for $3.5 million, plus incentives. Presumably this is going to be Kennedy, who didn’t even have a major league job at the start of this season, and is chronically undervalued because of his defense. The Nats do have shortstop prospect Ian Desmond, who posted a .900 OPS at AAA so far this season, so if they can’t sign anyone they could always hand the 2B job over to him.
So the Nats could possibly sign Lackey, Kevin Gregg, and Adam Kennedy and keep their payroll around $65 million. It would help if the Nats stay focused and move quickly in the offseason to get deals done. A more realistic bump in their payroll to $70 million would allow them to sign a few bench players as well and another reliever, and insure that they can meet the demands of the targeted free agents.
Would it be enough for the Nats to contend? I actually think so. An awful lot would have to go right as far as landing the right free agents, avoiding injuries, and Stephen Strasburg being at least vaguely acelike, but it’s at least possible in my view, which was the point of this whole exercise.
The keys here is that the Nats are not nearly as bad a team as their record shows this year, more of their players have more upside left than downside, and their main weaknesses – defense and the bullpen, are the most easily fixed and have already been partway fixed by Rizzo in the later half of this season.