Overview: In their brief history in Washington, the Nationals have never made the playoffs. There is no reason for much of a reason to expect that to change in 2009. On the positive for the Nationals is that Jim Bowden is no longer in charge of that franchise after resigning during the middle of an ugly political issue where Bowden is being investigated for poor signing tactics of Dominican players. Prior to leaving, Bowden stacked the Nationals with slow, poor defensive corner players. The Nationals should be better in 2009 and will absolutely factor into who wins the division, but they should be well out of the race by June. This franchise needs athleticism all over the diamond and a makeover to the pitching staff. They will likely make some trades before the season starts, but even with those trades, the Nationals are in trouble.
Starting Pitching: Garrett Olson, Daniel Cabrera, John Lannan, Shawn Hill and Colin Balester are the five pitchers that are currently slated in the Nationals rotation. Yikes! There is a lot of youth and potential for improvement with this staff, however none of these pitchers would have earned much better than a 3rd or 4th starter spot on any other team. The oldest starter of the bunch is Daniel Cabrera (27), so there certainly is room for development. What is going to frustrate Nationals fans this season is that their starting rotation is going to walk a lot of batters. Scott Olsen and John Lannan have average WHIP totals at 1.31 and 1.34 respectively, but of the other three starters, the lowest WHIP from 2008 was 1.5. The Nationals really need to address this key fundamentals issues and should consider bringing in a historically known control pitcher (Bret Saberhagen?) to help aid this staff because it is going to be a major problem
Bullpen: ESPN has the following six pitchers listed as the current bullpen for the Nationals: Joel Hanrahan, Saul Rivera, Steven Shell, Jason Bergmann, Garrett Mock and Tyler Clippard. Believe it or not, this is a talented group of young pitchers. There are no dominant pitchers among this bunch, but each of them has been successful at the Major League Level. Hanrahan is slated to be their closer and he should battle, but I wouldn't expect greatness from him. One player that should be mentioned for this bullpen is lefty, Mike Hinckley. He went 13.2 innings in 2008 without allowing a run. He deserves a spot in this bullpen, even a look at the rotation given his 0.80 WHIP. This bullpen reminds me of the ones that Pittsburgh has put together over the years, lots of young arms that quietly get the job done.
Offense: Here, former GM Jim Bowden has put together a plethora of corner players with tons of power potential, but that is about it. Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham are currently battling for three positions. Also note that half of those players were formerly Cincinnati Reds products. It didn't work in Cincinnati for Bowden and it doesn't look like it will work in Washington. Once those position battles are set, the rest of the roster appears to be full of exciting young players. Lastings Milledge and Ryan Zimmerman have absolute star potential, though this is probably their last season to be considered rising stars. That leaves Anderson Hernandez and Cristian Guzman starting up the middle with Jesus Flores behind the plate. Hernandez is a former Mets prospect that was highly regarded for his defense, but last year in limited time with the Nationals, he hit well over .300. If that continues, he will absolutely keep a starting job with the Nats displacing an aging Ronnie Belliard. Cristian Guzman came back from the depths below the Mendoza-Line to hit .316 and really was the offensive star for the Nationals in 2008. This defense up the middle is going to provide DC fans with some stunning double plays, but offensively they could go either way. If they hit like they did in 2008, this team could have the potential to hang in longer than expected. Finally, Jesus Flores is slated to be the starter this season for the Nationals after sticking as a rule-5 pick in 2007 and working in 300+ at-bats last year. He is a talented young player. The best case scenario for him in 2009 would be .275, 15, 80, but I do not see that being impossible for him. Either way, this guy will give the Nationals more than Paul Lo Duca and Jonnie Estrada and that's great news for them.
Projections: I predict the Nationals to finish in 5th place in the NL East with the cloud of uncertainty around this organization set from the top down. I look at the Nationals and outside of Adam Dunn and Cristian Guzman, this is a team with a lot of young talent that could turn into a surprise story like the Rays did in 2009. I do not expect this to happen because a lot of good things would have to come together and I do not see the positive encouragement from management on this team as the Rays had in 2009, but the youth and talent is certainly there. I see Ryan Zimmerman and John Lannan developing into solid players this season. The parts are there for the Nationals to be a surprise team in 2009 and will certainly be in position to play spoiler. I think that they will be a lot more fun to watch in 2009 than they were in 2008.