What will the Nationals show us in 2010?

I’ve had a lot of fun with predictions on this site — everywhere, really; why else do we play fantasy sports, college football pick’ems, postseason salary-cap games and NCAA basketball tournament pools? But I’m not sure I’ll try to forecast the 2010 baseball season, division by division. Half of the divisions appear to be wide open — the AL West, NL West and AL Central — while the other three have three apparent front-runners (Cardinals, Yankees, Phillies) who could all be sitting pretty come Labor Day, but could also be in a two- or three-team dogfight by then.
But if there’s one team more than any other that I might have trouble gauging, one squad that I could see losing 90 games but also see winning about 85, it’s the Washington Nationals. And I’m not the only one. At the very least, the Nats improved themselves more than any other last-place team from 2009, and with the No. 1 pick in the June draft, they could very well have a better record on draft day than any of the other top-five teams.
That the Nationals’ offseason moves improved the team is pretty much universally agreed upon. As a Mets fan, several of their acquisitions either worried or disappointed me: Matt Capps and Jason Marquis would’ve been good fits for the Mets and Ivan Rodriguez, while probably no better than Omir Santos at this point in his career, could prove to be a valuable mentor to Washington’s pitchers and catchers — and perhaps Bryce Harper? — at the least. Chien-Ming Wang could be another great low-risk signing, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts them in the Wild Card discussion. How those improved pieces perform is another matter.
Baseball Prospectus’ initial PECOTA standings had the Phillies winning the NL East with just 88 wins and the Marlins bringing up the rear with 76. The Nationals were in third place at 82-80. The latest (as of Feb. 25) show Philly with 90 victories and Washington at 76-86. Ninety wins is a significant benchmark; back when it was 88 for the Phils, I felt the division could be a dogfight; if you figure that at least three teams should finish with winning records, that puts three within six games of first place if the leader nets 88. But whether Washington finishes with 82 wins (and its first winning season since leaving Montreal) or 70 wins, it’s an improvement over last year’s 59.
The one big remaining question I — and many others — have with the Nats is their defense. They had the worst fielding percentage in baseball in 2009, were seventh-worst in UZR, made the most errors and fielded the fifth-most chances over the course of the season. They’ll now be playing Adam Dunn at first base (-13.8 UZR) and, with the exception of Nyjer Morgan in center from the start of the season, they haven’t upgraded any positions defensively. Adding a ground-ball pitcher in Marquis (not to mention Wang) won’t help hide any defensive liabilities. As good as the offense should be, I’m just not sure the team’s defense is good enough, nor do they have a pitching staff of strikeout pitchers, to improve by the nearly 20 wins it would take to finish 81-81. But a 10-15 game improvement is certainly possible.
The Pirates are another intriguing story, for entirely different reasons. With some solid young players — but not enough of the right veterans — will they finally get on the right track toward ending their string of losing seasons? I so desperately want to see the team with baseball’s best ballpark field a product for which the fans can be proud, but it’s not going to happen this year, or even next. But with the right philosophy and a strong farm system, there’s no reason this club can’t mirror the success the Twins have had.

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