No matter what win-loss record the Washington Nationals end the 2009 season with, the club will be in far better shape than it was at the end of the 2008 season. The single most important happening of the Nationals' 2009 season has already occurred. It was the March 1st resignation of General Manager Jim Bowden. Many media outlets have already reported how the front offices executives of other clubs are saying how much more faith they have dealing with acting GM Mike Rizzo than they had dealing with Bowden. Although the Nationals have a long trek back to respectability, the team's front office is no longer the laughing stock of baseball. And, that is a huge first step.
As for the what the Nationals will do on the field this season, there are a lot of "ifs" involved. Personally, I believe several of these "ifs" will have positive outcomes. The law of averages tells me there is no way all the disasters of 2008 can repeat themselves this season. But, before we examine the "ifs", let's review the "givens".
After losing out in the Mark Texiera bidding, the Nationals signed outfielder Adam Dunn to a two year/$20 million contract. Dunn has hit exactly 40 HRs each of the last five seasons. Yes, he strikes out a lot and he's not good on defense in the outfield or at first base. But, he walks a lot leading to a great on base percentage. I'll say it's a given Dunn hits 35 HRs, drives in 95, and scores close to 100 runs.
On most clubs, pitcher John Lannan would be a solid third starter. But, with the Nationals rebuilding their starting rotation with youngsters, Lannan is thrust into being the team's number one starter. He didn't get many wins last year to show for his 3.91 ERA. This year will be different with the Nationals improved offense. I'll say it's a given Lannan wins 14 games with an ERA a little lower than last year's.
The Nationals made two acquisitions in the offseason that effect their starting rotation. They signed former Oriole Daniel Cabrera and traded to acquire Scott Olsen from the Marlins. Cabrera frustrated Oriole fans for several seasons by looking unhitable one time out and then getting shelled or having control problems for several outings afterwards. Olsen had no problem taking the ball every fifth day for the Marlins and eating up innings. But, he has never had a full season ERA under 4.oo or won more than 12 games. Unfortunately, I think it's a given neither Cabrera nor Olsen do any better this season than they have in the past. And, I wouldn't be surprised if a friend of mine's prediction that Cabrera is out of the rotation (and thus probably released) by the All Star break.
Now, let's look at some of the "ifs"....
If third baseman Ryan Zimmerman stays healthly with Adam Dunn hitting behind him, he should hit .280 with 25 HRs and drive in 100 while playing stellar defense.
If Lastings Milledge stays healthy and adapts to the leadoff spot, he should hit .265 with 20 HRs and steal 25 bases.
If catcher Jesus Flores stays healthy, he should hit 15 HRs and drive in 70.
If rookie pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and Sharron Martis have the make up of John Lannan, they should win 11 to 14 games each with ERAs around 4.00.
If Nick Johnson stays healthy (and isn't traded), he should hit .285 with 20 HRs, drive in 85 and have an on base percentage of close to .400. But, this is the biggest "if" of all. Johnson has only played more than 131 games in a season once.
There are some other questions that aren't exactly "ifs", but they are very important to the outcome of the 2009 season. How will manager Manny Acta and the front office handle the glut of outfielders and first basemen? With that, how will Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes handle reserve rolls? How will the reconstructed bullpen perform?
Maybe I'm drinking the kool aid, but I believe 2009 is the year the Washington Nationals surprise some people. This isn't a playoff team, but I do think the team will flirt with .500 for a good part of the season. And, I don't think they will finish in last in the NL East like all the experts are predicting because one of the other NL East teams is going to be surprisingly bad.
Everyone knows the baseball season is a grind and one week does not make a season. But in my opinion, the first week of the season will be a good indication of what lies ahead this season for the Nats. They open on the road at Florida and Atlanta, the two teams predicted to finish just above them in the standings. The Nats showing in those six games may be a good indication of how the season will go.
Shedd's Spot's official prediction for the 2009 Washington Nationals is a 77-85 record and a fourth place finish in the NL East.