Let's start off by admitting that 2010 is another lost season for the Washington Nationals. It will not end with a pennant winning team. It will not end with a Wild Card race. It will almost certainly not even end with a chance at .500. No, this is another season of mediocre (at best) baseball from the Capital Nine. It is already another "wait 'til next year" before the first pitch is thrown.
After back to back 59 win seasons though, mediocre baseball is a godsend and there is good reason to believe that they can actually achieve that modest goal. For one, the Nats signed a starter capable of giving the team around 200 innings of adequate baseball. That may not seem like a lot but take Jason Marquis' fewest IP (167) and 2nd worst ERA (4.60) over the past 6 seasons. How many times have the Nats had a starter that beat both those modest goals in the same season? There's John Lannan last year... and John Lannan in 2008... and... 2005 anyone? The Nats have had terrible starting pitching for the past 4 seasons, which meant season after season of having the bulk of innings fall to bullpens that were never fully stocked with decent arms. The good arms would get over used, the pitchers would get injured, worse pitchers would take their place. It was a cycle the Nats needed to break.
Speaking of the bullpen, the Nats are also improved here, but not as much as you might think given all the work they did in the offseason. The names may be ones you've heard before, Capps, Bruney, Walker (that's Tyler Walker - ok you might not have heard that one), but the stats are mediocre at best. This is not an improvement in talent but an improvement in timing. Last year the Nats started the season with perhaps 3 decent arms, and watched predictably as one got hurt and another remained erratic leaving them with one usable arm. They were able to piece together a pen but it took them the entire year. For 2010, the Nats have a bullpen full of average arms, from which they need to sort out the 4-5 ones that will have good seasons in 2010. It's still a task, but one that should take around 3 weeks not around 3 months.
The offense gets a lot of talk but in general it's not much improved over last year. Instead, the improvements are minor, like Adam Kennedy at 2nd instead of Ronnie Belliard et al., or non-existant, like the corpse of Pudge replacing Josh Bard and Wil Nieves. Any minor improvements should be offset by players like Dunn or Willingham having slight decreases in production. The changes people are most excited or worried about should not have much impact. Whoever the Nats stuck in centerfield in 2009 (mainly Willie Harris) were surprisingly decent at the plate, such that a returning to average Nyjer Morgan is unlikely to out pace that production. Ian Desmond is intriguing but could easily be no better than Guzman was at the plate last year. The idea of a Harris/Morse/Taveras platoon is a little scary but so was the bat of Elijah Dukes. Of course, same as last year isn't bad for a team that had a slightly above average offense (7th in the NL).
I like the Nats to win 73 games. It's all well and good to say a stable, decent offense and a slightly improved pitching staff will lead to more wins, but 14 more? Along with being bad last year the Nats were unlucky. Their Pythagorean W-L had them at 66 wins last year. Their situational hitting and pitching stats suggest they could have scored even more and given up even less. They had one of those "how is everyone so bad" bullpen seasons that happen rarely, even to bad teams. With just even luck the Nats should gain several wins.
But this season isn't about if the Nats win 75 games or 65 is it? It's about which young players perform and which ones don't and how that effects how they go into 2011. It's about Steven Strasburg of course, but it's also about Ian Desmond, and Drew Storen, and about how Jesus Flores and Jordan Zimmermann come back from injury. It's about if any outfielders or first basemen like Chris Marrero or Destin Hood can take a step up and make trading Adam Dunn and/or Josh Willingham a non-issue. It's about if guys like Derek Norris or Danny Espinoza can give the Nats legitimate depth. It's about who the next #1 pick will be for this franchise and if he'll make the impact that Strasburg appears to be ready to make. It's about whether this team should start planning for 2012 or if that elusive playoff year is still waiting to be set.
Some people will tell you that the course is simple. The Nats should trade anyone decent over the age of 30 until they are stacked. But the team can't do that and try to grow a major league fanbase that has yet to exist. They need to make smart moves to keep the team competitive until they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. At that point they can start making plans solely for that quickly arriving future, not when a decent team is a vision maaaaybe 4 years in the future, maybe more. 2010 is about finding out if they can see that light yet.