Great little piece by Nats Triple Play about the issues with the popular belief that if you aren't contending you should be rebuilding. Go read it!
Ok you back? Rebuilding is often taken to be a far surer thing in theory than it is in practice. You hear all the time : "We're not going to compete right now so let's trade all our good older players and we'll be good in 4 years or so" Except no team can promise they'll be good in 4 years. They can't even say it's a 50/50 wager. If you make the right deals, and draft the right guys, and sign the right international players, and enough of them develop into high level talent, and the guys you already have that you are counting on develop too, and you have some injury luck and you sign the right free agents to supplement the team, if you do all that, all while 31 other teams are trying to do the same thing with the same talent pool, then sure, they'll be good. Any misstep however and things could fall short. Maybe a few games short maybe 20 games short.
If I make rebuilding sound like a bad strategy, I don't mean to. Sometimes, a lot of times, a team is better off doing it than not. And even though it is a hard business the difference between good and bad in baseball is slim enough that you should end up with a decent team every decade or so unless you are Pirates cheap or Royals stupid.
But "a lot of times" is not "always" and the Nationals find themselves in a gray area right now. Ideally a "rebuilding" team will have some young guys a couple years from making an impact mixed with players that obviously should be dealt: old players or players that will be expensive next year. But the Nats' young guys don't need a couple years. Zimmerman and Strasburg are stars right now and in positions (3rd base and #1 starter) hard to fill in other ways. The Nats' slugger to unload isn't old. Adam Dunn is 30 yrs old and has likely at least 2 good years left, possibly a bunch more. The Nats' key cheap pieces aren't about to get expensive. Both Willingham and Capps are still going to be cheap next season. It's not the best situation, no, but how long before the Nats find themselves in a better one?
It's a tough call and one that can go either way. As I've said before - I think it hinges on what Dunn can bring back. If he brings in a real prospect, one a year or two from impact, then maybe it's worth it to scrap this team because you could be looking at building with 3-4 star young guys just a couple years down the road. If it's nothing that seems sure, then maybe it's best to stick with what you got, rather than relying on Strasburg and Zimmerman and nothing else to carry a team through 2013.