Tim Kurkjian wrote an article on Friday talking about how the Nats might actually have a future. Funny thing is, I was thinking all last week about ways to improve the team. Seriously, I was. Timmy didn’t steal my thunder by publishing a roadmap to the fix (other than wait for people to come up, trade Nick Johnson), he was talking more about the bright spots there now. I figured I’d take care of the roadmap by putting my thoughts on paper. Er, on screen. So, diving right in, is it possible to fix them? Well, not this year. The team can hit, and I still think there is a certain amount of correction in that bullpen, but they’re not a winning team. They could be, though, and one of the big reasons is their starting pitching. The young rotation is strong, and assuming they get Strasburg, it should look something like this going in to 2010:

Don’t get hung up on the order, that is more based on potential than how good they are now. In fact, if Detwiler continues to develop, the #6 overall pick in ’07 probably has more pure stuff than Zimmermann. Anyway, they have the starters. They also have the hitting. Currently 3rd in the NL in runs scored, they aren’t having problems on that end. But they need to take a few steps to make them more of a winner, and it can be done this offseason without sacrificing any of “the plan” to develop young talent from within:

  1. Spend $10 million and get a real bullpen. People say this is harder than it looks, and I’m sure it is. But there are guys out there that can throw. Some potential free agents are Kiko Calero, Octavio Dotel, Mike Gonzalez, John Grabow, Ron Mahay, Fernando Rodney, Scott Schoeneweis, Jose Valverde… there’s more than that, too. They need to get the right guys, but I submit that it can be done.
  2. Move Guzman to second base. Two years ago I couldn’t have imagined myself saying this, but, but you don’t want to lose his bat. For a middle infielder, he can rake. And he’s signed for next year, so use him. His defense isn’t very good (UZR/150 is -8.7), but he can do less damage at second and probably still be alright.
  3. Get a strong defensive SS. Someone really good there could shore up the defense. You’re not gonna worry about a light bat, you’ve already got one at 2B with Hernandez. Instead of his poor D and poor bat, move Guzman there, and get similar D and a very good bat. Then get a similar or better bat as Hernandez at SS, but with exceptional defense – an Adam Everett-type glove. Some guys available this offseason include Adam Everett (who may be past him prime with the glove), Marco Scutaro (who isn’t), John McDonald and Jack Wilson.

Those steps alone don’t make a playoff team. But I think they take care of the glaring weaknesses. A strong D up the middle is important, and I think one great gloved player at SS would make that infield much better. The bullpen is an obvious issue that needs fixing. As Tom Boswell pointed out, this team would be good with an average pitching staff.

There are some more issues that the team needs to deal with here are some additional solutions

  1. The Outfield – If you are gonna have an outfield of Dukes, Dunn and Willingham next year, that’s really subpar defense. The ideal solution is that Maxwell hits, he can play CF, you move Dukes to RF where he’s gonna be above average, and Dunn plays LF. If Milledge hits, you may have to play him in LF and Dukes in CF. Dunn is who he is, you deal with his bad D for his bat, but the rest of the outfield should be open for shuffling.
  2. First baseNick Johnson is likely to be traded. So you can move one of your crappy fielding outfielders to be a crappy fielding first baseman. Or you can find a stopgap until Chris Marrero is ready. Nothing long-term, nothing big, but hey, let’s field a team here. I’m just not sure if anyone is going to be available that you’d want. Maybe the best guy is Nick Johnson, re-signed in the offseason for a 2 year deal after you trade him for prospect. The Catch-22 there is that if he stays healthy and hits all year, he may demand a longer deal. And if doesn’t, you may not want him.
  3. The starting pitching – If you go my way, you are relying solely on youngsters. One could blow up, or be too young for everyone to realize he is injury-prone, and all of a sudden you are relying on Olson or Stammen and other youngsters. Ok maybe not awful, but maybe a solution may be to sign one vet starter to make that staff stronger. Some guys that are available (some may be too expensive, some may be not worth the money, let’s just look at some of the names for the time being): Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Bedard, Harden, Davis, Duchscherer, and Randy Johnson.

I think all of these changes, including the supplemental ones, for an additional $10 M (bullpen) + $5 M (SS) + $5 – $10 M (Starter) = $20 – $25 million. Their payroll right now is about $60 million, an additional $23 may seem like alot, but the Nats are freeing up $23 M from Kearns ($8 M), Dmitri ($5 M), Johnson ($5.5 M), Cabrera ($2.6 M) and Belliard ($1.9 M) so it doesn’t raise payroll much at all. Then again, that doesn’t factor in another first basemen, or the $800 M per year that Strasburg will allegedly ask for.

Regardless, I think with minimal efforts, without ruining the plan to develop mostly from within, and without rasing the payroll an astronomical level, this team could get pretty good in a hurry. Of course, that is riding on the backs of these young starting pitchers, and they still have a few months to show us what they really have to offer.

By Charlie