The Nationals hope this is the season they make their way out of the cellar of the National League East and get some momentum going for what promises to be an enticing future as top prospects and No. 1 picks make their way to Nats Park.
What do some of the experts think? Can the Nats make a pre-emptive strike in the NL East before Stephen Strasburg returns from injury and Bryce Harper arrives?
The 2011 Baseball Prospectus is available now (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $24.95), and I got the chance to sit down with editor in chief Steven Goldman, alongside editors Ben Lindbergh and Jay Jaffe, to talk baseball.
Lindbergh believes the Nationals are on the right track, but still a season or two away from making a big splash in the National League.
"I don't think the fifth-place finish is going to change this year," assistant editor Ben Lindbergh said. "But we see good things on the horizon, and possibly contention as soon as next year or the year after. It does seem that they are going about things in the right way. It seems they have re-energized their Latin American presence, which should be big after that ended very ignominiously with the last regime."
One of the clear-cut signals that the Nats are serious about rebuilding from within is displayed in their infield with shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa replacing the likes of Felipe Lopez, Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy of the past few seasons.
"One of the things we wrote about is how (former general manager) Jim Bowden would tend to fall in love with guys he found on the cheap," Lindbergh said. "Instead of taking what he got and leaving with it, he would commit to these guys for more years when there wasn't much upside there."
Lindbergh said for that reason he likes Desmond and Espinosa in the middle.
"Using these young guys is a step in the right direction," Lindbergh continued. "We like what it means for their defense too, which is something they will need with the pitching staff that they have this year. We like guys like Desmond and Espinosa this year. They won't set the league on fire, but there is some upside and there is good defense there."
Lindbergh also likes what he see from No. 1 draft pick Bryce Harper and knows it will take some time for the youngster to get crucial professional baseball experience.
People talk about "Strasburg's injury and Harper's youth, but both can be cornerstones of a franchise if they are healthy," Lindbergh said. "Harper may still be a couple of years away if they are cautious with him. There is no telling what will happen when a guy gets into professional ball. There have been concerns for a long swing, his personality, but skills-wise and talent-wise, there is not much to quibble with there."
Jaffe, founder of futilityinfielder.com, is not thrilled with the price the Nationals paid for outfielder Jayson Werth, but likes the acquisition of first baseman Adam LaRoche.
"LaRoche is probably the right guy for this team at this time," Jaffe said. "Signing Adam Dunn for four years or five years would not have been the most productive move given his age. LaRoche is a reasonable placeholder."
But Baseball Prospectus likes the Nationals' draft picks the last few seasons, placing three Nationals players in their Top 101 Prospects list: Harper is No. 1, catcher Derek Norris is No. 41 and right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole is No. 95.
"The Nationals have a really great logjam at catcher right now with Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Norris, Jesus Flores coming back and Wilson Ramos," Lindbergh said. "That is something they could certainly look to deal from that strength an add some pitching to a sort of pitching depleted roster."
Goldman is pretty excited about the 2011 Baseball Prospectus and how much writing they have added to the extensive guide.
"There are almost 2,000 players talked about in this book at great length," Goldman said. "We have projections for every player, we have comparables for every player. For instance, if we project Player A will hit .250 with 20 home runs, we present three other players you are very familiar with so you can compare where Player A stacks up. That way you have an analogy in mind and have some confidence as to where guys might go (in a fantasy draft)."
Goldman says they cannot put the Prospectus on a Kindle yet because the book is so big, filled with so many numbers, charts and statistics. New this year, they do offer the Baseball Prospectus as an iTunes Application. The apps are divided into National League and American League sections and retail for $9.99 each.
"The app is sort of the immediate step that we are taking until we can solve the technical problems with getting this huge book (nearly 600 pages) into a format where it is more portable," Goldman said.