There are 28 games left in the 2010 regular season, and the only real goal the Nationals have the rest of this year is to figure out where they stand headed into next season. And there are plenty of things they need to work out.
Adam Dunn is inching closer to free agency by the day, and the team has to figure out if it can sign the first baseman to a contract extension. They have to decide how their outfield looks, with Josh Willingham recovering from knee surgery and Nyjer Morgan flailing - both at the plate and, occasionally, at opposing pitchers. And their starting rotation is missing one ace; namely, Stephen Strasburg.
It's going to be an interesting, busy offseason for the Nationals. And in the run-up to the Hot Stove League, here are a few spots the team can start to figure out in the last month of the year.
1. Outfield: When the Nationals began spring training, this looked set: they had Willingham in left, Morgan in center and Elijah Dukes in right. Then the Nationals cut Dukes, and they've been in flux ever since. Morgan, who has a .317 on-base percentage in 116 games, has dropped 52 points in that category from 120 games last year. He played Gold Glove-level defense last year; he's been barely above average this year (0.8 UZR) If the team brings him back, it could be as a fourth outfielder, but it remains to be seen if Morgan would accept that kind of a role after being touted as the team's catalyst at the end of 2009 and entering 2010 as the unquestioned leadoff hitter and center fielder.
They also need to figure out where Roger Bernadina fits. He has a .750 OPS in his first full year, and could be the team's center fielder next year if Morgan isn't the starter. Michael Morse, who's hit 10 homers in 194 at-bats, will get plenty of playing time this month, and he'll have a chance to build his case for more playing time next year. And there's a possibility the Nationals would make a push for Carl Crawford, in whom they're believed to be interested, or Jayson Werth, though either would be an expensive acquisition when it seems like the team can explore some in-house options further.
Willingham is an interesting case. He's entering his final year of arbitration, coming off knee surgery, but posted an .848 OPS playing hurt most of the year. The guess here is he's back, unless the Nationals get a big offer for him this winter.
2. Second base: This could look similar to how the Nationals handled shortstop at the end of 2009, when Ian Desmond thrust himself into contention for the starting job with an electric performance in September. Danny Espinosa will get his chance to do that this year - and this time, there's not even an established veteran to unseat, like Desmond had to do with Cristian Guzman. The Nationals have a $2 million option on Adam Kennedy for next year, but I'd be surprised if they pick it up, especially if Espinosa has a strong month. Expect him to get plenty of chances this month so the team can evaluate him.
3. Starting rotation: Even without Strasburg, this looks remarkably settled for next year - though not completely the way the Nationals would like it. Jordan Zimmermann figures to be at the front of it, and Livan Hernandez is signed for next year. Jason Marquis will also be here; the Nationals are stuck with him at $7.5 million, though he's been pitching well enough lately to give them some hope he can be a respectable innings-eater next year. John Lannan, who has surged in the second half after struggling early this year and being sent to Double-A Harrisburg, is an interesting case. He's entering his first year of arbitration, and figures to get a significant raise after posting solid numbers in 2008 and 2009; Scott Olsen, for example, got $2.8 million without putting up a single season for the Marlins as good as Lannan's 2008 or 2009. So figure Lannan gets something north of $3 million, and the Nationals face an interesting decision: Do they pay big money to their 2009-10 Opening Day starter, or do they decide that's too much to pay for a ground-ball pitcher? I think it's likely the Nationals keep Lannan; he's been durable, coachable and remarkably effective when his sinker is working. He can make his case even stronger this month. The Nationals would love to take a run at Cliff Lee, but it seems unlikely they'd commit the kind of money Lee is sure to get. But Brandon Webb, whom GM Mike Rizzo picked in the eighth round in Arizona, is a free agent after this year. Rizzo loves Webb, and his shoulder injury means he could be had for a year, possibly at a discounted price. But the Nationals paid Chien-Ming Wang $2 million to do nothing but rehab this year, so it's questionable whether they would go down that road again. And speaking of Wang, they'll have to decide whether to offer him arbitration, when he'll get at least $1.6 million for 2011. If Wang makes improvement - or if Yunesky Maya comes to the majors this month and impresses - the rotation could be settled for next year.
There are plenty of other things for the team to solve, but from my view, these are the ones that will be set up the most by events on the field this month. What do you think about those three spots, and are there others you're watching this month?