Entering the 2010 season one can rest assured that there will be a dark horse team that pushes for a wild card spot till seemingly the last day. In the past few seasons it's been the Florida Marlins and of course the Tampa Bay Rays with their miracle run in 2008, so who is it this year?
Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting the following team will be in the World Series or even contend for a playoff spot, but I think most of baseball will be pleasantly surprised with the Washington Nationals. Yep, I said it—the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals have gone through their fair share of players—and managers, for that matter—in the past few years, but it seems like General Manager Mike Rizzo is going about the offseason in the proper way.
First off, the Nationals and Rizzo looked from within to fix a few holes.
The main innovative fix comes from the loss of first baseman Nick Johnson, whom Rizzo was forced to trade as he was not going to be able to re-sign Johnson after the 2009 season. To fix the gap, the coaching staff decided an innovative switch of Adam Dunn from left field, where his big body and lack of speed hampered his defensive skills, to first base, where the power hitter can play more games, be less of a defensive worry, and of course stay in the league longer.
The rest of the infield, with franchise player Ryan Zimmerman at third and 2009 All-Star Christian Guzman at shortstop, seemed set with only the positions of second and catcher left to address. Second base was quickly filled with the addition of the World Series-winning Adam Kennedy and catcher was filled by future all star Ivan Rodriguez.
Kennedy has a career .983 fielding percentage at second, his primary position, and will relish in the opportunity to bolster what was one of his better offensive years last season with the Athletics.
Rodriguez will help with the worst portion of the still young Nationals team, which is its pitching staff. With "Pudge" backstopping a young and inexperienced relief corps, he can teach the pitchers and backup catcher Will Nieves the intricacies of the battery positions.
The Nationals, of course, have rookie Stephen Strasburg in the fold for the starting rotation, plus the overall pitching additions of Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang, and Matt Capps. Marquis posted a winning record last season, Wang is a former Cy Young winner (despite an atrocious 2009 campaign), and Capps may have been the best closer realistically available for Rizzo.
Simply, the Nationals will field much better offensive numbers this season, especially with the stats of the unheralded Josh Willingham, plus an overall better fielding team. Speed in the outfield and on the bases will also help this team, through Nyjer Morgan and Elijah Dukes, and a drastically improved rotation can only mean a better year for the Nationals.
It may not be the year for a playoff push, but it is certainly the first year for Washington fans to be excited when spring camps close.