There's been a lot of talk lately about the Nationals as buyers at mid-season this year, potentially making moves for a starting pitcher like Roy Oswalt or a bat.
The team's recent skid may have come just in time to remind this front office that they are not really that close to being a contender and should be focused, when possible, in turning current value into future value.
There's certainly a chance that the Nationals make the playoffs in 2011. And if you have a chance at the playoffs, then you have a chance to win it all. If you're thinking as a fan, then by all means, root for that.
But management's job is to look at the situation without red-colored glasses and understand that while it's possible that the Nationals could contend sometime soon, that they probably won't. In fact if I had to bet on next season's record right now, I wouldn't put their win total any higher than 75-76.
Just look at the players who have contributed this year. Their top value performers have been Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham. All of them could maintain their current level of performance next year, but chances are as a group they will either plateau or decline at least a bit. And of course Dunn's contract is up. Willingham becomes a free agent the year after that. Only Zimmerman might possibly have another level in him, and that's a lot to expect from a player who's been one of the most valuable position players in the NL over the last 18 months.
On the pitching staff, they have a true ace in Stephen Strasburg. His value should only increase. Jordan Zimmermann could return from Tommy John surgery and pick up where he left off--which might make up for Livan Hernandez coming back to earth.
After that, it's all a wash. There are no more big time prospects in the system who can expected to be major players in 2011, and by 2012 Willingham and Dunn will both be entering their mid-30s, if they're still with the team at all.
So while it's not popular to say so around these parts, the Nationals should be shopping their most valuable trading chips right now. That means Dunn, Willingham, Matt Capps, and if anyone wants to buy in, Ivan Rodriguez, Cristian Guzman, and Livan Hernandez. Either because of age or contracts, those guys are all very unlikely to ever be a part of a contending Nationals team, so if they can flip them for young, improving talents under team control, they should.
Now, I'm not arguing for a fire sale. If no one offers value, you stand pat. But certainly, the talk of trading away young, improving players for short-term rentals or declining veterans should be over and done with.