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PLAYER TO WATCH
Before the arrival of centerfielder Nyjer Morgan last July 1, the Nationals were on pace for 113 losses—more than any team since the 1962 Mets. But over the next 52 games, with Morgan batting leadoff most of the time, Washington went 23--29 and its run production rose from 4.34 per game to 5.00. Then, on Aug. 27, Morgan broke his left hand and spent the rest of the season on the DL; the Nats closed with a 13--21 run. "It wasn't a coincidence," says G.M. Mike Rizzo. "We're a different team with Nyjer in the lineup."
Indeed, in 49 games after he was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, Morgan hit .351, swiped 24 bases in 31 attempts, and played exceptional defense (No. 1 among NL outfielders, according to Ultimate Zone Rating). If Morgan, a 29-year-old former junior hockey player from San Francisco who has only 736 at bats over three big league seasons, ever produces at that rate over a full season, woebegone Washington might be good at one thing at least: scoring runs.
While the inexperienced rotation remains a weakness, the Nats' offense—ninth in the NL in runs scored last year—could be one of the league's best with Morgan as a tablesetter for boppers Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn. "Drafting [pitcher] Stephen Strasburg was a significant moment for this organization, but adding Nyjer a month later was also a big piece of the puzzle," says Rizzo. "We think we have a core of players that will finally allow us to make some noise in the division."
The Nationals' bullpen ERA in 2009, the NL's worst. The key to improving that mark? Throwing strikes, something Washington's relievers struggled to do. They led the majors in walks (288) despite ranking eighth in innings pitched (523).
The imminent arrival of righthander Stephen Strasburg offers a promising narrative, but let's not forget that the Nationals are a last-place team in the midst of an extensive rebuilding project. Their record in 2010 is meaningless—what matters is making the team as good as it can be in 2011 and beyond. To that end, general manager Mike Rizzo has to shop 30-year-old first baseman Adam Dunn like an old couch on Craigslist. Acquiring even a couple of B-level prospects will mean more to the Nats and their improving farm system than any number of Dunn bombs this year. Dunn's poor defense hurts his trade value, but an AL contender that projects to get below-average production from its DH slot (think the White Sox or the Rays) would appreciate his tremendous power and high OBP.