Viewed at the macro-level this season was a success. They brought in a couple free agents, debuted some rookies, and ended up winning 10 games more than last year. Only Cincinnati and San Diego showed more improvement. Where did the improvement come from? A team's talent level serves as a nice base, but usually whether you succeed or fail in your goals for a year depends on whether you got lucky or unlucky with a few players. I'm not talking about things like 1-run games and expected wins and losses, though those do matter*. I'm talking about the total collapses or come out of nowhere players that can change the whole season. The unforseeable. Were the Nats more lucky or unlucky? And what's that possibly mean for next season?
*If you must know - based on the Nats runs scored and runs allowed the Nats were "expected" to win 72 games. Their adjusted standings (seen here at Baseball Prospectus), which tries to adjust even further for the level of competition faced and take out things like the randomness of clutch hitting, pegs the Nats at around 74 wins. The long and short of it? Play the season a bunch of times and this team wins a couple more games. For what that's worth.
EXPECTED / FORSEEABLE
Pudge was terrible. Dunn and Zimmerman were great. Kennedy did not have another good season in him. Guzman was not good either. Desmond was passable. Willingham was good and didn't play a full season. No real breakthroughs from young players, batters or pitchers, who weren't likely to breakthrough anyway.
Livan Hernandez - Livan was brought in as an emergency staff filler after Detwiler went down in the pre-season. His job was to give the Nats close to 200 innings, hopefully keeping the ERA under 5.00. Chances weren't great that would happen, since he hadn't been able to do that since 2007. Livan went out and gave the Nats his best year since 2004, 211 innings of 3.66 ERA pitching. A lot of this success was due the crazy lucky start he had, but beyond that he still pitched better than expected putting up a 4.35 ERA from June on. He wasn't a Top 10 pitcher in the NL but Top 20 could be argued and for a last minute addition that anyone could have had on their team that's a huge boost. If the Nats hadn't have had Livan, let's just not think about it.
The Bullpen - It's not unusual for a relief pitcher to vary quite a bit from year to year. You don't get bad to awesome, but you will get bad to ok, and ok to awesome. Putting together a good bullpen can be about finding who is good this season. The Nats had no problems with that. The guys that were good last year (Clippard, Walker, Batista) were good this year. The players they wanted to bounce back (Capps, Peralta) bounced back in a big way. They got a suprisingly good year from Slaten. A suprisingly awesome one for Burnett. All in all the bullpen was damn good this year, 4th in the NL with a 3.39 ERA. Imagine how good it could have been if Rizzo didn't love Bruney so much?
Mike Morse - There had always been a feeling that Mike Morse could hit if given the chance. The Nats gave him a chance. He hit. A .289 / .352 / .519 line in total .295 / .374 / .625 vs lefties. At the very least the Nats have found their righty bat off the bench for a couple of years. Maybe he'll be something more though - a platoon outfielder? A starter in case of injury? The Nats have found a useful player and that's always a nice surprise.
Strasburg's injury - Forget what it did to kill interest in the Nats. Strasburg was the best starter on the Nats the moment he stepped on the field. Probably one of the Top 10 starters in the NL. Losing that type of player for a month and a half matters.
Starter injuries in general - Lannan was supposed to be ok and give the Nats innings. Marquis was supposed to be ok and give the Nats innings. Instead the Nats got Marquis first injury riddled season since 2003, Lannan's first one ever and both pitchers' worst seasons. Both cam back from injury with good results (Lannan - 3.42 ERA since return, Marquis 4.29) but it wasn't enough to make up for the missed time and awful starts.
Nyjer Morgan crashes - Before the season I warned that Morgan was the Nats "offensive keyhole", meaning he was someone who we had felt pretty sure about but really didn't know enough to be that sure. Therefore, he had the potential to greatly disappoint. I'd say I told you so but my "greatly disappoint" was .275 /.340 / .350. Nyjer's 2010? .253 / .319 / .314. Even trying to come up with a worst case scenario I way overestimated his contribution. This was an epic collapse to a player that was supposed to be a key to the offense.
All those errors - the Nats defense was supposed to be better this season. It wasn't. Call it youth, call it surprise, call it bad roster management, whatever the reason the Nats defense was a problem all year.
What does this mean for next year? Offensively not much. The offense had holes in it by plan. Pudge stinks, Guzman/Kennedy stinks, the Nats back-up OFs stink, the rookies aren't impact players. Even if Morgan is good, he's not making this bad offense good. 2011 is still up in the air right now. If they make good FA signings that will help but at least 3 spots (C,SS,2B) will be the domain of young players who could make or break the offense.
Pitching wise though we may expect to see a nice little bump next year. Livan's resurgance was great, and it could help overcome either Marquis' problems or Lannan's problems but not both. Not to mention Strasburg's injury. Even if Livan regresses as one would expect, Marquis and Lannan simply returning to form would give the Nats a better staff. If either Zimmerman or Detwiler (or Maya... or Wang?) could be just as boringly good the Nats starters should be significantly better. The bullpen might drop a bit, since they did get lucky there, but the bullpen was built to be good. It was lucky they were THAT good, but not good in general.
All in all - send the same team out next year and the Nats should win a few more games, maybe even mid 70s would be reasonable. Of course a few more games isn't enough to recapture interest and with Dunn possibly leaving it won't be the same team.