NL East Tour: Washington Nationals

One of the Washington Nationals' biggest offseason acquisitions was right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

Matt Gelb here, still with the keys while Andy's on vacation. Over the course of this week, we will analyze what the rest of the NL East has done this offseason in an attempt to knock the Phillies off their three-year perch atop the division. The teams have made most of their moves, so we'll take a look at where they stand leading up to spring training.

Tuesday -- Atlanta Braves
Wednesday -- New York Mets
Thursday -- Florida Marlins
Friday -- Washington Nationals

2009 record: 
(59-103, 5th place, 34 GB -- 710 runs scored, 874 runs allowed)

Last season in 140 characters or less: Another season, another last-place finish. Scandals cost the GM his job; losing forced the manager out. They even misspelled the jerseys.

In with the new: 2B Eric Bruntlett, 1B Josh Whitesell, LHP Eddie Guardado, RHP Jason Marquis, C Jamie Burke, RHP Joel Peralta, C Ivan Rodriguez, RHP Ryan Speier, RHP Brian Bruney, RHP Matt Capps

Out with the old: RF Austin Kearns, 1B Dmitri Young, LHP Ron Villone, C Josh Bard, RHP Livan Hernandez, RHP Mike MacDougal, RHP Saul Rivera

Biggest move:
Dec. 22, 2009 -- Signed RHP Jason Marquis

Marquis is about as average as they come. The Nationals know what to expect: about 200 innings of 4.50 ERA pitching. So why is this such a big deal? Well, only one pitcher -- John Lannan went over 200 innings last year. The next closest was Craig Stammen, with 105 2/3 innings. Washington has a young pitching staff and an innings-eater is what the team needs. Not to say Marquis can't be more than that -- he did win 15 games last year for Colorado with a 4.04 ERA. It was arguably his best season since 2004, when he went 15-7 for St. Louis. Marquis should bring stability to a young rotation and at least set an example for future free agents in deciding to go to the Nationals. Plenty of other contending teams were interested in Marquis' services, but he chose Washington, which offered him a two-year, $15 million contract.

Underrated move: Jan. 6 -- Signed RHP Matt Capps

Last season, the Nationals' bullpen had the worst ERA in the National League and it wasn't even close. Washington's relievers compiled a 5.09 ERA -- the next worst was Pittsburgh, with a 4.61 ERA. So Washington went out and signed Pittsburgh's closer, MacDougal it's not a huge upgrade, but consider who the Nationals used to close last season, as ranked by saves: Mike MacDougal (20), Joel Hanrahan (5), Jorge Sosa (2), Kip Wells (2), Logan Kensing (1), Julian Tavarez (1), Joe Biemel (1), Ron Villone (1). Along the way, the Nationals blew 25 saves. (Yes, three more than the Phillies.) Capps had a 5.80 ERA last season along with his 27 saves. Not pretty. But he has had success before. And the Nationals will count on Capps along with Brian Bruney, who was acquired in a trade with the Yankees, to overhaul the back of the bullpen.

Riskiest move: Dec. 11, 2009 -- Signed C Ivan Rodriguez

By definition, the risk was inherently low in this signing because the Nationals will pay Rodriguez $6 million. But they did sign a 38-year-old catcher to a two-year, $6 million deal. The risk is that because of the money owed to Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer, the team could feel obligated to play him behind the plate instead of Jesus Flores. Flores, the 25-year-old catcher, missed most of last season with a stress fracture in his shoulder. But the former Mets prospect has shown a lot of promise early in his career. And Rodriguez, who spent time with both the Astros and Rangers last season, is steadily declining (just as you'd expect a 38-year-old catcher to). Rodriguez hit .249 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI last season. His .663 OPS was his lowest since 1992. Sure, Rodriguez can become a fine mentor for Flores. But if he blocks the better player from playing, that's an issue.

Projected starters:

C Ivan Rodriguez -- Pudge is 38 and there can't be much left in the tank. He had a .663 OPS for Houston and Texas in 2009.
1B Adam Dunn -- He'll be asked to play first base full time for the first time in his career. He hit 38 home runs with 105 RBI in 2009.
2B Christian Guzman -- Last season, he showed the lack of plate discipline that haunted him in Minnesota.
3B Ryan Zimmerman -- The unquestioned face of the team rebounded from an ugly 2008 with a career-best .292 average and 33 home runs.
SS Ian Desmond -- If the Nats sign Orlando Hudson to play second, Guzman could move back to short, pushing Desmond to the bench.
LF Josh Willingham -- Quietly bashed 24 home runs last season and posted a career-high .863 OPS.
CF Nyjer Morgan -- In 49 games with the Nats after a midseason trade, he hit .351 and won over a lot of fans.
RF Elijah Dukes -- Can he put his troubled past behind him? Dukes has always shown promise. Time is running out.

Projected rotation:

LHP John Lannan -- He's the 25-year-old ace for Washington. Lannan isn't a strikeout pitcher but he's had an ERA under 4.00 the last two seasons.
RHP Jason Marquis -- Marquis is the epitome of an innings-eater, something the Nats need to preserve some of the younger arms.
LHP Scott Olsen -- It was a lost season for Olsen, who started just 11 games before shoulder surgery. But the Nats wanted him back.
RHP Stephen Strasburg -- Let's go out on a limb and say the phenom has a good enough spring to make the team.
RHP Craig Stammen -- This spot could be filled by a plethora of pitchers, including Ross Detwiler, Garrett Mock and Shairon Martis.

Key bullpen figures:

RHP Matt Capps -- The Nationals hope Capps can bring stability to the back of the bullpen that struggled mightily in 2009.
RHP Brian Bruney -- He fell into Joe Girardi's doghouse in New York, but a fresh start could do Bruney well.
RHP Tyler Clippard -- Converted to a reliever last season, Clippard allowed just 36 hits in 60 1/3 innings.
RHP Sean Burnett -- He didn't pitch for three seasons in the majors, but Burnett has thrived in his new role as a middle reliever.

The Skinny:
On paper, this team is better than last season. The pitching staff has improved and the back end of the bullpen should blow considerably fewer games. But the Nationals are a long way from even being close to competing. Signing some free agents coveted by other teams is a start, but some of the prospects will have to start coming through. That begins and ends with Strasburg, who has the highest expectations of any prospect ever.