Believe it or not, Nats could be respectable in '09
The Nationals definitely have a couple things going for them, including a field manager who actually knows what he's doing. Washington has so many moving parts, and so much excess at certain positions, that having someone like Manny Acta to sort it all out is a major plus.
They also have some very talented players, most of whom were either injured, slumping, or playing elsewhere in 2008. That includes Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Lastings Milledge, Nick Johnson, and Elijah Dukes. PECOTA assumes full seasons from the first three, all well above last year's levels (assuming Dunn replaces Willie Harris, Aaron Boone, Dmitri Young, etc.). As for the latter two well, your guess is as good as mine. PECOTA has Johnson and Dukes combining for 500 plate appearances, with EqAs of .302 and .312 respectively. If those two are healthy (and out of trouble), the Nats will be much better on both sides of the ball.
But even without them, Washington should be able to put runs on the board; it's preventing runs that will be the problem. This depth chart isn't pretty; the top four are pretty much set, and all are projects. If they all hit, it's a damn good rotation; maybe Daniel Cabrera has his Oliver-Perez-2004, and Scott Olsen gets his head on straight. But they're all just as likely (if not more likely) to be sub-replacement level. And in that case, it won't matter how many runs they score.
I don't think it's quite fair to say the Nationals' top four starters are "projects."Here they are, with projected ERAs from both Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA):
Lannan might not have a great deal of experience, but he throws a lot of ground balls and pitched 182 innings last season, so you're happy to take your chances with him. Olsen's been around for a while. Same for Cabrera. And the Forecaster's not accounting for Cabrera's move from the BBL (Big Boy League) to the NL, which accounts for the big difference between his projections.
None of those guys are exactly Cy Young candidates, but at least they'll keep you in the game most nights. Which would make it pretty hard to lose 90-some games. I do think the Nats are unlikely to win 80 games, if only because the front office seems to be imploding as you read this. But given a little luck -- particularly when it comes to the health of their decent starting pitchers -- there's no reason this club can't be respectable.