Sunday, February 17, 2008

Washington Nationals 2008 Season Preview

(co-written with David Nichols)

For fans of the Washington Nationals, the next few weeks will definitely serve to be the start of an exciting year, with the opening of the new ballpark and an infusion of talent onto the roster.

The Nationals in 2007 served as sort of a surprise for fans, as they won 73 games and also beat many analysts’ dire predictions as to how bad the team would be. Despite crafting a team of youngsters, journeymen and veterans, Washington defied all expectations and was a source of pride in the community. In turn, Manny Acta earned the respect not only of fans, but also the national press for taking a team that many thought had no chance and making them into a respectable unit.

The Nationals’ front office, led by team President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, have a plan in place to rebuild from within via draft picks, heavy scouting in Latin America and other countries, selective free agent signings and resourceful trading than rather than investing heavily in high-priced free agents. The team was able to acquire young talent via off-season trades and had a superb 2007 draft; thus, the Nationals rebuilding plan is going better than expected.

As Opening Day approaches, the Nationals will finally be able to see the progress they have made on the field, and start evaluating how the plan is working. They spent off the off-season not splurging in the free agent market as some might have chosen, but selectively putting pieces together that they hope will build a bright, competitive future.

However, fans were concerned by some of players the Nationals selected, due to the questionable nature of their history.

First, the Nationals traded away two fan favorites, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider for Lastings Milledge from the Mets. Milledge is a true talent to be sure, and he’s penciled in as the starting center fielder. But his short time with the Mets was filled with whispers of immaturity, from high-fiving fans after his first big league home run, to cutting a rap album with sentiments demeaning to women.

Paul LoDuca, signed in December to a one-year, $5M deal to mentor young catcher Jesus Flores, appeared in the Mitchell Report on Performance Enhancing Drugs just two days after. In January, LoDuca injured his left knee in a workout, had surgery, and will miss most of spring training. An inauspicious debut to be sure.

However, the most controversial deal came about when troubled Elijah Dukes was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher Glenn Gibson. Dukes has restraining orders against him by two different women, including the mother of his child. He has been accused of threatening his former wife and child’s life, going so far as to text message a picture of a gun to her after one altercation. He’s also been suspended in every level of baseball he’s played, including as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays last year.

Despite the fans’ concerns, the Nationals are in much better shape baseball-wise than they were last season, and they hope that the success of Dmitri Young’s comeback last year spurs the same success with their newly acquired talent.

The lineup and bench are much improved; however, the Nats are still missing that one true power in the middle of the lineup. Rising star Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Dmitri Young, left fielder Wily Mo Pena and right fielder Austin Kearns provide most of the pop in the order. With newcomers Johnny Estrada, Paul LoDuca, Milledge and Dukes filling things out, things are looking up for Washington offensively. The return of Nick Johnson is also anxiously awaited, as he has proclaimed himself fit and ready to play. His inclusion will certainly bolster the batting order.

The starting pitching for Washington was a glaring problem area in 2007, with injuries to multiple starters, including de-facto ace, John Patterson. The upcoming season brings reason to be optimistic, as the injured report healthy and ready to take their turns in the rotation.

Right now, the sure bets in the rotation right now are John Patterson, Shawn Hill (4-5, 3.24) and Jason Bergmann (6-6, 4.45). As we know, Patterson only made a handful of starts due to problem with the nerves in his arm and he’ll be the wild card in the rotation. Patterson in 2005 emerged as one of team’s most dominant pitchers. He’s struggled ever since, so for his sake, and also for the Nationals, it is critical he gets off the ground running and delivers in 2008.

Hill and Bergmann impressed fans and the front office, and showed flashes of brilliance and promise last season. If they can continue their development, the starting rotation might turn out to be a strong suit.

Hill has the better upside, as he’s got a devastating sinker along with breaking pitches, but Washington will definitely need him to stay healthy for the duration of the 2008 season. If he can stay healthy and get ample run support from the offense, he’s got the potential with a healthy Patterson to become a solid 1-2 pitching combo. Bergmann is solid if not spectacular, and will keep the Nats in games if he can extend himself past the fifth inning, something he rarely did in starts last season.

Other pitchers in the organization who might be slotted for the pitching rotation include Tim Redding, Matt Chico, Tyler Clippard, Joel Hanrahan and John Lannan.

Redding had a comeback of sorts (3-6, 3.64) and proved to be a steadying force last season. Chico (7-9, 4.63) had the most starts of any National but struggled and was sent back down to the minors. Clippard was acquired via trade with the Yankees. Hanrahan and Lannan are both young, and the Nats hope they can continue their progress to be reliable members of the rotation.

Redding and Chico are definite favorites to get the final two spots, while the latter three will more than likely spend time in the minors.

The strength of the Nationals’ roster no doubt came from the bullpen. No Washington starter had a complete game, and the bullpen both won and saved more games by far than they lost. Chad Cordero, (3-3, 3.36, 37 SV’s), the subject of trade rumors in the off-season, will once again close out games for Washington, and big Jon Rauch (8-4, 3.61, 4 SV’s) who appeared in 88 games last season and who recently signed a two-year extension will serve as the setup man.

Luis Ayala, who is coming back from injury, will probably pitch out of the bullpen in key situations, as will Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome. Other contributors to the bullpen may possibly be Ryan Wagner, long-time veteran Ray King & Chris Schroder.

Now, let’s take a look at the everyday starting lineup and the bench.

The Nationals, despite the contributions of 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Dmitri Young and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, finished near the bottom of the National League in pretty much every statistical offensive category last season. Thus, the Nationals made the moves they did to hopefully rectify the situation. Granted, Washington’s offense suffered in a bit due to the cavernous dimensions of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium; however, that should change in 2008 as the team moves into brand new Nationals Park, which should play friendlier for hitters.

There are several intriguing storylines to focus on with regard to the starting line-up. First and foremost, Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson will battle to be the starter at first base. As most fans know, Nick Johnson is coming back from a gruesome injury at the end of 2005, and the question is can he come back and contribute? And if Johnson is healthy and ready to be on the field, what next? Can Young play the outfield as previously rumored? Will one be traded?

Another question is: Will Young repeat his successful 2007 season? Both men are competent at the plate; however, a healthy Nick Johnson has an advantage over Young, as he’s the more complete player and a much better fielder,. And if trading one is the way to go, who has more trade value? Johnson has a serious injury history and Young’s best value is probably at designated hitter, which makes it more difficult to trade him.

Young served as leader for the team in 2007, came back from his personal and legal problems and earned the Nats’ lone All-Star selection. The Nationals expect him to mentor the youngsters on the team, especially Elijah Dukes.

If both Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young get off to spectacular starts, the money is on seeing Johnson traded, simply for the fact he’s the much better player.

Stay tuned.

The second storyline is: Who will play up in the middle in the infield? Washington has three men for two positions, and it is unknown who will be the starters at this point. Felipe Lopez is slotted to be the every day second baseman; however, he’ll need to seriously rebound from his 2007 where he struggled badly (.245, 9, 50) and was mired in a season-long slump. He needs to perform in spring training not only to secure playing time, but it is also his walk year and Lopez will want to put up solid numbers to earn a big payday.

If Lopez is starting at second, the shortstop will be Christian Guzman. After an infamous 2005 where he batted under .200 most of the year, and missing ’06 with injuries, he was on his way to a full-fledged come back, batting well over .300 in the early part of 2007. But yet another injury derailed his season. Washington hopes he can translate his strong first half of 2007 into 2008 to not only justify his contract, but also perhaps use him as a trade chip.

That leaves 2007 starting second baseman Ronnie Belliard (.290, 11, 58) as the reserve middle infielder. He saw action in 147 games and served as a pleasant surprise for the Nationals. With his career almost left for dead, Washington signed him to a one-year deal in 2007 and he did nothing but deliver in key situations. He should see a lot of playing time this season, and if either Guzman or Lopez struggles, expect him to be penciled as a potential starter.

Third base is solid, as all Nats’ fans know that Ryan Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and the future of the team. In his rookie year, he hit 20 home runs with 110 RBI and batted .287; however, in 2007, his numbers took a bit of a dip (.266, 24, 91) as he struggled in the first half of the season and his production picked up later on. He can no doubt handle the pressure of being the anchor of team, and with the dimension of the new park, the Nationals brass are hoping he can see his number rise. He had off-season surgery, removing the hamate bone from his right wrist, so it remains to be seen how this will factor into his preparation for the 2008 season.

The starting outfield will considerably have a lot of more athleticism and power due the off-season changes. Gone are Ryan Church and Nook Logan. The everyday outfield right is now slotted to be Austin Kearns in right, Lastings Milledge in center and big Wily Mo Pena in left field. Kearns is trying to battle back from a season where he struggled at the plate (.266, 16, 74); however, he was one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, and the new park should boost his numbers as he’ll bat in the middle of the order.

Lastings Milledge, who was the center of the Ryan Church and Brian Schneider deal, will most likely be the everyday center fielder. Blessed with all five tools, the highly touted youngster had a rocky road in New York due to maturity issues and focus at times, but he put up respectable numbers (.272, 9, 29) in limited playing time. He has a seemingly unlimited ceiling, and the organization is banking that with everyday playing time, a new environment and the watchful eye of Manny Acta, Milledge will blossom.

Starting in left field will be Wily Mo Pena. Acquired in a trade from the Boston Red Sox, Pena’s numbers (.253, 15, 39) may look less than spectacular, but he started to thrive in Washington thanks to increased playing time. Only 26, the Nationals are hoping that he’ll be a force in the middle of their lineup. Despite having less than adequate plate discipline, and less than stellar defense, his power does the talking.

The wildcard in the outfield is Elijah Dukes. His talent isn’t the question – it’s his behavior off the field.

Dukes, once one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects, earned a one way ticket out of the organization due numerous arrests and domestic issues. The Nationals are hoping a change of scenery and a renewed dedication to the game will make him the player he could be. He may be a reserve, or start in Triple-A; however, he if gets off to a hot start in spring training, expect him to have a spot in Washington.

Other candidates in the outfield include speedy Willie Harris and veteran Rob Mackowiak, both picked up via free agency. Their addition bolsters the strength of the bench, and along with holdover Ryan Langerhans give the organization many options for substitution and spot starts.

The catching situation right now is in flux. Paul LoDuca was slotted to be the starting catcher; however, with the knee injury and questions about his inclusion in the Mitchell report, his status is very much up in the air for Opening Day. It is not expected that he will receive punishment from the club or from Major League Baseball, at least for the present. He was signed as a stop-gap for one year, and although his numbers have declined in the past few seasons, the organization is depending on his experience to help out the young pitching staff and be a leader.

Washington also signed veteran Johnny Estrada, who played for Arizona last season, as an insurance plan in case LoDuca was not ready in April. A solid player and former all-star in his own right, Estrada has some pop in his bat but does not get on base much. At the very least, LoDuca and Estrada should team to be a relatively productive tandem behind the plate.

Jesus Flores, who filled admirably in Washington last season as a Rule V draft pick, will more than likely start off in the minors to give him more playing time and allow him to hone his craft.

In the end, the Washington Nationals look to be a “team in progress”. With a brand new ballpark that is projected to increase revenue and a commitment to rebuilding the organization through the draft and other fiscally responsible means, the future of this team is bright.

Kasten, Bowden and the team’s scouting department, along with the Lerner family, deserve credit for developing a plan, sticking to that vision and dedicating the effort to rebuilding a formerly moribund minor league system. Baseball America recently ranked the Nationals’ minor league system as the ninth highest-rated system, receiving very high grades for their last two amateur drafts. How that talent develops will determine how quickly the Nationals will be primed to become contenders in the National League East.

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