The torturous journey that the former Montreal Expos franchise has had to endure will finally come to an end on April 7, 2008 at 7:10pm when the first regular season pitch is scheduled to be delivered in brand-new Nationals Park in Southeast Washington D.C. This is a franchise that lost a chance at true greatness in when the player’s strike cut short the 1994 season in which the Expos were 34 games over .500 and had one of the most talented teams in baseball. This is a franchise that was threatened with contraction in the 2001, played home games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004, played home games in an abandoned football stadium in Washington for two seasons, and was owned by Major League Baseball collectively for an unconscionable four years from 2002 to 2006. Over the last decade, this team has been gutted of its stars, its coaches and staff, its fans, its home, its owners, and its farm system. But on April 7th, the team will have come all the way back, and will be playing in its own brand new stadium and can finally be considered a legitimate Major League franchise again.
But this doesn’t necessary mean they’ll be any good.
Fans picking up their Washington Nationals opening day scorecard will have surprises in store for them. This team that has featured more no-name players in the last five years than the rest of the National League combined now features one of the most feared (off the field) players in baseball in Elijah Dukes, a questionable personality in Lastings Milledge, and Mitchell Report cast member Paul LoDuca. More importantly, the Nationals feature essentially the same pitching staff from last season, which is kind of like American Idol bringing back all the same contestants from its previous season – only a couple of these guys are major league caliber, so why do we have to watch them all again?
Things have been so bad for the Nationals franchise that the departure of Brian Schneider actually raises the question of whether he'll have his number retired as a tribute for his seven years of loyal service. In Schneider's place comes Paul LoDuca and Johnny Estrada. Both of these guys have been good catchers in the past, but the Nationals appear to have acquired each towards the down-side of their careers. LoDuca has always been known for his intangibles - oddly, he's been a "veteran presence" since his rookie season - so he will nominally provide veteran leadership to this team.
The Nationals have a true conundrum at first base, as two of their best hitters both play first base and probably couldn't play another position if they had to. Neither Nick Johnson nor Dmitri Young has any business in the outfield any more. Young was a very pleasant surprise for the team in 2007, but he was really just holding down Johnson's position while Nick missed the whole season. Johnson has the advantage of being younger than Young, but Young passes the "what have you done for me lately" test and Johnson can't stay healthy long enough to fill out an All-Star ballot. This will probably end up being a platoon for the Nationals.
Kearns is healthy, in his prime, and moving into a hitter friendly ballpark
A marvellous hitter when he is healthy. Unfortunately, that is becoming less and less frequent
|Projected 2008 Starter||
Belliard has always been a solid option at second base, but his glove leaves a bit to be desired, and if you aren't going to get big numbers from your second baseman, you'd like it to be because you are sacrificing offense for defense, which is not the case here. Belliard seems to have held down the job for the Nationals because his presumptive replacement, Felipe Lopez, has been terrible at the plate and in the field. In fact, Lopez has been so bad that he couldn't even challenge Cristian Guzman for the shortstop job!
|Projected 2008 Starter||
"Zim-Zim-Zim" became the face of the franchise two years ago at the age of 21, and has been given all the latitude in the world regarding the relatively slow offensive start to his career for two reasons: 1) the Nationals and their fans are eager for a hero, and they have annointed Ryan to that position; and 2) Zimmerman is one of the best defensive third basemen in all of baseball, with only Pedro Feliz and Scott Rolen topping him in many categories. Zimmerman has displayed pop in his bat (44 homeruns and 90 doubles in two seasons) and durablity (he's only missed five games in the last two seasons), but he needs to improve his on-base percentage, which dropped 19 points last season, and his double plays, which increased from 15 to 26 last season. At the age of 23, Zimmerman is still developing, which given the early returns, is very encouraging.
|Rolaids Relief Candidate|
He just turned 26 and he already has 128 saves!
Elijah "Pac-Man" Dukes|
Maybe the only guy in Major League Baseball I would NOT be happy to meet.
|Projected 2008 Starter||
Come join me for a trip to the Twilight Zone, because I can't believe what I am about to say - the Nationals are lucky to have Cristian Guzman back.
Felipe Lopez was the starter for the Nationals last year, brought over from the Reds by a General Manager - Jim Bowden - who thinks he did such a good job in Cincinnati that he should try to bring all the Reds to Washington. Lopez had a break out year in 2005 when he hit 23 homeruns and scored 97 runs but, predictably, benefitted from his home park so demonstratively that he was a member of the .900/.700 club. Last season, his first full one away from Cincinnati, at the age of 27, he absolutely fizzled on offense and didn't impress on defense.
This year, the Nationals will be playing in a friendly ballpark, but Lopez really looks like garbage. Unlike, surprisingly, Cristian Guzman, who returned to the Nationals for 46 games in 2007 after missing all of 2006, and posting one of the worst seasons of all time in 2005. Guzman hit .328 in his return, and did some other interesting things on offense. His .380 OBP was 43 points higher than his career high. His six triples matched his 2005 total and exceeded his 2004 total, and his 31 runs were eight fewer than he had scored in 96 fewer games in 2005. In 2007, Cristian Guzman provided a taste of the type of performance which, if he is capable of producing over the course of a full season, would represent a return to the type of player we all thought he's be when he was a sensational 23 year old in Minnesota in 2001.
Of course, he is also Cristian Guzman, so all bets are off.
The 2007 Washington Nationals featured several good guys with no real marketable skills. The 2008 Nationals feature three highly touted guys - Dukes, Pena, and Milledge - with great upside who have yet to reach their potential but have developed poor reputations for off-the-field issues and personality conflicts. Theoretically, a team like the Nationals should be a place where such misfits should be able to get their act together, but that remains to be seen.
All of Washington's outfielders have done things which, if they could replicate in 2008 over a full season, would give Nationals fans great cause for excitement. Unfortunately, these things are largely long ago past, and unlikely to re-occur this season. From Austin Kearns' 3-4-5 performance in 2002 as a rookie, to Wily Mo Pena's 26 homeruns in 110 games in 2004, to Lastings Milledge's .380 career OBP in the minors, to Elijah Dukes' .401 on-base percentage in 2006 at Triple-A, all four of these guys have talent that makes you want to pull your hair out. If even two of them came around this season, it could be amazing.
Nationals Fun Fact|
Bret and Aaron Boone are both attempting comebacks with the Nationals this season.
Felipe Lopez, Ryan Langerhans, Robert Fick, D'Angelo Jimenez, Tony Batista
|Projected 2008 Bench||
Bret Boone, Aaron Boone, Lopez, Batista, Langerhans, Pete Orr, Rob Macowiak, Wily Mo Pena
An interesting and colorful group to be sure. Many of them could be starters, and will likely get playing time considering the relative instability of this team.
Matt Chico, Jay Bergmann, Mike Bacsik, Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, Jason Simontacchi, Joel Hanrahan, John Patterson, John Lannan, Jerome Williams, Micah Bowie, Levale Speigner, Billy Traber
|Projected 2008 Starters||
Odalis Perez, Jay Bergmann, Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, John Lannan|
Analysing the Washington Nationals starting pitching is akin to hearding cats. And, I don't feel like doing it. So, instead I thought I would provide the following Fun Facts about the Washington Nationals pitching staff
The Nationals started 13 different pitchers last season, and 11 of them had six or more starts.
The Nationals could have fielded an entire rotation, and had a battle for the fifth spot, comprised fully of pitchers whose first names start with the letter "J".
Four Nationals starters walked more batters than they struck out.
Of the thirteen starters fielded by the Nats in 2007, only six had played in the big leagues the season before. Of the seven who did not, four were pitching the majors for the first time.
Not only were the Nationals pitchers not the worst in the league, the team finished second in the NL in fewest runs per game allowed at home.
Longtime (purported) Nationals ace, and the team's top draft pick in 1996, John Patterson will not be on the team in 2008, after having been waived in spring training.
The Nationals had thirteen different starting pitchers last season, and things went so poorly that this year's opening day starter, Odalis Perez, wasn't even on the team last year.
Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, Ray King, Luis Ayala, Chris Schroder
|Projected 2008 Relievers||
Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, Ray King, Luis Ayala, Chris Schroder|
Chad Cordero will be 26 at the start of this season, and has already accumulated 128 saves. After an amazing 2005, his numbers have regressed a bit in the last two seasons, but he remains a great player on a mediocre team, and his has looked very good this spring.
The bullpen as a whole pitched pretty well last season, but there is almost a staff-attitude about giving up walks. Every single one of these guys struggles with their command, and only Cordero and Jon Rauch even got their K/BB ratios in under 2:1. One can only wonder who good this pen would be if they didn't walk half the guys they faced.
Outlook for the Season
From a structural standpoint, the Washington Nationals franchise is finally on solid footing, but it will still take a couple of years for stability to lead to quality players on the field. This team is not without potential – Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young, Nick Johnson, and Austin Kearns have all demonstrated the ability to be good players, and Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge were highly touted prospects before they were problem children – but the likelihood success in 2008 is not great. This team is slated for the bottom of the National League heap.
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