Washington Nationals 2008 Team Preview

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, February 19, 2008 | , | 1 comments »

by Dave Nichols and Anthony Amobi

For fans of the Washington Nationals, the next few weeks will serve to whet their appetite for baseball and a promise of an exciting year. Spring Training brings an infusion of talent, a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark and renewed hope for future Nats teams with a revitalized minor league system.

In 2007, the Nationals surprised fans and pundits alike, winning 73 games despite many analysts’ dire predictions as to how bad the team would be. They crafted a team of youngsters, journeymen and veterans and defied most expectations to become a source of pride in the community. First-year manager Manny Acta earned the respect of fans and 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 2007draft, and the team feels the rebuilding effort is off to a great start and hopes to show improvement on the field sooner rather than later.

As Opening Day approaches, the Nationals will finally be able to witness that progress and begin to evaluate how the plan is working. They spent 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.

OFF-SEASON BRINGS TALENT WITH TROUBLED PAST

Not all of the Nats' off-season moves were lauded by fans and the media. Many fans were concerned by some of players the Nationals acquired, due to questions about their previous incidents in their history.

First, the Nationals traded away two fan favorites, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, for outfielder Lastings Milledge from the New York Mets. Milledge is a true five-tool talent and he is 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.

Catcher Paul LoDuca, signed in December to a one-year, $5M deal, was expected to mentor young catcher Jesus Flores. Instead, he appeared in the Mitchell Report on Performance Enhancing Drugs just two days after signing with the Nats. In that report, he was alleged not only to use PEDs, but also acted as a "middle man" between disgraced former trainer Kirk Radomski and several other major and minor league players. It is unclear whether his actions will earn him a suspension in the upcoming season. In January, LoDuca injured his left knee in a workout, had surgery, and subsequently will miss most of spring training. An inauspicious debut to be sure.

However, the most controversial deal of the off-season was a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, where troubled Elijah Dukes was acquired from the 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 cell phone after one altercation. He’s also been suspended for conduct in every level of baseball he’s played, including as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays last year. Dukes' talent has never been questioned, as he hit 10 home runs in 184 at bats for the Rays last season, his first in the big leagues.

Despite those concerns, the Nationals are in much better shape baseball-wise than they were last season, and they hope that mentoring by Manny Acta and Dmitri Young spurs the same success Young, himself embattled before joining the Nats, enjoyed with his comeback season of 2007.

IT ALL STARTS WITH PITCHING

The starting pitching for Washington was a glaring problem area in 2007, with injuries to multiple starters which in turn forced unprepared and under qualified pitchers into the rotation. The upcoming season brings reason to be optimistic, as the injured report healthy and prospects start to develop, all ready to seize an opportunity to take turns in the rotation.

Barring spring injury, the sure bets to start in the rotation are John Patterson (31.3 IP, 1-5, 7.47), Shawn Hill (97.3 IP, 4-5, 3.24) and Jason Bergmann (115.3 IP, 6-6, 4.45). Patterson made only seven starts due to nerve problems in his forearm that eventually required surgery so he will be the wild card in the rotation. In 2005, Patterson emerged as one of team’s most dominant pitchers, posting a 3.13 ERA in 198.3 innings. He has fought injury and struggled ever since, so it is critical he returns to form for the Nats to be competitive in the division.


Hill and Bergmann impressed 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 the usual assortment of breaking pitches. But he has surgery to his right elbow and left shoulder, so getting healthy and staying that way are the keys to his season. He has the potential to become a solid number two or three starter, and with Patterson can combine to be a decent 1-2 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, Odalis Perez, Matt Chico, Tyler Clippard, Joel Hanrahan and John Lannan.

Redding had a comeback of sorts (15 starts, 84 IP, 3-6, 3.64) and proved to be a steadying force last season. Chico (31 starts, 167 IP, 7-9, 4.63) had the most starts of any National but struggled and was sent back down to the minors. Recently signed lefty Odalis Perez was beaten up a little last year for Kansas City, but he is a former all-star who has better than 2.4 strikeouts per walk in his career.

Clippard was acquired in the off-season via trade (for reliever Jonathan Albaladejo) with the Yankees. He was 3-1 in six spot starts for the Yankees in 2007. Hanrahan and Lannan both looked over matched in limited appearances for the Nats last season, but the club hopes they continue progressing to be reliable members of the rotation--sooner rather than later.

Redding and Perez look to be the favorites to get the final two spots, while the others need to show why the Nats place their hopes in them to avoid starting the season in AAA.

The strength of the Nationals’ roster last season was the bullpen. No Washington starter had a complete game, forcing the bullpen to log many innings. As a team, the relievers combined for a 3.81 ERA, besting the starters 5.11 ERA. 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. Big Jon Rauch (8-4, 3.61, 4 SV’s), who appeared in 88 games last season and recently signed a two-year extension, will serve as the setup man.

Luis Ayala, will once again pitch in key situations, as will Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome. Other contributors to the bullpen will include Ryan Wagner, long-time veteran Ray King and Chris Schroder.

NEWCOMERS BOLSTER POSITION PLAYERS

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, most of the off-season moves were directed toward upgrading the offense. Granted, Washington’s offense suffered a bit due to the cavernous dimensions of RFK Stadium, however, that should change in 2008 as the team moves into brand new Nationals Park, which should play friendlier for hitters.

Though the lineup and bench are much improved, 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. Newcomers Johnny Estrada, Paul LoDuca, Milledge and Dukes should help fill things out and provide fewer "holes" in the batting order. 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.

There are several intriguing story lines 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. Young was the Nats lone all-star last season, and hit .320 with 13 home runs. Johnson is coming back from a gruesome injury (broken femur) at the end of 2006, 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?


Both men are competent at the plate. However, a healthy Nick Johnson has an distinct advantage over Young, as he’s the more complete hitter and a much better fielder. 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 also expect him to mentor the youngsters on the team, especially Elijah Dukes.

It will be interesting to see both men on the field during spring training. If both look healthy and prepared for the upcoming season, the Nats will have a very interesting problem on their hands.

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. He struggled badly (.245, 9, 50) last season from the plate and showed diminished range in the field. He has publicly alluded to personal problems last season that kept him from being his best, but vowed at the start of camp that he has put all that behind him. He will need to perform in spring training, not only to secure playing time, but after losing his arbitration case earlier this spring, he will want to put up solid numbers to earn a big payday in his "walk year".

If Lopez is starting at second, the shortstop will be the enigmatic 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 .328 after 46 games last season. However, yet another injury cut short his comeback season. The Nats hope the Guzman of 2007 reports to camp, not only to justify what remains of his bloated 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 for them all year. He should see plenty of playing time this season, and if either Guzman or Lopez struggles, expect him to be penciled as a potential starter.


Third base is in good hands, as all Nats’ fans know that Ryan Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and the future of the team. In 2007, his numbers took a bit of a dip (.266, 24, 91) as he struggled in the first half of the season, but his production picked up as the season progressed. 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, but the Nats hope that with a new home and friendlier hitting conditions Zimmerman, just 23 years old opening day, will continue his progression as one of the great young hitters in the game.

The starting outfield will look considerably different this spring due the off-season changes. Gone are Ryan Church and Nook Logan. Fans can expect the everyday outfield to be Austin Kearns in right, Lastings Milledge in center and big Wily Mo Pena in left field. This is a big year for Kearns, 28, as his offensive numbers were not what many expected as he enters his peak (.266, 16, 74). He remains, however, one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball and will remain a fixture in the Nats outfield and middle of the batting order.

Lastings Milledge, the return from the Ryan Church and Brian Schneider deal, will 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 last season, 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. Few players in the major leagues have more raw power than Pena, and the Nats hope that if he finally receives regular at bats that power will translate into numbers--and wins.

The wildcard in the outfield is Elijah Dukes. His talent is not the question – it is his behavior off the field.

Dukes, once one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects, earned a one way ticket out of that 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 will start either on the bench, or play regularly in Columbus, but either way the Nats hope that he can keep conquer his demons and harness his ample baseball talent.

Other candidates in the outfield include speedy Willie Harris and veteran Rob Mackowiak, both picked up via free agency. Their additions beef up the bench, and along with holdover Ryan Langerhans give the organization several 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 his 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 only 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, unless LoDuca has trouble returning from injury.

In the end, the Washington Nationals look to be a “work 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 looks 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.


Photos of Patterson, Johnson and Zimmerman (c) Cheryl Nichols 2006

1 comments

  1. Anonymous // February 28, 2008 at 3:32 PM  

    No photo credits??