2004 was a great honeymoon year for the National’s and their new city. Fans came out in droves to RFK stadium, with attendance averaging close to 35,000 a game. The team was not expected to do much at all, but got off to a good start and then rode a hot streak of one-run wins to first place in June. They weren’t good enough to stay there long, and when the one-run voodoo turned on them in July they gradually slipped back to finish at 81-81. Still much better than had been expected going into the season.
The off season has been dominated by news of the legal shenanigans going on between MLB and the Washington D.C. Council. Things have generally progressed as negotiations involving MLB always seem to, slowly and always a short step from calamity. The two sides have been arguing back and forth about money for a new stadium, until finally ,just yesterday, MLB officials signed a lease for a new ballpark for the team. This should clear the way for Bud Selig and friends to start the, no doubt prolonged, process of choosing an owner for the team.
National’s fans might not have an owner yet but, hey, at least they have a team to watch. Unless, of course, they want to watch them on TV. Washington’s fans will get a meager 42 games this year on over the air TV, down from 81 last year. Peter Angelos’ MASN controls the rights to Nationals games and will broadcast 154 of them, but MASN won’t release any more to over the air TV channels, and has failed to reach a deal with any major cable companies. Only a few small local cable companies in Maryland and Virginia, and DirecTV, will carry the full slate of games.
Just to make things a little sillier, the Nationals can’t even be sure of their name. Bygone Sports was recently granted a request to register the Washington Nationals as a trademark by the Patent Office. MLB, in typical fashion, are trying to strong-arm Bygone claiming an agreement for all rights to the name for $130,000 was reached. Bygone are denying this and holding out for a more equitable $1 million and a few other goodies. If MLB loses, the team will not be able to sell any merchandise bearing the Nationals name.
The main story in camp is Alfonso Soriano. Brought in from Texas for Brad Wilkinson and Terrmel Sledge in an awful trade in December, Soriano has held firm to his position that he’s not willing to move from second-base, while the club is expecting him to be in leftfield. There is an uneasy truce in progress at the moment, as both sides have agreed to put things on hold until after Soriano returns from the WBC. In the first sets of training drills of Camp Jose Vidro worked at Second with the rest of the starters, while Soriano was with the minor league infielders, and Washington reporters have been quick to note that there is no outfielder’s mitt in Soriano's locker. Frank Robinson, by the by, seems to have taken something of a shine to Soriano, a surprise given his close relationship with Vidro and his old-school management approach. Robinson empathises with Soriano, having had position changes forced on him during his own playing career. The funny thing is that there is a good chance Soriano has misunderstood the free agent market. He believes he will be most valuable as a second baseman, not realizing it seems how poor his defensive reputation is. If he were to play well in the outfield this year, particularly if he showed he could handle center, his value as a good defensive outfielder could easily be higher than as a poor defensive infielder. The approach of delaying any decision about Soriano is, at least in part, a realisation that Vidro's health is no sure thing. Should Vidro makes it through the spring in good shape it appears that the idea is to hope Soriano caves in and moves to the outfield. If he doesn’t then Bowden will have to try and trade one of Soriano and Vidro, no easy thing to do given that neither of them is exactly earning chump change. If Soriano is stubborn this could easily get ugly quickly, especially as the lawyers and suchlike from MLB and the MLBPA seem to be staking out their turf.
Question of the Day - Can anyone remember a player refusing to change positions when asked?
Meanwhile, there are players other than Soriano in camp, lots of them. If you've vaguely heard of them or half-forgotten them and wondered if they're still in baseball somewhere, chances are they're in National’s camp. As the excellent Dave Sheinin notes in the Washington Post "Jim Bowden spent much of the winter signing every once-famous castoff, journeyman and retread he could get his hands on." Michael Tucker, Daryle Ward, Ruben Mateo, Damian Jackson, Royce Clayton, Marlon Anderson, Pedro Astacio, Joey Eischen, the list goes on and on. Only Sammy Sosa felt he was too good for the National’s call to arms.
Player Age Bats Avg Obp Slg Brian Schneider 29 L .268 .330 .409 Robert Fick 31 L .265 .340 .365 Matt LeCroy 30 R .260 .354 .444
Brian Schneider doesn’t do a whole lot with the bat, where his consistency is his main strength. His defensive reputation has been growing with every season though, and he seems to be regarded now as one of the top defensive catchers in the league. Fick will be a serviceable backup, but the real interest here is how good Matt LeCroy will be with more regular work behind the plate. The idea is for LeCroy to do a share of the backup work, to get his bat into the lineup, he’s likely to spend more time at catcher than at first of things go well. The good news is that LeCroy has never forgotten to run like a catcher, so if he can get the glove-work down he’s all set.
Player Age Bats Avg Obp Slg Nick Johnson 27 L .289 .408 .479 Jose Vidro 31 S .275 .339 .424 Christian Guzman 28 S .219 .260 .314 Ryan Zimmerman 21 R .397 .419 .569
Nick the Stick should be entering his prime now, and the good news from last year is that he avoided serious injury and racked up well over 500 plate appearances. He is always good for a juicy OBP, a ton of line drives and good, if not great, power. The question with Johnson is always his health, if he can stay on the park the Nat’s are well set at first. Vidro has struggled with injuries the last couple of years, and his numbers have slipped accordingly. Even if he is healthy this year, given that he’s 31 it’s unlikely he’ll return to the offensive height’s he was reaching in Montreal in his peak years. A high OBP and some decent power should be well within his reach though, given a healthy year a .290/.360/.440 output should be on the cards.
The left side of the infield is likely to be more about slick glove work than impressive offense. The first player from the draft class of ’05 to reach the bigs, Ryan Zimmerman looks, on the evidence of last year, to be good enough to be a perennial gold glover at third. Indeed a number of scouting reports before last years draft were talking about him having Shortstop potential defensively. Offensively he obviously won’t repeat last years crazy numbers, and the National’s will surely be happy with a .270/.320/.420 type of year from him, the guy is just 21 after all. Christian Guzman will likely be at shortstop again. As this is a nice polite Canadian environment we’ll not mention Guzman’s OPS+ last year (*cough* 55 *cough*), he’s been below replacement level with the bat for the last few years. He does a decent enough job with the glove, while he doesn’t have the greatest range he makes up for it with a very strong arm. Royce Clayton has been brought in to give him some competition for the job, which kind of says all you need to know about Guzman, his signing being another entry in the Bowden Hall of Shame.
Player Age Bats Avg Obp Slg Alfonso Soriano 30 R .268 .309 .512 Ryan Church 27 L .287 .353 .466 Jose Guillen 30 R .283 .338 .479 Marlon Byrd 28 R .266 .323 .376
Some good news for a change here, Jose Guillen does not need surgery and will be back later this week. The initial diagnosis had called for a three month recovery. Guillen will provide some of the power this lineup is short of, the 25 dingers and .480 SLG he should dish up are very important to this team. Alfonso Soriano (assuming he sees sense) should be manning left, and what to expect both offensively and defensively is up in the air. He had extreme home/away splits last year, like quite a few Rangers hitters:
AB AVG OBP SLG Home 311 .315 .355 .656 Away 326 .224 .265 .374
Player Age Arm ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Livan Hernandez 31 R 3.98 100 5.38 3.07 0.91 John Patterson 28 R 3.13 127 8.40 2.95 0.86 Ramon Ortiz 33 R 5.36 83 5.05 2.68 1.79 Tony Armas 28 R 4.97 80 5.25 4.81 1.42 Pedro Astacio 36 R 4.69 89 5.56 2.64 1.21
Livan Hernandez has only once failed to throw 200 innings in a season since Joe Carter was in a Jays uniform (he threw ‘just’ 199 2/3 in 1999). His peripheral numbers have slipped little by little the last couple of years as his ERA has drifted higher, but, there is nothing in his history to suggest that you are not going to get another ton of high quality innings this year, although he did have arm surgery in the off-season. Predicting Hernandez’s arm will fall off is like predicting the demise of the Braves; it always seems to be a year too early to make the call. John Patterson makes for a very nice number two, he had an elite season last year and is just entering his prime years. He faded a little in September last year, but there’s no reason to think that was anything more than an unusual number of innings catching up with him. Brian Lawrence was set to be the third starter, but he’s likely to be out of the year now with a torn labrum. The rest of the rotation will be filled out by three of Tony Armas, Ramon Ortiz, Pedro Astacio, Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch. None of these guys are likely to get Nat’s fans particularly excited, Rauch is probably the best of the bunch, his flyball ways are well suited to RFK, but, he seems more likely to end up as the long man in the ‘pen.
Player Age Arm ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Chad Cordero 24 R 1.82 219 7.41 2.06 1.09 Luis Ayala 28 R 2.66 149 5.07 1.77 0.89 Joey Eischen 36 L 3.22 123 7.48 4.74 0.25 Gary Majewski 26 R 2.93 136 5.23 3.87 0.21 Ryan Drese 29 R 5.78 74 3.21 3.21 0.56 Jon Rauch 27 R 3.60 110 6.90 3.30 0.90
Last year’s bullpen were a surprisingly successful bunch, and most of them will return this year, aided by a couple of ex-Yankees. Chad Cordero made the step up to join the league’s elite closers last year as he cut his walk rates in half. He had an incredible first half and then dropped off a little after the break, he should be good for another dominant year at the head of the National’s ‘pen. The rest are a competent bunch, Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski and Felix Rodriguez from the right-side and Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton from the left will do a good job with whatever leads they are given to protect.
There is enough talent here to keep the National’s close to the .500 level and fourth place in the division, a pro-longed injury to Hernandez or Patterson though could see them finishing closer to the Marlins than they’d like.