Everything is moving along nicely.
When the current ownership group took over the Washington nationals in May 2006, after a 17 month long process, Team president Stan Kasten recognised the team was in a bad way and whilst warning fans not to expect quick results promised to "build a team from the ground up with player development...". The plan was to draft well, focus on player development at the Minor League level not to try and buy instant success and fan interest through signing expensive free agents, Washington sports fans had doubtless had enough of this with the Redskins. At the major league level, the club has given trader Jim Bowden his head to do what he does best - wheel and deal. Bowden has managed to improve the club's present and future considerably, through a willingness to take on other team's leftovers and problem children at 50 cents on the dollar, without giving up any players who might prove important in a year or two's time when the Nats figure to be able to start winning consistently.
A year ago things did not look too promising. Bowden had managed to convince the Reds to part with Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez for a bushel of relievers, but the team in camp was a mess - "a multiple-choice test with no answers" as Thomas Boswell nicely put it. The camp was full of bodies, but everywhere it seemed to be quantity over quality. An over-the-hell Travis Lee was fighting career minor leaguer Larry Broadway for the first base job. Anyone who could throw a ball in the rough direction of home plate was auditioning for the rotation and the presumptive number 2 hitter had put up an OBP of .260 in his last season. Here and there were some signs that a proper ballclub might emerge. The bullpen was solid, built around Chad Cordero and the huge and tireless Jon Rauch, and Ryan Zimmerman and Kearns provided at least a couple of legitimately scary big league bats. The farm system about which so much was expected was not setting the world on fire either having just been ranked 30th by Baseball Prospectus. The influential John Sickels had ranked just one prospect in the whole system (Zimmerman) over a B-.
As it was the 2007 season was something of a pleasant surprise for the Nats, they comfortably avoided the expected stigma of losing 100 games. Dmitry Young, brought into camp on a wing and a prayer, turned his personal life around and became the comeback player of the year. Shawn Hill and Tim Redding showed signs of life in the rotation. Manny Acta quickly became seen as one of baseball's most intelligent managers and the Nats finished off the season playing the Mets and Phillies tough over the final two weeks and beating out the Marlins to avoid a last place finish.
As the Nats look toward the regular season this year things look far more promising. Bowden has added Willy Mo Pena, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes in return for nothing of lasting significance. Baseball Prospectus has just rated them as the game's 14th best farm system and John Sickels has given five players (four of them drafted in 2007) a grade better than B-. The Big League club looks similarly improved, this years first base battle is between Nick the Stick and Young whilst Pena and Milledge are itching to show what they can do in everyday roles. On the pitching side the bullpen is still strong and the rotation a little more settled if still far from a strength.
Adding to the optimistic feel is the new ballpark the team are moving into. Built at a cost of $611 million dollars Nationals Park is in Southeast Washington and built along the same lines as Busch Stadium, although with more glass and steel than the basic brick look in St Louis. The park should make a significant difference to the team, RFK was an extreme pitchers park, and with very deep alleys especially unfavourable to gap hitters like Kearns and Zimmerman, little wonder the Nats were last in the NL in runs scored in 2007. The new stadium will be more friendly to the hitters but the architects were apparently asked to deliver a slight pitchers park.
The offense should be well glad to see the back of RFK and theres enough talent here to suggest that they won't be trailing the league in runs scored again. At catcher, if they get their spring training Owies taken care of, there are a couple of grizzled vets in Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada, with young Jesus Flores biding his time in AA. Lo Duca is the presumptive starter. Offensively Lo Duca and Estrada are pretty similar, they're both contact hitters who will spray lines drives around, neither has much power with Lo Duca is a little more inclined to walk. Flores didn't put up particularly good numbers in his time in the bigs last year, but he made a great impression on Manager Manny Acta and the coaches, clearly the job will be his in the near future.
The infield will see Nick Johnson and face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman at the corners, Ronnie Belliard and Christian Guzman up the middle with Young pinch hitting and Felipe Lopez playing the utility role. Nick the Stick looks ready to go after a tough year with a broken leg, and should be good for a .400+ OBP and a SLG approaching .500, Johnson could always rake and at 29 has a lot left in him. Dmitri Young, one of the great stories of last year, will lose his job at first to Johnson, which will help the bench and the defence. One of these guys will surely be traded soon though. At the other corner Ryan Zimmerman plays third base as well as anyone and hits too. His numbers were down a bit from his top notch rookie year, and he grounds into far too many double plays, but he is moving into a park that will favour his all-fields hitting style and at 23 he is poised for great things. The middle of the infield is the team's offensive weakness. Christian Guzman is back from injury for his last year in Washington. He was hitting, strangely, very well last year (.846 OPS in 192 AB). History suggests of course that he won't do it again. Guzman's double play partner will be the solid veteran Ronnie Belliard, a decent hitter without too much range but very good around the bag, Ronnie won't hurt you too much but he doesn't bring a whole lot to the table either. Old friend Felipe Lopez will backup the middle infield spots.
In the outfield Kearns, Milledge and Pena will be the everyday combination, backed up by some combination of Elijah Dukes, Rob Mackowiak and fast Willie Harris. I always think Austin Kearns as the guy he was supposed to be, so I'm always a little shocked and disappointed when I look at his numbers and remember what he is, but I shouldn;t be because there's nothing much wrong with what he is, an excellent glove, good on-base percentage and more than a little pop, he'll be hugely important to the team this year, but will likely be gone elsewhere by 2010. Will Mo Pena should finally get what he has always wanted, a chance to play every day, however a hamstring injury in camp means he will miss the first few weeks, and could open a door for the younger but more gifted Dukes to establish himself, and again relegate poor old Willy Mo to the bench. I don't think this happens though, I think the Nats will give Willy Mo a prolonged shot at starting every day once he is better just to see what they have. Between them Milledge also gets the chance for some playing time after treading water with the Mets for the last couple of years, he is still an awesome talent (John Sickels predicts there will be years in the future when he will be the best player in the league) and should take this opportunity to establish himself as one of the Nat's premier players at just 23. Behind them Mackowiak and Harris are there primarily to give the aggressive Acta a bench he can work with, the most important banch player for the teams future is of course Elijah Dukes. We all know all about Dukes and his extensive list of off-field troubles, I've been on planes that carry less baggage, but he still has the million dollar swing and athletic ability coming out of his ears. It was expected that he would be sent to AAA and told that he needed to behave himself for a few months before earning a right to come to Washington, but, with Willy Mo out for the first few weeks of the season, Dukes appears to be handling himself with enough maturity in camp to win himself a starting job - at least until the big slugger returns.
The rotation, well the rotation is still largely a mess. There's one guy who is likely to be good but unlikely to be healthy and a bunch of others likely to be healthy but unlikely to be particularly good. In the first camp we have Shawn Hill, a sinkerball specialist, he had surgeries on most of the various parts of both arms over the off-season and has already been back to Duke Medical Center after an MRI in early March. When the stars are correctly aligned and he's healthy he's a formidable performer mixing in a solid curve with his sinker and drawing consistent praise from his coaches for 'knowing how to pitch'. The second camp gives us Tim Redding, Jay Bergmann, Odalis Perez, Matt Chico and John Lannan. Redding, Bergmann and Perez are all but assured of spots in the rotation as a reward for their labours last year and/or general MLB experience. Tim Redding put up a 3.64 ERA in 84 Innings last year, but there is little evidence in his peripherals that he will be able to repeat that, he struck out 47, walked a whopping 38 and put up a FIP of 5.05. Matt Chico led the rotation in Innings Pitched last year by a mile with 167 and ended up with an ERA of 4.64, his peripherals though were as unimpressive as Reddings, he walks 4.9 every 9 Innings and is a notable flyball pitcher, not a combination that's likely to serve him as well in a less extreme pitchers park. Odalis Perez is a shadow of the nasty groundball pitcher he was in LA, when he was great for a couple of years, his last really good season was in 2004 and there's no reason I can see to think he is here to do any more than mark time for a few months until someone younger and better is deemed ready. Jay Bergmann got 115 Innings in the rotation last year with extremely mixed results, he was either very good or very bad. Overall his numbers were so-so a 95 ERA+ and a 2:1 k/bb ratio, you sense though with this guy that there is a talented pitcher waiting to get out. John Lannan rounds out the group, he came out of the Ricky Romero draft and is a tall lefty with more than decent stuff who generates a lot of groundballs, and as we know that can be a recipe for success. Waiting in the wings are some intriguing younger players such as Tyler Clippard and Colin Balestar with young phenoms such as Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmerman and Josh Smoker looking good for 2209 and beyond. I'm not overwhelmed by Tyler Clippard the former Yankee prospect but I do like the sound of Balestar who's fastball touches 95.
At the start of the Spring it seemed John Patterson, coming off his second procedure on his elbow in two years, was likely to be the teams #1 starter, but he was released yesterday. Apparently he's fully healthy, he just can't get his fastball out of the 83-87 range and Bowden believes he has little chance of success if he can't get back to somewhere near his former velocity. There'll be a few teams who will memories of 2005 and will be willing to give Patterson a chance to recover fully I'm sure.
Given the state of the rotation Manny Acta must often give a little silent thanks for a good strong bullpen. 26 year old Chad Cordero will close again, his stats have been sliding a little the last couple of years, he's walking more hitters than you'd like from an elite reliever and his line drive percentage keeps inching up, he was very strong in the second half last year though after a rather iffy start to the season, this gives hope he'll be back to his dominating best. Everyday Jon Rauch has rounded into a fantastic and utterly dependable setup man, and is a good bet to lead the league in appearances again, the big man is one of those interesting guys who can persistently out-perform his FIP, and is a closer in waiting if the rumours that Cordero will be traded ever come true. Behind Rauch Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, Luis Ayalya and Chris Schroder are all solid (they all posted an ERA+ of 110 or better last year) and, luckily, capable of eating plenty of Innings as Acta is not shy about going to them early in games.
It's still going to be a year or two before they're challnging the Mets and Braves, but they look likely to get there. For this year flirting with .500 would be a good step along the way. 82-80