Are We There Yet? Troubled Franchice Finally Has Help On The Way: A Washington Nationals Season Preview | The Golden Sombrero Baseball Blog | MLB, Fantasy, College & High School Baseball News

Are We There Yet? Troubled Franchice Finally Has Help On The Way: A Washington Nationals Season Preview

April 3, 2010

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Baseball here in the nation’s capital has been rather difficult to watch at times.  Since I arrived in the District of Columbia on June 5, 2008, the woebegone Nationals have compiled a record of 93-169, good for an anemic .355 winning percentage.  To put that in perspective, No team has posted a poorer mark in a single season since the Royals lost 106 games in 2005.  But with a couple of established veterans anchoring the lineup, some intelligent personnel moves from GM Mike Rizzo and an increasing amount of young talent down on the farm, there may be a glimmer of hope for this franchise, which has languished in baseball’s second division since it moved to the District in 2005.
Offense
In 2009, the Nationals were the tenth-best offense in the National League, posting a respectable 4.4 runs per game.  For 2010, the Opening Day lineup will look something like this:

1. Nyjer Morgan CF
2. Ian Desmond SS
3. Ryan Zimmerman 3B
4. Adam Dunn 1B
5. Josh Willingham LF
6. Adam Kennedy 2B
7. Ivan Rodriguez C
8. Willie Harris RF

Nyjer Morgan replaces the since-released Elijah Dukes in the outfield to begin 2010.  Morgan, a midseason acquisition in 2009, was a very pleasant surprise in the second half of the season and looks to continue his hot hitting and base-stealing in 2010.  Rookie Ian Desmond, who beat out eight-million-dollar utility man Christian Guzman for the starting shortstop job, looks to provide youth, energy and the ability to actually take a pitch or two here and there to the second spot in the lineup.  If those two can generate some production at the top of the order, they can certainly make things exciting on the basepaths.
However, with a core of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham hitting behind them (95 home runs among the three last year), they may not have to.  Zimmerman, who racked up a thirty-game hitting streak on his way to an all-star game nomination in 2009, is just entering his prime and could easily have his best season yet at the hot corner.  Dunn moves over to first base full-time after resembling a statue in the outfield last year, and Willingham, who did not have a starting job locked down at this time in 2009, looks to make a significant contribution to the team early given more at-bats in an everyday role.  While this tandem may not be counted among the best in the game, they can score runs and score them in a hurry.
At second base, Adam Kennedy takes over for 2009 opening day starter Anderson Hernandez. While this is certainly an upgrade, it may be asking too much of Kennedy to repeat his 20-steal, 11-home run season of a year ago.  Some regression to the mean is in order here, but Kennedy is certainly an improvement over Nationals second basemen of the past.  Ivan Rodriguez will be the everyday catcher until Jesus Flores is healthy again—Rodriguez’s best days at the plate are well behind him, but his ability to work with a very young pitching staff and provide solid defense behind the plate will be a welcome addition to the franchise.  Rounding out the order will be a rather-unimpressive tandem of Willie Harris and Willy Taveras, who looks to return to the form he showed for the Rockies in 2007, when he helped lead the franchise to its first-ever National League championship.  If young prospect Justin Maxwell can impress early in Triple-A Syracuse, look for him to get a chance to prove himself in right—the Nationals hope that he can be their future at the position.
Overall, the Nationals lineup does not look like that of the worst team in baseball.  Expect them to improve on their mediocre 2009 run production and score enough runs to keep themselves in more games than in recent memory.
Pitching
There is plenty of room for concern in the starting rotation.  While there’s no question that young Stephen Strasburg is one of the five best Nationals starters right now, the team decided to have him begin the season in Double-A to further his development.  Chien-Ming Wang and phenom Jordan Zimmermann wait in the wings as well, but up with the big club will be Opening Day starter John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Craig Stammen, Livan Hernandez and Garrett Mock.
Lannan, who takes the ball on Opening Day for the second consecutive season, is a workmanlike performer, who managed an ERA under 4 in 2009 but struck out just 89 hitters in over 200 innings.  While Lannan is capable of keeping the walks to a minimum, his heavily defense-reliant style was a bad combination with the Nationals’ porous defense, which committed a league-worst 143 errors.
Marquis, fresh off a 15-win season and an All-Star game nomination with the Rockies a year ago, has garnered high expectations coming into camp this season, but has struggled mightily in camp.  Couple this with a rough second half of 2009 (just one win after August 19) and there is plenty of room for questions here.  Last year, Marquis became the first player in MLB history to reach the playoffs in ten consecutive seasons (his entire career) while playing for at least three teams over that span.  Expect that streak to end this season, and expect Marquis’s win total to fall significantly short of the fifteen he posted in the Mile High City.
Stammen’s strong spring led to his being handed the #3 spot in the rotation, but his 5.11 ERA and a K/9 rate of less than four means an adventure every time he gets the ball.  Hernandez, an aging workhorse who came to camp as a non-roster invitee, has put up the best numbers of his career as a National, but would be the first likely candidate to be released following a promotion of either Strasburg or Wang.  Mock was regarded as a rather strange choice as fifth starter, considering that lefty Scott Olsen had the better spring overall and improved throughout, but Mock and his 3-10 record and 5.72 ERA from 2009 will be taking the ball every fifth day—for now at least.
The Nationals, however, have even bigger concerns in the bullpen.  Veteran Matt Capps anchors the crew after coming over from Pittsburgh.  He looks to improve on a disastrous 2009 after counting himself among the league’s middle-of-the-pack closers in 2007 and 2008.  The Nats will need him to shut the door considerably more often than he did last year if they want any sort of respectability.  Capps will be joined by Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, one-time closer Mike MacDougal and new arrival Brian Bruney, who figures to be the primary set-up man.  Questions abound regarding this ramshackle collection of hurlers, and top prospect Drew Storen figures to step in sooner or later.  Until that time, however, the Nationals could find themselves giving away far more late leads than they would like.  Expect this developing group to struggle in 2010.
Overall
While hope springs eternal for the Nationals in the form of Zimmermann, Strasburg and Storen, and the 3-4-5 tandem of Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham can be counted on for a good chunk of RBIs this season, 2010 won’t be the Nationals’ year.  There are simply too many questions—namely at the back end of the rotation, in right field and in middle relief, not to mention a full slate of games against the defending NL Champion Phillies and the wild-card favorite Braves.  Expect some improvement from 2010, but also expect Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (played at the ballpark after every Nationals loss) to fill the air this summer on South Capitol Street.
This fan’s prediction: a 68-94 record and another last-place finish in the NL East.  However, things are looking up for this franchise with its developing stars and its no-longer-barren farm system.  The Nationals won’t be playing in October, but sooner rather than later, Bob Marley’s presence at Nationals Park will diminish and Nationals fans may be able to finally say that everything’s going to be all right here in DC.
Until that time, however, this fan will continue to enjoy having a major league baseball team just a five-dollar ticket and a ten-minute Metro ride away.  Because no matter who you are, no matter whom you root for and no matter where you live, last-place baseball is infinitely better than none at all.

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