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2007 Team Preview: Washington Nationals

2006 W-L: 71-91 (5th place)

2006 Pythag: 70-92

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Chris Snelling, Jerome Williams, Brandon Claussen, Jesus Colome, Luis Martinez, Travis Lee, D'Angelo Jimenez, Jose Macias, Tony Womack, Jesus Flores, Levale Speigner, Emiliano Fruto, Ray King, Jason Simontacchi, Michael Restovich, Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan

Going:

Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Marlon Byrd, Jose Guillen, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas, Pedro Astacio, Matt LeCroy, Brendan Harris

The Nationals In a Nutshell:

Jim Bowden has called our bluff.  It seems like every time a club signs a mid-rotation starter for big bucks, statheads cry out, "we could've gotten that kind of production from [insert Quad-A All-Star here]."  The Nats will enter the offseason with only one veteran starter--John Patterson--and he's coming back from injury.  The bullpen will be okay, the offense may be above average, but the difference between disaster and respectability rests with the replacement-level starting rotation.  

Offense:

It's easy to point to the loss of Alfonso Soriano and expect the Nats offense to suffer.  However, the 2007 opening day lineup compares favorably to the 2006 edition.  Ryan Church is the frontrunner (and if it turns out he isn't, he should be) to replace Soriano in left field, and projects to be one of the more useful parts of the Nats offense.  

The bigger difference between this year and last is the inclusion of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, who came from the Reds in a midseason fleecing.  Kearns will improve on last year's aggregate right field line of 243/330/430, and Lopez (probably shifting to second base) ought to at least maintain Jose Vidro's level of production.

While it's tough to muster any optimism for shortstop, where Cristian Guzman is slated to do whatever he does, there's some upside in center field and behind the plate.  In center, it depends on Manny Acta's choice: if Nook Logan and Alex Escobar get most of the playing time, forget it.  If Chris Snelling stays healthy (even for a while) and Acta sends out a trio of Kearns, Church, and Snelling, that could be a dramatic improvement.

At catcher, it depends on what Brian Schneider's 2006 turns out to be.  He slugged a disastrous .329, by far the lowest number in his career as a starter.  His offensive contribution was so weak that his backups out-OPS'd him.  A return to normalcy isn't going to be worth more than a win or two to the bottom line, but when you're battling for fourth place, every win counts.

Of course, the Nats have two solid corner guys in Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman.  Zimmerman ought to keep improving, perhaps turning more of his 47 doubles in home runs.  Johnson not only played more games than he ever had before in 2006, but he put up his highest OBP and slugging percentage.  It might be foolish to expect him to register another OPS in the 950 range, but then again, he's going into his age-28 season, where he ought to be maxing out his potential.  

Put it all together, and the offense ought to withstand the loss of Soriano.  The biggest dangers are the potential loss of Johnson (he's been known to get hurt before, and may miss opening day) and the possible misuse of outfield resources.  If Manny Acta gets lucky on the first count and doesn't get stupid on the second, everything should work out fine.  Adjusted for park, the Nats were in the middle of the pack among NL offenses last year, and it's reasonable to assume they'll be about the same this year.

Starting Rotation

Now this is where things get interesting.  The depth chart at MLB.com lists the following as Washington's starting rotation:

I'll try to stop laughing.  I'm not laughing derisively--I'm just impressed at the guts it took for Jim Bowden to go with those guys (and Brandon Claussen and Luis Martinez, etc.) instead of resigning Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. and picking up guys like Sidney Ponson.  Seriously, Bowden has wowed me.

On the other hand, being gutsy is not the same as being good.  Aside from Patterson (who might be out until June), those guys ought to be fighting for a #5 spot, not sorting themselves out into four-fifths of a rotation.  Making matters worse, O'Connor--who at least has had some success in the big leagues in the recent past--is recovering from elbow surgery and may not be ready for opening day.

If the Nats manage things right, they ought to get a decent performance from Patterson and about 135 replacement-level starts.  Except for the part about Patterson, that's just about what they got last year.  While it's likely that one of the bargain-bin starters will have a decent season--let's say a 4.50 ERA or so--it's also likely that the team will suffer through several below-replacement outings before they figure out who ought to be in Washington and who ought to be in Columbus.

In a way, that's good news.  If the success of the 2007 Nationals is defined by their performance relative to last year, they might just come out looking okay.  If you're going to get 135 replacement-level starts, you might as well get them from guys playing for the minimum than from guys working for $3 million undeserved dollars a year.  (I'm looking at you, Ortiz.)  This rotation isn't going to lead anybody to the promised land, but it might be enough for this club to straggle their way to 72 wins.

The Bullpen

In beefing up the offense last July, the Nats hurt their bullpen.  Gary Majewski and Bill Bray aren't difference makers (sorry, Wayne), but they are solid pitchers.  It's likely, though, that the battalions of cheap pitchers Bowden brought in this offseason will keep Nats fans from missing those guys.

After all, the 8th and 9th innings are taken care of.  Unless Theo Epstein decides Chad Cordero is worth half of his farm system, Cordero will be in charge of the 9th inning at RFK this year, while Jon Rauch stepped up nicely in his first full season from the pen.  Saul Rivera was another pleasant surprise; he's no more than middle-inning fodder, but he was quite good in that role last year.

And then come the teeming quad-A masses.  Emiliano Fruto is the definition of a "live arm," and showed potential (nearly a strikeout per inning) in his tryout with the Mariners last year.  Luis Ayala should be back from injury, and a battalion of free agents, led by flamethrowing Jesus Colome, will be there to compete for the last spot or two.  

According to WXRL, last year's pen was worth about four or five wins.  Almost all of that came from Cordero, Rauch, and Rivera.  Much like the starting rotation, this year's bullpen isn't going to set any records, but as long as Acta doesn't do something stupid (like make Ray King his left-handed setup man), it won't be a step backward from last year's.

All Together Now

You may have noticed a pattern in this analysis: from last season to this one, the Nats are treading water.  Church replaces Soriano, a bunch of no-name starters replace a bunch of other no-name starters, and the middle innings will see some turnover.  Whoopee.

What that analysis leaves out is how Jim Bowden has, amazingly, made the Nats better for future years.  Trading Vidro for Snelling and Fruto won't have much impact this year (especially if Acta uses Church and Logan as starters), but it's a solid move with an eye toward the future.  Since he was able to lock up Austin Kearns through 2009, he'll be able to take advantage of last July's trade even longer.

Perhaps most importantly, Bowden stayed completely clear of the free-agent market.  It wouldn't have been the end of the world if he had re-signed Ortiz, or grabbed Tomo Ohka.  But it would've been disastrous to sign someone like Jeff Suppan.  As he appears to realize, there's no salvaging this year's team.  It's worth blowing a roster spot to invest in a catching prospect like Jesus Flores.  It's okay to go with nobodies in the starting rotation as long as you have enough of them to insure against some of them sucking.

Long story short, you can look forward to another 70-72 win season in Washington.  It doesn't look all that bright for 2008, either, but if Stan Kasten decides to open the purse strings and gets serious about 2009 and beyond, nothing the Nats have done lately will get in the way.  And for a team that's going nowhere, that's all you can ask.