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March 12 2007

The Washington Nationals are a team that sure seems like it has a lot of problems.  Their 71 wins last season put them in fifth place in the NL East.  Going back to their time as the Montreal Expos, they've been over .500 twice in the last ten years, winning 83 games both times.

The biggest problem for the Nats last year was their pitching.  Despite playing in a pitcher's park in RFK Stadium, the Nationals allowed an NL-high 872 runs.  The Cubs allowed the second-most runs in the NL -- they allowed just 834.  Nats' starters threw to a 5.37 ERA, the worst in the league.  Their overworked relievers were called on to toss 557 innings, the second-most in the league. 

The '06 offense was bad but not nearly as bad as the pitching.  They scored 746 runs, which was the tenth-most in the NL.

Many of the key players from the '06 team are no longer with the organization.  Alfonso Soriano is a Cub, which leaves the offense a big hole to fill.  All three guys who made more than 20 starts for the team in '06, Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, and Tony Armas, Jr, are gone.

The Nationals are sure to be bad again in 2007.  But they're going to do it with different players, especially on the pitching side.  Here's some of the guys in the mix. 


C Brian Schneider
1B Nick Johnson, Travis Lee, Dmitri Young, Larry Broadway
2B Felipe Lopez, Ronnie Belliard
3B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Cristian Guzman
OF Austin Kerns, Nook Logan, Ryan Church, Chris Snelling,
  Alex Escobar
SP John Patterson, Tim Redding, Shawn Hill, Jerome Williams, Mike O'Connor, Jason Bergman, Billy Traber, Jason Simontachi, Matt Chico
Key Pen Chad Cordero, John Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera

Chris Needham follows the Nationals so you don't have to.  I highly recommend his blog, Capital Punishment.  He took some time last week to answer some questions about the Nats.

John Patterson may be just about the only sure thing in the rotation this year. Can you bring us up to speed on who might be joining him?

If I were a betting man, I'd ink in Shawn Hill, a sinkerballer who's pitched around injury over the last few years. If his arm holds up most of the projection systems love him, and he would be a solid 3/4 in a normal rotation. Here, he's as likely to be the ace.

I'd pencil in Jerome Williams (former Cubs/Giants prospect) and Tim Redding (former Astros prospect). Both are "young" and already on the 40-man roster. Nats' manager Manny Acta managed Redding in the minors, so he gets an edge there.

For the final spot, you've got a cast of thousands, most of whom you might remember from Baseball Prospectus '99: Jason Simontacchi (seriously!), Colby Lewis, Joel Hanrahan, Billy Traber, Beltran Perez, etc. There's been a lot of ink about Simontacchi, which makes me think he's got an inside track, but Traber's results have been excellent (comparatively!) so far this spring.

Other than the starting rotation, what remains to be decided in spring training?

There really weren't any other questions with this team, other than 24th/25th man sorts of questions. But two recent developments are sort of making things interesting. First, the Nats signed Ronnie Belliard a few weeks back. If Cristian Guzman continues to stink (and he's still hurting from last year's shoulder problems), the Nats have a legit option on the infield if they shift Felipe Lopez back to shortstop. Second, offensive zero Nook Logan was awarded the CF job before spring, but he's been worse than useless at the plate so far. If he fails, I'm not sure what the team will do. Alex Escobar can't stay healthy, and the team really ran down Ryan Church's defense last year.

What's the latest on the possibility of the Nationals trading Chad Cordero? Are there other players on the team that are likely to be dealt this season?

Boston was the only team that showed any sort of interest in him, and that seems to have cooled down over the last few weeks. A few big blown saves in that first week, and I bet that that'd change. The Nats don't need to trade Cordero, and they're not going to unless they get two top prospects.

As far as other players on the block, any of the bench players could be flipped at any moment, and they might need to make a move to break some of the OF logjam. You never know with Jim Bowden, but I think they think the players they have are mostly there for the long haul.

Manny Acta's only been on the job for four months. Do you have any sense yet of what is going to characterize him as a manager?

Relentless positivity, energy, and a decent understanding of basic sabermetric principles. In other words, everything that Frank Robinson wasn't. The more I hear and read, the more I think the Nats hired the right guy. I just hope they don't jettison him after the next year or two of terrible records.

For many fans who don't follow the Nationals closely the team seems to be in perpetual turmoil. Surely there must be a plan, but whatever it is, it eludes me. Can you shed any light on what you think the Nationals are trying to do?

The franchise is a mess. There's no arguing that. When the Lerners took over the team mid-season, the farm system stunk, and the front office itself was run by a skeleton crew. They did the best they could trying to develop both those things. Stan Kasten has talked ad nauseum about wanting to do things the way they did in Atlanta. Everything is focused on turning the minor leagues around -- hiring more and better scouts, being more aggressive with draft picks, developing standardized training and instruction at each level, etc. It's certainly a great goal, and given the people who they've brought in, it should work.

Where I have a problem with it is what they're doing to the MLB team.  They've scaled back payroll, and are auditioning a bunch of replacement level stiffs. It's being claimed that the money saved is being tossed into the minors and for upgrades to the stadium's luxury boxes. That's fine, I guess. But it's leaving a husk of a team that's likely going to compete for the #1 draft pick next year.

On the long-term, the plan is golden. On the short term, it made my decision to renew my season tickets really difficult.

How do you see the NL East shaping up this season?

Well, we can ink Florida and the Nats at the bottom, that's for sure. I haven't sat down to really analyze it yet, but it seems like a three-team dogfight. If you guys don't run Pat Burrell out of town, the offense should be solid, and that starting rotation is certainly the deepest in the division. I loved watching Hamels pitch. The Mets' offense is probably better than yours, but they don't seem to have any margin for error in that starting rotation. The Braves are the Braves. Their biggest weakness last year was the bullpen, which was truly dreadful, and they've made some big upgrades there. If you forced me to go to Vegas, I'd say that you guys edge out the Mets with the Braves a few games behind them. But we all know you'll win 85 games or so and miss the Wild Card by 1 game, just like every other year! (I kid because the pain of my own team hurts so much!)

Thanks again to Chris, and don't forget to check out his writing about the Nationals at Capital Punishment

I also answered some questions from Chris about the Phillies.  He posted them on his site yesterday. 

This article says that Ryan Howard has had a problem with his hamstring and that Ryan Madson has abandoned his curveball and is working on a slider.

How 'bout Lieber to the White Sox?

Eude Brito threw a bullpen session on Saturday and will throw batting practice today.

The Phillies lost to the Tigers 5-3 yesterday.  They are 5-7 in spring training.

Chase Utley hit a home run, his first of the season.  Helms was 2-for-3 with an RBI.  Victorino was 2-for-3 with an RBI and a double that nearly left the yard.

Dobbs 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts.  Garcia 1-for-1.

Jamie Moyer got the start for the Phillies and had a strong outing.  He went five scoreless innings, holding the Tigers to two singles and a walk.  He got two double-plays and made just 59 pitches in his five innings.

Fabio Castro followed Moyer and set the Tigers down 1-2-3 in the sixth.  He was hit hard in the seventh, allowing four runs on three hits and three walks while getting just two outs.  Alfredo Simon got the final out of the inning.  Simon returned to throw a scoreless eighth.  Justin Germano pitched the ninth and gave up a solo home run to Brent Dlugach.  The home run was one of three hits Germano allowed in the inning.

Astros this afternoon.

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