Chris Needham, who writes about the Nationals at the excellent blog Capitol Punishment, took the time to answer some questions as we head towards the start of the 2008 season.

Nationals Park is finally here. How do you expect it will play?

The dimensions are a lot smaller than RFK, but that’s not really telling us much, since RFK was so huge. On the surface, it looks like it’s going to be neutral, perhaps a slight pitcher’s park. Even if it is a slight pitcher’s park, that’s a pretty big offensive bump for the team. The wild card in all of it is going to be the wind. The stadium is just off the water and it has open concourses. If the wind passes through the stadium and jets out the outfield through the buildings beyond the walls, things could be dramatically different.

The Nats stated plan relies heavily around improving the minor league system and by all accounts they have been successful in doing so. If you look at the roster and count the young, excellent players, though, it’s not clear how long that list is beyond Milledge and Zimmerman. Who are the other young players in the organization we should be excited about seeing in 2008? How and when does the plan that revolves around building up the minor leagues transition into success at the major league level?

On the offensive side of the ball, there aren’t a ton of ready MLB contributors. We’d expect catcher Jesus Flores to get more playing time, especially if LoDuca’s and Estrada’s injuries linger. We can’t forget (much as we want to) Elijah Dukes either. For his many, many, many, many, many, many problems off the field, the guy’s an all-world talent. Can he harness his potential?

Pitching’s going to be where the kids have a chance, especially with an injury prone 1/2 combo of Shawn Hill and John Patterson. The Nats have lots of competent arms, none of whom are likely to excel, but might someday be decent #3s. You’ll remember John Lannan quite well, I’m sure! Other younger guys who are likely to get a chance: Tyler Clippard (who came over from the Yankees in the offseason), Colin Balester (the org’s former top pitching prospect), Garret Mock and last year’s first-round pick, Ross Detwiler, a tall, lanky lefty.

As far as their time line for success, it’s probably going to be another two years or so before some of those picks from the last two excellent drafts emerge. They’ve got some interesting bats in the low minors, but they’re a long way from setting foot in the NL.

What was your opinion about Manny Acta’s first year at the helm of the Nats? What do you see as his strengths and weaknesses as a manager?

There’s a lot to love. It certainly seems like he has a mastery of both sides of the job: handling the clubhouse, and in-game strategy.

He’s relentlessly positive, which was a must given how terribly (9-25) this team started out last year. He never let the team give up and assured them that they were better than they were, and he got hard work out of all 25 players on the roster. He also loves his stathead strategy, rarely bunting, and only stealing when it makes sense, and when there’s a high chance of success.

What remains for the Nationals to decide before the season starts?

There are some public battles for the starting rotation, but option and health status is going to settle many of those arguments. The two big decisions confronting the team are Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young at first. If the team’s serious about winning, DY rides the pine, but there have been plenty of grumbles about trades. I’m a bit skeptical, but we’ll see. The other big battle is on the infield, where Felipe Lopez is trying to rebound from a David-Bell-like season at the plate. The team has talked about Ronnie Belliard being the starter at 2B, but I think that’s mostly been a ploy to light a fire under FLop’s butt.

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

It looks like it’s going to be a pretty exciting race! I liked Philly last season, and I’m not sure I’d pick against them this year. Sure, the Mets got Santana, but Brett Myers moving to the rotation seems like it’s a pretty solid (and underrated) move as well. The Braves seem like an interesting pick, but they’re relying on a lot of old and injury prone pitchers. Guess I’d go 1) Phillies 2) Mets 3) Braves 4) Nats 5) Marlins

Thanks again to Chris. Remember to follow the Nats at Capitol Punishment.

The Phillies have played three games since Friday’s post, which have pretty much been characterized by pitchers key to the team’s success this year getting hit hard. Eaton, Chad Durbin, Gordon and Hamels all had weak outings. You have to believe the Hamels is going to be just fine. For the other guys, well, at least it’s early.

On the plus side, among the players with close to no shot to make the team, Carlos Carrasco was fantastic yesterday. Greg Golson has made with contributions with his bat, his glove and his speed. NRI Casey Smith has just been on fire.

Yesterday, the Phils and Yankees played to a 7-7 tie in a game called after nine innings. The Phils are 2-2 in spring training with one tie.

Hamels got the start and gave up four runs on three hits, including two home runs, over two innings. Castro allowed two runs in two innings, but Carrasco followed him and struck out three in three scoreless frames. Holdzkom allowed a run that was unearned due to his own error. Ron Chiavacci struck out two in a scoreless ninth.

After hitting a home run the day before, Golson had a single, stole a base and made a terrific defensive play in center field. Burrell hit a solo home run and drew a walk. Taguchi and Coste both went 2-for-3 with two singles. Rollins went 0-for-3 to drop is early average to .100. Coming off a big day on Friday, Smith had an RBI-single.

On Saturday the Yankees beat the Phils 9-3. Eaton got the start and went two innings and gave up three runs on five hits. All of the runs came on a three-run shot by Shelley Duncan. Gordon couldn’t get through the ninth — he got two outs but allowed a two-run homer to Wilson Betemit. Chad Durbin also pitched and allowed two runs over two frames.

Phils’ bats were mostly quiet. Golson had a solo home run. Ruiz was 2-for-2 with a double.

On Friday they beat the Pirates 5-4. JD Durbin allowed two runs in two innings. Shane Youman walked four and allowed two runs in his inning. Joe Bisenius, Gary Knotts and JA Happ both tossed two scoreless frames.

Casey Smith was 3-for-4 with two doubles and a solo home run in the top of the ninth that put the Phils ahead to stay.

The Phillies play the Pirates this afternoon. Savery, Outman, Romero and Bisenius are all expected to pitch.

Brad Lidge says the rehab of his knee is going well. The same article says that John Ennis cleared waivers and re-signed with the Phillies.

Cole Hamels doesn’t like his new contract.

Bobby Abreu was pleased to see the Phillies make the playoffs.