Five Questions: The Washington Nationals

Although Washington fans come out for the Nationals, love their Redskins, supported DC United to four titles and saw two local schools go to the NCAA tournament this year, politics remains the most popular sport in Washington, D.C. With that in mind, rather than asking you to take my word on the Nats, I decided to consult that most esteemed group of Washingtonian pundits, the McLaughlin Group. What follows a transcript of that discussion, with a few statistical annotations to enhance the debate.

John McLaughlin: Issue One: The lineup. Coming off a season in which they ranked 10th in the National League in runs, the Nats lost their best hitter, Alfonso Soriano (16 Win Shares Above Bench) to the Chicago Cubs, and first baseman Nick Johnson (14 WSAB) is out until at least June with a broken leg. That leaves Ryan Zimmerman (12 WSAB) as the only proven hitter in the Nats’ lineup.

1. Can the Nationals’ line-up provide any punch, or are they doomed to score even fewer runs than last year?

Pat Buchanan: Absolutely doomed, John. They’ve got three guys trying to replace Nick Johnson. Larry Broadway, who has a great name but wasn’t exactly tearing up the minor leagues (.808 OPS at Triple-A New Orleans in 2006), Travis Lee, who hasn’t had a decent season since we’ve had a decent President and Dmitri Young, who is on the Nats mostly because he’s the only man who can fit into Livan Hernandez’s old pants.

They keep trying to make Nook Logan into a switch-hitter despite pretty good evidence that it won’t ever work (Logan loses more than 200 points of OPS batting from his unnatural left side) and I don’t know what to say about a team that’s excited to see the return of Cristian Guzman.

Eleanor Clift: Pat is way off. Just like Congress, the Nationals brought in some fresh faces to solve old problems. Austin Kearns (6 total WSAB in ’06) and Felipe Lopez (3 total WSAB) will both be upgrades on what the Nationals trotted out last season. Ryan Church may not replace what Alfonso Soriano did but he will keep the dropoff from being too extreme. And however little you expect of Cristian Guzman, he’d have to be pretty dismal not to at least match their shortstop performance last year. The Nats will at least hold steady and maybe even improve.

Tony Blankley:
I admire Eleanor’s optimism, but I think it has to be tempered a bit. That’s true for Pat’s view as well. If Kearns can match the performance he showed during his early years in Cincinnati and Johnson comes back quickly, they have a shot at not being a total drag on the team. But there are a lot of outs in this lineup and I can see a lot of 1-2-3 innings at RFK this summer.

John:
THE ANSWER IS: The Nationals will drop one position in run scoring this year, down to 11th.

Issue two: the pitchers. Last year the Nationals’ pitching staff was among the worst in baseball. The starters were terrible (collective -4 WSAB) and the bullpen looked good mostly by way of comparison (11 WSAB). This year the team has invited a small army of pitchers to camp.

2. Will the Nats’ many arms flourish or perish at RFK this summer?

Tony: Perish, unless they get some luck. John Patterson is the ace of the staff, but he needs to stay healthy and pitch a lot of innings and there are major questions there. If he repeats his 2005 performance (3.13 ERA, 198.1 IP) he’ll give them hope at least one turn through the rotation. But there’s a good chance that’s their only hope every time through the rotation.

Eleanor: Flourish, if they’re smart enough to know how. It comes down to sorting through those arms. Right now they have more pitchers in camp than the administration has scandals, but if the manager and coaches can figure out who belongs and who needs to go, they have a chance of cobbling together a rotation that won’t totally embarrass itself.

Pat:
Perish. I will say that the bullpen figures to show some abilities, but it will have far too many chances to show those abilities because this rotation is awful. To cobble together a good rotation, you need to have some guys with potential. Tim Redding? Colby Lewis? Mike Bacsik? The chance of these guys putting a good season is the same as the chance of Hillary coming up with a sensible Iraq policy. (Tip of the cap to Pat here: Colby Lewis was released by the Nats shortly after he made his comments. We at THT assume there is no relation.)

John:
THE ANSWER IS: Perish. Even if Patterson stays healthy and the bullpen performs, they will give far too many starts to pitchers who don’t deserve it.

Issue three: Manny Acta. The team’s new skipper has never managed in the major leagues and will be the youngest manager this year. He has had success in winter league baseball, but can that translate to the majors?

3. What should fans expect from Manny Acta?

Pat: Unfortunately for Manny, not much. This is not a good team and I’m not sure that even Billy Martin could guide them to respectability. Acta might be a brilliant manager, but if he’s leading them from 55 to 75 wins, I don’t know that anyone will notice. It will take at least a couple of seasons before we can make this judgment.

Tony:
I think Pat’s wrong there. If the Nats win 75 games, Acta will get a lot of the credit and probably deserve some of it. But I do agree with Pat that there’s not a whole lot Acta can do for this team. He’ll certainly bring a different attitude and a different way of looking at the game than Frank Robinson.

Eleanor:
Tony hit the nail on the head there. It is hard to imagine two people more different than Acta and Frank Robinson. Some of those differences will be subtle, but I doubt very much Acta will let his team get caught stealing as much as Robinson did (first in the NL in 2006). And we will see how he does in determining the many pitching and lineup choices he has to make.

John: THE ANSWER IS: Acta will bring more energy and a better ability to connect to his players. But this team is beyond the help of even the greatest managers.

Issue four: Ryan Zimmerman. In just his first full season, Zimmerman was one of baseball’s best third baseman (fourth in Win Shares). The Nats’ man at the hot corner will barely be 23 at the end of this season.

4. How high is Ryan Zimmerman’s ceiling this year, and for the future?

Eleanor: This season, Zimmerman could be the best third baseman in the league and in the future he might be giving a Hall of Fame speech. In 2007 he could hit .300, slug 20 home runs, steal double-digit bases and play solid defense at third. He’s proven he can hit in the clutch (led the Nationals in WPA in 2006) and that’s just his first year in the league. The sky’s the limit.

Pat: Zimmerman is a helluva player, but to hear Eleanor tell it you’d think he was Obama. There’s no way Zimmerman will be the best third baseman in the league when he probably won’t be even be the best in his division. As long as Miguel Cabrera and David Wright are also in the NL East, Zimmerman will find himself earning the bronze in the third base battle. And speaking of bronze, let’s let him play a couple of seasons before we start making up a bronze plaque for him in Cooperstown.

Tony:
Pat may be right that Zimmerman will find himself as only the third best third baseman but that’s hardly a commentary on him as a player, Duke Snider was only the third best center field in New York in the ’50s, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. This year, maybe he hits .290, learns to steal with a better efficiency, then we’ll talk about what he might do in the distant future.

John: THE ANSWER IS: Zimmerman will make the All-Star team as a reserve this year, and be stuck there behind David Wright for years to come.

Issue five: Expectations. Having broken down the components of the team, we need a final prediction on its chances.

5. On a scale of zero to 10, with zero representing impossibility and 10 representing complete metaphysical certitude, what is the chance of the Nationals losing 100?

Pat: Eight. Every team has some things go right and some things go wrong. This is a bad team already and there is a lot more that can go wrong than can go right. I can easily see them losing 100 games when the starting pitching never develops and the offense can’t carry that load.

Eleanor: Three. I have a lot more faith than Pat does in the team’s ability to put together a respectable pitching staff and for the bullpen to hold the leads provided by the offense. Nick Johnson’s return and Ryan Zimmerman’s continuing evolution keeps them under 100 losses. Definitely no playoffs in Washington this year, though.

Tony:
Five. Like Pat said, some things go right, some go wrong. Sitting here, we can’t know if more will go right than wrong or vice-versa. It’s 50-50 either way and we’ll just have to wait and see.

John:
THE ANSWER IS six. This is a 90-loss team and it doesn’t take much to boost it to 100. Bye-bye!

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