Five questions: Washington Nationals

Believe it or not, there’s an upside to losing 102 games. There’s almost nowhere to go but up—at least Nats fans hope. This wasn’t a 102-loss team last year. If you look up and down the roster, there’s talent there. They just didn’t maximize it. Some was due to Lenny Harris’s incompetence as a hitting coach, but the Nats also suffered quite a few injuries, which exposed their lack of depth. With a new hitting coach, and ripening fruits of the first drafts conducted under the Lerners and not Herr Selig, there’s just a tiny bit of optimism.

But the downside of losing 102 games? You can improve by a lot and still stink.

Who’s on first?

Thankfully, the answer to that appears to be Nick Johnson. But if a stiff breeze comes off the Anacostia, who knows what bones will break or what rare sub-tropical disease he’ll contract.

The Walking Stick is coming off another of his many lost seasons, and he’s played just 38 games in the last two years. He went down for the count in May with a wrist problem, and supposedly he’s healthy. What’s worrisome about that, though, is that he’s had wrist problems before. A soft tissue problem caused him to miss an entire season when he was still in the Yankees system.

The results of the spring have been inconclusive. He’s batting just .182, but he’s still showing the same batting eye, and his isolated power—owing to his three homers—is respectable.

Unlike last year, if he can’t go, Manny Acta has better options than Robert Fick or Aaron Boone. If NJ goes down, first becomes Adam Dunn‘s or Josh Willingham‘s position. That’d be a huge step up from the replacement-level performance they’ve had when neither he nor Dmitri Young were healthy enough.

What’s on second?

The last few years, the Nats have settled for Ronnie Belliard. He’s a perfectly average, non-exciting option. This year, they’ve decided to challenge him a bit, talking up Anderson Hernandez as the potential starter.

Notably, the team has raved about Andy’s glove, which was something with which Belliard struggled. Belliard played terribly deep the last few years to compensate for his reduced range. Even then, he still let far too many balls roll lazily past him into right field. Part of the problem was that Belliard got fat, hurting his lateral movement. He apparently realized this and showed up to camp looking 20-30 pounds lighter than he had been the last few years. If the weight translates to improved range—just be average!—then he’s a better option than Hernandez.

But as tends to happen, these decisions are often based on small samples, and AHern has given the team no reason to bench him. Wowee! He batted .333 with the Nats! And he’s batting .308 in spring! Sadly, they didn’t see the 3,500 at-bats of .264/.310/.354 batting he put up in the minors for Detroit and the Mets. What do you think he’ll be batting in May when they finally pull the plug on him as a starter?

Jim Bowden’s an idiot! Why do we have so many outfielders?

Oh sure, it’s easy to point and snicker, but when it’s a spring intrasquad game, and YOUR team is trotting a utility guy out to right, who’s laughing?

Yeah, there are a lot of names there, but it’s not that difficult a puzzle to sort out.

Lastings Milledge is the center fielder. Other than Elijah Dukes—who’s battled leg problems—or perhaps Austin Kearns, he’s the only guy who can handle it. (Although those who’ve seen him play there question whether he can even do that.)

Dukes goes to right, but he’s hardly been Mr. Durability. If he misses time, Kearns probably plays. Dunn plays left. Willingham gets spot starts as the fourth outfielder. And if—HA! When!—NJ goes down with injury, one shuffles to first, the other plays in left field.

Willie Harris becomes Dunn’s legs and sees time on the infield. Wily Mo either consents to go to the minors, or he gets cut.

Yeah, it’s a lot of moving parts, but there’s flexibility there. And Manny Acta’s been very good (on the rare times he’s had movable parts) of getting them into the right position. Injuries and performance always have a way of sorting these things out. The only way this one becomes a problem is if Dukes (legs), Willingham (back), and Johnson (everything) allstay healthy for the bulk of the season.

How much are you willing to bet that that’s going to happen?

Yuck! Do the pitchers stink or what?

Yes. Yes, they do.

John Lannan‘s the opening day starter. He’s definitely earned the honor. If you haven’t seen him pitch, he’s like the really poor man’s Tom Glavine. He’s got decent enough stuff, and can throw it pretty much where he wants in combos that tend to keep the hitters off balance. He probably won’t ever be a true ace, but he’s the kind of pitcher you need in your rotation so that your general manager doesn’t go out and buy Carlos Silva.

Behind him, the most interesting name is Jordan Zimmerman. He was the second-round pick they got as compensation for losing Alfonso Soriano to the Cubs.

Until his last start, he had been scoreless in the spring. It wasn’t smoke and mirrors either. He’s at a 20/2 K/BB ratio in 14.1 IP this spring. While it’d be crazy to expect that in the season, he seems like he’s ready. The Nats, though, have talked about sending him to the minors under the guise of protecting his arm. It’s more likely that they’re protecting their financial interest.

Filling out the rotation are Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera.

Sure, Cabrera’s never lived up to his potential. And, yeah, he’s agonizing to watch pitch. But looking at his stats, he hasn’t been terrible. He gives you 30 starts at a No. 4 starter level. There’s certainly value in that.

The problem for the Nats is that behind them there’s not much depth. Collin Balestar is the most ready prospect, but he’s flamed out this spring. Gustavo Chacin is floating around the minors. Shairon Martis is a semi-interesting prospect who is likely to see some time during the season.

They really lack the one Odalis Perez-like starter who can give them 30 starts of No. 3 pitching—someone whose value isn’t so much with what he gives you, but that he’s eating up starts that don’t have to go to the guy who’s 11th on your team’s depth chart.

Is that Zimmerman kid ever going to be good?

Ryan’s definitely the face of the franchise, but another season like his last two, and more will start thinking he’s a disappointment.

For the last two seasons, most projections systems have picked him to break out. But he hasn’t. There are a few reasons for that, I think.

One, I think they thrust him into the spotlight too early. There have been times where it’s looked like he’s trying to do too much to carry the team—especially when it’s been struggling offensively.

Second, I think that the previous hitting coach was a terrible fit. Lenny Harris never emphasized working the count or waiting for your pitch. Zimmerman too often fell into the pattern of swinging at any strike he saw, regardless of the quality of the pitch. He really needs someone to emphasize to him that not all strikes are created equally.

Third, he’s battled injuries. Last season, he started the year coming off hamate surgery. That’s been known to rob batters of their power. Then, as the season went on, he was battling shoulder issues. Combined, they killed his bat for most of the season.

He did, though, rebound in the last part of the season.

So maybe with Adam Dunn and Nick Johnson surrounding him to carry some of the load, with Rick Eckstein as the team’s new hitting coach, and with an offseason to heal, maybe this is the year he finally puts up that .280/.350/.480 season Nats fans have been hoping for.

If not, at least we’ve got his sweet, sweet glove.

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