Guide Preview: Washington Nationals

We’ve now completed three full weeks of these guide previews. It’s been a little harder, a little more time consuming than I was hoping it would be, but I think it’s worth it. I am trying to put other, non-guide preview related content up to keep things interesting around here, even if I didn’t do a great job of that this week. But, here we are, three weeks in and three divisions completed. With this Washington Nationals post, we have now looked at the entire National League. We’ve seen the front-runners, those with some potential and/or hope, and we’ve seen the likely bottom-dwellers. Sadly, the Nationals belong most to the latter group.

As before, this preview is meant to be a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying about the team’s 2009 season. I’ve included quotes and other information from each of the them – Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy’s. I’ve also included some statistics about each magazines’ success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My original intention was to completely refrain from providing any opinion. I was afraid that I would have too much to say about some teams and too little about others. But, after doing a few of these now, I feel like there’s room for some personal commentary. I think it’ll add a little bit of personality to the preview. But I don’t want to make my opinion the focus of the post, so I’ll put it near the end. Please feel free to ignore it; I’ve never claimed to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to all 30 teams. With that said, on with the “combined” team preview for the…

Washington Nationals
Last Year: 59 – 102, 5th Place, NL East

Predictions Since 1999
This Year Last Year Avg Pred. Avg Finish
Sporting News 5 4 4.333* 4.667*
Athlon 5 4 4.333** 4.667**
Lindy’s 5 4

* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 – 2001, 2003 – 2004, 2006 – 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 – 2003, 2006 – 2008

Team Notes

The most intriguing aspect of the Nationals isn’t their roster – a collection of high-“upside” guys, role players and bench players – but instead is their status as a perpetual hard-luck team and how they’ve dealt with it.

“The Nationals have assumed several identities since their big move across the border from Montreal in 2005.

They’ve been a gritty, overachieving club under manager Frank Robinson. They’ve overpaid for Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, and provided a supportive environment for Dmitri Young to briefly resuscitate his career. They’ve dressed in a cramped, rundown clubhouse at RFK Stadium, and reveled in their plush new digs at National Park, with its breathtaking view of the US Capitol Building from the upper deck.

They’ve been hailed as a potential marquee franchise in the making, only to spend four of the past five seasons in last place in the National League East.

And now it’s come to this: Four years after adopting a new nickname and a new identity in a new city, they’re still not sure what they want to be when they grow up. (Lindy’s)”

And their 102-loss season last year is just the newest depth that they’ve reached:

“You don’t get the worst record in baseball by accident. It doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it. You have to make the right (or wrong) moves to get you there. And you need a little bad luck along the way.

The Washington Nationals learned in 2008 what needed to happen to have the worst record in the game. They piled up a whopping 102 losses and still barely held off the Seattle Mariners (101 defeats).

Injuries, especially to star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (wrist) and starting pitchers Shawn Hill and Matt Chico (elbow for both), had much to do with this collapse. So did the decision to trade closer Jon Rauch at midseason to Arizona.

‘We just stopped competing,’ said Nationals manager Manny Acta over the winter. ‘When you’re building in our position, you need almost every one of those guys healthy and hitting on all cylinders for us to be able to compete in tough conditions.’ (TSN)”

There’s not a lot of talent to speak of on the Nationals. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is a slick fielder, but can’t seem to find that break out offensive season. Cristian Guzman finally put together a good year last year after sitting out the first year-and-a-half of his contract, but he’s 30-years old already. There’s also some potential in the rotation, with John Lannan and Scott Olsen, but no one is threatening to get any postseason hardware. Overall, the Nats just aren’t in a good position to do much this year.

“The Nationals didn’t acquire much established talent from the outside during the offseason [note: this was before Dunn signed], so their improvement in 2009 will again depend on the progression of youngsters such as position players Zimmerman, Milledge, Dukes and Flores and pitchers Lannan and Balester. Their offense lacks the talent to contend, and it’s missing the left-handed power hitter management covets. The underwhelming starting rotation is inexperienced, and the back end again figures to be a merry-go-round of raw prospects and unimpressive veterans. The bullpen, an asset in 2007, is mostly unproven after being overhauled during the 2008 season. It’s a formula for another long summer in the nation’s capital. (Athlon)”

Spotlight Quote

TSN’s “View from the Other Dugout” takes a look at two of the newer Nationals players:

“I like Josh Willingham’s bat but I told my (general manager) not to mess with him when the Marlins were shopping him after last season. Those back problems are a huge issue. Every time he goes after a ball in the outfield, he bends over like a guy with back problems. … I’ve heard good things about Scott Olsen off the field. Maybe he really has finally figured it out. You talk to people who were around him last year and they tell you he really grew up. That’s a pretty good arm, too. I know he hasn’t won much yet, but I see plenty of upside there. And (Nationals pitching coach) Randy St. Claire should be good for him. … This is such a paint-by-numbers organization. If that team doesn’t blow up with the guys they’re bringing in, I’ll be shocked. Elijah Dukes is a scary guy. Even when he just walks by you, he’s scary.”

And Athlon took a look at the bullpen in the “Beyond the Box Score” section:

Retool the Pen: Washington’s bullpen took a dramatic step backward in 2008 and was transformed by season’s end. In 2007, the group ranked fourth in the NL with a 3.81 ERA. It jumped to 4.18 last season, 10th in the league. Cordero sustained a shoulder injury on Opening Night, pitched in only six games and was released after the season. Jon Rauch, who closed during the first half of the year, was traded to Arizona in July. Setup man Luis Ayala lost his job and was traded to the New York Mets in August. Middle-inning righty Jesus Colome was released in December. The group of relievers that begins the 2009 season will be drastically different from that of a year ago.”

Commentary

Earlier I said that I was worried about providing my own commentary for all the teams because I wouldn’t necessarily have a lot to say about some teams out there. The Nationals are example #1 of that, I’d say.

I hate to say it – because it feels like picking on the kid who cries in the corner every morning – but it’s hard to see a lot of good in the Nationals’ organization. Yes, they have Ryan Zimmerman and, yes, they did just sign Adam Dunn, but there’s not a whole lot there. Elijah Dukes is someone to be excited about, but, at 25 years old and with little major league success, that window may be closing soon. Beyond that, it just seems like there’s a bunch of guys taking up space and a management team that either doesn’t know what it’s doing or has no actual means to do anything. Of course, I have very little actual knowledge about the team since I don’t follow them, so I could be wrong (and I hope that I am).

This offseason may have worked out pretty well for them, though. They did have that ridiculous Dominican scandal, but it ended up being cause for Bowden’s resignation. It’s hard to complain about that. Plus, the signing of Dunn was nice to see, even if some are arguing that the money didn’t need to get spent since they weren’t going to be contenders while Dunn was on the team. I think that sometimes, if you’re an organization like the Nats, you have to spend the money just to show your fans that you still care.

I hope for a lot of good things for the Nationals and their fans, but I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. At least they have that nice new ballpark.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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