April 2, 2008
NL East Rosters Review
The split: 13 hitters, 12 pitchers. With a third catcher, no less, as they've initially kept both C-R Corky Miller and C-S Brayan Peņa. Bless Bobby Cox for the idiosyncrasies that gave us a reason to store Joe Ayrault in our memories, although I wouldn't expect this particular roster setup to last the season. Or the month. It's notable that Peņa is out of options, and would almost certainly get claimed, given his receiving skills, ability to switch-hit, and the general scarcity of adequate catching help.
On the DL: On the 15-day, RHP John Smoltz, LHPs Chuck James and Mike Gonzalez, and UT-R Omar Infante; on the 60-day, RHP Anthony Lerew. Both Smoltz and James are expected back in relatively short order (as soon as the weekend), but Infante's out until May with a broken hand. Lerew's gone for the year with Tommy John surgery, delaying any chance for him to perhaps ever get out of Cox's doghouse (should this really be Cox's last campaign).
The Lineup: Having already demoted both Brandon Jones and Josh Anderson to Richmond, there are no additional major surprises-Matt Diaz should be the regular left fielder for the forseeable future, at least until Jones further puts some fear into International League moundsmen. It's a bit of a mixed bag to suggest that Diaz will hit enough to make for a solid left fielder over a full season; in his big league career, he's hit a decent-seeming .316/.349/.416 against righties, which is a lot of singles and not a lot of power out of a power slot. The last time he played with any regularity against right-handers in the minors, in Omaha in 2005, he hit .358 and slugged .620, which is certainly cause for optimism, although it was his age-27 season as well as a repeat of Triple-A. It's not a bad placeholding solution, but ideally, Jones will mash well enough that the Braves feel obligated to bring him back in short order, instead of abiding by a decision informed by ~50 PA in March.
Kelly Johnson leading off might seem like a misallocation of his power, but this isn't some alternate dimension where Brett Butler clones grow on trees, and this was after all the Braves' choice at the start of last season, before Willie Harris exerted his wiles to later win most of the leadoff assignments. I suppose the other thing that was interesting from Opening Night was that formerly famous person Mark Kotsay batted eighth, but that's probably the best way to forestall an in-game breakdown from getting in the way of the rest of the lineup.
The Bench: ...initially seems weak as well as short-staffed. However, as the primary outfield reserve, CF-L Gregor Blanco provides a nice balance of speed and defense, and might get into some significant playing time spotting for Kotsay. Indeed, in a (likely) scenario where Kotsay breaks down and Jones comes up, I like that quartet better than the one they have now. Peņa will play some outfield (he did so for Richmond last season as well), so on some level they have a pair of reserves beyond the starting three in the outfield. While nobody on the bench is what you might consider a power source, Blanco, Peņa, and INF-R Martin Prado are all pretty good at getting balls in play at the plate; if they can adapt to the challenge of sporadic playing time, they might be useful as pinch-hitters.
The Rotation: ... is a work in progress as long as Smoltz and James are on the DL, because they really only have four definite starting pitchers (although back in the bullpen, both Jeff Bennett and Blaine Boyer have flipped between roles). Jair Jurrjens and Mike Hampton might only be in the rotation temporarily, albeit for very different reasons-Jurrjens because he's sixth man on a totem pole and might be Richmond-bound once everyone's healthy, and Hampton because his health is always going to be an issue.
The Pen: Eight relievers is one way to certainly make sure nobody gets overworked in an individual outing, but what if it's too much to be able to keep everyone sharp with regular, meaningful work? I worry less about the situational starlets like Will Ohman than I do potential power relievers like Royce Ring, Peter Moylan, Manny Acosta, and Rafael Soriano, guys with the combination of durability and talent to be able to contribute 80-plus good innings to a team. If this instead breaks down the way the last few Braves pens have, with a really high number of intentional walks and sometime-usefulness a la Chad Paronto or Tyler Yates, they may well have cost themselves the opportunity to simply run a plain old good bullpen out there. The kind of pitcher who might, like Yates and Paronto, endure in such a usage pattern would be Chris Resop-he throws reasonably hard and could help a team in a low-leverage spot, but he lacks the same sort of upside as guys like Acosta and Ring, let alone Soriano.
Surprise Outcome of Spring Battles: The three catchers thing is a bit odd, of course, and stranger still is that neither Jones nor Josh Anderson made the team. However, the nice turn of events was their snagging Ruben Gotay off of waivers from the Mets. He's a handy-dandy infield replacement in a Willy Aybar sort of way-a little more stick than your average second baseman, perhaps a bit challenged at third, but a useful enough hitter to employ as a pinch-hitter and spot starter. Once Infante gets off of the DL, they'll make a nice pair of front-rank reserves who should also absorb a lot of the pinch-hitting duties, and with more experience at it than their initial options.
Funky Tactical Possibilities? Last night, Cox pinch-ran twice, using Blanco for Peņa in the eighth, then Prado for Mark Teixeira. While adding some element of Finley-esque zest, this sort of highlights the problem with initially having this many guys who don't hit much on the bench. Although it's better to run late than never, Prado's not really a Jim Walewander type, let alone Rex Hudler; last year's positive Equivalent Baserunning Runs (or EqBRR) was relatively anomalous relative to his previous career feats on the bases.
Obvious Area for Improvement: Obviously, with Smoltz and James both due back in short order, it's a pretty transient roster. Getting Infante back will help with their outfield depth that doesn't involve playing a catcher out of position, as well as providing an infield reserve more readily capable to spot-start at shortstop than Prado or Gotay.
Overview: How Cox sorts out his pen is always interesting to watch, as he's assembled good pens out of good material or disparate parts in different seasons. Although the bench initially seems weak, with a lineup built around a core of everyday regulars, players like Prado and Blanco will have their uses as fresh pairs of legs and defensive replacements, and the rotation should be up to speed by this time next week.
The split: Another 13-12 split, although at least with an injury-riddled pitching staff, it's a wee bit more understandable, even in the early going.
On the DL: RHPs Sergio Mitre, Anibal Sanchez, and Harvey Garcia, C-S Mike Rabelo, and OF-Ls Alejandro De Aza and Jeremy Hermida on the 15-day DL; RHPs Josh Johnson and Henry Owens on the 60-day DL. The good news is that neither Hermida nor Rabelo is expected to miss all that much game action, as their recoveries (from a hamstring and a home plate collision, respectively) should have them both back in action relatively shortly; perhaps no more than a week's worth of play without a quarter of the starting lineup shouldn't be the end of the world. De Aza might be gone until late May, which is bad for his bid for the job in center, although that's a transient state of affairs if you assume the job's Cameron Maybin's before the end of the year; nevertheless, that could mean the difference between having enough time to earn consideration for fifth outfielder jobs around the game, and mere minor league free agency for years to come, so you can expect he'll be itching to get back into action. The news is less good with Mitre (out until the end of May), Sanchez (July-ish?), or Johnson (next year?), three-fifths of their once-promising rotation of 2006. The similarly gifted Owens also looks like he's out for the season, so the rotation isn't the only area of the staff that's taken a hammering.
The Lineup: Jorge Cantu won the job at third, Luis Gonzalez is playing in right field until Hermida returns from the DL later this week, and while Cody Ross deserves a break and some playing time, playing every day in center isn't exactly his best place in an outfield. In isolation, no one of these things breaks a defense. Cantu's exactly the sort of hitter who needs to get a last best opportunity with a non-contender to see if there's any hope to resurrect his prospect status. Ross can hit well enough to play in the majors for years to come. Even Gonzo has his uses if you accept the argument for his solid citizenship on its face, and decide he can play a Conine-like elder statesman role as an irregularly-used player. But put all of those things together, and add them to one of the game's worst collection of fielders, and the Fish seem to have found a way to top last year's failings and work their way down towards the final iteration of the Devil Rays in terms of defensive ineptitude. The infield defense in particular should be brutal. But will Fredi Gonzalez and Larry Beinfest decide to do something about it, or will they just let it ride? If they sit still, it'll redefine defensive indifference, certainly, but it's becoming the sort of collectively unfortunate issues that aren't that dissimilar to where the Mariners were in the mid-'80s, and when they couldn't figure out what Danny Tartabull was for, or what a shortstop looked like.
The Bench: It's one with the virtues of flexibility, but that's UT-S Alfredo Amezaga in a nutshell, as a seven-position player with modest offensive utility. It's a little surprising that MI-R Robert Andino is here in merely a utility role, since he isn't going to cadge starts from either Hanley Ramirez or Dan Uggla up the middle, and keeping him on the bench isn't going to help him make a case for moving Ramirez to another position. Even less likely to hang around is C-R Paul Hoover, but that's a function of Rabelo's return. However, who can't like seeing Jason Wood stick around again as a 38-year-old utility infielder, especially after he put in 16 years and more than 7,000 PA in the minor leagues? Nominating him to be anybody's favorite fish might be like favoring the sucker fish over the prettier ichthyian representatives in the tank at your dentist's office, but it's because of exactly that-his simple capacity to endure-that it's impossible not to root for him.
The Rotation: It's not the unit that held so much promise in 2006, but there's still some talent here, once you get past token veteran Mark Hendrickson. Scott Olsen comes out of camp having shown sharper command despite some shoulder woes, and still has plus stuff. The prize of the dump deal with the Tigers, power lefty Andrew Miller, will no doubt take a few lumps, but as the snapshot of his PECOTA EqERA distribution reflects, there's enough talent to foster some higher expectations. Rick Vanden Hurk is probably the guy least likely to stick, although technically he's ahead of Ricky Nolasco; the Dutchman continued to struggle with his command and control in camp, so while he flashes plus stuff, he'll have to show something to stay ahead of the wave of 2007 High-A Hammerheads graduating to a Double-A rotation this spring. Nolasco's problems last year with his elbow will be the sort of thing to bear watching, but if he becomes the first of the injured talents of the '06 cadre to bounce back, it wouldn't surprise me.
The Pen: Like the rotation, a smattering of veteran leavening (Kevin Gregg, Lee Gardner, and Justin Miller) that might take steps backward this season is balanced with a group of younger talent that's been homegrown (Logan Kensing, Taylor Tankersley) or picked up in trade (Matt Lindstrom, Renyel Pinto). Since the veterans were picked up for songs (or even just a few hummed bars), and the rest came out of the efforts of scouting and player development, it's a decent little representation of the kind of useful pen you can put together on the cheap.
Surprise Outcome of Spring Battles: Initially, OF-R Brett Carroll didn't seem likely to stick, not after being demoted a little more than a week ago, but here he is after all. He doesn't really help the Fish answer the center field question ("Who?") that they're now entering their third year of asking. Still, he's more of a legitimate center fielder than Ross, so it's not inconceivable that he makes something of an opportunity for himself. He might stick after Hermida comes back off of the DL, with Amezaga slotting into more of a true utility role.
Funky Tactical Possibilities? Amezaga can play everywhere but pitcher and catcher, which makes for all sorts of double-switch and lineup juggling possibilities, obviously. Wood might get plugged in as the defensive replacement for Cantu quite a bit, although Gonzalez wasn't especially aggressive in employing defensive reps as a rookie skipper last season. Similarly, swapping in a defensive-minded center fielder with Ross rotating to a corner would make sense. On the pitching side of things, the talented youngsters in the pen would be the better group to invest innings in than the veterans; both Miller and Gardner are better employed as righty specialists. I'd especially like to see Tankersley and Pinto both avoid the trap of being employed in lefty situational roles, because they're talented enough to be something more than that. Gregg's the sort of closer who can handle the workload of coming in to protect an eighth-inning lead, therefore projecting the other members of the pen forward into earlier in-game situations. Whether that makes for enough help to get the weaker starters out of games earlier will certainly bear watching.
Obvious Area for Improvement: Sorting out the defense, because it'll help them get a better read on their pitchers, both the ones already up, and the ones on the way, and that's the foundation of how this franchise is going to turn its fortunes around.
Overview: There's a lot to like in the pen, still an interesting blend with upside in the rotation in the lineup, and a few survivors littering the bench. No, it's not a good team, but at least it's an interesting one.
The split: Yet another 13-12 spread, and that despite a strong rotation and three offdays in the front half of the month.
On the DL: LF-R Moises Alou, but it was ever thus; more frustrating and less-easily anticipated might be losing C-R Ramon Castro as well. Among the moundsmen, RHPs Orlando Hernandez (again, a non-shocking development, that) and Duaner Sanchez on the big league staff, and RHP Ambiorix Burgos and LHP Jason Vargas among the minor league talent. Alou and El Duque both probably won't be back until the end of the month, but Castro should be back within the week. Sanchez could be back in action sometime around Tax Day, but his situation is relatively unique, and given his sporadic work in camp, an extended rehab assignment wouldn't be a surprising development.
The Lineup: Beyond picking a left fielder from among Endy Chavez, Brady Clark, and Angel Pagan on a daily basis, it's a pretty set group of premium talents, the sort of static setup that might drive Willie Randolph into paroxysms of Houkian xeroxed-lineup-card bliss. Chavez's future as the club's regularly-used fourth outfielder isn't in any danger, so the small-stakes contest for playing time in the meantime is really between Clark and Pagan. Once Alou returns, Clark's probably the guy out of luck, unless of course the Mets come back down from a dozen hurlers. Once Castro's back, they can run a semi/sorta platoon or job-sharing arrangement behind the plate, assuming that there's enough love left for Castro to compete with GM Omar Minaya's mancrush on Brian Schneider.
The Bench: Chavez and Damion Easley make for a nice pair of potent bench weapons, but the bench could use a platoon partner for Ryan Church in right to face tough southpaws; Clark gets on base reasonably well against lefties on his career (.361 OBP) but doesn't slug (.401 SLG), while Pagan bops a bit (career ISO of .187 vs. LHPs), but doesn't get aboard (.280 OBP). This could make for some more work for Easley in the outfield, not his best position, but the sort of occasional risk it might be worth taking.
The Rotation: It's the rotation to win this division with, not simply because moving from Tom Glavine to Johan Santana is a massive upgrade in itself, but because Pedro Martinez is back, and both John Maine and Oliver Perez have dispelled a lot of the doubt about the wisdom of relying on them that was going around this time last year. The fifth slot is El Duque's once he's ready to come back from foot surgery, but in the meantime, Mike Pelfrey will get his latest opportunity to show whether or not he's finally got something to complement his quality sinking fastball.
The Pen: The consuming logic of situational machinations in pen usage and how it's chewed up roster space is a particular hobby horse in my space, but look at how it's helped create the Mets' pen. Scott Schoeneweis doesn't have a whole lot of value, but he's a situational lefty; Joe Smith's a right-handed side-armer who might also be rightly limited to mid-game matchups. That's the Mets' backup tandem of OOGYs; ahead of them, you've got Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman as the lefty/right pair in the primary set-ups roles in front of Billy Wagner. You've got Jorge Sosa as a potential spot starter and long reliever, although he's got his issues against lefties, and pitching with smaller leads might be best restricted to situational use. And then you've got Matt Wise and his struggles coming inside, especially on right-handers, after hitting Pedro Lopez last season, which might change his utility; his development of an improved changeup this spring probably might help make him handier in a middle relief role, but if it doesn't, you've got a former situational right-hander who might not be up to even that. Just like that, you've got seven roster spots soaked up by your pen, seemingly providing you with lots of redundancy, but not necessarily a lot of value, because the last four relievers are essentially what you get for overspecialization and overlapping limitations. Either Smith or Wise could lose his job if one or the other is struggling once Sanchez is ready to come back, but there again, it may not provide that big a difference, because there's no guarantee that Sanchez will have anything like his pre-injury velocity over extended work; he certainly didn't really show it in camp this spring.
Surprise Outcome of Spring Battles: It wasn't a camp that generated much in the way of surprises. Pelfrey's grasp on the fifth slot in the rotation is a function of El Duque's latest excused absence. Although it's only equally temporary a victory, C-S Raul Casanova was Mr. March for the Mets, leading the team in homers to get his shot as the temp in Castro's place; he's pretty sluggish behind the dish, but he's still able to pop the odd solo shot now and again. And as a side-armer, Smith automatically gets me in his corner, but he may not be here by the end of the month.
Funky Tactical Possibilities? The trio of outfielders filling in for Alou might be joined by Marlon Anderson, since he can handle the right side of the infield and the outfield corners, and he's still got that reputation as an ace pinch-hitter and bench player going for him after what he did for the Dodgers in 2006. Certainly, if Willie Randolph wanted to throw back an extra espresso and get really aggressive with double-switching to keep left field covered and keep the pitcher's spot from coming up, that would be neat, but it's also not his style. Otherwise, Damion Easley is effectively the club's only infield reserve, but with four everyday regulars, he'll be limited to off-day work and perhaps the occasional bit of lefty mashing.
Obvious Area for Improvement: Finding someone who might help provide better depth at first and the outfield corners would help, but that's just a mealy-mouthed way of saying that while the Mets might be a top-rank defense, they're basically one-deep, and can't afford either injuries or catastrophically bad full seasons from their regulars.
Overview: The only real wrinkles are the injury-related absences, and all of those are supposed to be resolved before the month is out. Even if Pelfrey proves unable to earn his keep, we're talking two, maybe three starts. Obviously, a start here or a start there might be a sensitive subject to Mets fans still wondering if any one Brian Lawrence start was one too many last year.
The split: It's a sign of the times, but I'm ecstatic to see somebody's at 14-11 in April; there was a time when even an eleventh pitcher would offend reactionaries like Sparky Anderson or I, but I guess we've come a long way, baby.
On the DL: A quartet of pitchers-closer Brad Lidge, righties of undetermined utility Scott Mathieson and Francisco Rosario, and lefty Mike Zagurski. Zagurski's out with Tommy John surgery, Mathieson's slowly working his way back from it, and Rosario's strained shoulder helped forestall any determination over what to do with him, since he's out of options. Lidge should be back in action in short order, and that's the lone absence of any impact, and even that's minimal, last night's Flash Gordon meltdown or no. (Who's to say Lidge wouldn't have blown up as well, even if he were available? Or that Gordon wouldn't have blown the game coming in earlier? Chains of causation and outcomes at this level of granularity aren't something we really need to debate.)
The Lineup: Swapping out Aaron Rowand for the platoon of Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth (Jayoff Werthkins?) shouldn't hurt the offense too terribly on paper, but the risk is that Jenkins is getting close to the end, while Werth's health record is a long litany of debilitating injuries. I suppose the fun statistical factoid is that Shane Victorino's VORP will get a nice boost if he does nothing differently beyond playing center field every day. Otherwise, it's a pretty set group, except for third base, again, but I'll get to that in a moment.
The Bench: Perhaps a contributing factor to the decision to go with 14 position players is that nobody else would want to take Wes Helms and the minimum of $2.9 million he'll cost his employers this season, but let's make a silk purse out of this sow's ear-sure, Helms can't really play a good third, but if he can do some good as a pinch-hitter, spot starter at the infield corners (especially against left-handers, and perhaps only at third on days that fly ball-oriented right-handers like Adam Eaton are on the mound), and then you've got Greg Dobbs to do the same thing, only against right-handers, setting aside the already-invested expense, that's a potentially handy pair of bats to attack opposing pitching with. Chris Coste isn't much of a backstop, but he can bop a bit in this team's park and start at first easily enough; nothing wrong with a guy who's a latter-day John Wockenfuss. Less handy is So Taguchi as the fifth outfielder, but as a combination of Victorino's caddy and nominally useful right-handed alternative to the always-fragile Werth in the right field platoon, he'll do. Eric Bruntlett's a handy six- or seven-position player who doesn't get the bat knocked out of his hands.
The Rotation: No shocking developments, beyond a stay of execution for Adam Eaton (he's Carl Pavano, just with less glam and a stronger resemblance to a bad penny) as the fifth starter. The front three of Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, and Jamie Moyer could last the season, but Kyle Kendrick's precarious dependence on his defense will put him in just as much risk of losing his job as Eaton. In light of that pair of problems, anybody want to give me odds on Chad Durbin coming back out of the pen and making 20 starts for this team?
The Pen: Many of the usual suspects are back-Gordon, of course, and a healthy Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero (last year's stretch-drive hero), Clay Condrey. Durbin's the new add who's already here, and then there's the surprise add-on of Tim Lahey. All of this with Lidge in the wings, so it's a small group of relievers they'll be very dependent upon in their bandbox.
Surprise Outcome of Spring Battles: That they wound up with Rule 5 pick Tim Lahey at the back end of their pen, claiming him on waivers from the Cubs before he potentially had to go back to the Twins; the Princeton product is a converted catcher with a heavy sinker who wasn't especially dominant at Double-A New Britain last year, so it's going to be hard to have him stick; he might be back on waivers as soon as Lidge's reactivation. On the other hand, they needed somebody; RHP J.D. Durbin pitched his way through waivers to an outright assignment to the Triple-A Iron Pigs without challenge after posting a spring ERA of 11.57, Rosario got hurt, and nobody else in camp made Charlie Manuel's job of picking the staff any easier.
Funky Tactical Possibilities? Ah, the hot corner. Signing Pedro Feliz certainly gave them a slick defender with more offensive value than Abraham Nunez, but if the expectation is that they've found a slugging everyday third baseman, they'll be pining for Rick Schu in no time, let alone Mike Schmidt or Scott Rolen. However, the combination of Feliz (and his pop, in this park) with some judicious use of Dobbs and Helms, and a reliance on the fact that all of them can play more than just this one position, could at least be adequate in terms of production while also providing Manuel with considerable in-game tactical flexibility. It's not as convenient as having a flat-out good everyday third baseman, but since the Phillies have achieved the much more difficult feat of finding two premium hitters for either side of the keystone, it might do.
Mysterious Event: Chris Snelling didn't get hurt, he didn't make the team, and he didn't get claimed on waivers. Instead of any hoopla over wasted opportunities or his various past hurts, he should simply be an inaugural Iron Pig, and who knows, maybe he plays regularly and earns a clean shot and some consideration somewhere before too many more years pass.
Obvious Area for Improvement: If they're serious about defending their division title, the rotation, because let's face it, Chad Durbin isn't what you want to resort to as an in-season improvement, he's the cavalry you call in when you lose somebody better. If this year's jerry-rigged third base solution flops, here's hoping they move more quickly than waiting for the opportunity to sign the next Pedro Feliz.
Overview: This isn't a rotation that can run with the Mets, probably not the Braves either, for that matter. I'm not as excited about the right field platoon as some, but I guess I'm not as down on third base as others, not unless they play Feliz every day. Certainly, if right field is the only thing that breaks, it's easier to find an outfielder than a quality starter or a good third baseman.
The split: Well, it was initially 14-11, but now you see OF-S Elijah Dukes, and now you don't; the Nats replaced him with RHP Chris Schroder, lamentably bringing the roster back down to 13-12.
On the DL: Well, Dukes and his barking hammy, for starters. He joins OF-R Wily Mo Peņa, C-S Johnny Estrada, oft-broken aspiring ace Shawn Hill and his trick elbow, and the equally fragile reliever Ryan Wagner. Estrada should be back next week, but Peņa will be out until May, and Dukes' injury is so fresh that not even Will Carroll had substantive news for us on April 1. If Hill stays on track for a return on April 13, that would really make for just one starting assignment made by a temp in his place (thanks to offdays), while Wagner's recovery from shoulder surgery will keep him on the shelf for months, probably inviting a potential date with the 60-day DL to make space on the 40-man.
The Lineup: The big deal is Nick Johnson's comeback from his broken leg and winning the first base job away from the now-generously remunerated Dmitri Young. Not that there's anything wrong with that-Johnson's the better player, easily the better defender, and the much more dangerous offensive regular. In the other spring position battle, the job at short was handed back to Cristian Guzman, and to his credit, he seemed to show the same improved tendency to make solid contact that he briefly flashed last season. The initial outfield alignment, with Peņa in left, is already off the lineup card, and Dukes' breakdown reduces them to relying upon Willie Harris. The roster's not gifted with a good platoon option for Harris out there, so it's an even more obvious weak spot. In center, Lastings Milledge will get to prove he can cover the ground.
The Bench: Jesus Flores returns as the club's backup catcher for the time being, but that's a product of Estrada's absence, not a reflection of a decision to abandon giving Flores some development time in the minors this season. Rob Mackowiak's not really a true utilityman any more; he hasn't played much second in a couple of years, or much center, for that matter, so he's more of a four-corners reserve with considerable experience pinch-hitting (if not quite as much success). Young's here to handle pinch-hitting assignments, spot for Nick Johnson now and again, and he'll own the DH slot come interleague play; I guess $10 million over two years doesn't buy as much as it used to, but I have it on pretty good authority that the dollar isn't doing so well these days. He hasn't played much outfield since 2005, and any third since 2003, so let's just nip any speculation in the bud before we start wishcasting any additional utility for Comrade Dmitri. Perhaps joining him in the sulking department is Felipe Lopez, former prize pickup from the Reds, starting middle infielder, and now... a guy who really probably should only play second, which doesn't engender much in the way of tantalizing offers from other needy ballclubs. No doubt overjoyed to be here, however, is Aaron Boone, who gives the Nats another first baseman, although Boone can stand around at second or third readily enough; this isn't really that much of a big deal, since the world needs pinch-hitters as much as it needs ditch-diggers, and Ryan Zimmerman's probably going to get another 99 percent of the defensive innings at third again anyway.
The Rotation: Once Hill returns, you're looking at a quintet formed up with him, former famous person Odalis Perez, journeyman Tim Redding, and youngsters Matt Chico and Jason Bergmann. That may not sound like much, but it's a better place to start off with than another go-round with the Simontacchis, Bacsiks, and Jerome Williamses of the world. Probably the first man up once something goes amiss will be LHP John Lannan, although both RHP Garrett Mock and LHP Mike O'Connor didn't hurt themselves with good camps. Late in the summer, we can start putting last year's top pick, lefty Ross Detwiler, into the fringes of the picture. Again, this isn't an exceptional set of options, but it's improvement with some upside as opposed to subsistence pitching.
The Pen: We'll get another chance to see if manager Manny Acta can work some more plug-and-play magic with situational oddballs like Jesus Colome and Ray King while relying just as heavily as before on the rubber-armed Jon Rauch and Saul Rivera. If Chad Cordero's healthy enough to get saves, that's great for him, but if not, I expect Acta will be more than ready to compensate, and it isn't like Cordero's performance in recent years has been so stable as to merit all that much job security in the first place. I might normally have expected Joel Hanrahan to make the spot start that's open this weekend in Hill's absence, but his exceptional spring in a relief-only role (five baserunners, no runs, and 15 Ks in 13 IP) might make Acta reluctant to mess with success. Again, it's an underrated unit with some unlikely heroes; going from more than foot's worth of difference in planes in the deliveries of Rauch and Rivera is a source of fun.
Surprise Outcome of Spring Battles: John Patterson's dispatch to the void of the wire certainly has to rank first among spring surprises, but between his lack of velocity and the repeated frustrations with waiting around for him to be able to contribute, you can understand the instinct to just clear out the roster spot and turn the page. It was also interesting how the Nats uncluttered the 40-man roster of its marginal first base prospects (like Josh Whitesell, now a Snake, or Rule 5 pick Matt Whitney, returned to the Indians).
Funky Tactical Possibilities? As noted, Mackowiak, Young, and Boone don't really offer all that much tactical flexibility. Willie Harris could play second in a pinch, but the injury to Dukes handicaps Acta's options in swapping Milledge out of center. Instead, most of the tactical brio will come through aggressive double-switching (involving first base, left, and perhaps Lopez for either starting middle infielder), a quick hook with the rotation starters, and picking the right spots with the relievers. There's no better skipper for the job than Acta, so where other managers might throw up their hands, I'd expect the man to find ways to make even his current roster handicaps to work for him.
Obvious Area for Improvement: Getting Peņa and Dukes back would get us back to those warm fuzzies about the Nats' exceptional potential in their outfield. Finding someone to push Ronnie Belliard at second would be nice, and once Flores goes back down and later comes back up after everyday play in the minors, that'll be an improvement upon Lo Duca. Finding a more lasting fix at shortstop would be nice, but this is the last year of Guzman's deal, and it'll probably have to wait until next winter.
Overview: It's a fun team, as a reflection of Jim Bowden's rapacious acquisitiveness as a general manager, as a testament to how other people's castoffs can be put to good use by Acta, and increasing to the player development and scouting program of Mike Rizzo and Dana Brown. Wherever you think the Rays are in turning their ship around, there may be no better "bad" team to enjoy coming around to the upswing in the years to come than the Nats.
Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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