Will talks with Maury about Washington’s chances in the Nationals Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Entering their third season in Washington and second under new ownership, the Nationals have been entertaining to watch. Whether it’s that sense that the former Montreal Expos were relegated to something akin to a scout team for the other clubs during the Loria/MLB tenures, or the fact that you wish to give Washington, D.C. another chance after two versions of the Senators pulled up stakes and left, you’ve got that rebirth thing with them.

About the only way this year can create some hope and faith for Nationals fans that involves their getting to a world championship, you pretty much need to start off with positing a full-scale meltdown of the rest of the NL East, and top it off with a deal with the baseball gods thrown in for good measure should you expect them to win the World Series.

More practically, the Lerner family and Stan Kasten have “The Plan,” and “The Plan” has centered around rebuilding a player development system that’s been ransacked by prior ownership, instead of looking to win today. What do the Nationals need to do to give them even a ghost of a chance at a World Series? Something that will keep them from not only losing 100 games, but actually being in the hunt? Here’s a few key things to watch with the Nationals this season.

The Hole at First: When Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns plowed into each other going after a popup on September 23rd last year, Johnson knew he was hurt, and he now has the titanium rod in his right leg to prove it. The problem for the Nationals is that he was supposed to make a full recovery before Spring Training. Now, Johnson says of his return: “June?”

With Johnson not coming back as projected, the Nationals find themselves trying to fill a hole after his career year. To fill Johnson’s spot, the Nationals are looking both internally and externally. General Manager Jim Bowden has brought in journeyman Travis Lee, who was released from the Devil Rays in September of last season. His anemic production (including a -11.4 VORP) point to his offensive limitations. If there’s a silver lining, it’s defensively; Lee posts a career .997 fielding percentage, which is the highest for first baseman with 750 or more games.

Lee will most likely be competing for the position with prospect Larry Broadway. The club’s third-round pick in 2003 posted a .288 average, with 25 doubles, 15 home runs, and 78 RBI in just under 500 plate appearances while at Triple-A New Orleans. His 116-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio points to his need to be more patient at the plate, but with Kasten and Co. looking to rebuild, it’s possible that Broadway will get more looks than Lee, depending on how the season progresses.

Below Lee and Broadway on the depth chart at first, new manager Manny Acta might also opt for Dmitri Young or possibly Robert Fick. Young was signed to a minor league contract, and battled substance abuse and domestic violence charges while with the Tigers. He’s low-risk due to the minor league contract, but comes in with those off-the-field question marks, as well as the fact that he hasn’t hit over .300 since ’01.

Who’s In the Rotation?: Trying to determine who will be in the Nationals’ starting rotation is a bit like guessing lottery numbers at this point. Gone are Livan Hernandez and Ramon Ortiz, but welcome back John Patterson, and say hello to a whole lot of prospects and journeymen. Patterson is the only guaranteed starter, and 12 others are jockeying for spots in various spots on the pitching staff.

Patterson only pitched in eight games last season before a season-ending elbow injury, going 1-2 with 4.42 ERA, and walks into the season after losing in salary arbitration with the Nationals. The right hander has been touted for great potential, but will he remain healthy enough to prove it? Besides the elbow injury last season, he had elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2000, wound up coming in the following season on the DL, and spent the better part of two months on the DL in 2004 with a strained groin. Yet, the Nationals have Patterson as their one and only guaranteed starter going into ’07. To keep the Nationals even remotely close to contending, Patterson has to remain healthy. Who sits behind him in the rotation? As mentioned, there’s a dozen guys vying for spots.

Tim Redding is the closest guess to a sure thing in the rotation behind Patterson. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2005, and made it into all of 10 games that season between Astros and Yankees. In eight seasons in the minors he’s posted a 62-37 record with a 3.74 ERA. He posted a 12-10, 3.40 ERA at Triple-A Charlotte last season, showing he still has some ability. The question is, can he be counted on regularly in a big league rotation?

Behind Patterson and Redding, Spring Training will shake out who’s in or out on the starting pitching staff. Here’s an early guess:

  • Righthander Shawn Hill, who had Tommy John surgery in 2004; it carried over to last season where he pitched six big league games, going 1-3 with a 4.66 ERA. PECOTA projects him to go 4-6 with a 4.51 ERA for 2007.
  • Righthander Jerome Williams, who was acquired by the Nationals in early January. He went 0-2 with a 7.30 ERA while with Cubs in 2006 before being sent back down to Triple-A Iowa; while there, he had 52 Ks in 112 IP.
  • Former Dodgers prospect Joel Hanrahan, who posted a combined 11-5, 3.57 ERA in minors, with 78 walks in 144 innings.

To add to this, the Nationals signed 11 other pitchers to minor league deals in November of last year. As Stan Kasten said, “We head the list of teams that need pitching.”

Can the Bullpen Hold Up?: In the rebuilding process, the club looks to the bullpen as a strong piece to the puzzle. How the bullpen functions will be directly tied to the durability and innings that the Nationals get out of the starting rotation. Luis Ayala is taking his first pitches off the mound since blowing out his elbow while pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, and therefore missed all of last season with the Nationals. They need him to bounce back to his pre-injury numbers from 2005, when he went 8-7 in 68 games, posting a 2.66 ERA.

Ayala will be joined by 22-year-old RHP Emiliano Fruto. Fruto comes over from the Mariners as part of the Jose Vidro trade. Fruto went 2-2 with a 5.50 ERA in 23 appearances for the Mariners as a rookie last season, and has high upside with PECOTA giving him a 59% Improve Rate, and 37% Breakout Rate.

Add in Jon Rauch, Ryan Wagner, Saul Rivera, veteran journeyman lefty Ray King, and the closer, Chad Cordero, and you have an interesting group. To get to Cordero, however, you have a situation that get him into the game. A solid bullpen nucleus is there. It’s a question of how stressed the arms are by the All-Star break given the questions around the starting rotation that will make or break the pen.

Moving Vidro Revamps the Middle In-Field and Adds Payroll Flexibility: As part of the rebuilding process, the Nationals have shed contracts that will give them flexibility in the future, while stocking up on prospects. As an example, the Nationals dealt Jose Vidro to the Mariners, picking up Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto. But as part of the deal, Bowden got Bill Bavasi and the Mariners to agree to pick up $12 million of the remaining $16 million on Vidro’s contract for 2007 and ’08. Snelling could add grit to the lineup, but can he stay in it? In 2000 he broke his hand, in 2001 it was his ankle, and in 2002 it was a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee; ditto that in 2005. Knee surgeries? Seven. Snelling split his time between Triple-A Tacoma and the Mariners last season, hitting .250 with three homers in 96 at-bats.

Snelling’s laundry list of injuries aside, by moving Vidro, the Nats rid themselves of one middle infielder too many. Since the Nationals already had Felipe Lopez and Cristian Guzman under contractual, they were willing to move Vidro. Now, Lopez seems to be in a position to move to second, with Guzman becoming the regular shortstop after missing the 2006 seaosn with a shoulder injury suffered in May of last season.

With Guzman, the Nationals need him to be the past semi-useful Twins‘ version, not the guy the Nationals saw, where his numbers slip nearly across the board in 2005. As insurance, the Nationals added 31-year-old veteran Ronnie Belliard to the mix by offering him a minor league contract that will pay him $750,000 if he makes the major league roster.

In the role of “Trader Jim,” Bowden gets high marks for moving Vidro, not only for moving a piece that many knew the Nationals were looking to part with, but because they got the Mariners to pick up the bulk of the contract. That gives the Nationals payroll flexibility for the future.

Giving the Nationals the Once-Over: Between the loss of Alfonso Soriano to free agency and Nick Johnson’s delayed return from the DL, the Nationals find themselves looking for offense. Given the fact that offensively they were thin to begin with, the team will have to hit on all cylinders to be more than a doormat this coming season.

Manny Acta has decided to go with Nook Logan in center field over Ryan Church, a move that seems to point to Acta looking for speed in favor of more power, as Church’s range to the gaps isn’t the best. With Logan in center, Church moves into left, where he will compete with the likes of Kory Casto, and possibly Alex Escobar once he rebounds from a dislocated shoulder. Church will have to help his cause offensively to lock himself in. While he did improve last season (.276/.366/.566), Church has been streaky.

The addition of Austin Kearns last season was a plus for the Nationals, although his post-trade numbers dipped. Along with Kearns, Ryan Zimmerman will be looked upon to help provide a solid helping of run support. Zimmerman will be only 22 years old this season, and PECOTA gives him a solid projection. He’s got all the hallmarks of a great player, and the Nationals will need him to become that player if they want the team to be respectable, let alone have a shot at the World Series.

What’s the Recipe For a Nationals World Series Win?: Suspend disbelief, and envision the NL East standings upside down. See Patterson staying healthy, Zimmerman being an All-Star, Nick Johnson miraculously back in perfect health, and the collection of prospects performing beyond what anyone predicted. Then, envision Frank Howard discovering the Fountain of Youth, and séance bringing Walter Johnson back from the grave. The words, “The Washington Nationals, your 2007 World Series Champions” coming across the airwaves? Nationals fans, best to just keep Hope and Faith, come what may.

Will talks with Maury about Washington’s chances in the Nationals Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3
(4.1 MB)

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