2008: 59-102 (5th NL East, 32.5 games back)
These guys are where the Rays were three or four years ago – not very good and ready to begin turning things around. Moving into a new stadium, and a beautiful one at that, is a good start. Now, they need to assemble some talent. Whomever takes over for the embattled (and not very successful) Jim Bowden has to start putting quality players on the team.
Looking Back on 2008
The Nationals were undefeated in March, and so ends the positive statement. After a third win, Washington lost nine in a row, fell to 5 – 15, and proceeded to look up at the rest of the division for the remainder of the year. In only two months did the team win at least ten games, and in July, they only won five games.
Looking at some of the splits, the pitching staff – especially the starters – looked worse and worse as the months rolled on. ERAs started in the mid-fours in April, finishing near five in September. Oddly, the best pitching came in July, but the offense took that month off. On the whole, the team scored just 641 runs, only four more than the last place Padres, and allowed 825 runs, which was second worst in the National League (only the lowly Pirates were worse, but they were much worse).
Tell me about that offense
Obviously the lack of run production is problematic across the board and yet there were some decent hitters.
Jesus Flores and Wil Nieves were below average hitters, but a vast improvement on playing Paul LoDuca and Johnny Estrada, who both chose 2008 as the year each stopped hitting altogether. Both LoDuca and Estrada would be released. Flores isn’t horrible. He has some power, and his batting average isn’t a loss. He just doesn’t do much else – fifteen walks, for example, in about 320 plate appearances. The good news? Flores is just 24, so he has room for growth.
Four players served at least 200 innings at first base, and it would be nice to get a full season from somebody. Nick Johnson would be the best candidate, but he hasn’t played a full season since 2006. Last year, a wrist injury ended his season in May. Dmitri Young is the world’s biggest singles hitter, but could play a full season and produce runs. Instead, he was the first option off the bench. Ronnie Belliard is a decent hitter with some power and discipline – but Belliard isn’t treated like he should be a regular and his defense is slipping. Plus, Belliard had to back up Ryan Zimmerman when Zimmerman went down with injuries. So Aaron Boone got the most innings there, and he was the worst hitter of the group. If Nick Johnson could just give Washington the season he had in 2006, the Nationals would improve immediately.
Moving around the horn, Christian Guzman found the magic again, batting .316 and hitting enough doubles to produce nearly 90 runs of offense. However, Felipe Lopez didn’t produce at all – just 31 runs in over 300 at bats. His fielding isn’t that much better than Belliard’s, so to keep Belliard on the bench made no sense. Ryan Zimmerman missed time with shoulder and hand injuries, which kept his offensive numbers down (14 homers, 51 RBI), but he still produced at an above average clip. Belliard filled in the most when Zimmerman was out and was okay.
An infield of Johnson, Belliard, Guzman, and Zimmerman would include four above average bats if they could just get penciled in the lineup and play 28 games a month together.
Moving to the outfield, Lastings Milledge was the only true regular, and he was barely average as a hitter. He had medium power, a little speed, and a slightly above par batting average and on base percentage. There’s room for growth, but the Nationals need it to start happening soon. Elijah Dukes rewarded his team for giving him another chance – in part time play he looked like he might be a future run producer. Willie Harris spent a lot of time in left field – he’s an okay hitter, but his glove keeps him on the roster. Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, and others put in a lot of innings, but didn’t put any runs on the board.
What was missing from this team was a real bopper. The leading power threat hit 14 homers, though Dukes could have hit more than 20 in a full season and Zimmerman would without injuries. While there are a couple of nice pieces, there is no one player who dominates the other team’s pitching from night to night.
Looking at the Nationals as a whole, the team was below average in terms of range – and with many, many people on base, the middle infielders didn’t do as good a job turning two as they should have. The young outfielders may have the fresh wheels, but don’t cover as much ground as you might expect, and the catching couldn’t stop the running game. So, there is plenty of room for improvement here.
It would help if Nick Johnson could play first base, keeping Boone and Young off the bag. Boone is miserable; he cost the team about 13 runs out there. Young is tolerably bad, but you wouldn’t want him out there all year, and Belliard looked like he was still learning what to do over there. Lopez has average range but was error prone and not very good turning two. Belliard at second was steadier, but has below average range at this point in his career. Fortunately, Zimmerman remains the best fielder in the National League at third base, and Guzman showed good range, even if his DP and error numbers were below average.
Milledge looked out of place in center – his range is poor and he makes mistakes. Dukes and Kearns were merely average in right, but Willie Harris and Wily Mo Pena both played well in left. So, the net result was about average in the outfield. The biggest thing is settling on a regular and moving on from there.
Behind the plate, Flores and Nieves couldn’t stop the run, showed poor mobility, and made too many mistakes. As Flores gets more time behind the plate, this should improve, but for now it’s a weakness.
The top three National starters all made at least 30 starts, adding a little stability to the team. The ace was John Lannon, a rookie who was slightly above average as a pitcher, and was stuck with a 9 – 15 record because he played for a 102 loss team. Behind him was Odalis Perez, who somehow survived and turned in a season that was slightly below average. However, you don’t want your #2 starter to be five runs below average over 160 innings. Tim Redding led the team in starts and innings, but gave up 27 homers leading to an ERA approaching five – about sixteen runs below average. The rest of the starters, from Jay Bergmann and Collin Balester to Shawn Hill and Matt Chico were scary bad.
The bullpen was tolerably good, despite having Chad Cordero injured and finding out he wouldn’t be back with the team in May. Cordero, upon hearing Bowden’s proclamation, vowed never to play for the Nationals again – and won’t. Jon Rauch led the team in saves with 17 and was the staff ace before being traded to Arizona, while Joel Hanrahan and Steven Shell were decent alternatives. Saul Rivera was okay, Jesus Colome is a good long reliver, and only Luis Ayala was truly below average. The bullpen ERA of 4.13 was miles ahead of the starters (4.97).
Let’s start with the facts. The Nationals scored 184 runs fewer than they allowed, so just to get to .500, they have to erase a pretty large deficit. To do this, they needed to add a legitimate hitter, sort through their outfield options, and add two or three solid starters to the mix. So, Jim Bowden traded for Scott Olsen and acquired Daniel Cabrera. He added Josh Willingham and signed Adam Dunn. They brought in a few Non-Roster invites like Corey Patterson to see if they couldn’t get some additional options. So – let’s see how it adds up.
Dunn helps with the offense immediately. In fact, having Dunn and a full season of Elijah Dukes, plus a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson would go a long way to adding a bunch of runs to the offense. Replacing Willie Harris with Adam Dunn adds 25 runs to the offense right there. Moving Dukes to right field instead of playing Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena would be another 25 run improvement. Granted, there’s probably a ten to fifteen run drop off in playing Dunn in left compared to Harris, but you’d make the trade to get Dunn’s bat in the lineup. A full year of Zimmerman, especially a healthy one, is worth another twenty five or more runs. I’d play Belliard at second all year as none of the other options is likely to hit that well. That would be worth another ten extra runs. If Lastings Milledge and Jesus Flores improve by ten runs each, we’re talking about the Nationals moving from 640 runs to 740 runs or so – which is at least a league average offense.
Defensively, playing Dunn (or, God forbid, Willingham) isn’t going to help the team. Milledge has to improve in center or look to be replaced. The defense isn’t going to be better with Dukes, Milledge and Dunn out there all year, and it’s probably going to be ten runs worse even if Nick Johnson plays 140 games. At least Belliard will help in reducing errors and turning double plays.
The rotation retains Lannon, who needs to step up if he wants to be at true ace. Replacing Perez with Olson is a wash unless Olson makes a step forward this year. At least he’s always been pretty healthy. Replacing Tim Redding with Daniel Cabrera is also a wash unless Cabrera finds his fastball again (it waned as the season concluded) and starts striking people out. That’s a lot of ifs – and only one of the three will likely happen. Improvement has to come from the bottom of the rotation. Shawn Hill has to live up to his potential – and stay healthy for at least 25 starts. If he does, he will be a 20 run improvement over any 4th or 5th starter last year. Hill, however, hasn’t made more than sixteen starts in a season. Hope springs eternal, I guess. I don’t see who the fifth starter will be. Perhaps Garrett Mock, who had a decent run in AAA and was okay as a long reliever and spot starter last year, can win the job. If they can find someone who is close to league average, there’s room for improvement. If not, the Nationals rotation will be stuck between a Mock and a hard place. (Hey guys, Paul Byrd is still available as a free agent, though he’s getting old now… He’d be okay as a fifth starter option.)
The bullpen remains young and generally unproven and it’s hard to project them as being significantly better than last year. Let’s call it a wash for argument’s sake. The optimist says that the overall defensive package might be 15 runs better than last year (25 for the improved fourth and fifth starters, but losing ten because Adam Dunn will be in left). The Nationals will be improved some, but not enough, and mostly because they need starting pitching. With a league average offense and poor pitching, this translates to about 74 wins. Personally, I think it’ll be just shy of that, 72 – 90, because the NL East is pretty strong. It’s an improvement, but there’s only one direction for a 102 loss team to go.
Down on the Farm…
The Nationals moved the AAA franchise from Columbus to Syracuse for 2009. One player who stood out in Columbus last year was centerfielder Roger Bernadina, a burner who found his bat last year hitting about .320 or better in two levels with 41 combined stolen bases. If I were Lastings Milledge, I’d be nervous. My take is that he’ll be no better than Willie Harris – but he’d be cheaper. Other than the players who shuttled back and forth last year, the lone pitcher who stood out was Michael O’Connor, who had a 2.17 ERA for Columbus, with a 70 to 17 K/W ratio in about 100 innings of work.
Jordan Zimmermann was the best player at AA Harrisburg last year. Zimmermann finished 7 – 2 in 20 starts with 103 strikeouts in 106.2 innings. No hitters (other than Bernadina) stood out. Moving down to High A Potomac, third baseman Leonard Davis pounded the ball at a .332 clip, with 14 homers in little more than 200 at bats. He may have to move to first base, but no one would complain if he kept improving. After a quick trip at Harrisburg, Davis was moved to AAA but wasn’t ready. One assumes he’ll start the year at AA or AAA this year and see what happens.
Craig Stammen pitched well at Potomac and moved up to Harrisburg where he continued to pitch well. However, the Dayton Flyer was overmatched at Columbus and will likely start the year there. 20-year-old Jacob Smolinski was solid at Vermont and Hagerstown (A), and will be with the Nationals replacing Ronnie Belliard at second base by 2011 if not in 2010.