The Washington Nationals lost 102 games last season, so it would stand to figure that they would have plenty of question marks heading into the new season.
So with less than two weeks before spring training, let's take a look at the five biggest questions facing the team that finished last in all of baseball last season.
1. Will Nick Johnson be healthy enough to play first base this season?
When healthy, Johnson is a quality offensive player, a terrific defender, and a calming veteran presence in one of the youngest clubhouses in the game. In seven seasons, Johnson has a .396 on-base percentage and OPS+ of 125.
So what's the problem? In those seven seasons he has only played 637 games, an average of 91 games per season. Last season was no exception, as Johnson had just 109 at bats as his season ended early with a torn wrist tendon sheath. According to the team, he is hitting off a tee and expected to be ready for spring training, but he still has not faced live hitting in his rehab.
The bigger question about Johnson is whether the laundry list of injuries he has had over the years have reduced his capacity for quality play. He missed all of 2007 recovering from a gruesome broken femur, sustained when he collided with right fielder Austin Kearns while tracking down a pop up at the end of 2006. He ran with a noticeable limp last season early on before the wrist injury.
2. How will they line up in the outfield?
The Nationals made it no secret during the off-season that they were not happy with Lasting Milledge's defensive performance last season. Milledge, in a fan Q&A last year, admitted in public that he can't pick up the ball until it raises above the stands behind home plate. Not exactly what you want to hear from your center fielder.
Washington's big off-season move was the acquisition of left fielder Josh Willingham (along with left hander Scott Olsen), so you would have to figure he will start there. That leaves two spots to divide between Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, and Willie Harris, who was DC's most effective outfielder last season, combining both offensive and defensive metrics.
Dukes is their biggest power threat, and toward the end of last season started to come into his own. He finished with .264/.386/.478 with 13 homers in 276 at bats. Kearns slumped badly and finished the season on the disabled list with a foot injury, but has 20-homer power. Milledge had 14 homers and 24 stolen bases, leading the squad in both in 2008.
The Nats also have Wily Mo Pena under contract returning from injury, young fleet-footed Roger Bernadina, and their minor league player of the year Leonard Davis all in camp trying to win a spot.
3. Who starts?
John Lannan was named to the NL all-rookie team and the aforementioned Scott Olsen must be considered locks to break camp in the rotation. After that? All question marks.
Washington signed Daniel Cabrera away from the Baltimore Orioles and have him penciled in, but Cabrera's numbers are going backwards. His K/9, K/BB, BB/9 and HBPs are all going in the wrong direction, while his fastball has lost a notch each of the last two seasons. The O's shut him down in September, so one has to wonder if he was fighting injury all season, causing the drop in velocity.
Shawn Hill has a devastating sinker and four major league pitches, but has only been able to make 16 and 12 starts the last two seasons due to injury. The rest of the candidates? Collin Balestar (5.51 ERA in 80.0 IP), Shairon Martis (5.66 in five starts), Garrett Mock (4.17 in 41.0 IP) and Jason Bergmann (5.09 in 139.2).
It's so bad, the Nats brought in Gustavo Chacin and Josh Towers to compete, and are rushing their top prospect, Jordan Zimmermann, potentially starting his arbitration clock much too soon.
4. Do they sign their star third baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, to a multi-year extension?
Washington and their best player are headed to the arbitration table, never a good thing with young stars. Zim has been the face of the franchise since the Nats made him their first round pick in 2004.
He is a career .282/.341/.462 hitter with 58 homers in three-plus seasons. He had a shoulder injury which robbed him of 56 games last season. But healthy, he is one of the best fielding third basemen in the league with a middle of the order bat. So what to do about the long-term deal?
Zimmerman made $465K last season, and has asked for $3.9 million. The Nats are countering with $2.75 million. Hopefully for all the two sides will see a middle ground.
At the recent "NatsFest", General Manager Jim Bowden said, “We’ve been in negotiations with Ryan Zimmerman’s Agent, Brodie Van Wagonen on a regular basis over the last three years. We continue to do that. There are times that we make some good progress. Then there will be signing or two that takes us back. But we are making progress."
So dialogue is good. But the signings Bowden references, the long-term deals for Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia and Nick Markakis, are starting to form the basis for Zimmerman's contract, and the numbers are in a stratosphere that the current owners have not even thought about, must less approached.
5. Which leaves us to ponder the biggest question: What exactly are the intentions of this ownership group and managerial team?
The Lerner family made their money in real estate and construction and as such, have been sticklers for living up to contracts and, ultimately, the bottom line. But being an owner of a major league baseball team is not always about the bottom line. Will they come to understand that they need to act as more of a public trust?
Team President Stan Kasten is a quality administrator, having run three franchises in three different sports--AT THE SAME TIME--while employed in Atlanta, as well as being the architect of 14 division winners with the Braves.
But all summer rumors were flying about Kasten leaving DC and assuming a leadership role in Toronto. He has dispelled those rumors for now, but how long will he allow himself to be handcuffed by the ownership group's frugality?
Which leads us to the Natosphere's favorite whipping boy, GM Jim Bowden. Bowden has produced one playoff team in his 14 year career as an MLB General Manager. The product in DC has progressively gotten worse each season of his employment in Washington, culminating with the 102 loss season of 2008.
He attended a press conference wearing a dreadlocks wig in Los Angeles, and informed his closer (the injured Chad Cordero) that he would be non-tendered--via a sports talk radio show.
And the worst thing, he failed to sign last year's first round pick, right handed pitcher Aaron Crow. For a team that is trying to sell a plan or building through development, failure to sign a first round pick should be a death sentence. Yet, Bowden remains the Lerner's closest confidante.
To be sure, there are plenty of other question marks associated with a last place team. But the answers to the five questions avobe will go a long way in answering what kind of team the Washington Nationals will be on the filed this upcoming season.