Nationals Hoping For a Perfect Storm in 2009

Farid RushdiAnalyst IMarch 13, 2009

It's been a long time since the Washington Nationals have been shown any real respect by the media, though to be fair, they really haven't deserved any.

Halfway through the team's inaugural season in Washington, the Nationals were atop the National League East with a 50-31 record.

Since then, the Nationals have gone 233-333, winning just under 41 percent of their games.

And the post-2008 chatter has been particularly difficult to listen to, as the mocking and smirking is no longer limited to the quality of the team on the field.
Smiley-gate destroyed the team's Dominican program and led to Jim Bowden's forced resignation.

Some reporters have found it difficult to discuss the Washington Nationals without shaking their heads and chuckling under their breath.

But quietly and cautiously, and well under most reporter's radar, the outlook for the Washington Nationals is beginning to change.

Really.

In the last week, there have been many stories written about the team, and while they remain generally cynical and mostly negative, buried deep within the prose are sentences that infer a sense of hope.

One reporter said that the team's offense was not nearly as bad as he thought, saying that "Bowden's desperate moves over the past three years may begin to pay dividends in 2009. A 25-game improvement-to 84 wins-isn't out of the realm of possibility."

Another, who had derided the Nationals' organization just a year ago, told his readers that "Amazingly, the Nationals could field an offense that includes a 40-homer guy (Dunn), two 30-homer men (Zimmerman, Dukes) and two more (Willingham, Milledge) with more than 20 home runs.
"Throw in Ronnie Belliard and Jesus Flores, each capable of hitting 15 homers, and the Nationals could easily go from the worst offensive in the National League to the top third in the league."

Are the Nationals that much better than they have been? Let's take at the National League East position players and see how the Beltway Boys compare. The rankings by position are subjective but I think they are very accurate:

 

First Base

1. Ryan Howard

2. Adam Dunn

3. Carlos Delgado
4. Casey Kotchman
5. Gaby Sanchez

Dunn is clearly the class of every first baseman not named Ryan Howard. Delgado has had a brilliant career but he's 37 and time is slowly catching up with him.

Casey Kotchman is what he is, a serviceable first baseman who's not going to get any better. And Gaby Sanchez, though impressive as a minor leaguer, has just eight major league at-bats.

 

Second Base

1. Chase Utley

2. Dan Uggla
3. Kelly Johnson
4. Ronnie Belliard
5. Luis Castillo

There aren't any better second baseman in the National League than Utley and Uggla. Kelly Johnson, just 26, has averaged .265-16-75 in his young career. Luis Castillo, though a career .292 hitter, has gotten old quickly and at 32, is pretty much an afterthought.

Ronnie Belliard is a solid-hitting, slightly above average second baseman, and I'm glad to have him.

 

Shortstop

1. Hanley Ramirez

2. Jimmy Rollins
3. Jose Reyes
4. Yunel Escobar
5. Cristian Guzman

Wow. Christian Guzman hit .316 last year and he's the worst shortstop in the division. Above him are three superstars and a guy who one day may become a superstar.

 

Third Base

1. David Wright

2. Ryan Zimmerman
3. Chipper Jones
4. Jorge Cantu
5. Pedro Feliz

Though I believe that Ryan Zimmerman will be better than David Wright one day, he's not there yet, and Chipper's age, and poor defense, makes him a distant third on the list.

Jorge Cantu has hit at least 28 homers twice in his career and he's just 26. Feliz isn't much of a third baseman.

 

Catcher

1. Brian McCann

2. Jesus Flores
3. Brian Schneider
4. John Baker
5. Carlos Ruiz

Brian McCann is one of the best catchers in the game and is light-years ahead of Jesus Flores, who has the talent to become an occasional National League All-Star.

Brian Schneider's once shining future has faded in the last two years. Baker is untested and Ruiz is holding the position only until someone else comes along.

 

Left Field

1. Raul Ibanez

2. Garrett Anderson
3. Josh Willingham
4. Jeremy Hermida
5. Daniel Murphy

Though Ibanez and Anderson are both 37, they can still outperform the Nationals' Josh Willingham. Jeremy Hermida might be the best of the lot one day, and Daniel Murphy hadn't been tested enough at the major league level to be rated any higher than 5th.

 

Center Field

1. Carlos Beltran

2. Lastings Milledge
3. Shane Victorino
4. Cameron Maybin
5. Josh Anderson

Because it's been a decade since Carlos Beltran first hit 20 homers and drove in 100 runs, we think of him as being on the downside of his career, but he's just 31. Victorino and Anderson are serviceable but not great players. Lastings Milledge might one day be a .285-25-100, 30 steals kind of player, a Carlos Beltran lite if you will.

 

Right Field

1. Elijah Dukes

2. Jason Werth
3. Cody Ross
4. Ryan Church
5. Jeff Francoeur

Prior to last year, I'd have listed Jeff Francoeur at the best right fielder in the division, but his horrid 2009 makes me wonder if he'll ever rebound. It's very hard, after all, to hit .239 with a .294 on-base percentage. 

Ross is a high strikeout, low OBP guy, and Werth is a decent complimentary player. I've always been a Ryan Church fan, and still believe he could end up hitting .280-25-90 one day, but it's time for him to do it.

The Nationals compare favorably to the bullies in the National League East. No, they are not the Phillies or the Mets, but they are close to being the equal of the Braves and they are certainly better than the once-again stripped down Florida Marlins.

 

How might the Nationals' offense produce in 2009? Here is my early prediction:

1B: Adam Dunn - .250-40-100

2B: Ronnnie Belliard - .275-15-60
SS: Cristian Guzman - .280-8-51
3B: Ryan Zimmerman - .290-28-110
LF: Josh Willingham - .265-24-80
CF: Lastings Milledge - .280-24-85, 30 steals
RF: Elijah Dukes - .290-32-105, 30 steals
C: Jesus Flores - .260-13-60

If the Nationals' pitching, particularly the middle relief, can be just major league average, the Nationals could conceivably win 80-85 wins.

If Daniel Cabrera pitches up to his talent level (something he's never done), and Jordan Zimmermann pitches like a Rookie of the Year candidate, the Nationals could finish (and this is difficult to wrap my mind around) - third in the division, ahead of both the Braves and Marlins.

I'm not saying, mind you. I'm just sayin'....