Washington Nationals Can Be Good, But It All Centers on Josh Willingham

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Washington Nationals Can Be Good, But It All Centers on Josh Willingham
(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

T-minus 13 days to Opening Day for the Washington Nationals.

Many of the team's questions have been answered while others remained bubble-wrapped with uncertainty. What's good and what's not?

Let's take a look.

The starting rotation, which has been abysmal since the team first moved to Washington in 2005, has the potential to be somewhere between major league average to slightly above.

Though no official announcement-maybe pronouncement is a better word-has been made, I think that barring any late spring trades, this will be your starting rotation:

1-John Lannan
2-Scott Olsen
3-Daniel Cabrera
4-Jordan Zimmermann
5-Shairon Martis

Three of them, Lannan, Zimmermann and Martis, have been outstanding this spring. Lannan has yet to give up a run in 12 spring training innings (15 if you count his exhibition stint against Italy) and is certainly their ace.

Zimmermann was pounded for five runs in his last outing against the Cardinals, yet still has a 3.14 ERA this spring (and don't forget he spent the previous day barfing all over the clubhouse).

And though Martis was given an opportunity to win a starting spot this spring, no one really thought he would. It was assumed that Colin Balester would grab that last spot, but he has fooled no one this spring and currently has a 7.80 ERA.

Martis, on the other hand, has a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings. He's young and not as polished (or as talented) as Zimmermann, but he looks like he can get the job done.

How might they do in 2009?

This is how I see them performing, assuming they remain healthy all year:

1-John Lannan: 14-11, 3.50
2-Scott Olsen: 13-11, 4.20
3-Daniel Cabrera: 12-12, 4.50
4-Jordan Zimmermann: 11-10, 3.65
5-Shairon Martis: 10-12, 4.60

That's a total of 60 wins. The typical bullpen wins roughly 25 wins in a season, so the Nationals could end the season 85-77, plus or minus seven games.

Of course, injuries, and rookie starters pitching like rookie starters, could drop that win total down into the low to mid 70's.

Infield

1B: Nick Johnson
2B: Anderson Hernandez
SS: Christian Guzman
3B: Ryan Zimmerman

I am deeply disappointed that Manny Acta and Mike Rizzo have chosen to play Nick Johnson at first and Adam Dunn in left (though to be fair, Dunn looked horrible at first during the WBC).

Johnson is a free agent after this season, and there is no way he team will resign him. Even if he remains healthy (something I seriously doubt), he's a one-year rental player, not what a team that is building for the future needs.

I keep placing Ronnie Belliard ahead of Hernandez, but I'm beginning to believe in the kid. He began his career with the Mets going 11-84 before being traded to the Nationals for Luis Ayala.

He batted a surprising .333 with a .497 on-base percentage last year for the Nationals and this spring is at .308 with a .400 OBP. I keep waiting for him to fail but he keeps on hitting.

Perhaps the kid is for real.

Cristian Guzman, fresh off his .316 batting average last year and a two-year contract extension, is a lock at short. Ryan Zimmerman will begin winning Gold Gloves any time now and offensively has averaged .283-21-93 in his four seasons with Washington (based on a 162-game season).

This is how the infield should look offensively:

1B-Nick Johnson: .260-20-80
2B-Anderson Hernandez: .265-0-45
SS-Cristian Guzman: .275-9-55
3B-Ryan Zimmerman: .290-28-120

There are two many questions on the right side of the infield for a team hoping to bolt towards respectability.

 

Outfield

Where do I begin?

The Nationals currently have six outfielders who have been starters in the past two years. From what Manny Acta has said, here is your starting outfield:

LF-Adam Dunn
CF-Lastings Milledge
RF-Elijah Dukes

No question that's a solid outfield, but there are too many spare parts left over. You could create a second outfield with Josh Willingham, Willie Harris and Austin Kearns, and still have Wily Mo Pena coming off the bench.

Had Jim Bowden not been forced to resign, I think this logjam would have been traded away. But Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten are adamant about their willingness to start the season with all of them on the roster.

The best Nationals' team would have Adam Dunn at first and Josh Willingham in left but unless Nick Johnson gets injured or traded, it's just not going to happen. Willingham is too good to stay on the bench and won't get nearly enough at-bats as the team's 4th outfielder.

Here is my prediction for the outfield as currently constituted:

LF-Adam Dunn: .245-40-100
CF-Lastings Milledge: .275-20-60, 30 steals
RF-Elijah Dukes: .290-26-90, 30 steals

Regardless of how good those three can be, the outfield would be far better with Willingham in left.

 

Catcher

Jesus Flores has the potential to be a solid if unspectacular major league catcher. He's slated to catch 120 games a year, and will probably hit somewhere near .270-12-60 or so.

 

Prediction

The Washington Nationals are on the verge of rising from the abyss of baseball squalor and have a .500 record in their sights. Getting there will require a relative injury-free year and seeing the kids continue to mature.

Can they do better? They can if they play Adam Dunn at first and Josh Willingham in left. That will increase the quality of the outfield defense (though admittedly it will do the opposite at first).

Lastings Milledge has the range-but not the ability-to cover that left-center field area that will become a Bermuda Triangle, a no-man's land because Dunn simply can't reach balls hit there.

On a scale of 1-100, I'd say the starting pitching rates an 80, the infield a 75 and the outfield an 85. I'm not going to rate the bullpen because for the life of me I can't guess who will make the team at this point.

If Mike Rizzo fixes the problems in the outfield, and trades Nick Johnson, I think the team will really surprise. If the team goes into the season with the team as is, they'll be respectable.

And really, respectable will be enough for Nationals' fans.

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