2008 MLB Preview: Washington Nationals
Manager: Manny Acta
Arrivals: RP Rob Bell, 3B Aaron Boone, SP Tyler Clippard, OF Elijiah Dukes, C Johnny Estrada, OF Willie Harris, C Paul Lo Duca, OF Rob Mackowiak, OF Lastings Milledge, IF Pete Orr, SP Odalis Perez
Departures: RP Jonathan Albaladejo, RP Micah Bowie, OF Ryan Church, C Brian Schneider
Offseason grade: D
The Nationals needed to improve a starting rotation that only had one pitcher start more than 30 games in 2007 (Matt Chico). So what did they do? They only added one starter in the offseason in Tyler Clippard, who may not even crack Washington's rotation.
Chico should improve in his second MLB season, but after him, the Nationals rotation is full of question marks. John Patterson hasn't been healthy since he went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 2005 and, although he claims to be healthy, the Nationals shouldn't rely on him to be in their rotation for the whole year.
Jason Bergmann and Shawn Hill could also show improvement in their first full MLB seasons, but that's the key–neither Bergmann or Hill have thrown over 100 innings in a season in their respective careers. It'll be interesting to see how they hold up into August and September when their innings start to pile up.
After those four (who, in all honesty, are no guarantees to make the rotation in the first place), the Nationals have Odalis Perez, John Lannan, Tim Redding, Clippard, and Garrett Mock competing for the final rotation spot.
The Nationals aren't going to compete this year, so they should focus on developing the young pitchers they have in Bergmann, Hill, Chico, Lannan, Clippard, and/or Mock.
Patterson is 30 and extremely injury-prone and Redding, also 30, likely won't be a factor down the road for the Nationals. Either way, the Nationals rotation likely will struggle mightily this season, but it will be interesting to see how the younger pitchers perform.
Starting rotation grade: D+
Manny Acta has a stud closer in Chad Cordero and some quality arms behind him in Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, and Chris Schroder. None in that group posted an ERA above 4.00 in 2007, but remember, bullpens are fickle.
This is bullpen that could get heavily overused early in the year if the Nationals' rotation falters. Rauch, a former starter, could be a good innings-eater out of the bullpen, but he's much better suited in a late-inning setup role.
The final spot in Washington's bullpen should, theoretically, be filled by somebody who can eat up innings so the setup men and middle relievers don't get taxed. That could be somebody who missed out on the rotation like Joel Hanharan or the infamous Mike Bascik, who gave up Barry Bonds' 756th* home run.
This is a pretty solid bullpen, but it's also a group that likely will get overworked because of the poor rotation.
Bullpen grade: B+
Washington's lineup is an interesting mix of young talent and aging has-beens who somehow put up decent seasons in 2007 (yes, I'm looking at you, Dmitri Young).
Despite a dip in his numbers from 2006 to 2007, Ryan Zimmerman is still someone to be excited about for Nationals fans, and if Lastings Milledge realizes the potential he's been said to have, that tandem could be lethal down the road.
Overall, the lineup isn't god-awful, but it still is pretty unimpressive. Why Nick Johnson isn't starting over Young is beyond me and most baseball analysts. Young has value with a team that needs him, but the Nationals simply don't need him when they have the younger Johnson behind him.
Elijiah Dukes is a guy to watch out for this spring. Dukes has incredible talent but clashed with the [Devil] Rays' management and made the brilliant decision to send a picture message of a gun to his girlfriend. If Dukes can get himself under control, he could be a really good pickup for the Nationals.
One final note on the Nationals lineup—they have three catchers who could start in the majors in Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, and Jesus Flores. Both Lo Duca and Estrada are established pros who fell off the face of the earth this offseason. Unless I'm missing something with their ability to call a game, I wouldn't mind having a catcher who hit .272 or .278, respectively.
Flores is the catcher of the future for Washington and should start the year at AAA, but Washington really should consider getting him some MLB experience around the halfway point of the season.
Lineup grade: C
The Nationals' biggest strength may actually be their bench. Both Rob Mackowiak and Willie Harris can play both the infield and outfield and provide some hitting, speed, but most importantly, baseball smarts off the bench.
Dukes wouldn't be a horrible backup outfielder and Felipe Lopez is a solid reserve middle infielder. Either Lo Duca or Estrada give the Nationals a very good backup catcher and Aaron Boone adds yet another good bat to Washington's bench.
Bench grade: A
A new ballpark doesn't seem to signal a new era in Washington baseball. The starting rotation will struggle and the lineup is mediocre, and this team has a long, long way to go before they can even think about competing in the NL East.
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