Unless general manager Mike Rizzo has a behind-the-scenes deal or two still in the works, the 25 players that will make up the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day roster are currently under contract.
Last season, there was so much uncertainty that spring training found question marks at catcher and first base (injuries) as well as second, center, and right field (inexperience, overpopulation, and poor play).
And only John Lannan and Scott Olsen seemed set in the starting rotation.
All that uncertainty led to a second consecutive 100 loss season, a fired manager, and an overhaul of the team’s 40-man roster.
In just eight days, pitchers and catchers will renew baseball’s rights of spring. Jim Riggleman will then have about six weeks to find the team’s best 25 players before the team comes north.
Over the past three seasons, many of the roster spots were fought over by too-young prospects and too-old veterans. All too often, players who made the team were thought to have retired long ago. “Gee, didn’t Carlos Baerga retire a decade ago?” we would ask.
And yet there he was, jogging to first on what should have been a sure double.
But times have finally changed.
Of the fourteen position players who will come north with the team, all the starters—and all but one or two of the reserves—already have their tickets punched.
With the exception of one or two spots, the bullpen is complete. And for all the questions surrounding the back of the starting rotation, we know which players will likely fill those slots.
Here is my prediction for the Nationals’ starting lineup and their offensive production:
CF—Nyjer Morgan (.288—4—51, 50 steals)
SS—Cristian Guzman (.277—6—58)
3B—Ryan Zimmerman (.310—35—122)
1B—Adam Dunn (.260—40—100)
RF—Elijah Dukes* (.277—25—90, 20 steals)
LF—Josh Willingham (.264—24—70)
C—Pudge Rodriguez, Jesus Flores (.270—15—60)
2B—Adam Kennedy (.275—8—55, 20 steals)
Elijah Dukes is the only question mark among the starters. He has the talent to hit .300-35-120, but has yet to show the desire to do it. He could just as easily hit .255-14-61. But I think Dukes really wants to succeed, and he just might be ready for that breakthrough season.
To begin the year, the Nationals will probably carry 14 position players and 11 pitchers on their roster. I’ve counted both Jesus Flores and “Pudge” Rodriguez as starters, so five reserve spots remain available.
Willie Harris (.235-7-27) is guaranteed a job. He is fast, reliable, and last season played six different positions. In case of injury, Harris can fill in short-term with minimal drop-off in production.
You know a team is getting better when starters become utility players. Alberto Gonzalez, who started 71 games last season, did pretty well overall, batting .265-1-33 with a .995 fielding percentage.
His .650 OPS, though, was pretty bad, but that number (and his .299 on-base percentage) is less important in a reserve player. He’ll make a strong bench even stronger. He can play second, short, and third.
Though Mike Morse played in only 32 games with the Nationals last year, his bat—and his versatility—impressed throughout the month of September.
Obtained in a midseason trade with the Mariners, Morse has a career .293-6-47 mark in 352 major league at-bats along with a solid .355 on-base percentage. He can offer days off for both Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn while keeping a potent bat in the lineup. He can also play both corner outfield positions.
Chris Duncan and Kevin Mench will both be given the opportunity to be the team’s fourth outfielder and power pinch hitter.
Duncan hit 43 home runs in 2006 and 2007 for the Cardinals, but injuries have limited his effectiveness since. He does not hit left-handers very well but has always succeeded against righties, hitting .270/.376/.485 over his career with a home run every 18.1 at-bats.
Mench has averaged 21 homers per year over a 162-game season. A right-hander, Mench dominates lefties, hitting .300/.358/.542 with a home run every 18.5 at-bats against them.
One of them will almost certainly make the team as the fourth outfielder, providing a strong bat off the bench. My guess is it will be Duncan, who provides a left-handed bat and is a much better pinch-hitter than Mench (.267/.389/.373 vs .150/.215/.283).
The Nationals will need to find one more bench player and it will likely come from a group that includes Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina, Eric Bruntlett, Ian Desmond, and Pete Orr.
However, I doubt that the Nationals will stunt the growth of Maxwell and Desmond by forcing them onto the major league bench. Of the remaining players, I suspect Bernadina would have the inside track.
For the first time in recent memory, the bullpen might actually have more quality arms than positions to fill:
Matt Capps (4-8, 5.80, 27 saves)
Brian Bruney (5-0, 3.92)
Sean Burnett (2-3, 3.12)
Tyler Clippard (4-2, 2.69)
Tyler Walker (2-1, 3.06)
That leaves one spot available for Jason Bergman (2-4, 4.50), Miguel Batista (7-4, 4.04), and Eddie Guardado (1-2, 4.46).
I think Bergman will win that battle.
This bullpen should provide the Nationals with their best relief corps since they first came to Washington in 2005. While there are no stars, neither are there any weak links. Any of those pitchers have the talent and history to take the mound and end a rally.
Perhaps the biggest question mark lies in the starting rotation, though the uncertainty isn’t as overwhelming as some suggest. The only two pitchers guaranteed a spot are fellow New Yorker’s John Lannan and Jason Marquis. If healthy, Scott Olsen will most certainly be in the rotation.
My predictions for 2010:
John Lannan (13-11, 3.77)
Jason Marquis (13-10, 4.01)
Scott Olsen (10-11, 4.23)
The last two spots in the rotation will be filled by whoever has the best spring among Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin, and Craig Stammen.
Jim Riggleman has suggested that Garrett Mock has a chance to earn a spot in the rotation, but the team is no longer able to carry a 3-10 pitcher in their rotation. He has to prove himself before being given another chance.
Martin (5-4, 4.44) didn’t pitch well in his first four starts with the Nationals but got better as he gained experience. In his final 11 starts, Martin went 5-2, 3.71, .264/.330/.445.
His 2009 season certainly earned him the opportunity to again vie for a spot in the rotation.
Stammen (4-7, 5.11) pitched well until elbow pain took a toll on his performance. Prior to July 22nd—when he first admitted having elbow problems—Stammen had a record of 3-5, 3.99, .261/.305/.398 (yes, a .305 on-base percentage!).
His offseason surgery went well and Stammen says he is 100 percent heading into spring training.
Ross Detwiler looked like another failed prospect when he was sent back down to Syracuse last July. His 0-5 record with a 5.00 ERA was terrible.
But when he returned to Washington in September, he returned to his old college delivery and thrived.
In five starts, Detwiler was 1-0, 1.90, .220/.319/.268.
If Detwiler had pitched that well all last season, he would be the team’s fourth starter in 2010. But he is still young, inexperienced, and the Nationals need to know that the September sensation was the real Ross Detwiler. He’ll start the year at Syracuse and wait for someone to falter.
So here is the entire rotation along with their accompanying projected statistics:
John Lannan (13-11, 3.77)
Jason Marquis (13-10, 4.01)
Scott Olsen (10-11, 4.23)
Craig Stammen (10-12, 4.08)
J.D. Martin (8-12, 4.11)
Of course, there is little chance that the Nationals’ rotation will end the season the way it started. Stephen Strasburg will join the team sometime in June. And Ross Detwiler, assuming he keeps pitching well, might be promoted by late July.
If Scott Olsen is pitching well, he will probably be the first to be replaced, partly because he will be a free agent next season and partly because he would have more trade value than either Stammen or Martin.
And let’s not forget Drew Storen, who was the Nationals’ best minor league pitcher last summer. At some point, he will join the bullpen—perhaps as a setup man—until he’s ready to become the team’s closer.
Long before spring competition begins, the Nationals’ roster seems set in 21 of the 25 spots. A reserve fielder, a relief pitcher, and two starting pitchers are the only positions that are not all but nailed down.
Sure, there could be some surprises in store, but they would be for the most part superficial in nature. One so-so relief pitcher is replaced by another. Eddy Guardado replaces Jason Bergman.
As things stand, the Nationals will be a much better team than in previous years, but they won’t be good enough to break the .500 barrier. While many of the new players are upgrades, they are “nice” players with limited upside.
Mat Capps isn’t going to save 50 games.
Adam Kennedy can’t slug 30 home runs.
They are what they are.
If the Nationals remain healthy in 2010, they can win 75 games. If the youngsters continue to improve and Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen can make an impact, they can nudge right up to—but not exceed—that magical 81st victory.
And that’s okay. For Nationals’ fans, 81 wins would be tantamount to a championship season.
Baby steps. Nothing wrong with baby steps.