Welcome to Washington, baseball's great American melting pot. We check in with blogger Chris Needham for our annual look at the mixed-bag Nats. [Depth chart]
Beerleaguer: There was a good article last week on the Nationals' Web site about Jim Bowden having success last season acquiring bargain reclamation projects, which is a topic that always interests me. This season appears to be no different, where Brett Boone is trying to make a comeback, Odalis Perez is a non-roster invitee, and Elijah Dukes will be given a second chance despite his sketchy past. What do you expect from this season's scrap pile?
Chris Needham: Of those three, Boone's the one who has the least chance to contribute. The Nats are pretty deep (even if lacking talent) on the infield, so he'd have a tough battle. I'd expect that Perez makes the club out of spring if he doesn't blow up in spring. The team needs some depth with the starting pitching, especially with Shawn Hill's and John Patterson's injury histories. He'll be this year's warm body to mop up some innings, so long as he can keep his ERA under 6! Dukes is definitely interesting. I can't stand the move as a fan, even if I understand it as a purely baseball decision. The guy's got a world of talent. If he can just harness it -- and he'll be given every chance to contribute this year, even if he's likely starting as the 4th outfielder -- the sky's the limit.
Beerleaguer: You said last season that front office officials were quietly bracing for 100 losses, which didn't happen. Why didn't it?
Chris Needham: First, I'm not sure those expectations were quite reasonable. As bad as the pitching looked, it wasn't much better the year before that, and there WAS a lot of talent on the team -- Zimmerman, Kearns, Cordero, Rauch, etc. The biggest reasons why they didn't go down the tank was because Manny Acta leveraged the strengths of the club. He nursed the terrible SP through the barest of contributions, turning the ball over to the mostly excellent bullpen at first chance. The bullpen pitched a ton of innings, quite effectively, keeping the team in a bunch of games where the SP didn't make it out of the 5th. Throw in a surprising season from Dmitri Young, and there was just enough to be bad, not terrible.
Beerleaguer: What was your take on the Lastings Milledge deal?
Chris Needham: Thinking about the trade, even weeks later, still makes me smile. I liked both Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, but neither is truly a championship-caliber player. Schneider took a lot of credit for holding the pitching together, but the amount of credit for that increased as the quality of his bat decreased, and I was always skeptical of that because of that. I'm looking forward to seeing Milledge -- whose biggest offense seems to be cheesing off crotchety old white sportswriters and redneck former Phillies closers -- play and live up to that potential. It's likely that he's going to do as well as Church did, for a fraction of the cost, and with a potential to go beyond that in the future.
Beerleaguer: When talking about the best right-handers in the National League, should Shawn Hill be included in the discussion?
Chris Needham: The Shawn Hill who's already being sent for his yearly forearm MRI? Nope, not yet. When he's healthy, perhaps, but that occurs about as often as an Adam Eaton quality start.
Beerleaguer: How does the rotation shape up?
Chris Needham: I'm not looking at it as a rotation, but a depth chart. They have too many guys with injury problems, or who have questions about their ability to pitch in the majors. The first wave is likely to include Hill, John Patterson, Jason Bergmann, Tim Redding and recently signed Odalis Perez. The second wave likely features Philly's favorite son John Lannan, Matt Chico, Tyler Clippard, Garret Mock and Ross Detwiler. (Rubbing your hands and drooling at the possibilities yet?)
Beerleaguer: Is the bullpen still the Nats’ greatest strength?
Chris Needham: It certainly was last year. Rauch and Saul Rivera have been ironmen. I do wonder, though, if that workload is going to catch up to them one of these days. Chad Cordero seems like he's worn down towards the end in a few of these seasons. But, like the rotation, they have a lot of depth. Unlike the rotation, there's some quality depth. I'd expect Acta to again go to the pen early and often, trying to nurse any lead he can get.
Beerleaguer: What's the situation between Ryan Zimmerman and Nationals regarding a long-term deal?
Chris Needham: The team doesn't like to talk contracts in the public, and the only thing they've said is that they'd consider something like the deal that Troy Tulowitzki just signed. Given that he has much less service time and it's covering an early range of years, that's pretty laughable if that's the offer. It seems like Zimmerman's content to just go year to year, especially with Ryan Howard lugging the market up a notch or two.
Beerleaguer: Can the Nationals count on repeat performances from players like Ronnie Belliard and Dimitri Young, and what should we expect from the rest of the regulars?
Chris Needham: In the case of Belliard and Young, the good thing is that even if they don't, Felipe Lopez and Nick Johnson are there to pick up the slack. I'd probably even give that twosome the early lead in the battles for first and second, respectively.
The team seems to really be eager to give Pena 500 ABs to prove himself. Can hit hit 40 homers? Will he strike out 250 times? Will his on-base be higher than Pedro Feliz's? If you've got a fantasy team, I'd buy low on Kearns. I think he's ready for a breakout. RFK just killed him, and he struggled early in the year with the mechanics of his swing. He was much better in the second half and on the road, and I really think that this is the year he could live up to that potential he's shown in prior years.
Chris Needham is the author of Capitol Punishment, a blog about the Washington Nationals.