Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Washington Nationals' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

When the carnage from 2009 is over, I can picture the Washington Nationals' collective body lying in a ditch surrounded by the other fallen National League clubs. As the four qualifiers ride off into the playoff sunset, the Nats' last words will linger over the horror-scape:

A pitcher, a pitcher, my kingdom for a pitcher!

Why is Washington's lack of a rotation so demoralizing? After all, weak starting pitching is pretty much the failing du jour in modern baseball—my beloved San Francisco Giants being a notable exception.

Their failing is more traumatic because the Washington Nationals nee Montreal Expos have assembled a sneaky little lineup that has a substantial amount of latent potency. That potential stands a good chance of becoming kinetic in 2009.

Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Ryan Zimmerman, Wily Mo Pena—these are all four tool players at a minimum. Three of the four are arguable five toolers. And they're all in that 23-28 year window that often sees years of abject misery forgotten in the beat of 162 scintillating games.

Ask Josh Hamilton.

Throw in Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Jesus Flores, a capable bench, and the result is actually pretty impressive. And absolutely useless.

Because the starting pitching is a total void. I sh*t you not—some sites list Daniel Cabrera as the Nats' number two. And they weren't gag sites; ESPN still has some credibility.

Let's run down the roster before I lose the will to do so:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Jesus Flores
First base—Adam Dunn
Second base—Ronnie Belliard/Anderson Hernandez
Third base—Ryan Zimmerman
Shortstop—Christian Guzman
Left field—Josh Willingham
Center field—Lastings Milledge
Right field—Elijah Dukes

Like I said, there's a whole mess of raw ability there. Some of it has made cameos on the field, but most still remains untapped. It remains to be seen if Dunn can last a whole year in the infield, but that's the plan to thin out a crowded outfield situation. Even with Dunn at first, the Nats still have Wily Mo on the bench alongside Austin Kearns and Spring-invitee Corey Patterson.

The Opening Day bench should also feature Nick Johnson, who would be a starter if he could ever remain healthy. Dmitri Young's now old as well as fat—not a good combination for a pro athlete. Still, Washington has some good depth on offense.

Starting pitching

Ace—Scott Olsen (L)
Second spot—John Lannan (L)
Third spot—Daniel Cabrera (R)
Fourth spot—Tyler Clippard (R)
Fifth spot—Colin Balester (R)

Oh my God. That has to be the worst starting rotation in Major League Baseball. It has to be—what would a worse one look like? Olsen—decent pitcher and if he's an ace, then I'm a blue-chip National Football League prospect on the offensive line. Lannan is a promising young arm, even more so considering he's a 24-year-old lefty. But he's not at full capacity yet and that may never be a MLB number two.

The rest of the rotation is a flippin' disaster. Shawn Hill is being examined by the Grim Reaper of baseball medicine—Dr. James Andrews. Clippard gets his spot by default despite his sinking stock. F*** Cabrera, he's killed my fantasy team more times than I care to admit and he'll do the same to the Nats. Balester pitched to a 5.51 earned run average in 2008 and gave up 12 home runs in 80 innings. Ugh.


Closer—Joel Hanrahan (R)
Set-up—Saul Rivera (R)
Set-up—Steven Shell (R)
Set-up—Garrett Mock (R)

This team may very well have the grossest disparity between its pitching and hitting of any Major League squad in 2009.

Seriously, there could be a Lord of the Flies type situation developing in the Washington clubhouse by midseason. We could see a blood-thirsty Elijah Dukes leading Tribe Maple against mild-mannered Scott Olsen and Tribe Rosin. Hopefully, Daniel Cabrera can be Olsen's Piggy and put us all out of our misery.

Unfortunately, Gustavo Chacin is on the Spring roster and he much more looks the part.

All inappropriate allusions to juvenile savagery aside, the Nats really do have something on offense. We all know about Adam Dunn's power and his propensity to fan—he's put up 40+ home runs and 160+ Ks every year since 2003.

And while Dunn will probably never hit for great average (.236 in '08), he walks quite a bit so his on-base percentage is actually very good (.386 in '08). None of that figures to change in 2009.

Josh Willingham is a poor man's Adam Dunn, but reduced expectations and lesser profile might be just the things that allow him to relax. That, in turn, may open the flood gates on his talent (which we've heard is considerable, although the numbers belie such).

Ryan Zimmerman runs a close second to Dunn for offensive importance. If this kid can stay healthy at 24 years of age, a leap seems inevitable. His numbers were steadily progressing until the injury bug bit him last year. It says here a healthy Zimmerman should make a run at 30 bombs, 100+ runs scored, 100+ RBI, and an average around .300 with all the juicy peripherals that come with such core stats.

Christian Guzman will always hit around .300 because of his speed and slap-happy approach.

Ronnie Belliard has a bit more pop than what Anderson Hernandez has shown, but the winner of the second base job won't be critical anyway. And Jesus Flores is another better-than-average offensive catcher that still won't make/break your team.

And then there's the dynamically volatile due of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes.

These guys have some rough edges to be sure, but they also have athleticism oozing out of their ears. Milledge is a year younger at 23 going on 24, yet he has made more progress thus far. In 2008, Milledge turned in a respectable line of a .268 average, 24 doubles, 14 HRs, 65 runs scored, 61 RBI, 24 stolen bases, a .330 OBP, and a .731 OPS. Those are pretty fancy numbers considering the Washington offense was pathetic.

Dukes has a little less polish and a little higher upside. He only saw 276 at-bats due to injury in '08, but he hit .264 with 16 doubles, 13 bombs, 48 runs, 44 RBI, 13 swipes, a .386 OBP, and an .864 OPS. Pretty good from a 24-year-old seeing his first regular duty.

Like I said, there is no limit to their raw ability so 2009 could see a special year from Milledge or Dukes or both.

Hopefully both because that would at least give Washington fans a reason to watch the games. And the reason will have to come from the offense because, echoing sentiments from above, the pitching is BRUTAL.

Not only does the rotation lack a true ace and feature Daniel Cabrera (who apparently refuses to work hard enough to realize his vast natural gifts), the back end is awful and there seems to be no help in sight.

I already mentioned Chacin as another arm in the mix, but he is working his way back from catastrophic arm injury. The rest of the "contenders" are Jason Bergmann (5.09 ERA and 2-11 in '08) and Jorge Sosa (7.06 ERA in '08). Top prospect Ross Detwiler hasn't taken to the pros in the exhibition games and he seems to be in danger of losing his "top prospect" intro.

No wonder Odalis Perez decided not to even show.

The bullpen is a little brighter; primarily because Joel Hanrahan impressed in his audition for the closer role after Jon Rauch departed last season. But Saul Rivera and Steven Shell are both reliable arms for set-up men although they won't burn anyone up. Garrett Mock has merited some good leash as well.

Unfortunately, it just doesn't matter. All the offense and Rolaids in the world won't be enough to compensate for that black hole to start games. You can put a Testarossa chassis and performance treads on a hooptie engine and it'll look like a Ferrari.

It'll still run like a hooptie.

That's what the Nats have done in 2009—dressed up a clunker—and it should be obvious the minute Washington turns the keys.

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