State of the Nationals
September 26, 2005

The Nationals were officially eliminated from the playoff race on Sunday, but on Monday they showed that they still have a desire to prove something this season by going one game above .500 against playoff contending Florida.   The Marlins have been a tough opponent for the Nats this season, winning 9 of the 16 meetings so far and the Phillies come to town with their own playoff aspirations this weekend so a .500 record is far from guaranteed. 

Still, it's nice to see a team play with some urgency, unlike the Padres who seem to have no focus at the moment.  All that stuff I said last week about Bruce Bochy doing a good job of getting the Pads to the playoffs despite all the adversity the team has faced?  Well, I take it all back.  If you can't get your team prepared to win against opposition as geriatric as the Giants, especially with the playoffs as the payoff, then you aren't Manager of the Year regardless of the outcome.  After the first two batters of the game last night in a crucial showdown with their ace Jake Peavy on the mound, the Padre hitters took the night off and it cost them.  How a team can fail to score at least 4 runs against the likes of Brad Hennesey, Jeremy Accardo and Tyler Walker is inexplicable.  That they were limited to just 3 hits from that same crew is downright shameful.

But I digress... I thought I'd throw an interesting stat in from Saturday night's National's game against the Mets: Livan Hernandez hit a ball off Tom Glavine to right field that Marlon Anderson (hey, what's he doing in right field?!) misjudged, allowing Hernandez to jog to third base for a triple.  Some would say the ball was misplayed and should have been rules an error, but the scoring rules allow that it can be interpreted as a base hit.  Regardless, with that triple, Livan, who's not exactly the definition of svelte, now has as many triples this season as Scott Podsednik, Bobby Abreu, Tony Womack and Torii Hunter.  A speed stat, indeed.  And there's a kicker.  Livan's only other career triple came on August 14, 2002 when he was a pitcher for the Giants.  The guy he was facing that day: Tom Glavine. 

Anyway, with the playoffs out of reach, Frank Robinson has decided to shut down many of his aching players for the rest of the season.  Vinny Castilla, Brian Schneider, Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala - all key components of the team that surprised nearly everyone in the first half of the season - will not play again this season  In their place, Robinson will be looking at what next year might bring with youngsters like Ryan Zimmerman and Brandon Watson, as well as giving Gary Majewski a chance to show he can close out games. 

Zimmerman is hitting .421 since his call-up and although he rarely sees more than three pitches in an at bat, he's still got potential to be good next year.  He has great plate coverage and is willing to go the other way.  However, he will have to temper his over-aggressiveness if he hopes to incorporate his power potential.  Based on his body type and his line-drive swing, he has the potential to hit 20 home runs a season some day, but that day doesn't look like it's coming soon.  He'll need to be more selective, something I'm sure he'll be working on when he goes to the Arizona Fall League next week.  Regardless, he's no Mark Teahan; the sportswriters in Washington refer to him, albeit somewhat jokingly, as the "Hall of Famer".   That's partly from a comment made by Frank Robinson recently, but it's also an acknowledgment of his considerable potential.  Watson showed a good ability to get on base in AAA, but looks like a very poor man's Juan Pierre against major league pitching.

So what becomes of the Nationals next year?  Will they again be the better team around the Capital Beltway?  Probably. 

Depending on whether he is willing to a take back-up role to Zimmerman, Vinny Castilla's contract might be bought out so that he can find employment elsewhere.  It's not that the team is disappointed with what they got out of him this year; just that he probably can't do any better than the youngster so there's no reason to slow his progress down.  The team is definitely encouraged by Cristian Guzman's late season surge.  After five months of struggles that have to be described as historically bad, Guzman seems to have figured out how to hit again, hitting .328 in September.  Even more impressive is his .371 on base and .500 slugging this month.  There are three more years on his contract, so there is still time for him to justify the money they are paying him.  Still, I have a question for everyone who says that the Guzman signing was a terrible one, especially given how solid his defense has been this year.  Were Orlando Cabrera (.669 OPS) and Edgar Renteria (.708 OPS) worth twice as much as Guzman (.568 OPS)?  There's no question they were more productive at the plate.  But for twice the salary, were they that much better a signing considering the ballpark Guz played in? 

It's likely that the Nationals will stick with Vidro at second and let Junior Spivey walk.  Vidro is a very good hitter, but his injuries are becoming chronic and his range in the field is a liability.  Only Nick Green and Jorge Cantu had a worse range factor among second baseman with more than 200 innings in the field.  He makes the plays on balls he can get to and he's still pretty decent at turning the double play but with a park that plays as big as RFK does, having a player who can play good defense and stay healthy is probably more useful than a good hitter who can't do either.  I don't know that Spivey is that guy and at his current $2+ million salary I'm not sure he's worth the risk to find out.  All I'm saying is that Vidro's value might be better in trade than it is on the team.

Both Nick Johnson and Ryan Church proved they were keepers provided they can stay healthy next season.  Johnson has been in the majors for five years now and this was the first year he topped 500 plate appearances (barely) which might be understandable if he didn't play first base.  He seems to be a magnet for injury although in his defense many of his pains seem to be of the bizarre rather than chronic variety.  Church's injury problems were due to overly aggressive play in the outfield so there's hope that he can stay on the field for a full season. 

Preston Wilson was a disappointment and will not be back.  His offense was as expected but he came with the reputation of being a superior defensive player.  What the Nats got was a fielder who often looked unsure in center and lost in left whose arm was weaker than advertised and whose average footspeed was exposed by his late reads.  Marlon Byrd showed flashes of potential but was inconsistent at the plate.  Brad Wilkerson's year was a disappointment at the plate, but his play in the field never flagged.  He's become the unofficial face of the team in the local media so they're likely to keep him, hoping this was just a down year.  Jose Guillen matured under Frank Robinson but that didn't stop him from having his usual number of incidents and meltdowns.  He will probably return but that could change if Robinson is not retained when new ownership is announced.  My feeling is that he will be although I'm not totally convinced he should be.

The pitching staff, at least those left who survived Robinson's tantrums, fared reasonably well.  Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza proved to be capable innings eaters and John Patterson emerged as one of the better starters in the NL.  Hector Carrasco posted a career year at age 35 and may find himself work as a starter next year given how well he's taken to the role over the last several weeks.  Justin Bergmann acquitted himself nicely in his first major league exposure and should fit in behind one of, if not the best end-game threesome in baseball - Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero.  The Nats will be looking for a couple of starters to fill out the rotation next year, which is kind of a shame since they traded away Claudio Vargas, Tomo Ohka and Sunny Kim, all of whom have enjoyed a measure of success away from Frank's fits.  Still, as big as RFK played for the first four months of the season, the team should have no trouble attracting starting pitchers. 

So how does 2006 look right now?  Not too bad, really.  New ownership (unless it's Jeff Smulyan) will have deep enough pockets to land a good starting pitcher like AJ Burnett, Kevin Millwood or Jeff Weaver.  There aren't any really good centerfielders who can cover a lot of ground available on the free agent market, but that might be a problem solved via trade.  Other than a decent back-up catcher to Brian Schneider (who once again proved to be among the best defensively at his position) and another lefty in the bullpen to accompany Joey Eischen, the team is pretty well set for another run at the playoffs next year. 

Did I mention that the Nationals drew more fans this season than the team ever did in Montreal?  Or that they'll break the old record by nearly 400,000 fans and finish 12th in overall attendance ahead of playoff contenders like the Phillies, Braves, White Sox and Indians?  No?  Or that the Orioles will finish the season with about 86,000 fewer fans than they drew last year, which means that they drew about 3% fewer fans and not the 33% fewer that Peter Angelos predicted?  No?  Perhaps I should.  About the only thing standing in the way of the Nationals becoming a powerhouse in the NL East within the next two years - and without affecting the Orioles one iota - is Bud Selig's decision as to who the new ownership group will be in DC.  If it's anyone but Jeff Smulyan, you can start printing the playoff tickets now.