What does 2009 hold for the Washington Nationals? We can look forward, I think, to sunshine, smiles, and an unaccustomed number of wins, because here's the thing about losing 102 games: there's nowhere to go but up!
A lot went wrong for the Nats last year. I'm not saying that injuries and the various other vagaries of cruel Lady Fate robbed us of a championship or anything, but pretty much everyone got hurt. I was at a game where Lastings Milledge twisted his ankle or something. Paul Lo Duca, who didn't even have the bat to be a catcher at that point, started in left that night, so they weren't going to win anyway. But still: everyone got hurt, and with a normal number of nick and cuts, the Nats weren't a 102-loss team.
The lineup will be much better this year – maybe even good. The big addition is Adam Dunn. It's likely that by the end of the year, Nats fans are going to hate him – he has a nasty tendency to strike out in important situations (this is merely a byproduct of his tendency to strike out in all situations), and he fields like Torii Hunter with two busted kneecaps, a hernia, and the results of an uncertain medical exam hanging over his head. Still, he walks and hits home runs, and those are two commodities that have been in desperately short supply as long as the Nats have been here.
The other change is actually a subtraction: the reign of terror of hitting coach Lenny Harris is over. Harris' initial promotion in 2007 was an emergency measure and therefore forgivable. His retention through 2008, after he had proven himself unequal to the job, was not. Now that we've got someone (David Eckstein's brother, as it happens) who's actually earned the coaching job (as opposed to hanging around the majors for twenty years without being quite good enough to play regularly), we could see some improvement. I had been worried that Adam Dunn would hit his usual 40 homers and lead the team by 35; now I think we might get someone over twenty.
So the offense should be fine. A little speed, a little power, some fat guys – could be worse. The pitching staff, on the other hand, worries me. John Lannan is the #1, and I got no beef with that. He's a slow-tossing lefty with good control, and it'll be fun to see if he can step another forward after his break-out 2008.
After that, though, things get sketchy. Scott Olsen is the #2, and there are issues here. Sure, there's his plummeting strikeout rate and all that pitchery-type stuff, but I'm more worried about off-the-field issues. When it comes to pitchers, you have to ask yourself: is this guy more likely to make the papers for throwing a no-hitter or for getting justifiably tazed unconscious by law enforcement? With Olsen, it's the latter.
It gets worse. Daniel Cabrera, who looks just like Joseph Gribble, was somehow not good enough for the Orioles – who, in case you haven't noticed, ain't exactly the 1995 Braves – but is good enough to be immediately penciled in as the number three starter for the Nats. That says a lot. There's been some talk they can rebuild him, that they have the technology to repair his limp fastball and make him the effective starter he never quite was. Well, he's got a spring ERA of 6.39, so maybe the O's got this one right.
Leaving the grownup table, we come to the kids in the back of the rotation: Shairon Martis, best known for no-hitting Panama in the first WBC, and Jordan Zimmermann, best known for having an extra N in his name. Unlike the middle hunk of the rotation, which is merely probably crappy, this part is kind of exciting. Martis is 22, Zimmermannn is 23, and what could be better than watching your team's youngsters step up and produce in the majors, taking the first steps in a career that you'll be able to enjoy for years? And what could be more excruciating than watching one of these youths walk ten guys in a row and burst into tears when his catcher throws down the mask and stalks the mound? That's the kind of thing you deal with when you rely on people who are barely able to drink legally to get out major league hitters.
To summarize: the lineup has been fortified by the addition of Adam Dunn's guaranteed 40 homers, and it was going to be vastly improved anyway just by virtue of actually having the dudes on the field for a change. The pitching is relying on an awful lot of things to go right: Scott Olsen has to stay out of prison, the whole back end of the rotation has to hope their voices don't crack during an interview, and Daniel Cabrera . . . well, I don't think there's anything he can do to help. I don't want to sound like a raving fanboy lunatic, but fourth place might not be out of reach.
Official prediction: 72-90, 5th place.
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Written by Ryan Moore