By Ed Chigliak of Federal Baseball
After back-to-back 100-loss+ seasons, the Washington Nationals go into the 2010 season with what they claim is the best roster they've assembled since the move to DC. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Adam Kennedy represent the best free agent class Washington's reeled in, and now DC GM Mike Rizzo and team President Stan Kasten hope the core of young players already on the roster continues to improve to the point where the veteran additions will finally help the Nationals become competitive in a difficult NL East.
1. Nyjer Morgan - CF
2. Cristian Guzman - SS
3. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B
4. Adam Dunn - 1B
5. Josh Willingham - LF
6. Elijah Dukes - RF
7. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez - C
8. Adam Kennedy - 2B
The Nationals spent the winter searching for a middle infielder, courting Orlando Hudson before he signed with Minnesota and then settling for Adam Kennedy. Cristian Guzman's recovering from shoulder surgery and due $8M in the final year of a two-year deal, so if healthy he'll remain at short for now, delaying (at least in my opinion) the ascent of shortstop Ian Desmond as the Nationals' next generation of infielder. Desmond will instead either play a utility role or go to Triple-A to work on his defense. Pudge Rodriguez was brought in to split time behind the plate with Jesus Flores, but the young catcher won't be ready for the start of the season, as he too is recovering from surgery to his elbow and shoulder, so Wil Nieves will share the catching duties with Pudge til Flores is ready. The starting outfield is set barring any major developments this Spring, then the Nationals have to decide who'll join Willie Harris as the backups, with Roger Bernadina, Justin Maxwell and Chris Duncan amongst others vying for playing time.
The only starters guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation are John Lannan and Jason Marquis. After that it's Scott Olsen (who's recovering from surgery), Garrett Mock, Livan Hernandez, Miguel Batista, Matt Chico, Collin Balester, J.D. Martin, Craig Stammen and Shairon Martis all battling for the final two or three spots. By the time June rolls around, when most are guessing the Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick will be called up, Chien-Ming Wang is expected to be healthy as well, and the rotation could have a whole new look with Lannan, Marquis, Olsen, Stephen Strasburg and Wang one through five, which on paper at least, is the best rotation the Nationals have had. A lot of "ifs" involved though.
1. Matt Capps - CL
2. Sean Burnett - SU
3. Brian Bruney - SU
4. Ron Villone - LHP
5. Craig Stammen/Jason Bergmann - RHP
6. Tyler Walker - RHP
7. Tyler Clippard - RHP
Also under consideration for the bullpen are some of the starters who don't make the rotation, as well as the Nationals' 2nd '09 1st Round pick, Drew Storen, who was the Stanford Cardinal closer before his selection 10th overall in last year's Draft. DC GM Mike Rizzo and his scouts seem to think Storen's Major League-ready, but like his fellow first round pick, Storen may start the season in the minors and come up in June. Matt Capps is expected to be the closer, though both Brian Bruney and Storen will be pushing for a shot. Craig Stammen's been mentioned as a potential long man in the pen, which would most likely be Jason Bergmann's role if he makes the roster. Clippard and Walker will work the 6th/7th and then Burnett and Villone are available for lefty vs lefty matchups with one or the other working late with Bruney to set up Capps. Much better than what Jim Bowden had in the pen for Washington to start the 2009 campaign.
In The System
Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Ian Desmond are the first three that are going to come up from the system this season. The final two or three rotation spots could be filled by any two of five or six starters, so expect any injuries or struggles to result in Matt Chico, Collin Balester, J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis, etc. coming up eventually. The same could be said for the outfield. Justin Maxwell and Roger Bernadina are both on the bubble as to where they'll start the season, and could be called upon at any moment if they end up in Triple-A Syracuse. The Nationals just announced the signing of a 26-year-old reliever from the Mexican League, Rafael Martin, who they think can help the bullpen this season.
Can Elijah Dukes finally put it all together and live up to expectations? Can Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy improve on down years defensively and cut down on the Nationals' league-leading error total from 2009? Will Adam Dunn be exposed defensively in a full year at first base? Can Scott Olsen, Matt Chico and maybe even possibly Jordan Zimmermann, late this season, overcome injuries to become consistent contributors again? And is there any way in the world Stephen Strasburg can live up to the hype that's preceded his first Major League pitch? Those are the big questions to be answered this season.
The odds seem about right. .500 is a goal for the Washington Nationals, but that might even be too ambitious for a team that was only able to win 59 games last season, so expecting a miraculous worst-to-first turnaround should reward anyone daring enough to take the Nationals against the odds.