Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nationals' Mid-Spring Report: Will the Washington Nationals be as bad as we feared? There are some good signs for Nats' fans -- tonight's game against the Atlanta Braves being a prime example. The Nats put together four straight two-out hits, followed by a HBP and a game-winning walk for Chris Snelling, completing a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Chris Snelling has been one of the big surprises of spring training, and is about to nail down the starting job in left field. This is a position that probably should go to young Kory Casto, who has probably been the Nats' best hitter this Spring. Unfortunately for him, Casto has a bunch of minor league options left, so he will be sent to the Nats' new AAA team in Columbus. This might not be the worst thing for him, as he still has to learn the outfield. Casto is in the process of making the switch from third base, a job that belongs in perpetuity to Ryan Zimmerman. The Z-man seems to be back in the groove -- no sophomore slump in store for him.

Other good signs for the Nats: Brian Schneider is a million miles ahead of where he was last Spring with the USA World Baseball Classic squad. Christian Guzman is swinging the bat well -- not for power, but he's got a quick bat again. Austin Kearns is looking fairly steady. Felipe Lopez got his first home run of the Spring tonight.

Tonight's game also saw another good outing by the Nats' other Spring surprise, middle infielder Josh Wilson. Wilson went 2 for 2, including a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the ninth. Wilson is out of options with the club. Barring a trade, Wilson seems to have played his way on to the squad.

A final bit of good news comes at first base, where the Nats came into the pre-season wondering who would fill in while Nick Johnson continues to heal. The Nats seemed to have done well there. Veterans Travis Lee and Dmitri Young are still in competition, but the Nats would do well with either. Young isn't much with the glove, but he would add needed power. In contrast, Lee has a slick glove and may be showing signs of regaining the hitting stroke he had, when he first came up as a young phenom a decade ago.

There have been some negatives, to be sure. Nook Logan has not swung the bat well. If Ryan Church were hitting much better, he'd be handed the centerfield job. Unfortunately, no one has really taken command there. The long shot, Alex Escobar is hitting well, but his old injury bugaboo continues to bite at him. Right now, his shoulder isn't responding to treatment, and he cannot play the field.

The upshot is that the Nats won't have much power, or speed, and won't hit for a high average. On the other hand, their lineup won't be embarrassingly bad. Which brings us to their pitching, where everyone has feared the Nats would be thoroughly embarrassing.

It's entirely possible that the Nats might have four decent starting pitchers -- perhaps as good as any four they've had before. Now, that's not the highest praise, but it's more than the Nats had a right to expect. On the other hand, spring training statistics are notoriously deceptive. Sure, Patterson, Hill, Simontacchi and Chico have been consistently good -- certainly good enough to be competitive almost every time out. The real question is whether that will carry over to the regular season.

The jury is still out on that question. Patterson is coming off an injury that robbed him of most of last season. Hill also was injured last year, and lacks enough experience for anyone to make an educated assessment of Hill's ability to pitch consistently in the majors. He had some good outings last year, but was sent down after a terrible outing. Simontacchi has had an injury riddled career and hasn't pitched well in years. Matt Chico is a rookie, trying to make the jump from AA ball. Chico doesn't have the greatest stuff, but he throws like a mature pitcher -- at least in exhibition games.

The fifth spot in the rotation is still wide open. Tonight, Tim Redding came back from a rough start, while Sean Bergmann pitched a couple of strong innings before breaking down in his last inning. Jerome Williams pitched well in his last outing, still vying for the job, despite some shaky outings early on. Redding and Williams are two former starters with other teams, trying to rebuild once promising careers. The Nationals are hoping one of these two is able to nail down the final rotation spot.

Less likely contenders include Bergmann and Rule V draftee Levale Speigner. Though Bergmann and Speigner have pitched well, the two would seem better suited to the bullpen. The Nats, however, may not have a better option for the fifth slot in the starting rotation. The last, or least candidate is Joel Hanrahan. The longest of the long shots, Hanrahan still has a chance to pitch his way into the rotation.

In truth, the Nats have not had a credible five-man rotation since that day in 2005, when they traded Toma Okha for not giving Frank Robinson the ball one afternoon, after Robinson came out to call for a relief pitcher. So, Nats fans are used to the patchwork rotation. This year's version may not be much worse than the rotation has been since the sudden Okha trade. On the other hand, it could still prove to be much worse.

One reason why spring training games can be so deceptive is that pitchers are evaluated on two, three, perhaps four innings. A major league pitcher should be able to shut down the other team the first time through the batting order. Even the bad ones. Even most AAA pitchers ought to be able to get through two or three innings against major leaguers, especially in the Spring, when the hitters are working more on their timing than anything else. It's foolish to expect that a pitcher who throws three strong innings each time out in the Spring, will surely turn that into six or seven strong innnings each time out during the regular season.

The long and short of it is that I am far from convinced that this will be a competitive team, with four or five legitimate major league starting pitchers. However, hope springs eternal, and this Spring, the Nats are starting to look halfway decent. There's not much chance that they won't finish in last place in the National League East -- the other teams are just more talented. Either they have much more power or much more pitching, or both. Still, the Nats just might keep the games close enough to make for some fun days and nights as they bid adieu to RFK this year.

Speaking of RFK: I've got 2 tickets coming, for the season opener against Florida. Unfortunately, I didn't realize Passover begins that night. My calendar listed the wrong dates for Passover, leading me to think it didn't start until over a week later. Anyway, I've got 2 tickets that I can't use. I'll entertain offers from interested parties. Write me at

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