2008 Season Preview: Inside The Washington Nationals

In the National League East, people will have you believe there’s a strict line dividing the Phillies, Mets and Braves and the Marlins and Nationals. This belief is kind of true. Last season the top three teams averaged 87 wins, while the Marlins and Nats averaged 72. For much of the season they posed no threat to the teams atthe top.

However, the winds will blow. The Marlins are a very young team that has promise for the future and the Nationals mix youth and experience with good managing. Plus they’re opening Nationals Park this season, and teams that open new parks always seem to have a kick in their step.

I did a Q&A with Chris Needham of Capitol Punishment, a Washington Nationals blog, about the Nats’ 2008 campaign. A lot of good stuff was covered, and he really shot straight. Thanks, Chris, and readers, enjoy:

I felt the Nationals got the better of the Lastings Milledge deal. What do you expect out of Milledge, and has his notorious freewheeling personality been an issue at all?

Manny Acta is terrific at focusing on what players do well, not what they don’t do. Everyone with the Nats has basically laughed off most of the criticism of Milledge, chalking it up to his youth. He’s got a fresh start, and a new chance, free of pressure, to show why just a year or two ago the Mets wouldn’t have traded him for anyone.

As far as on the field, he’s Acta’s guy in CF. Something like .280/.350/.470 with 20 homers and 20 steals wouldn’t surprise me.

Speaking of outfielders with off-the-field issues, Elijah Dukes — what’s your prediction: enormous talent or enormous headache in 2008?

The second he becomes an enormous headache — if everything the team is saying is to be believed — he’s a free agent, so …

They’ve done very well in separating him from some of his old problems, and giving him a support network. They have a staff member whose long job is to be his shadow, following him, and staying with him, keeping him in the right direction. So far so good. But ya never know.

It seems as if this question comes up every spring: Is this the year Ryan Zimmerman breaks out to become a top-5 third baseman?

He’s got a chance. The glove is definitely there. Had he not had an immobile, stone-handed first baseman, he’d be wearing a Gold Glove already. He took a step back offensively last year, but it looked like he was trying to carry the team at times last year — tough stuff for a kid. With a deeper lineup, I think he’ll feel less pressure to produce, and can relax and not feel like he has to hit a three-run double every time he comes to the plate.

He’s got a pretty good swing for RFK, but getting him out of there’s likely to turn a few of those doubles into homers. And if he can improve his pitch recognition to a level above where he was in 2006, he’s a pretty good candidate to have a breakout season.

Are you surprised Odalis Perez went from non-roster invitee to Opening Day starter?

We had an NRI be an All-Star last year, so it’s nothing new. And with this pitching staff, nothing really surprises me. Really, flip a coin. Does “Jason Bergmann: Opening Day Starter” sound any better? It’s a mish-mash staff, and Acta’s going to have his work cut out for him, even if there’s reason to hope that one or more of these guys might one day be something useful.

The starting rotation has had plenty of issues so far, from Shawn Hill’s forearm injury to the Perez saga to John Patterson’s exit. As constructed now, how effective can this rotation be?

You could’ve said the same thing last year, too. Acta minimized the impact of the starting rotation, by turning the game over the bullpen early and often. It’s not a good rotation, but it hasn’t been a good one for a few years. The bright side is that the players who’ll fill in for injury or ineffectiveness are honest-to-god prospects (even if their upside is 3rd starter) instead of retreads like Jason Simontacchi or Mike Bacsik, like last season.

Joel Hanrahan has had a lights-out spring since moving to the bullpen. What role does he play in 2008? Could he develop into a key back-end player or will he come back to the rotation sooner?

I think his days as a starter are over. I don’t like to make much of spring training stats, but, man I’m encouraged. Hanrahan has always been a hard thrower, but he’s had no control of his pitches. By moving him to the pen, he can forget about trying to develop a third pitch, he gains a few MPH on his already hard stuff, and he can focus on repeating his delivery and getting a consistent motion over a few pitches, instead of trying to pace himself over 100. The end results appears to be that the Nats have found themselves a relief ace.

His role early in the season is going to be the bridge reliever, coming in in the fifth and sixth innings and turning the game over the setup guys. Sounds like a waste of his talent, but as I said, Acta turns the game over to the pen early anyway, so his job is to basically continue what the starting pitcher was doing. He won’t be so much a mop-up man, as a setup guy just a few innings early.

Is it fair to expect the same solid numbers from the back end of the bullpen (Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Chad Cordero) again?

You didn’t even mention Luis Ayala! Until I see otherwise, I’m going to assume they can keep it up. The only great concerns I have with the pen are the innings that Rivera and Rauch have pitched over the last two seasons, and Cordero (a pretty strong flyballer) moving to the new park. It’s a deep bullpen that pitches fairly well… I can think of a team or two to the north in this division that’d kill to have one of our back-end guys or three!

Does top prospect Chris Marrero find himself in the Majors by the end of 2008? When would you like to see him in D.C. everyday?

I’d be surprised if he made it that early. He’s still just 19 years old, though he certainly could progress even more rapidly. The problem is that he’s basically a first baseman at this point, a position that the Nats are loaded at. With (GM Jim) Bowden, there’s always a chance of a trade. But Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson are both under contract through 2009, and the tail end of that season is probably the earliest we could expect to see Marrero.

The day he was drafted, the Nats’ scouting director compared him to Pat Burrell. That comparison has certainly held up offensively and defensively. Same guy, just with fewer boos!

I’m psyched about Nationals Park, and I’d like to get down there this season. Let’s say attendance is strong this season — does that give the Lerners incentive to start spending money like their major NL East counterparts?

Ah, the great debate! The Nationals should be on a revenue level with the Phillies. Will they have a corresponding payroll to match? I’m a bit skeptical given some of the things they’ve said and done, but there are plenty of people who think they’ll bump up the payroll once the team is closer to contending. Regardless of what has (or hasn’t) happened on the major-league level, their financial commitment to the minor leagues has been tremendous, and done much to reshape what was once the worst farm system in the majors into one that’s solidly in the middle of the pack, and trending toward the elite.

Nobody is talking about the Nationals when predicting the top of the NL East, and there’s obvious reasons. But is there any way the Nats could make a surprise challenge to the Phillies, Mets and Braves? And what is your optimistic win total for 2008?

Sure. If Dukes breaks out, Kearns hits 30 homers, Zimmerman turns into an MVP, Guzman hits like last season, Felipe Lopez turns back into an All-Star, Pena hits 40 homers, Shawn Hill stays healthy and pitches 180 innings, John Lannan (I can hear you booing) breaks out, Tim Redding pitches like the future ace he once was … get the picture?

All of them won’t happen. But a few of them could. A few of them happen, and the Nats are looking at .500. And as we’ve seen, if you’re .500 in the NL, you’re in a pennant race. If you forced me to make a realistic guess, I’d say 72-75 wins or so.

Regardless, with the new park and the potential on the roster, it’s going to be a fun season. Hopefully we won’t help you guys out as much as we did down the stretch last year. I think all you guys owe us one!

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