Washington Nationals 2010 preview

The No. 1 question regarding the Nationals in recent seasons has been whether they will lose 100 games. The past two seasons, the answer has been yes.

This season should be different. By July, the Nationals could feature a rotation that includes the Next Big Thing, Stephen Strasburg, and two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang. Their offense already is formidable with Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan. If they can improve their defense, the Nationals’ focus could turn to finishing .500, instead of trying to avoid a triple-digit loss total.

Three questions

All eyes will be on stud prospect Stephen Strasburg throughout the Nats' season.
All eyes will be on stud prospect Stephen Strasburg throughout the Nats’ season.

1. Will the defense be better?
It can’t get much worse. The Nationals’ 143 errors last season were the most in the majors since 2004 and resulted in a major league-worst 83 unearned runs allowed. Getting Dunn out of left field should help; the more he settled in at first base last season, the better he played according to manager Jim Riggleman. The manager believes the addition of catcher Pudge Rodriguez will slow down opponents’ running games and help his young pitchers.

Second base and shortstop, however, could be trouble. Cristian Guzman and newcomer Adam Kennedy lack range, and young Ian Desmond is considered an offensive shortstop. One positive: The Nationals scrapped plans to move Guzman to second after they signed Kennedy.

2. When will Strasburg arrive?
Best guess: June 21, home vs. the Royals. If his stuff plays as well as advertised, Strasburg could pitch in the majors today. However, the righthander with the 100-mph fastball and the record contract never has pitched to a major league batter. Strasburg is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut March 9, but regardless of how he performs this spring, the Nationals figure to start him in the minors.

Riggleman faced a similar situation when he managed the Cubs in 1998 and sent down a young Kerry Wood despite a strong spring. "It was tempting to keep him from Day 1," Riggleman said. "Now I don’t know if that would have been a bad decision, but he started the minors and joined us pretty quickly. I hope the same thing happens with Stephen."

3. What will Pudge provide?
Rodriguez is 38 and coming off his worst offensive season, but Washington gave him a two-year contract. One reason: Uncertainty around Jesus Flores. The 25-year-old catcher had a promising 2009 season derailed by shoulder problems, and the Nationals aren’t sure when he will be 100 percent.

The Nationals believe Pudge has plenty of spring left in his step. "He’s still a very athletic guy who can put his bat on the ball," said Riggleman, who added that Pudge could catch as many as 120 games. "Part of that will depend on Flores’ availability." Riggleman will be surprised if Pudge doesn’t improve upon his .249 batting average from 2009. "The last couple of years when my teams have played against Pudge, he was hitting line drives," Riggleman said. "He hit the ball much better than his average indicated. By the law of averages, some of those line drives will find holes instead of being hit right at people."

Projected lineup
1. CF Nyjer Morgan: Reached base 82 times in 49 games with Nats.
2. 2B Adam Kennedy: .289-11-63 with A’s in ’09.
3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman: Career highs in ’09: .292/.364/.525.
4. 1B Adam Dunn: 40 HRs from ’05-08; "only" 38 in ’09.
5. LF Josh Willingham: 24 HRs, .367 OBP last season.
6. RF Elijah Dukes: Nats want more than 8 HRs.
7. C Pudge Rodriguez: Struck out once every 4.6 at-bats.
8. SS Cristian Guzman: Only 16 BBs in 555 PA.

Projected rotation
1. LHP John Lannan: 33 starts, 206 IP, 3.88 ERA last season.
2. RHP Jason Marquis: Career-high 216 IP with Rockies in ’09.
3. LHP Scott Olsen: 6.03 ERA in 11 starts before injury.
4. RHP Livan Hernandez: 34 losses, 5.45 ERA since ’07.
4. RHP J.D. Martin: 5-4, 4.44 ERA in rookie season.

Projected closer
RHP Matt Capps: Experience gives him the edge over Brian Bruney.

Grades

Offense: B. Washington finished ninth in the N.L. in runs scored but clicked from the time it acquired Morgan (and put him in the leadoff spot) until his season ended in August because of a broken hand. The lineup should be deeper this season with the additions of Kennedy and Rodriguez.

Pitching: D. Until Wang (shoulder) is healthy, the rotation will be at least two starters thin. But the real issue is the bullpen, which finished with an MLB-worst 5.04 ERA. That ERA, however, still was better than the 5.80 mark Capps posted for Pittsburgh last season.

Bench: D. They lack power off the bench and depth in the infield, where Alberto Gonzalez will serve as the primary utilityman. Fourth outfielder Willie Harris had a .364 on-base percentage in 137 games last season. Wil Nieves will be the backup catcher until Flores is healthy.

Manager: B. Riggleman has had two winning seasons in 10 seasons (or partial seasons) as a manager, but that is a reflection of on-field talent more than his managerial skills. The Nationals went 33-42 under Riggleman after starting 26-61 under Manny Acta last season, prompting the club to remove the interim label and give Riggleman a two-year contract.

Sporting News prediction: They will be improved, but they still have a long way to go. Count on a third consecutive last-place finish and the end of an impressive streak: New starter Jason Marquis is likely to miss the playoffs for the first time in his 11-season career.

Coming Monday: Twins preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

The No. 1 question regarding the Nationals in recent seasons has been whether they will lose 100 games. The past two seasons, the answer has been yes.

This season should be different. By July, the Nationals could feature a rotation that includes the Next Big Thing, Stephen Strasburg, and two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang. Their offense already is formidable with Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan. If they can improve their defense, the Nationals’ focus could turn to finishing .500, instead of trying to avoid a triple-digit loss total.

Three questions

All eyes will be on stud prospect Stephen Strasburg throughout the Nats' season.
All eyes will be on stud prospect Stephen Strasburg throughout the Nats’ season.

1. Will the defense be better?
It can’t get much worse. The Nationals’ 143 errors last season were the most in the majors since 2004 and resulted in a major league-worst 83 unearned runs allowed. Getting Dunn out of left field should help; the more he settled in at first base last season, the better he played according to manager Jim Riggleman. The manager believes the addition of catcher Pudge Rodriguez will slow down opponents’ running games and help his young pitchers.

Second base and shortstop, however, could be trouble. Cristian Guzman and newcomer Adam Kennedy lack range, and young Ian Desmond is considered an offensive shortstop. One positive: The Nationals scrapped plans to move Guzman to second after they signed Kennedy.

2. When will Strasburg arrive?
Best guess: June 21, home vs. the Royals. If his stuff plays as well as advertised, Strasburg could pitch in the majors today. However, the righthander with the 100-mph fastball and the record contract never has pitched to a major league batter. Strasburg is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut March 9, but regardless of how he performs this spring, the Nationals figure to start him in the minors.

Riggleman faced a similar situation when he managed the Cubs in 1998 and sent down a young Kerry Wood despite a strong spring. "It was tempting to keep him from Day 1," Riggleman said. "Now I don’t know if that would have been a bad decision, but he started the minors and joined us pretty quickly. I hope the same thing happens with Stephen."

3. What will Pudge provide?
Rodriguez is 38 and coming off his worst offensive season, but Washington gave him a two-year contract. One reason: Uncertainty around Jesus Flores. The 25-year-old catcher had a promising 2009 season derailed by shoulder problems, and the Nationals aren’t sure when he will be 100 percent.

The Nationals believe Pudge has plenty of spring left in his step. "He’s still a very athletic guy who can put his bat on the ball," said Riggleman, who added that Pudge could catch as many as 120 games. "Part of that will depend on Flores’ availability." Riggleman will be surprised if Pudge doesn’t improve upon his .249 batting average from 2009. "The last couple of years when my teams have played against Pudge, he was hitting line drives," Riggleman said. "He hit the ball much better than his average indicated. By the law of averages, some of those line drives will find holes instead of being hit right at people."

Projected lineup
1. CF Nyjer Morgan: Reached base 82 times in 49 games with Nats.
2. 2B Adam Kennedy: .289-11-63 with A’s in ’09.
3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman: Career highs in ’09: .292/.364/.525.
4. 1B Adam Dunn: 40 HRs from ’05-08; "only" 38 in ’09.
5. LF Josh Willingham: 24 HRs, .367 OBP last season.
6. RF Elijah Dukes: Nats want more than 8 HRs.
7. C Pudge Rodriguez: Struck out once every 4.6 at-bats.
8. SS Cristian Guzman: Only 16 BBs in 555 PA.

Projected rotation
1. LHP John Lannan: 33 starts, 206 IP, 3.88 ERA last season.
2. RHP Jason Marquis: Career-high 216 IP with Rockies in ’09.
3. LHP Scott Olsen: 6.03 ERA in 11 starts before injury.
4. RHP Livan Hernandez: 34 losses, 5.45 ERA since ’07.
4. RHP J.D. Martin: 5-4, 4.44 ERA in rookie season.

Projected closer
RHP Matt Capps: Experience gives him the edge over Brian Bruney.

Grades

Offense: B. Washington finished ninth in the N.L. in runs scored but clicked from the time it acquired Morgan (and put him in the leadoff spot) until his season ended in August because of a broken hand. The lineup should be deeper this season with the additions of Kennedy and Rodriguez.

Pitching: D. Until Wang (shoulder) is healthy, the rotation will be at least two starters thin. But the real issue is the bullpen, which finished with an MLB-worst 5.04 ERA. That ERA, however, still was better than the 5.80 mark Capps posted for Pittsburgh last season.

Bench: D. They lack power off the bench and depth in the infield, where Alberto Gonzalez will serve as the primary utilityman. Fourth outfielder Willie Harris had a .364 on-base percentage in 137 games last season. Wil Nieves will be the backup catcher until Flores is healthy.

Manager: B. Riggleman has had two winning seasons in 10 seasons (or partial seasons) as a manager, but that is a reflection of on-field talent more than his managerial skills. The Nationals went 33-42 under Riggleman after starting 26-61 under Manny Acta last season, prompting the club to remove the interim label and give Riggleman a two-year contract.

Sporting News prediction: They will be improved, but they still have a long way to go. Count on a third consecutive last-place finish and the end of an impressive streak: New starter Jason Marquis is likely to miss the playoffs for the first time in his 11-season career.

Coming Monday: Twins preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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