Sunday, March 30, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Washington Nationals

A look back: The Nationals weren't really good last year, but their goal was more development and finding pieces. That's something they have done fairly well on one side of the ball. But since they're stuck in a division with two and possibly three of the stronger teams in the National League, it's not really going to get much better for a little while.

Positives on the field: If you look at the lineup, this simply shouldn't be a fourth-place team. There are few weak links 1-8 in the Nats' lineup. Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes could be a solid outfield, Ronnie Belliard, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman are strong in the infield, and Paul Lo Duca is a fine catcher. If that talent comes together, the Nationals could do a lot of damage on offense.

The bullpen should be solid as well, anchored by Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero. Cordero needs to rediscover his form from the first year in Washington, however. If he can do that, seven innings might be all opponents get to try to beat the Nationals.

Positives off the field: Nationals Park gives Washington a glittering new home. Truthfully, I will miss RFK Stadium, which I loved, but the new park should be a big plus for this team.

Negatives on the field: You get to the rotation, and you realize why this team was picked fourth or fifth. Some of these players might make it eventually, like Matt Chico, Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann, but as my colleague Joe Conroy from the Potomac News points out in this story, the Nats have young arms like John Lannan at Columbus who could benefit by pitching in the majors for a team that isn't likely to contend. It's a good argument, and I have to say that I tend to agree, using my Jays (as usual) as an example.

Last year, Toronto forced Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum into the rotation. Now both pitchers are viewed as strong pieces and make the Jays' rotation one of the strongest around. What do the Nats have to lose?

Outlook: The stadium is what matters this season for the Nats. Enjoy it while the good feeling lasts, because the team needs to start competing next year. With the Marlins' new park coming in 2010, Florida won't be a pushover (OK, they'll be Miami by then, I know) any longer, and the Nats won't be able to wait any longer. Three strong teams in the division is enough.

Projected finish: 4th in NL East. Season opener is in about 15 minutes against Atlanta at Nationals Park.

Spring base: Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Fla. The team played on the east coast of Florida.

Fan of the team?: Read Joe's story, and then check out Federal Baseball, the Nationals fan community.

Come back later: The road trip is done, enjoy baseball, and other topics now that the series is over.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Nickelback.

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