First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the National League East
When I first took a look at the Washington Nationals' 40-man roster, I thought, "Yeah, this looks like an expansion team, all right." Then I thought, "Wait a minute--this ISN'T an expansion team! Holy Christ!" Yep, this is a long-established professional baseball club, which spent the past 35 years as the Montreal Expos. Last year, they finished 67-95, which is pretty bad, but still better than three other teams, believe it or not. So this is not the worst team in baseball. Not yet, anyway.
A quick perusal of the talent would lead one to believe that this team HAS to be at least a little better than the 1961 Washington Senators expansion team, whose big names at their first spring training camp were Dale Long, Gene Woodling, Willie Tasby, Danny O'Connell and Dick Donovan. On the other hand, the new Nats still have the air of expansion, which means a lot of unproven guys and a handful of others who have had some legit major league success or appear on the brink of establishing themselves as serious players. This is a group that could actually overachieve or could just as easily come a-cropper very early on. If the guys with some decent history prove to be on the definite downside of their game, then the Nats end up relying on a bunch of fairly young and mostly untested ballplayers. On the official roster, only 9 players were born earlier than 1976, which makes this a pretty young team. What is completely unknown is whether that's going to be a good thing or a bad thing. For what it's worth, the Nationals certainly have the ethnic look of a modern-day major league baseball club, i.e., many, many Latins and one Asian guy thrown in for good measure.
At any rate, this team gives Washingtonians...well, about the same kind of team they were used to rooting for 35 years ago and beyond.
It's a motley crew, to say the least. There are two name starters: Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza. In 2003, Loaiza was 21-9 with the Chicago White Sox, with a 2.90 ERA. Last year, he was 10-7, with an ERA of 5.70. He nearly doubled his ERA--not a good sign. Still, he's a proven big-time winner, and maybe he's still got some gas in his tank. Ditto for Hernandez, who has 95 career victories and is only 30 years old. After that, it's pray for a hurricane. This team is loaded with re-treads, guys like Tony Armas, Jr., Joey Eischen (who somehow got to be 35 years old with only 9 career wins to his name), Tomo Ohka, Antonio Osuna, and a bunch of others who might have no business playing major league baseball. There are some young arms--4 of the rostered pitchers were born in the '80s--but there is no apparent buzz on any of 'em. Just for fun, we can look forward to Manager Frank Robinson rolling out Jon Rauch, a 6'11," 260-lb. country boy from Kentucky. Assuming the big guy makes the team at all.
Brian Schneider is 28 years old. Last year he batted .257 with 12 HRs and 49 RBIs. Gary Bennett is 33 years old. He has a career batting average of .247 and a grand total of 14 lifetime HRs. I don't see Johnny Bench here. More like, "Grab some bench." Journeymen catchers are a staple of expansion (and bad) teams. The Nats need help here.
The biggest name in this bunch is probably 3B Vinny Castilla. He hit 35 HRs last year with 131 RBIs for the Rockies. He has a career batting average of .280 and he has 303 lifetime homers. He's a legit power threat, though the thin Colorado air probably helped swell last year's totals. The Nats, however, are his fifth team since 2001, and his numbers previously with Atlanta and Houston were decent but not extraordinary. Plus, he turns 38 in July. And he's already hurt his knee in training camp. Don't be surprised if Vinny corners the market on mediocrity. A better bet to become a fan favorite is 2B Jose Vidro. In his prime at 30, Vidro has a career batting average of .304. He'll give you 15-20 HRs per year, and in 2002 he drove in 96 runs. Also bound for some glory is SS Cristian Guzman, picked up from the Minnesota Twins. Guzman has been a consistent performer the past few years. He should hit about .275, and score a lot of runs. He doesn't walk much, though, and his power isn't much to speak of. But he's only 27, is experienced, and should be a good everyday shortstop. Brad Wilkerson is your classic free-swinging first basemen, and he appears to be improving. He hit 32 HRs last year--a career high--though someone needs to ask the question why a guy with that many homers only drove in 67 runs. His batting average is mediocre (lifetime .259), and he struck out 152 times in 2004. To the good, he drew 106 walks. Assuming he's on the upswing, can cut down on the Ks, makes more contact and ups that average, Wilkerson could be a star. The rest of the infield consists of guys like former All-Star infielder Carlos Baerga (signed as a spring training invitee), ex-Yankee 1B Nick Johnson (still waiting for a chance to establish himself somewhere), journeyman Wil Cordero (who used to have talent as a hitter--career BA of .275 with 122 HRs), and the usual young unprovens.
RF Jose Guillen batted .294 in 2004, with 27 Hrs and 104 RBIs. After fits and starts in previous seasons with Tampa Bay, Arizona, Cincinnati and Oakland, he has finally emerged. He turns 29 in May, so he ought to be good to go for a few years. Alas, in a league (and in an era) where Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran and others are putting up spectacular numbers, Guillen just looks like another very good ballplayer. Still, he's got game and he's the best the Nats have. In LF, the Nats are pinning their hopes on the further development of Terrmel Sledge, who hit 15 HRs with 62 RBIs last year in his rookie season. Sledge has exhibited trouble hitting lefties, and I guess you gotta wonder why he made his major league debut at the ripe old age of 27. Possibly the most exciting player on this team is Endy Chavez, who will be expected to command centerfield with speed and authority and also improve on his past two promising seasons offensively. Chavez hit .277 in 2004 and stole 32 bases. He needs to walk more, but he did cut down on his strikeouts from 2003, while running more often, and more efficiently, on the basepaths. Outfield back-ups and platoon possibilities include Ryan Church, J.J. Davis and Alex Escobar.
Probably not very good. If the Nats win 70 games, they'll at least have improved on last year. They play in the National League East, which means a lot of games against Atlanta, Philadelphia and the improved New York Mets. On paper, if Castilla is healthy, the infield actually looks pretty solid. There's some pop in the outfield as well, and a possible emerging star out there in Chavez. But as it does everywhere else, it all comes down to pitching, and there are big question marks on the Nats staff. If Loaiza and Hernandez prove early that their best days are behind them, it'll be a very long year at RFK Stadium. Oh well--that's nothing that the locals aren't accustomed to. The fun'll be in hoping the Nats surprise. Just don't bet on it.