Sports Outside the Beltway

The Youth of the Nationals

The solid middle of the order will not hide all the gambles everywhere else. The prognosis is another lost season for a franchise that has shown more wanderlust than title success in its history. Outside the Beltway’s review of Major League Baseball’s Hot Stove League continues with the only team located inside the Beltway, the Washington Nationals. Manny Acta, Washington’s new manager, is optimistic, hoping to duplicate the success of last year’s Florida Marlins, who contended for much of the summer before fading come fall. He has a lot of work cut out for him, but the wandering in the wilderness may soon be over for the Nationals.

Losing their best player from 2006 is forcing more of the youth movement in Washington, as the Nats will replace Alfonso Soriano with some combination of Alex Escobar, Chris Snelling or Kory Casto. Casto had been switched to third base two seasons ago, but with Ryan Zimmerman entrenched at the hot corner, a move back to the outfield will get Casto’s live bat into the lineup. He should join young mashers Nick Johnson, Zimmerman and Kearns to form a solid foursome behind leadoff hitter Felipe Lopez. If Lopez maintains his OBP gains from last season he will score lots of runs. Lopez moves from shortstop where his defense was to say the least an adventure. His move was facilitated by the trade that sent franchise cornerstone Jose Vidro to Seattle for Snelling and Emiliano Fruto, a 23 year-old reliever with severe control problems. Even without Vidro and Soriano the lineup can be potent. Lopez will put up good hitting numbers and will not be too terrible defensively at second. But Escobar and Nook Logan do not strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, nor does catcher Brian Schneider. Worse still, 2005′s worst major league hitter returns to the lineup. Yes Nationals fans, Christian Guzman is back, and as he hits in front of the pitcher, expect Felipe Lopez to hit with two outs, a lot. One ray of hope for a down in the order hitter is Ryan Church, who posted a .896 OPS in 222 plate appearances. If Acta is serious about giving him a chance, Washington could have a nice lineup. But it’s always about pitching and what do the Nat’s have there?

The starting staff is anchored by John Patterson, coming off of a right forearm injury in 2006, that limited him to eight starts. Patterson if healthy is ace caliber. But who pitches after him? Shawn Hill? Beltran Perez? Matt Chico? All these young starters will get a chance this spring, and given the pitcher friendly environment that is RFK Stadium, any or all of them could provide league average of better innings. In the pen, young hard throwing closer Chad Cordero is supported by Ryan Wagner, Jon Rauch and Fruto, as well as whatever arms look good in spring. Not terrible in RFK, but apart from Cordero and maybe Rauch, not world beaters either.

The Nationals youth movement is well timed. They have a full season for their young pitchers to develop their new ballpark (slated to open in 2008) is built. Amazingly enough, that could lead to excitement in ’08 and ’09. And by then the Marlins will still be on the rise, but the Mets and Phillies recent runs will be at their end. The lineup is solid and has good pop. They need to nail down left and center field and may have good internal candidates with Casto, Snelling, and Church. They need National-league average shortstop production from Guzman. The Nationals won’t contend in 2007. But they are following the blueprint of the Cleveland Indians by focusing on development and then as the players come of age, opening up a new ballpark. The talent is right for a good short run as the decade closes. And wouldn’t it be a strange event a pennant race in DC during an Presidential election year.

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