By Michael Farber, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked Vinny Castilla stood in the cage Friday morning, stroking one rainbow after another over the leftfield fence at Space Coast Stadium. You could fall in love with that swing, which I did. (Hey, it's spring. You're supposed to fall in love.) But as always when Castilla is the subject, you are advised to consider the environment. A stiff breeze was blowing straight out to left and Castilla, a classic pull hitter, simply was riding some batting-practice fastballs on the wind. His career was made at Coors Field, where he is a career .334 hitter -- he returned to the Rockies last year and had a 35-home run, 131-RBI season -- but he was only ordinary, or worse, during stops in Tampa Bay, Houston and Atlanta. Still, 21 of those 35 homers in 2004 were on the road, which begs the question: Can you really believe what you see when it's 65 degrees and sunny in Florida and snowing sideways back home? Sometimes the answer is blowing in the wind.
Team's biggest strengths
The Nationals have quality major leaguers sprinkled throughout their lineup: Castilla; switch-hitting second baseman Jose Vidro, who is recovering from knee surgery; Brad Wilkerson, a 30-home run outfielder; No. 1 starter Livan Hernandez; five-tool outfielder Jose Guillen, who notoriously wore out his welcome in Anaheim down the stretch last season; and Brian Schneider, a first-rate defensive catcher. Washington also has a passel of decent players in their mid-to-late-20s, and in his mind's eye, interim general manager Jim Bowden sees a chance for this team to have an upstart season like that of his Cincinnati Reds in 1999. It's unlikely, but this is the point: The Nationals appear to be riding a baseball boom in Washington, one that should be reinforced when MLB sells the team this year. The Nationals will generate enough revenue to create a major-market franchise, in every sense of the word, by the end of the decade. Ultimately, the Nationals' biggest strength will prove to be an ability to take this core and improve on it with the benefit of a stable, and rich, workplace.
Team's biggest weakness
The erstwhile Expos simply will not score enough runs, a problem that can be traced to the top of the order. The franchise has had trouble finding leadoff hitters who thrived in the role since Tim Raines' early years in Montreal more than two decades ago. Endy Chavez, who has the job by default for the moment, has speed but fails to reach base often enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup. If he sticks, he figures to be followed by Cristian Guzman, another impatient, low-OPB hitter (.309 in 2002). Guzman turns 27 this month, the age when many players finally figure out how to hit. Wilkerson has filled the role capably enough on occasion, but his power makes him better suited to the middle of the order. The offensive burden on Guillen and Castilla might be insufferable.
Guzman, the ex-Twin, never has played home games on anything but turf, but he has looked spectacular handling the grass and dirt in Florida. With Edgar Renteria now in Boston, no National League shortstop goes into the hole better. Guzman had a .981 fielding percentage the past three years. ... There appears to be a nice blend between the core of former Expos and the Cincinnati connection headed by Bowden, advisors Bob Boone, Barry Larkin and Jose Rijo. "The club's been through so much in the past few years (as the nomadic Expos), it really toughened us up," Wilkerson said. "The chemistry of this group and the new people is real good."... Major League Baseball hopes to have an owner in place for the Nationals by July. The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that team president Tony Tavares wants Bowden to continue in the job even after a sale. Bowden said no matter what happens, he will approach his job as if he will be running the team for the rest of his life. ... A few Montreal touches remain around Space Coast Stadium, including Expos mini bats, autographed baseballs and seat cushions at the souvenir stands. For $3, you can put your butt on the old Expos logo, which is pretty much what MLB did the last three years before relocating the team. The only other Montreal connection to the camp is former major league pitcher Denis Boucher, who is helping during spring training and will scout Canada for the Nats during the season. ... Viera, just north of Melbourne, began its big-league connection as the spring home of the expansion Florida Marlins, but now is on the cusp of being something more than a lazy Grapefruit Lague redoubt. For the first time in memory, not one head of cattle could be spotted beyond the walls of the complex. (No, this was not the origin of the term "bullpen.") There are still empty fields, but beyond them are new buildings, plenty of construction cranes and Interstate 95 in the distance. Viera's city motto: "Future Home of ..."