On the mainland
The Nationals will not be playing any home games in Puerto Rico in 2005 after back-to-back seasons of playing a portion of their home schedule on the Caribbean island as a means of generating extra revenue.
The addition of outfielder Jose Guillen raised eyebrows since the slugger was suspended by the Anaheim Angels for the last eight games of the regular season and the playoffs after a temper tantrum. Guillen said afterward that, “it was the best thing that could happen, taking into consideration the way things ended last season between us.” The Nationals sent Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis to the Angels to get Guillen, and GM Jim Bowden said the team was “comfortable” with the fact that Guillen underwent anger management training after the incident.
Manager Frank Robinson and GM Jim Bowden realize that their jobs could be in jeopardy once new ownership is in place. Robinson would like to manage for at least two more seasons before moving into a president’s job with the team. “I’m not interested in being a figurehead,” says the Hall of Famer.
On Oct. 3, the Expos played their last game before moving to Washington, D.C., losing an 8–1 decision to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Coincidentally, Shea Stadium was also the site of the franchise’s first-ever regular season game: an 11–10 win on April 8, 1969. The Expos lost the final game played at Olympic Stadium, 9–1 to the Marlins on Sept. 29 in front of a crowd of 31,395.
It wasn’t until Dec. 21 that D.C. district council passed, by one vote, legislation that finally cemented the Nationals’ existence in the city for the 2005 season, in a move that came after Major League Baseball temporarily shut down the team’s business office. That left the club less than four months to get its temporary home, RFK Stadium, ready for its April 14 home opener. The renovation of the stadium — which the Nationals will share with Major League Soccer’s D.C. United — was originally budgeted at $18.4 million, but it will likely cost more because of overtime charges resulting from the delay in finalizing the agreement. Temporary trays of sod will be used to cover the dirt infield during United home games.
That light at the end of the tunnel for the erstwhile Montreal Expos is new ownership and a new ballpark but not, alas, a legitimate chance at a postseason berth. General manager Jim Bowden and manager Frank Robinson will do well this year simply to lay the foundation for the complete transformation of the franchise under new ownership. This is an organization whose scouting and player development staff was bare-bones for the past three seasons, and it will take a few months to put some meat back on the franchise.
Livan Hernandez is a workhorse who led the Major Leagues in complete games, but beyond him the Nationals will be keeping their fingers crossed. Tony Armas Jr. has electric stuff and would be a logical No. 2 starter, but last year he and fellow starters Zach Day (shoulder tendinitis, fractured finger), Tomo Ohka (broken radius), John Patterson (groin strain) and Jon Rauch (oblique strain) all missed time with injuries. Armas had a strong early season pitching in winter ball in his native Venezuela, throwing free and easy and seeming to be over the shoulder and elbow injuries that have plagued his career. He has the greatest upside of the pitchers behind Hernandez. Esteban Loaiza, signed to a one-year deal in January, will fill one spot in the rotation. He won 21 games two years ago with the White Sox but struggled in 2004.
Few pitchers have been rushed to the major league faster than Chad Cordero, who was closing for what was then the Expos two years ago just two months after he was drafted in the first round out of Cal State-Fullerton. He and crafty Luis Ayala figure to see most of the work as the Nationals’ short relievers. Ayala’s sinking fastball will make him a more effective pitcher on a grass field. Lefthander Joey Eischen will be given a responsible role if he stays healthy. Robinson will mix and match the rest of the way with workhorse T.J. Tucker, Joe Horgan, Claudio Vargas, Antonio Osuna and Gary Majewski. Tucker was used by Robinson in short and long relief and as a spot starter.
Freed up from the wear and tear of playing on Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf, second baseman Jose Vidro should re-establish himself as the best hitter on the team. A lifetime .304 hitter, Vidro has seen his range hampered the past two seasons by knee injuries, but he relies mostly on instincts and positioning. Most baseball observers believe the Nationals overpaid for shortstop Cristian Guzman, but Bowden believes Guzman is a better offensive player than he’s shown and likes the fact he brings a winning pedigree from his days with the Twins.
Vinny Castilla, another of Bowden’s free agent signings, is a superior defender at third base, and his bat will fit in nicely in the middle of the lineup. He’s a career .280 hitter with 303 homers, and he’s coming off a season in which he led the National League with 131 RBIs, but 80 of those RBIs came at Coors Field. The bigger question is, what happens at first base? When healthy, lefty-swinging Nick Johnson sees a lot of pitches and wears down pitchers, but he has been on the disabled list at least once in each of the last five seasons. Johnson missed 89 games last season with a lumbar strain and a broken right cheekbone. It’s possible that Brad Wilkerson — arguably Robinson’s favorite player — could be used at first base.
The Nationals could find themselves with four outfielders capable of playing every day: Wilkerson, an offensive force who, in addition to starting 78 games at first base, opened 51 games in left field, 16 in center and nine in right; Terrmel Sledge; Endy Chavez; and Jose Guillen, who was acquired by Bowden after being suspended late in the season by the Anaheim Angels for disciplinary reasons. As a group, they’ll cover a lot of ground. Wilkerson and Chavez are options for the lead-off spot. Robinson is infatuated with Wilkerson’s on-base percentage and would like to see Chavez be more aggressive both at the plate and on the basepaths. Sledge had a solid rookie season, finishing third in runs batted in (62) while slugging 15 home runs.
Catching Brian Schneider has been a rock for the past two years as the team’s player representative. He’s led all major league catchers in throwing out opposing baserunners during that time (47.8 percent last year) and posted career highs in home runs and runs batted in last year in his first season as the team’s everyday catcher. Free agent Gary Bennett brings experience as a backup.
Jamey Carroll and Henry Mateo are handy players who are best utilized playing ‘small ball’ in late innings, but like many small-payroll teams, the Nationals won’t be loaded with experienced bench strength. Signing former Expo Wil Cordero was a smart move; he impressed Robinson during his stint with the Expos as a player capable of exercising clubhouse leadership.
Bowden’s background with the Cincinnati Reds made him an interesting choice for the Nationals job. He’s a wheeler-dealer — it took just 21 days on the job for him to sign free agents Castilla and Guzman and trade for Guillen — on a club that doesn’t have an abundance of tradable commodities. Robinson, a Hall of Fame player who is a larger-than-life personality, still rubs some of his young players the wrong way. But in three years managing a team that had more off-field distractions than every other club combined, he has compiled a respectable record of 233–253 (.479).
It will be another year of treading water in the NL East, although not having to split a home schedule between Montreal and Puerto Rico, as has been the case in the past two years, should be worth a few more wins alone. There are pieces in place that hint of a decent everyday lineup, and Wilkerson is on the verge of becoming an All-Star. But this club is likely too threadbare in pitching to make a significant run in 2005.