There's no truth to the rumor that Al Gore is on the verge of declaring his candidacy for the Nationals' rotation, although anyone who lives near the Beltway and can work nights might have a shot. To compete for the four spots behind righthander John Patterson, Washington brought to camp a dozen pitchers who in 2006 combined to win a mere nine games in 30 decisions. Team president Stan Kasten, who oversaw the Braves for the first 12 of 14 consecutive division crowns, says that the club is addressing the uncertainty in the rotation with a Branch Rickey-style philosophy: quality out of quantity. "Every year one or two surprises emerge," he says. "I know it's going to happen."
The tenor of Washington's spring was a mix of optimism and realism -- the optimism born, in part, of the reality that the club is widely anticipated to be the worst in the majors and can only exceed expectations. Consider third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's view of the shaky starting staff, which won't include Livan Hernandez (traded) or Tony Armas and Ramon Ortiz (free-agent departures). "Those three are great pitchers, but their combined ERA was over five, so what are we replacing?" asks Zimmerman. "Besides, we just need guys to get to the fifth or sixth. The bullpen's unbelievable."
Unbelievable bullpen or not, the lineup will have to score plenty for Washington to win games, and much of the burden will fall to Zimmerman, 22. In his first full season in the big leagues last year he was at his best under pressure -- leading the majors with 64 hits with runners in scoring position -- and he doesn't seem fazed by what's expected of him now. "I was basically in that situation the whole second half last year," he says. "If you hit in the three-hole, you're the guy who's supposed to drive in runs and get big hits."
For the first two months Zimmerman will have to do that without the protection in the order provided by cleanup hitter Nick Johnson, the first baseman who's recovering from a fractured right fibula suffered last September. Also missing from the lineup -- for good -- is leftfielder Alfonso Soriano, who slugged 28% of the team's '06 homers but skedaddled to Chicago faster than a Blues Brother with a full tank of gas when the Cubs offered him a $136-million free-agent deal.
General manager Jim Bowden took heat from the media after he failed to move Soriano before last July's trade deadline, but the rationale behind the decision -- club executives believed the two compensatory draft picks they'd receive if Soriano left in free agency would be more valuable than the assortment of underwhelming players offered in potential deals -- was to make the team better over the long term. When the franchise was owned by Major League Baseball from 2002 through last May, it was forced to reduce costs, and one way to do that was to retain a skeleton scouting staff and draft only players with low contract demands, rendering high picks essentially useless. But after the Lerner family was awarded ownership rights to the team last May, they allowed Bowden and Kasten, a minority owner, to draft whomever they pleased in order to regenerate the barren farm system.
"The last time I had a team that experts predicted to finish last was 1991," says Kasten, but those Braves made the World Series that year. Unlike that Atlanta team, the Nationals don't have a Tom Glavine or a John Smoltz among the group of starting candidates that includes Jason Bergman, Matt Chico, Shawn Hill, Tim Redding and Jason Simontacchi.
New manager Manny Acta promises that his lineup will be more fundamentally sound than before, which means Washington won't lead the majors in such categories as most times caught stealing, as it did last season. Even so, with this suspect staff, the Nationals will be hard-pressed to equal last year's win total of 71. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 26, 2007