5 Washington Nationals

With a new home and euphoric fans, an evolving team will try not to disappoint
April 03, 2005

More optimistic than freshman congressmen, the Nationals are ecstatic to be in the nation's capital. Of course, like the old joke--and Major League Baseball's smarmy handling of the Expos had become an old joke--these nomads are happy to be able to call one place home. If the playing field isn't yet entirely level for a team still without an independent owner, at least the Nationals will no longer play 59 games in front of mostly empty seats in Montreal and take refuge for 21 games in Puerto Rico. The only serious traveling the team will do is on an extended honeymoon, which began last September with the announcement of the return of big league baseball to a city that had lost two franchises; the romance surely will continue through the opening of a new stadium, scheduled for 2008.

Starved for baseball since the Senators bolted to Texas in 1971--that team was the last to relocate before the Expos--Washingtonians at week's end had already purchased more than 1.85 million tickets for 2005. Suddenly, the Nationals are on the verge of becoming a big-market player. "It's amazing how we've come from not being allowed to make a September call-up," says outfielder Brad Wilkerson of MLB's decision in 2003 that effectively scuttled Montreal's slim chances to win the NL East, "to playing in front of 30,000 every night."

"This team is heading to a championship, and the story line is phenomenal," says caretaker general manager Jim Bowden. "We're the only team in baseball getting a new city, we've got [more than] 20,000 full-season tickets sold, and we'll have a new owner by the end of the year. This is going to take three to five years, but with new ownership and a new stadium, this is the formula that will end the Braves' reign [in the division]."

Obviously the future is cheerier than the present. The farm system has been pillaged in trades that gave the big league team a false air of competitiveness. This year MLB bumped the team's payroll from $38 million to $50 million, giving Bowden seed money to start scouting again. More publicly he used the additional capital to go on a mini trading-and-spending spree that netted three regulars--third baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielder Jose Guillen and shortstop Cristian Guzman--and righthanded starter Esteban Loaiza. "We spent a boatload of money and brought in one of the best third basemen in the game, a Gold Glove [caliber] shortstop, a quality starter and a five-tool player in Guillen," reliever Joey Eischen says. "For us, we were kind of like the Yankees in the off-season."

Of course the Nationals' acquisitions are smaller units, all with noticeable warts: Castilla turns 38 in July and is the ultimate Coors Field creation (the lifetime .332 hitter in Denver batted 103 points lower on the road than he did at home for the Rockies last year); Guzman is a top-of-the-order hitter with serious on-base issues (a .309 percentage in 2004); Loaiza failed miserably during his second-half stint with the real Yankees (1--2, 8.50 ERA); and the Angels effectively fired Guillen for misbehavior before the playoffs, despite his having 104 RBIs in 148 games.

But Washington also has a crop of middling-to-good twentysomething talent, including 23-year-old closer Chad Cordero, who should bloom once manager Frank Robinson entrusts him with the role full time. There is also a smattering of dependable veterans, such as All-Star second baseman Jose Vidro, back from knee surgery, and the leading inning-eater in the bigs in 2004, righthander Livan Hernandez, who threw 255 innings and had nine complete games, also a major league high. The trouble is, there just isn't enough talent to compete against the four stacked clubs in the NL East. Still in keeping with the giddy mood established by Bowden, catcher Brian Schneider insists that 90 wins and a division title are not beyond the Nats. In D.C. this was once described as "irrational exuberance."

Washington might not score much--Montreal ranked 14th in the league in runs scored last season--but for the first time in years this organization will be safe at home. --M.F.

In Fact

In 2004 Brad Wilkerson became the first player in franchise history to hit 30 home runs, score 100 runs and draw 100 walks.

Enemy Lines

an opposing team's scout sizes up the Nationals

"ONE SCENARIO to watch is the manager-G.M. relationship. Jim Bowden likes to take risks with young players, and Frank Robinson is a conservative manager who likes to play veterans. This is a forced marriage.... The starting pitching has depth, but they don't have a Number 1 or Number 2. The starter who hasn't been doing well is Zach Day. His stuff is average, and he doesn't have the location. He hasn't been the same since breaking his finger [last season].... The surprise has been John Patterson. He has an explosive fastball and a hard breaking ball.... Brian Schneider is their Jason Varitek. Pitchers love to throw to him, and he takes pride in his defense. You can't overlook him in the lineup either.... Jose Guillen has been a tough guy to handle and has played at his own pace this spring. But he is swinging the bat well and will be a dangerous guy in the middle of the order.... Vinny Castilla is solid defensively, but how will he hit at sea level?... This club has some talent. For a lot less money, they're on par with the Mets. They're going to draw like crazy and might even be a surprise [contender]."

The Lineup

projected roster with 2004 statistics

Batting Order

CF Chavez

SS Guzman

2B Vidro

RF Guillen

LF Wilkerson

3B Castilla

1B Johnson

C Schneider

ENDY CHAVEZ

B-T L

PVR 190

BA .277

HR 5

RBI 34

SB 32

BRAD WILKERSON

B-T L

PVR 87

BA .255

HR 32

RBI 67

SB 13

JOSE GUILLEN

B-T R

PVR 71

BA .294

HR 27

RBI 104

SB 5

CRISTIAN GUZMAN [New acquisition]

B-T S-R

PVR 263

BA .274

HR 8

RBI 46

SB 10

JOSE VIDRO

B-T S-R

PVR 102

BA .294

HR 14

RBI 60

SB 3

VINNY CASTILLA [New acquisition]

B-T R

PVR 125

BA .271

HR 35

RBI 131

SB 0

NICK JOHNSON

B-T L

PVR 160

BA .251

HR 7

RBI 33

SB 6

BRIAN SCHNEIDER

B-T L-R

PVR 225

BA .257

HR 12

RBI 49

SB 0

BENCH

TERRMEL SLEDGE

B-T L

PVR 235

BA .269

HR 15

RBI 62

SB 3

WIL CORDERO [New acquisition]

B-T R

PVR 349

BA .197

HR 1

RBI 6

SB 1

GARY BENNETT [New acquisition]

B-T R

PVR 394

BA .224

HR 3

RBI 20

SB 1

2004 RECORD

67--95

5th in NL East

MANAGER

Frank Robinson

fourth season

with the franchise

ROTATION

[originallink:10808676:720496]

PITCHER

PVR

W

L

S

WHIP

ERA

RH Chad Cordero

105

7

3

14

1.34

2.94

RH Luis Ayala

231

6

12

2

1.18

2.69

LH Joey Eischen

292

0

1

0

1.31

3.93

New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)

COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON STEADY HAND Vidro is one of the vets being counted on to bring stability to a roster that has untested young players. COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON   Utley  

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)