MANAGER MANNYACTA first season with Nationals
THERE'S NO truthto the rumor that Al Gore is on the verge of declaring his candidacy for theNationals' rotation, although anyone who lives near the Beltway and can worknights might have a shot. To compete for the four spots behind righthander JohnPatterson, Washington brought to camp a dozen pitchers who in 2006 combined towin a mere nine games in 30 decisions. Team president Stan Kasten, who oversawthe Braves for the first 12 of 14 consecutive division crowns, says that theclub is addressing the uncertainty in the rotation with a Branch Rickey--stylephilosophy: quality out of quantity. "Every year one or two surprisesemerge," he says. "I know it's going to happen."
The tenor ofWashington's spring was a mix of optimism and realism--the optimism born, inpart, of the reality that the club is widely anticipated to be the worst in themajors and can only exceed expectations. Consider third baseman RyanZimmerman's view of the shaky starting staff, which won't include LivanHernandez (traded) or Tony Armas and Ramon Ortiz (free-agent departures)."Those three are great pitchers, but their combined ERA was over five, sowhat are we replacing?" asks Zimmerman. "Besides, we just need guys toget to the fifth or sixth. The bullpen's unbelievable."
Unbelievablebullpen or not, the lineup will have to score plenty for Washington to wingames, and much of the burden will fall to Zimmerman, 22. In his first fullseason in the big leagues last year he was at his best under pressure--leadingthe majors with 64 hits with runners in scoring position--and he doesn't seemfazed by what's expected of him now. "I was basically in that situation thewhole 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."
March 25, 2007
For the first twomonths Zimmerman will have to do that without the protection in the orderprovided by cleanup hitter Nick Johnson, the first baseman who's recoveringfrom a fractured right fibula suffered last September. Also missing from thelineup--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 fulltank of gas when the Cubs offered him a $136-million free-agent deal.
General managerJim Bowden took heat from the media after he failed to move Soriano before lastJuly's trade deadline, but the rationale behind the decision--club executivesbelieved the two compensatory draft picks they'd receive if Soriano left infree agency would be more valuable than the assortment of underwhelming playersoffered 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 lastMay, it was forced to reduce costs, and one way to do that was to retain askeleton scouting staff and draft only players with low contract demands,rendering high picks essentially useless. But after the Lerner family wasawarded ownership rights to the team last May, they allowed Bowden and Kasten,a minority owner, to draft whomever they pleased in order to regenerate thebarren farm system.
"The lasttime I had a team that experts predicted to finish last was 1991," saysKasten, but those Braves made the World Series that year. Unlike that Atlantateam, the Nationals don't have a Tom Glavine or a John Smoltz among the groupof starting candidates that includes Jason Bergman, Matt Chico, Shawn Hill, TimRedding and Jason Simontacchi.
New manager MannyActa promises that his lineup will be more fundamentally sound than before,which means Washington won't lead the majors in such categories as most timescaught stealing, as it did last season. Even so, with this suspect staff, theNationals will be hard-pressed to equal last year's win total of 71.
a modest proposal...
It's rare to seea team head into the season with a rotation as discombobulated as theNationals'. The five most likely starters have combined for only 60 wins intheir major league careers; by contrast, 16 other teams got at least that manywins from their starters in 2006 alone. That's why new manager Manny Acta needsto take a cue from Cardinals' skipper Tony La Russa and move top-notch setupman Jon Rauch into the rotation, just as La Russa did with Adam Wainwright thisspring. PECOTA projects that Rauch (left), who was groomed as a starter in theminors, would be good for a 4.17 ERA if placed in the rotation, the second-bestprojected ERA on the staff behind John Patterson's. And given Rauch's 6'11"frame, mid-90s heater and high strikeout rate, the upside could be quite a bitmore.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
Independent League stats
|LH||Matt Chico (R)*
Double A stats
Triple A stats
* New acquisition
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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Active players,including Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in '06, who hit at least 20home runs and drove in 100 runs in a season before their 22nd birthdays. Amongthe other six players--Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, KenGriffey Jr., Juan Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra--are four who've combined to winsix MVPs (Gonzalez and Rodriguez, two each; Griffey and Pujols).