Scouting the competition: The Nationals

Here's a look at the Washington Nationals, who are moving into a new stadium next season in DC.

The Washington Nationals had a decent season. Okay, so they were sixteen games under .500 with 73 wins and 89 losses. But for a team that looked like it was on its way to a 100-plus loss season, the Nationals made great progress in their last season at RFK Stadium.

After starting the season 32-48, the Nationals turned around and played .500 baseball the rest of the way (41-41). With a new stadium on the horizon, an improving farm system, and evidently the money to make some additions, there are a lot of positives surrounding this franchise.

Pure and simple, Washington had no power and no starting pitching last season, while the bullpen kept them competitive. The Nationals were last in the big leagues with 673 runs scored and last in the National League with 123 home runs. The starting rotation was also a nightmare, with an ERA of 5.11, next-to-last in the National League.

The lack of offense killed this team, and that's why the Nationals' front office will be looking for more punch this season. There is some talent in the lineup, but just not enough talent.

Dmitri Young was the Comeback Player of the Year winner after hitting .320 with 13 home runs and 74 runs batted in. He was able to take over at first base after Nick Johnson was lost to the Nationals for the season with leg and hip problems. If Johnson comes back, the Nats will have to make a decision since he and Young are both limited to first base.

Ronnie Belliard had a decent season at second base, hitting .290 with 11 home runs and 58 runs batted in. But he might be squeezed out if the Nationals move Felipe Lopez to second base. Either Belliard or Lopez could be dealt as well in the search for more pitching or upgrades in the batting order.

Lopez's job may be in jeopardy if Christian Guzman comes back from yet another injury-plagued season. Guzman played in 42 games and hit .328, but then he missed more time with torn ligaments in his left thumb. If Guzman is on track to play next season, the Nationals could feel better about their depth in the middle infield.

Ryan Zimmerman provides some stability at third base. He hit .266 this past season with 24 home runs and 91 RBI. He continues to be one of the Nationals' biggest bright spots.

The outfield is more complicated. Ryan Church seems to fit in somewhere after hitting .272 with 15 home runs, 70 RBI, and a .349 OBP. He played 87 games in left and 39 games in center, but his time in left was cut short later in the season after the acquisition of Wily Mo Pena.

Yet another former Cincinnati Reds' player brought in by former Reds' GM Jim Bowden, Pena hit .293 in 37 games with the Nationals with 8 home runs and 22 RBI. He may have the edge in left field next year, and if he could ever carryover his work from batting practice into the games Pena might lead the league in home runs. With the Nationals needing power and offense, look for Pena to have a spot locked up even before spring training begins.

Church might play center, but Nook Logan and Justin Maxwell also fit into the mix there. Logan played 79 games in center in 2007 and hit .265 and stole 23 bases. But Logan had only a .304 on base percentage and needs to drastically improve in that are. Maxwell is a top outfield prospect who will probably return to AA to start next season, but he's not far from being ready to contribute at the big league level.

Austin Kearns played 156 games in right field and hit .266 with 16 home runs and 74 RBI. He had a .355 OBP, but the Nationals need more power and production from him.

It will be interesting to see if the Nationals make a change at catcher, where Brian Schneider hit only .235. Jesus Flores started 42 games behind the plate and hit .244, but he's the younger player with a bit more potential.

Along with improving the offense, the Nationals must get better starting pitchers. Staying healthy wouldn't hurt either, as many of the Washington starters missed significant time in 2007. John Patterson pitched in only seven games, while Shawn Hill had only 16 starts.

Who knows if Patterson will be back next season. He's been hurt for the last two seasons, making only fifteen starts since the start of 2006. When he made 31 starts in 2005 Patterson looked like a potential ace pitcher, but it doesn't do the Nationals much good if he's stuck on the disabled list.

Hill made 16 starts and 11 of them were quality appearances, so the Nationals must get him back into the rotation to see exactly what they have with him. He was 4-5 and had a 3.42 ERA before having surgery.

Matt Chico started the most games for the Nationals going to the hill 31 times. Chico is not an ace, as he proved with his shaky control and 4.63 ERA. But he has decent potential and might be a good number three starter next season.

Jason Bergmann started 21 games and had 10 quality starts. Bergmann was 6-6 with an ERA of 4.45. And Mike Bacsik had 8 quality appearances out of 20 starts, along with giving up Barry Bonds' tie-breaking home run late in the season.

Tim Redding showed some promise with a 3-6 record and a 3.64 ERA in 15 starts. Jason Simontacchi made 13 starts, but he struggled with a 6.37 ERA.

Joel Hanrahan (5-3, 6.00 in 11 starts), Micah Bowie (4-3, 4.55 in 8 starts), and Jerome Williams (0-5, 7.20 in 6 starts) are nothing to get excited about for next season. But the Nationals do have hope for John Lannan, a young pitcher that made six starts late in the season and was 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA. Washington expects Lannan to be a serious candidate for the rotation next year.

The bullpen (with a 3.81 ERA, fourth best in the NL) is a strength, led by closer Chad Cordero. The Nationals used Cordero in 76 games and he saved 37 of those contests. He probably has the most value on the pitching staff, so it will be interesting to see if he is used to improve the lineup and/or the rotation.

Jon Rauch (3.61 and 33 holds in 88 games), Saul Rivera (3.68 ERA and 19 holds in 85 games), and Jesus Colome (3.82 ERA and 12 holds in 61 games) were outstanding setting up Cordero. The Nationals also got a game out of Ross Detwiler, who was the team's first round pick back in June.

The Nationals are getting there, but they still need a lot of work. Don't believe the rumor about Tom Glavine going there. That's just not going to happen. Stan Kasten knows how to build a consistent winner after doing it in Atlanta, and he's not going to ruin his progress by bringing in older and expensive free agents.

Jim Bowden will try to help the lineup and the rotation, but this club is not going to waver from its commitment to long-term and consistent success. They'll tweak here and there, and hope to get healthy, but the core of young talent will be the team's focus.

No one who can become a free agent should interest the Braves, and it's doubtful the two teams will swing any trade. But the Braves will be watching the Nationals and their former team President very closely as they expect the National League East to get even more competitive next season.


Potential Free Agents (6): Pedro Astacio, Dan Kolb, Robert Fick, Travis Lee, Tony Womack, Tony Batista
Eligible for Arbitration (15): Luis Ayala, Micah Bowie, Jesus Colome, John Patterson, Jon Rauch, Tim Redding, Billy Traber, Ryan Wagner, Chad Cordero, Felipe Lopez, D'Angelo Jimenez, Ryan Church, Alex Escobar, Ryan Langerhans, Wily Mo Pena


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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