With the advent of the new season, it's time for the pundits in print, on radio and TV and on the Web to do their season predictions. As you look around, there is no more consistent pick across the board than the Nationals finishing last in the NL East.
Every year, however, a team or two surprises. One that is supposed to finish last sneaks up on the pack, makes some playoff noise and finishes with a much better record than most predict. Why can't the Nationals be that team in 2005?
Here's what they have going for them that makes you think that they could shock the world and finish, say, third in the division:
- Solid starting pitching--The rotation of Hernandez, Ohka, Loaiza, Day and Armas (once he is back) has five pitchers capable of winning 12-15 games each. It's not a rotation that will make anyone forget the Braves of the mid-90's or anything like that, but there's not one who, at this point, makes you cringe when you hear he's tonight's starter. Plus to hold onto those leads there's Chad Cordero, who can slam the door with great consistency.
- Some good defense up the middle--Brian Schneider is the best defensive catcher in the NL. Cristian Guzman is a very good shortstop and Jose Vidro, while he may have lost a step, is solid at second base. Every fifth day when Hernandez takes the mound the Nationals have the best-fielding pitcher in the league in the middle of the diamond. There are question marks in center since the Nats sent Endy Chavez down to the minors, but the defense up the middle is among the best in the division.
- They have a couple of possible stars in Wilkerson and Guillen--Even if Wilkerson just follows a normal progression he'll put up All-Star type numbers this year. And of course Guillen is a legit five-tool player who just needs to keep his head on straight to blossom into a feared player in the lineup.
- They'll be able to sneak up on other teams--At least in the early going, nobody is going to juggle their rotation to make sure their aces are lined up for the upcoming Nats series.
- There are a couple of possible paper tigers in the division--Philadelphia and New York have added a ton of talent over the past couple of years, but the parts just don't seem to fit together. At least one of them should collapse completely and the other could struggle to go .500.
The call here is that after some horrendous luck on the injury front and an equally awful playing situation in Montreal/San Juan over the past few years, this team gets a bit more than its share of the breaks and spends a good chunk of the season over .500. They probably won't quite finish there. We'll go with 78-84 for the final mark, which will be good for fourth, possibly third, in the NL East.