PRESEASON PREVIEW: Washington Nationals

The offseason makeover from the Montreal Expos to the Washington Nationals appears to be complete. Interim general manager Jim Bowden signed free agent RHP Esteban Loaiza to a one-year deal, giving the Nationals the innings eater they coveted for so long. Loaiza joins OF Jose Guillen, SS Cristian Guzman, 3B Vinny Castilla, RHP Antonio Osuna and 1B/OF Wil Cordero as major acquisitions for the new-look Washington franchise.

   ARRIVALS: RHP Esteban Loaiza (free agent from N.Y. Yankees), OF Jose Guillen (trade with Anaheim), SS Cristian Guzman (free agent from Minnesota), 3B Vinny Castilla (free agent from Colorado), RHP Antonio Osuna (free agent from San Diego), 1B/OF Wil Cordero (free agent from Florida), C Gary Bennett (free agent from Milwaukee), OF J.J. Davis (trade with Pittsburgh), OF Tyrell Godwin (Rule 5 draft from Toronto), INF Tony Blanco (Rule 5 draft from Cincinnati), OF Jeffrey Hammonds (minor league free agent from San Francisco).
   DEPARTURES: RF Juan Rivera and SS Maicer Izturis (traded to Anaheim), RHP Rocky Biddle (released), OF Valentino Pascucci (sold to Chibba Lotte of the Japan League), C Einar Diaz (free agent to St. Louis), 3B Tony Batista (free agent to Japan).
   BIGGEST NEEDS: Veteran leadership. The Nationals continue to talk to Barry Larkin and could sign the longtime Reds SS as a utility infielder if Larkin decides not to retire.
   FREE AGENTS: None.
   IN LIMBO: 1B Nick Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors.
   MEDICAL WATCH: 2B Jose Vidro is rehabbing following late season knee surgery. 1B Nick Johnson is expected to be fully recovered from a broken cheekbone, which knocked him out for the final weeks of the season.

There's an old saying that "you can't tell the players without a program." Program sales in Washington should be huge this season, since all the players are new to the fans in D.C. The relocation of the former Expos and the fact that the team doesn't have to play half their "home" games in Puerto Rico will take away a huge distraction to the players assembled in our nation's capital.

ADDITIONS:

George Arias (free agent from Japan), Gary Bennett (free agent from Milwaukee), Tony Blanco (Rule 5 Draft from Cincinnati), Vinny Castilla (free agent from Colorado), Wil Cordero (free agent from Florida), J.J. Davis (trade with Pittsburgh), Tyrell Godwin (Rule 5 Draft from Toronto), Jose Guillen (trade with Anaheim), Cristian Guzman (free agent from Minnesota), Jeffrey Hammonds (minor league free agent from San Francisco), Esteban Loaiza (free agent from the Yankees), Antonio Osuna (free agent from San Diego).

LOSSES: Tony Batista (free agency), Rocky Biddle (Released), Einar Diaz (free agency), Maicer Izturis (trade with Anaheim), Valention Pascucci (sold to Chibba Lotte of the Japanese League), Juan Rivera (trade with Anaheim).

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1: Endy Chavez

2: Cristian Guzman

3: Jose Vidro

4: Jose Guillen

5: Brad Wilkerson

6: Vinny Castilla

7: Nick Johnson

8: Brian Schneider

The Nationals desperately want to move Brad Wilkerson down in the lineup so he can drive in more runs. The key is that Endy Chavez has to be able to hold down the fort in the leadoff spot. If Chavez can't pick up the pace, then Wilkerson or perhaps, Cristian Guzman or Jose Vidro would be another option.

The rest of the order is pretty productive and manager Frank Robinson can split up lefties and righties pretty well if all goes right.

BENCH:

OF Terrmel Sledge

OF J.J. Davis

OF Jeffrey Hammonds

OF Tyrell Godwin (Rule 5)

IF Tony Blanco (Rule 5)

1B Wil Cordero

IF Jamey Carroll

IF George Arias

C Gary Bennett

It's unlikely that both Godwin and Blanco will make the club. They'll likely battle amongst themselves for a utility spot. Jeffrey Hammonds is a big question mark as well. He could possibly accept a minor league assignment to give the Nationals some insurance. Hammonds and J.J. Davis could engage in another battle for a spot on the bench. George Arias found some power while playing in Japan and the question is whether he can continue that in the states.

The good news is that in Jamey Carroll, Wil Cordero and Gary Bennett, the Nationals have three experienced players to bring off the bench. Carroll has gotten better every season and can play a number of positions. Cordero returns to the organization after a year away. He'll back-up Nick Johnson and possibly take over first base if Johnson is dealt.

Terrmel Sledge is a player to watch. He could be starting on some teams and might push for an everyday job with the Nationals by mid-season.

ROTATION:

RH Livan Hernandez

RH Tony Armas, Jr.

RH Tomo Ohka

RH Esteban Loaiza

RH Zach Day / RH John Patterson / RH Claudio Vargas

Livan Hernandez is an innings eater. He keeps coming up as trade bait and could be dealt near the trading deadline. Tony Armas, Jr and Tomo Ohka both had injuries last season and Armas is still a bit of a concern. He pitched well in winter ball and if he's healthy, that will go a long way toward making this rotation much better. Esteban Loaiza is a nice addition if he can return to his successful ways of the past.

The real battle will be for the final spot in the rotation. Zach Day and John Patterson are the key combatants for that spot. Incumbent Claudio Vargas might have something to say about it though. Michael Hinckley could possibly crack a spot in the rotation or would be a good replacement in case of an injury or a trade that would open up a spot.

BULLPEN:

RH Luis Ayala

RH Francis Beltran

RH Chad Cordero

LH Joey Eischen

LH Joe Horgan

RH Antonio Osuna

RH Jon Rauch

RH Gary Majewski

There will be some definite battling going on in the bullpen. The losers of the fifth spot in the rotation will join the mix along with almost every other reliever in the organization. There are few spots that are locked down. Ayala, Cordero and Eischen are the closest that the Nationals get to having jobs locked down. Ayala, Cordero or possibly Osuna or Majewski will be the closer. The ever popular closer-by-committee approach could be used as well. Majewski and Rauch both had strong winter seasons and will get a long look in the spring.

Joe Horgan was hit and miss, but the Nationals will likely want a second left-hander in the bullpen, so he may have an edge there.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

It's a toss-up between the health of Tony Armas and the ability of Endy Chavez to play in the majors. Armas dismissed some concerns with a good showing this winter. Chavez is an issue that the Nationals have to hope gets a satisfactory answer. He hasn't shown the ability to get on base for the sluggers behind him. Moving Wilkerson back to the leadoff spot is something that Frank Robinson really wants to avoid if at all possible.

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Jose Guillen is going to prove that he can be a quality player without the attitude that he's shown in the past. At least that's what the Nationals are hoping for. He's in his final season before free agency, so now is the time for him to prove something.

The real breakout player may be catcher Brian Schneider. His offense has been getting better and he is one of the best in baseball at handling pitching staffs. Schneider could well become a true team leader both on and off the field. He has the potential to be a perennial all-star behind the plate for years to come. Look for new owners to try to lock both Schneider and Wilkerson up long term.

PROJECTION:

The lack of a true owner has hampered the off-season efforts of GM Jim Bowden. He hasn't been able to sign major free agents and he has also had to shy away from signing players to long-term deals. The payroll was held steady at around the $50 million mark. Because of the lack of big name signings or trades in Washington while the rest of the NL East – with the exception of Philly – made significant moves, probably dooms the Nationals to the cellar of the division.


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