The Washington Times - March 26, 2009, 12:00AM

The Nationals struggled in every phase of the game in 2008, scoring the third fewest runs in the National League, posting its third-worst team ERA and committing more errors than any other Senior Circuit club as they slumped to a major league-worst 59-102 record. It was their worst showing since relocating from Montreal prior to the 2005 season, and the Esmailyn Gonzalez age scandal proved to be the last straw for general manager Jim Bowden, who resigned under immense pressure last month. There is reason for optimism, however, as free agent signee Adam Dunn brings sorely needed punch to the lineup and several promising young pitchers will occupy spots in the rotation.

Lineup: In one of his final acts before resigning, Bowden added punch to the lineup by inking Dunn (right) to a two-year, $20 million deal. The 29-year-old first baseman/outfielder has hit 40 or more home runs in five consecutive seasons and has a career .381 on-base percentage. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t made all that much progress at the plate since debuting in 2005 but should hit around .280 with 25 jacks if he can stay healthy. The Nats are hoping 2009 is the year that talented but troubled right fielder Elijah Dukes will put his off-field issues in the rear-view and become a force in the middle of their order. Center fielder Lastings Milledge - who has a lower ceiling than Dukes, but also fewer off-field troubles - will likely bat leadoff after stealing 24 bases in 2008 and hitting .299 after the All-Star break. Shortstop Cristian Guzman had a nice bounce-back season in 2008 and will probably occupy the No. 2 hole. The talented but oft-injured Nick Johnson will play first base and bat fifth or sixth if he can stay healthy; if not, Josh Willingham, who hit 15 homers for the Marlins last year, will step in. Jesus Flores has missed most of spring training with an elbow strain, but it’s healing and he should be ready to catch and probably hit in the No. 7 spot on Opening Day. Ronnie Belliard and Anderson Hernandez were battling it out for the second base job, but Hernandez suffered a hamstring injury Wednesday, likely ensuring that Belliard will start on Opening Day. Belliard is the better hitter while Hernandez is the superior defender, and manager Manny Acta could go either way, or have them split time, once Hernandez is ready to go.

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Rotation: Lefty John Lannan (right) has followed up a solid 2008 campaign with an outstanding spring and appears poised to take the next step toward becoming a legit front-of-the-rotation starter. He’s set to start for the Nats on Opening Day. Lefty Scott Olsen wore out his welcome with the Marlins with attitude issues and inconsistency, but is very talented and has three-plus years under his belt at 25. 10-plus wins and an ERA around 4.00 are optimistic but reasonable expectations. Righty Daniel Cabrera went 48-59 with a 5.05 ERA in five seasons with the Orioles, but the Nats will give him a rotation spot anyway. He has good stuff but no idea how to use it, and it’s appearing less and less likely that he’ll ever figure it out. Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, a 2007 second-round pick, has gone 15-5 with a 2.74 ERA in 35 minor league starts, and though he’s never pitched above double-A, it appears he’ll open the year in the Nats’ rotation. Zimmermann looks as if he’ll be up to the challenge and is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. Young right-handers Shairon Martis and Collin Balester, both of whom saw time with the Nats in 2008, are competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, with the loser likely ticketed for triple-A. Balester has more long-term upside but Martis is more polished and has had the better spring, and appears to be the favorite at this point. Lefty Matt Chico is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t help the Nats until late summer, if at all.

Bullpen: Acta said on Monday that he’ll carry seven relievers at the beginning of the season. Right-hander Joel Hanrahan (right) converted nine of 12 save chances after taking over as closer late last season and will occupy the same role in 2009. He fanned 94 batters in 84 1/3 innings last year and has the stuff necessary to succeed. Saul Rivera posted a respectable 3.96 ERA in 76 appearances last season and will serve as the Nats’ top right-handed setup man. Recent free agent signee Joe Beimel will be the top lefty in the ‘pen. He was outstanding for the Dodgers last season, going 5-1 with a 2.02 ERA in 71 appearances. Right-hander Steven Shell posted a 2.16 ERA in 39 appearances in 2008 and has had a good spring, so he should have one of the four remaining spots locked up. Righty Jason Bergmann flopped as a starter last season, going 2-11 with a 5.09 ERA, but has also looked good this spring and is a good bet to start the year with the Nats. Acta could certainly use another left-hander in the ‘pen, meaning there’s a good chance that either Mike Hinckley or journeyman Wilfredo Ledezma will make the 25-man roster. Hinckley looked great while tossing 13 2/3 scoreless innings last September but has been atrocious this spring, while Ledezma is having a nice spring but has a 5.10 ERA in 155 career big league appearances. The Nats would prefer for Hinckley to step up, but if he doesn’t show them something soon, the job may go to Ledezma. Righties Garrett Mock, Julian Tavarez, Jesus Colome, Ryan Wagner, Kip Wells and Gary Glover will battle it out for the final spot right up until the end of spring training, with Mock and Tavarez looking like the favorites at the moment. Two members of that group could make the team if Acta decides that one bullpen lefty is sufficient. Rule 5 pick Terrell Young hasn’t done anything this spring to justify a roster spot and will probably be returned to the Reds unless a deal is worked out.

Defense: Zimmerman (right) is well above average at third and could become an elite defender if he can stay within himself and refrain from trying to make borderline impossible plays so frequently. Guzman has lost a step since his Twins heyday but remains an adequate shortstop. Hernandez has a better glove than Belliard at second, but Belliard may be able to hold on to the job because of his superior bat. Johnson is smooth at first, but if the injury bug bites him once again, Willingham would be a big step down defensively. Dunn is more athletic than one would expect but is still somewhat of a defensive liability in left field. Milledge covers a good amount of ground in center, however, and Dukes has the tools to be an above-average right fielder. Flores is still honing his craft but has the tools necessary to be an above average backstop.

Spare Parts:Austin Kearns‘ once-promising career has taken a nose dive in recent years and he’ll be relegated to bench duty unless the Nats can find a team willing to take on some of the $9 million he’s still owed. Wil Nieves appears to have the inside track on the backup catcher’s gig, though Javier Valentin and Josh Bard - recently signed after being cut by the Red Sox - are also in the running. Willie Harris is having an awful spring, but his versatility - he played left, center, second, short and third in 2008 - and good showing last year should snag him the last bench spot. Since Belliard, Hernandez and Harris can all back up Guzman at short and Belliard and Harris can play third, Alberto Gonzalez probably won’t make the team out of spring training. With the outfield so crowded, there also doesn’t appear to be room on the roster for Wily Mo Pena, who once looked like a potential 35-homer guy but has never been able to put it all together. Speedy outfielder Roger Bernadina struggled at the plate in 26 games with the Nats last season and will start the year in the minors, but will likely get another chance at some point. Kory Casto, once considered one of the Nats’ top prospects, has made little progress in recent years and is a longshot for the Opening Day roster.

Prospects: Left-hander Ross Detwiler (right), the No. 6 overall pick in 2007, had an up-and-down season in high Class A last season but has outstanding stuff and could help the team in the second half if he refines his command and achieves consistency. Outfielder Justin Maxwell missed most of 2008 with a wrist injury but appeared close to ready for the majors during a September 2007 audition. With the Nats outfield so crowded, he’ll start the season in triple-A and wait for an opportunity. Leonard Davis had an outstanding season at the plate in 2008 and can play second, third and the corner outfield spots. He could force his way into the mix with a strong start in triple-A. Shortstop Ian Desmond has a strong arm and great range at shortstop but has work to do offensively before he’ll be able to help the Nats. Most of the team’s other top prospects are still at least a year away. The Nats have the No. 1 overall pick in this June’s draft and it’s a near-lock that they’ll take San Diego State’s Stephen Strasburg. The right-handed fireballer was the lone collegian selected to play for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics and is one of the best pitching prospects available in the draft in years. He could see time in the majors before the end of the year if he agrees to terms quickly enough.

Outlook: The addition of Dunn will do wonders for the Nats lineup, and Washington could be a middle-of-the-pack offensive team if Zimmerman and Guzman hold steady, Milledge and Dukes step up and Johnson stays healthy for once. If Lannan continues his progression, Olsen and Zimmermann pitch to their potential and Martis proves to be an adequate No. 5 starter, the rotation could make great strides in spite of Cabrera’s presence. The Nats need a few guys to step up in the bullpen, but Hanrahan, Rivera and Beimel form a solid core. The Nats are still a few years away from contending in the competitive N.L. East, but have nowhere to go but up after a disastrous 2008. Progress will be made, and in a best-case scenario, the Nats could surprise just about everyone and hover around .500. A 75-win season is a more reachable goal, however, and while this year’s Nats will be a lot more fun to watch, they’ll be hard-pressed to stay out of the cellar in their division.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photos by Peter Lockley/The Washington Times