- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The challenge in assessing the Washington Nationals last spring was figuring how close they would come to the 120 losses suffered by the New York Mets in 1962.

A year later, the challenge is tempering expectations of how good they might be.

On paper and on the field, the Nats seem better or potentially better at nearly every position.

First base — If Nick Johnson stays healthy and hits like he did before he broke a leg in 2006, the Nationals offense will be formidable, not just improved. Johnson, not Alfonso Soriano, was the most important offensive player in the lineup in 2006, with power, clutch hitting and a tremendous on-base percentage.

Dmitri Young got a job last year at first base by default but wound up batting .320 and making the All-Star team. He has conditioning and health issues, but if he accepts a role as a part-time player, which I think he will, an already improved bench is made stronger.

Second base — Ronnie Belliard last year was picked up off the scrap heap and signed to a minor league contract. He now is one of the most reliable players on the team, and while he may not win games for you on the field he is all about winning games.

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  • Felipe Lopez has shown a different attitude this spring and still has the talent to be an All-Star second baseman. The question is, will he have the temperament to be a bench player if Belliard gets more playing time?

    Shortstop — Cristian Guzman has been hitting this spring like he did last year before he went down with a thumb injury. If he can stay healthy, he finally may have a full, respectable season in Washington. It doesn’t hurt that he is in the last year of his contract and playing for a new deal.

    Third base — The elements — a stronger lineup, two years of major league experience, a hitter-friendly ballpark — are in place for Ryan Zimmerman to have an All-Star offensive season on the order of 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

    Outfield — Lastings Milledge can be a star, an exciting player who can hit 25 home runs and steal 25 bases — compare that to Nook Logan at this time last year. Austin Kearns is on the clock, so to speak, to have a season to fulfill expectations. Like Zimmerman, he should benefit from the stronger lineup and playing in a more hitter friendly ballpark.

    Wily Mo Pena is sidelined but still should get enough at-bats to have an impact on the entire lineup. Elijah Dukes? It’s a long way from the comfort of spring training to the pressures of a full major league season. Talent-wise, he can be a star. The jury is still out and will be for quite some time on the troubled young outfielder away from the field.

    Catcher — The only position, perhaps, where you can debate whether the Nationals have improved. Brian Schneider, traded to the Mets, was an offensive liability, but he also was a quality catcher who knew how to handle a pitching staff.

    Paul Lo Duca has a better offensive record, but he was one of the central figures named in the Mitchell Report and it is unknown how he will come back from that. Jesus Flores was a nice surprise last year, but he won’t be in Washington unless he is getting a lot of playing time. Johnny Estrada should be a quality backup if he ever gets healthy.

    At nearly every position — and the bench, with Aaron Boone and the versatile Willie Harris — you can make the case that the Nationals will be better than the team that took the field last April, when the Opening Day outfield was Logan, Ryan Church and Chris Snelling.

    The thing to remember is that even though the Nats are better, you still can make the case that they do not have the best player in the National League East at any position. The Mets, Phillies and Braves can field better lineups.

    Even the starting pitching — as uncertain as it is again this year with the health of Shawn Hill — seems improved. At least the options — Jason Bergmann, Odalis Perez, John Lannan, Matt Chico, Tim Redding — have enough of a track record to show they can pitch well at times. Whether they will, we don’t know.

    But they don’t have to pitch well — just effectively and just for five or six innings, because the one part of the game in which the Nationals can say they are better than any team in the division is the bullpen. It is strong and deep.

    Luis Ayala is fully recovered from his elbow surgery of two years ago. No one had heard of Saul Rivera at this time last year, and he wound up appearing in 85 games last year and posting a 3.68 ERA. Joel Hanrahan was an erratic starting prospect last year but now is a fearsome middle reliever.

    The Nationals won 81 games in 2005 on the strength of their bullpen. They can match that figure this year, again on the strength of their bullpen.

    A five- to 10-game improvement on last year’s 73-89 record is certainly within their grasp. If the Nats somehow play beyond their reach, in a year in which they are opening a new ballpark, the landscape of Washington sports could start to change.

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