- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Here’s something new to the Fool, as well as many area baseball fans: a home team from which to pluck fantasy players.

The Fool never latched on to the Baltimore Orioles, despite Peter Angelos’ insistence to the contrary. In fact, their presence on local sports radio was met with disdain, and frankly the televised Orioles games were only worth watching in order to get a look at my other fantasy players teeing off on that pathetic pitching staff.

That plan backfired when the Fool drafted Jorge Julio as his closer in an American League-only league and felt compelled to tune in to watch him implode on a regular basis. File that under “no fun.”

With our focus trained squarely on the Washington Nationals, we can brush aside the Orioles with a simple “avoid that pitching and grab Miguel Tejada.” Simple, sound advice.

But as you flip over to the National League to check out the Nationals roster, you recall the atrocities afflicted on this team by former general manager Omar Minaya and Major League Baseball, which took over ownership of the club in February 2002.

The 2003 Expos’ Opening Day roster featured a few of the names you’ll see in person this season in addition to Vladimir Guerrero — the best fantasy outfield option — and Orlando Cabrera, a former All-Star and one of the better second-tier options at shortstop.

On the previous season’s roster, the Expos at one time or another had spotty but talented outfielder Cliff Floyd and lights-out pitchers Javier Vazquez, Bartolo Colon and Carl Pavano. With the possible exception of Floyd, all of those players will get selected in the top half of any competitive fantasy draft you take part in this month.

And what do the former Expos have to show for that pruning of talent?

All but Guerrero left via trade, and the team did not offer Guerrero arbitration when he became a free agent and thus received nothing but draft picks when he bolted to the Anaheim Angels.

The potential major leaguers who arrived via trade and might contribute this year include relief pitchers Sun-Woo Kim and Francis Beltran (who has a balky elbow and shoulder); infielders Brendan Harris and Nick Johnson; and outfielder Jose Guillen, the prize of the group, who was acquired from the Angels for infielder Maicer Izturis and outfielder Juan Rivera — a player the team received, along with Johnson, from the Yankees for Vazquez.

It looks even worse when you consider the Expos surrendered three top prospects for Colon.

But enough griping. Give Minaya’s replacement, Jim Bowden, credit for being aggressive and salvaging some talent — namely Guillen, infielders Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman and pitcher Esteban Loaiza — in order to make this team interesting and more competitive. It also makes this once-ragtag bunch of Nationals a little more palatable on your draft day.

Best of the bunch

Jose Vidro, second base: Though Vidro put up his worst numbers since his rookie season, the Fool feels good about this hometown pick. Those down numbers were the result of a knee injury that sidelined him for good in August; he was on pace for career highs in homers and stolen bases before shutting it down. Other numbers have dropped as the lineup has gotten worse; his runs scored, RBI and batting average have taken a hit over the last few years. But with his health back and an improved lineup around him, Vidro should return to form — if not better.

Jose Guillen, outfield: He comes with issues, but that’s why the Nationals got him so cheap. He didn’t finish his first season with Anaheim, getting suspended at the end of last year and for the playoffs after an incident with manager Mike Scioscia. It cut short the finest season of Guillen’s career, which has taken him on a wild ride: from a top rookie in Pittsburgh in 1997 to journeyman outfielder to sought-after free agent. His latest stop in Washington should prove fruitful. Expect him to hit more than 30 homers with more than 100 RBI while batting around .300.

Livan Hernandez, pitcher: Hernandez defines “innings eater,” a guy the manager can throw out there 30 or more times a season and give the bullpen a rest. Aside from his durability and postseason success ” which, of course, means nothing to the fantasy baseball player — Hernandez doesn’t have as much to offer as most staff aces, and he loses more often than you’d like. But he has averaged nearly 14 wins a season since 2000 and has 29 complete games in that same span. And, after a few rough years with the Giants, he has gotten his WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) under control; his best two seasons have come in the last two years: a 1.21 WHIP in 2003 and 1.24 in 2004.

Worth a long look

Chad Cordero, reliever: He’ll open the season as the closer, and should have the gig on a full-time basis despite manager Frank Robinson’s protestations. Despite being relatively young (23 on Opening Day), Cordero is already tested. He went from the first round to Class A, then right to the majors in 2003, and spent all of 2004 with the big league club, ending the season as the closer. He saved 14 of 18 opportunities and had impressive strikeout numbers (83 in 822/3 innings). Cordero could be a good cheap source of saves for your team.

Brad Wilkerson, outfielder: While others have struggled with injuries or been traded, Wilkerson has been the franchise’s rock. In each of the last three years, he has played every outfield position in addition to first base. In some leagues, such as those played at Yahoo, that first base eligibility will carry over into this season though Wilkerson is slated to start in left field. He’s also getting better at the plate; Wilkerson crushed a career-high 32 homers last season. If he avoids batting leadoff (an option for Robinson if Endy Chavez struggles), Wilkerson may approach 100 RBI for the first time.

Cristian Guzman, shortstop: This kid was a godsend early in his career for the Twins, because he was a prospect they received from the Yankees who paid off. Guzman was a big part of the Twins turning into championship contenders, and he was an All-Star in 2001. But Guzman’s numbers have suffered since, and last season he had his lowest triple, RBI and stolen base numbers since his rookie year. He also won’t have that friendly Metrodome turf to slap the ball off anymore; Guzman’s average was 20 points higher on the fake stuff last season, and eight of his meager 10 stolen bases came on turf last season. It will also be interesting to see what the lack of that familiar playing surface does to Guzman’s performance in the field — which is where he has made his name of late.

Esteban Loaiza, pitcher: The pitcher we saw in 2003 with the White Sox was as good as they get: 207 strikeouts in 2261/3 innings, 21 wins, 1.11 WHIP, 2.90 ERA. But, it was nothing like anything we have seen from Loaiza at any other point in his career. His previous career bests: 11 wins, 199 innings, 137 strikeouts, 1.38 WHIP, 4.13 ERA. So was 2003 a fluke? Or was last season, when Loaiza tanked with the Yankees, a mere bump in the road?

Sleepers

Nick Johnson, first base: This guy was once considered the next great Yankees first baseman and the heir to Tino Martinez. But his injuries, and the Yankees’ signing of Jason Giambi, got in the way. Now Johnson, if he’s healthy, has a chance to reclaim some of that acclaim. He’s still only 26, and has shown good power and ability to get on base once he gets going. He has more upside than any other Nationals regular.

Tony Armas Jr., pitcher: Injuries have also limited this former Red Sox prospect. He has been around awhile; he was the other pitcher in the deal that brought Pedro Martinez to Boston for Carl Pavano. But while those other two hurlers have pitched their way to All-Star Games and big contracts, Armas has struggled to stay on the hill. If he ever does, expect better numbers than he put up in the 2001 and ‘02 seasons, when he took the mound for a combined 360 innings. A few folks in the organization refer to his stuff as “nasty.”

Terrmel Sledge, outfield: He appears to be the odd man in the outfield, though he will get occasional at-bats and spot starts. You likely don’t have room for that on your fantasy team. But if Sledge gets traded or if a teammate goes down, he could become a producer in the outfield or at first base. He’s worth keeping an eye on.

Rookies

Brendan Harris, infielder: He’s the rook with the best shot of making the Opening Day roster, but he won’t do much for your fantasy team. Harris, a William & Mary product, is having a decent spring but will play a reserve role at third and second bases.

Mike Hinckley, pitcher: The team’s top prospect, according to Baseball America (which ranked him No.29 overall), will likely start the season in Class AAA after getting rocked in his first spring outing. The left-hander will be considered for a rotation spot if he performs well in the minors and if someone else falters, but former uber-prospect Jon Rauch will get the first look.

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