Monday, February 27, 2006

Hi, everyone, and welcome to the first edition of what hopefully will become a weekly tradition: The Washington Times’ Nationals Mailbag. Feel free to submit a question on any subject relating to the hometown ballclub, on or off the field, and I’ll do my best to provide some insight.

Obviously, space and time restrictions prevent us from answering every single inquiry, but I’m going to try to pick out a sample of the best each week for our print edition and then include more on our Web site. To read the full version or to submit a question, go to When placing a submission, please include your full name and location.

Thanks for reading, and let’s get started.

Q: Just heard that Brian Lawrence will be out until August/September with a shoulder injury. Do you think the Nationals will increase their offer to Pedro Astacio now that they’re down another starter? — John Mihoch

A: Lawrence’s injury really is a significant blow to the Nationals’ rotation. Not because he’s that dominant a pitcher but because the one thing he had going for him was his durability. Finding a guaranteed 200-inning starter to replace him is going to be difficult, nearly impossible, but Jim Bowden already was scouring the majors for available arms even before Lawrence had surgery yesterday.

One of his top targets is Astacio, who was a key contributor to the Padres’ postseason run last season. Here’s the problem: At 36, Astacio is far from a sure thing, and because of that, Bowden to date has only been willing to offer him a nonguaranteed, minor league contract. Word is the Padres are willing to guarantee Astacio a deal to return (although he wouldn’t be allowed to pitch for San Diego until May 1).

Astacio and his agent know the Nationals are desperate now, so don’t be surprised if they hold out for guaranteed money, hoping to get Bowden (or some other club) to bite.

Q:Ryan Zimmerman really showed last season he can play. My question is: Will he still be considered a rookie this season? If so, do you think there’s anyone else in the NL who will challenge him for rookie of the year? — Robert

A: To qualify as a rookie, you must have less than 130 career at-bats, less than 50 innings pitched or have spent less than 45 days on the active 25-man roster. Since Zimmerman had only 58 at-bats and spent just 32 days in Washington in September and October (when rosters expand to 40), he remains a rookie by MLB’s definition.

The word is certainly out on the Nationals’ 21-year-old third baseman, and he will enter the season as one of the favorites for NL rookie of the year honors. But he figures to be up against a deep rookie class. Keep an eye on Florida outfielder Jeremy Hermida, Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder (son of Cecil), San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain, Arizona first baseman Conor Jackson and Pittsburgh pitcher Paul Maholm.

Q: Please forgive me for asking the following question. Believe me, I’m as sick of asking it as you are of reading it. If MLB rejects the lease and takes the city to arbitration, does that kill the stadium (and the Nationals’ future in D.C.) for good? Can I look forward to seeing the Nationals in 2007, or will this be their last year in Washington? — Eddie Cunningham

A: Believe me, I’m as sick of writing about this stuff as you are reading about it, but there’s no getting around the fact the Nationals still have no owner and no new ballpark. (If you think you’re sick of it, how would you like to be among the players, coaches and front-office types that have been going through this nonsense for more than four years?)

Here’s the thing, though: As much as MLB would like city politicians to fear the possibility of relocating to yet another city, there isn’t anywhere else capable of taking this team right now. Not this year, not next year, not even in 2008. Las Vegas, widely believed to be the next new MLB city, still has a long way to go before it’s ready. And everyone else lags even further behind.

So rest assured, the Nationals are here to stay, at least for a while. They may be stuck at rundown RFK for the rest of the decade, but at least they will be in Washington.

Q: If the Nationals are forced to change their name, do you think Senators will be the choice? I hope so. It is the name everyone wanted in the first place. The name Senators won every poll taken everywhere. — Pete Gamboa

A: Speculation always has been that the new owner (whoever he or she is) might want to change the nickname, and certainly Senators is still popular with a large portion of the fan base. But remember two things: 1) The Senators name is technically still property of the Texas Rangers (who relocated from D.C. in 1972), and 2) unless the District suddenly gets full representation in Congress, local politicians are going to be against the Senators name.

Q: The Nationals really have been down on Ryan Church since the start. As a fan who watched a ton of games (ha, not on TV, of course!) last summer, I have never understood this. Church was a rookie of the month, was a solid rookie of the year candidate and plays the game well both in the field and at the plate. Yet the combination of Bowden and Robinson really doubted him, messed with his head by trying to force him into the pinch-hitter role and seemed quick to disrespect him.

I’ve never heard a real excuse for why. We’ve heard bits and pieces about how they weren’t happy with his inability to play while injured, but I think there’s more to it than that. What’s really going on, and why aren’t they giving this guy a legit shot? — Mike Hart

A: This subject came up during our morning briefing with Frank Robinson just the other day. Robinson was careful with his words but gave his honest opinion: Each player has his own tolerance for pain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Still, as a manager you’re probably subconsciously going to appreciate a guy who routinely plays hurt more than a guy whose pain threshold is lower.

I think that has a little to do with Church’s situation. No one questions the severity of the rib/shoulder injury he suffered making that game-saving catch in Pittsburgh in June. Doubts were raised when he needed to go on the DL in late August upon breaking his pinky toe off a foul ball.

But I believe that’s only a small part of the Church story. I think there’s some concern within the organization about his major drop-off in offensive production in the second half of 2005 (nearly 100 points). Did injuries have something to do with that? Probably. Might the league have started figuring Church out, too? There’s a good chance.

There’s one more piece to the equation, and that is the current makeup of the Nationals’ lineup. With Brad Wilkerson gone, there’s really no one to lead off. That’s why you have heard so much this spring about Brandon Watson getting a shot at winning the job. Watson is the only prototypical leadoff man on the roster, so it certainly would help things a lot if he seized this opportunity.

Don’t count Church out, though. He has all the skills to be a quality major leaguer, and if he outperforms Watson this spring, he will force his way into the starting lineup (even if he has to lead off).

Q: I follow the Nationals’ Class A affiliate at Potomac, and of all the prospects that played there in 2005, Bill Bray was the one guy I feel is ready for the big leagues now. What are his chances of making the team right out of camp this year? — Jonathan Pick

A: Not very good. The organization likes Bray (its 2004 first-round pick out of William & Mary), but he still needs some seasoning. The left-handed pitcher zoomed through the system last year, going from Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA New Orleans. That’s where he almost certainly will open 2006, especially with veteran lefties Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton near-locks to make Washington’s bullpen. But if Bray continues to progress as the season plays out, he certainly would be a candidate for a midsummer call-up.

Q: How well is Alfonso Soriano going to be able to play? I mean, last year he played pretty well. I think that transitioning from the AL to the NL is not an easy thing. After all, Carlos Beltran stunk in his first full season after switching from the AL to the NL. What do you think his stats are going to be for this year? — Felix van der Vaart

A: This is going to be interesting to watch. Let’s forget about the whole issue of where Soriano’s going to play — not that it’s easy to do that — and just look at his offensive numbers.

In the last four seasons, Soriano has averaged 35 homers and 97 RBI while hitting .285. Is he capable of doing that this year with the Nationals? Well, remember that he played those four seasons in Yankee Stadium and the Ballpark in Arlington, two parks that are better for hitters than RFK — especially the Ballpark.

But those ballpark-skewered stats can be overblown at times, too. I mean, the Nationals will be playing 81 games away from RFK this year, so it’s not like Soriano is never going to hit a home run.

For now, let’s say he hits .270 with 25-30 homers, 90-100 RBI and a lot of strikeouts. Out-of-this-world numbers? No. But it’s still more than the Nationals got out of anyone in 2005.

Got a question about the Nats?

Mark Zuckerman has the answers. The Times’ beat reporter for the

Nationals will respond to your questions on-line and in print each

Monday, beginning Feb. 27. Send questions to Mark at natsmailbag [AT]

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