- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Q: The starting pitching seems to be improving. Are there any other improvements you see? David R., Alexandria

A: First off, yes, the starting pitching has been much better since the first time around the rotation. Other improvements? Well, there aren’t many, because the offense as a whole has struggled. But Chris Snelling has looked solid since taking over for Kory Casto in left field, and Ronnie Belliard has been a godsend both at the plate and in the field (his one egregious error in Atlanta aside). Ryan Church has been the club’s most productive hitter and looks relaxed at last. There are still several key offensive contributors who need to turn things on, though, headlined by Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Brian Schneider.

OnWashingtontimes.com

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Q: If the Nationals are rebuilding a team, why arent they letting some of the rookies get in there a little more like Levale Speigner? All the relief pitchers need to get a chance in a pressure-type situation.

- Thomas

A: Maybe so, but theres still a hierarchy to these things. Manny Actas first objective is to try to win games, and that means hes going to use his best and most-proven relievers in the late innings of tight ballgames. Chad Cordero is his closer, Jon Rauch is his primary setup man, Micah Bowie is the left-handed specialist, and Ryan Wagner and Jesus Colome are the sixth- and seventh-inning guys.

Speigners role is as a long reliever, and while there may not be much glory in that, its still an important role on a ballclub, especially one with so many questions about its starting rotation. Speigner is capable of throwing multiple innings, so thats why hes valuable in that role. However, his future might well be as a starter, so dont be surprised if hes bumped up to the rotation at some point this season.

Q: I am fully on board with Stan Kastens “Plan,” but we have to keep in mind that even when the minor league pieces look like they are falling into place, the players we amass still need to perform.

For instance, Zech Zinicola, who everybody assumed would be in the majors sometime this summer, is pitching terribly in Harrisburg, with an ERA over 16.50. On the other hand, the team continues to work under the radar by picking up former prospects like Brent Abernathy for our Class AAA team.

I guess the point is that the Nats will need some luck along with good scouting - some of the scrap heap acquisitions need to blossom, because not all high draft picks will pan out as intended.

- Kevin Costello, Fairfax

A: Good points, all. As much as the Nationals are touting all the top prospects theyve added to the system in the last year, history tells us only a percentage of them will actually make it to the major leagues, let alone become productive players.

Kasten and Co. have done well to stock up at certain premium positions, and thats the best way to ensure success in the long run.

Look at shortstop: Washington has three highly touted prospects (Esmailyn Gonzalez, Stephen King and Ian Desmond), which should increase the odds that at least one of them makes it. And if by some chance two of them pan out, that organizational depth can be used as trade bait to help fill other more glaring holes.

But the No. 1 point to remember is this: Big-name prospects dont always become major league stars. And conversely, no-name minor leaguers often burst onto the scene to become key contributors.

Q: Can you tell me why they did not trade Alfonso Soriano last year when they could, if they knew he was not going to re-sign with them, for players that could help this team in the future?

- Jim Ward, Kentucky

A: All these months later, the Soriano saga still comes up, and rightfully so. The Nats decision to let him walk as a free agent will have lasting ramifications for the organization.

To repeat how the whole process went down: 1) The Nats tried to sign Soriano to a long-term deal last summer; he declined. 2) The Nats tried to trade him last summer, but according to the club, did not receive any offers worth accepting (only second-level prospects). 3) The Nats made one last attempt to re-sign him after the season but came nowhere close to matching the Cubs eight-year, $136 million offer. 4) Washington decided the best course of action was to let Soriano walk and accept two draft picks (a sandwich pick after the first round and a second-round pick) from Chicago as compensation.

In the end, was it the right move? Itll be years until we can say for sure, based on how those soon-to-be-drafted players pan out.

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