- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What a time to be a baseball fan in Washington! The Nationals are about to commence their third season of play in the District. The club’s ownership situation has finally been resolved, and the new owners are making strides toward turning this franchise into a big-market, championship-caliber organization. The new ballpark is well under construction and is set to open a year from now. For the first time, all the games are available on TV to all the cable customers in the area.

And the product on the field will be the best we’ve seen since the club relocated from Montreal er, or not.

OK, so you can’t have it all. At least not yet.

This just in: The Nationals aren’t going to be very good this season. This may come as a shock to anyone who’s been in a coma since September of last season and still thinks Alfonso Soriano is roaming left field, Nick Johnson is healthy and Washington has a pitching staff.

The rest of us know better. The Nationals have begun the long, slow, painful process of rebuilding, and the end result is going to be a 2007 major-league squad that has no realistic shot of winning.

But you know what? There will be plenty of time to agonize over the sorry state of this team over the next six months (especially for those of us who will be covering it every single night). For now, let’s instead rejoice over the start of a new season, the hope (ill-sighted as it may be) of a surprise pennant race and the promise of better things to come.

So buckle up for the 162-game marathon. The Thursday Morning Manager is here to answer your questions about the Nats as we prepare for Opening Day at RFK …

Q: So Alfonso Soriano still is playing left field for the Nats and is poised for another 40-40 season, right?

A: Uh, not exactly. Soriano was a free agent this winter and decided to follow his heart (read: the money) and sign with the Chicago Cubs for a cool eight years and $136 million. The Nationals never came close to matching that offer and were forced to wave bye-bye to Fonzie.

Q: So what did we get in return for him?

A: Two draft picks: the 31st overall selection and the 67th overall selection.

Q: Is that better than the best trade offer Jim Bowden got for Soriano before last July’s deadline?

A: According to Bowden, yes. He insists there was no offer from any other club that came close to besting the two draft picks. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be several years until we know whether those prospects become major leaguers and whether Bowden made the right choice.

Q: That’s OK. We didn’t really need Soriano back, not as long as the Lerner family went out and spent tens of millions of dollars on free agents this winter.

A: Check again, buddy. There was no free-agent splurge by the Nationals this winter. There wasn’t even any free-agent bargain shopping. They didn’t sign a single player to a multi-year contract, and they didn’t give anyone more than $850,000 for one season.

Q: So wait a minute. What kind of team am I going to be watching this season?

A: One that’s not very good.

Q: There have to be some bright spots on the roster. Give me one good reason to come out to RFK 81 times this year (and don’t say the Presidents Race).

A: Hey, don’t bash the Presidents Race, one of the best things the Nats have done since new ownership took over. And I don’t just say that because I happened to win one of those races last summer while dressed up as a 10-foot-tall George Washington. But I digress …

The best reason to come to RFK this season is simple: Ryan Zimmerman. He had a fabulous rookie season, and that was only a taste of things to come. With a season under his belt, Zimmerman looks poised to really shine this year. Look for him to add to his 20-homer total, improve on his .287 average and cut down on his strikeouts. His defense? Well, it would be hard for him to get much better than he already was last season, but he’ll do his best to land on “Baseball Tonight’s” “Web Gems” at least three or four times a week.

This guy is going to be a legitimate superstar for years to come, and it’s kind of cool to think we got to see it up close from the very beginning.

Q: So we know Zimmerman is a stud. But doesn’t he need some help around him? Who’s going to protect him in the lineup?

A: Fair point. This is where the Nationals are really going to miss Nick Johnson (who won’t be back from his broken leg until at least the All-Star break, and maybe not even then). With Johnson batting cleanup all last season, Zimmerman saw plenty of pitches to hit out of the 3-hole. Now he’s got Austin Kearns behind him, and while Kearns is a potentially dangerous hitter, he’s not nearly as accomplished as Johnson. That means opposing teams are going to pitch around Zimmerman much more this season. He’ll draw a ton of walks, but his RBI total could suffer.

Q: Who’s the key to lineup succeeding then?

A: I’d say it’s the two guys at the top: Felipe Lopez and Cristian Guzman. They’re going to have to get on base at a reasonable clip to give Zimmerman plenty of opportunities to drive them in and to clog up the bases so he can’t be intentionally walked. Lopez looked like a pretty patient hitter during the second half of last season, so he should do OK at the top of the lineup. But have you seen Guzman’s career on-base percentage? .298. Yikes! That’s not going to get it done.

Q: How about the rest of the order? Where’s the production going to come from?

A: From whomever’s hitting fifth and sixth. As of the publication of this section, that appears to be Dmitri Young and Ryan Church. But that could change, especially if Chris Snelling continues to produce and forces his way into the lineup. He’s an intriguing player, as long as he stays healthy.

Q: Let’s move to the pitching staff. I know John Patterson is the ace and can be pretty darn effective when he’s healthy. Who else in this makeshift rotation has a chance to make a positive impact?

A: Two names stand out to me: Shawn Hill and Matt Chico. The former has shown that he’s fully recovered from his 2005 elbow surgery and looks poised for a breakthrough season. He may not be the type of pitcher who can dominate opponents, but he has a chance to be very effective and give his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound. Chico, meanwhile, was the surprise of spring training. He’s only 23, but he displayed impressive stuff and poise in his first big-league camp and earned a spot in the rotation. We’ll see if hitters start to adjust to him eventually, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the lefty gets out to a strong start this April.

Q: The Nats are touting their remade farm system, but I don’t see many top prospects emerging anytime soon. Any studs on the way?

A: Not many, at least not for another year or two. But there are two guys who could get called up to Washington this season and make an immediate impact: Kory Casto and Collin Balester.

Casto displayed incredible patience at the plate this spring for someone who’s never played above Class AA, and he made the Nationals think long and hard about putting him on the Opening Day roster. For the moment, there’s nowhere in the field to put him, but if he tears it up at Class AAA, the Nats will find a spot for him.

Balester, meanwhile, dazzled club officials with his live arm and assortment of pitches this spring. He’s only 20 and will open the year at Class AA, but there’s a sense he may not be that far off and we could see him before the end of the summer.

Q: OK, hotshot, it’s prediction time. Give us your best guess as to the Nationals’ record in 2007.

A: Let’s begin by harkening back one year ago, when in this very space I said Washington would go 72-90. I was wrong. They went 71-91. I’ll try to do better this time around.

There was all sorts of talk this spring around baseball of the Nationals being historically bad this season, losing 110, 120, even 130 games. At first glance, I can understand why there are so many dour predictions. Those, though, have mostly come from “experts” who barely saw these players in person this spring.

I did see them every single day for six weeks, and while I’m certainly not going to predict any surprise pennant races in D.C. this season, I’m also not going to predict anything remotely resembling the 1962 Mets. The Nationals will be bad, but not historically bad. If they can go 66-96 and show signs of improvement along the way, this season won’t be considered a lost cause.

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