- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The pitchers have built up their arm strength (well, except for the guy who was supposed to start Opening Night).

The hitters have fine-tuned their swings (well, except for the new catcher, who only started playing in exhibition games a week ago).

And the brand-spanking-new ballpark is ready to invite Washington Nationals fans in for a fabulous baseball-viewing experience (well, except for anyone who needs to find a place to park).

OK, so the Nationals have a few kinks to work out even as they count down the final hours to their nationally televised debut at Nationals Park. It would be nice if the starting rotation inspired a bit more confidence. It would be nice if so many regulars hadn’t dealt with injuries this spring. And it would be nice if Stan Kasten could offer 40,000 free parking spaces within three blocks of the stadium.

But it’s too late for all that now. For better or worse, it’s time to kick off the 2008 baseball season. And for the first time since the Nationals arrived in town three years ago, there’s some legitimate buzz around this franchise.

Whether that translates into a winning record remains to be seen. But at least fans have some reason for optimism, especially after all those dour predictions a year ago that said this team would lose 120 games. (For the record, I predicted a 66-96 record. Came up seven wins short.)

So before you plan your ideal travel route to the ballpark, buy your official Lastings Milledge No. 44 jersey and memorize Manny Acta’s career minor-league stats, here’s a quick primer on everything you need to know about the 2008 Nationals:

Q: First things first: Can you get me a parking pass?

A: Uh, no. I’m lucky I’m even getting one in the ballpark’s general vicinity.

But here’s the thing: The parking situation probably isn’t going to be as bad as everyone thinks. All the season-ticket holders have assigned spots. Everyone else is either planning to take Metro or park at RFK and take the shuttle.

I know that doesn’t sound ideal, but do you ever hear Cubs, Red Sox or Yankees fans complaining about having to take the subway to the park?

We’ll get used to it.

Q: Is there any truth to the rumor the Nats have invited President Bush not only to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday night, but also the actual first pitch of the game?

A: Come on, now. Why so pessimistic? Just because Acta still hadn’t named his Opening Night starter as of the moment I wrote this article?

Obviously, the club hoped Shawn Hill would be ready to make the start, but his right forearm just didn’t allow it. So we’re left with Odalis Perez/Jason Bergmann to throw out the first pitch in ballpark history.

Years from now, will anyone really remember? Well, maybe.

Q: OK, there has to be something positive to say about this team, right? Isn’t the starting lineup going to be considerably better than it was a year ago?

A: Yes, it really should. Consider that the Nationals have added a healthy Nick Johnson, Milledge, Wily Mo Pena (once he returns from an oblique injury) and Paul Lo Duca to the fray. None of those guys was in the lineup on Opening Day last year, so it should definitely make a difference.

The key, though, is going to be at the top of the order. Can Cristian Guzman and Milledge successfully reach base enough to give Ryan Zimmerman, Johnson, Austin Kearns and Pena ample opportunities to drive in runs?

Washington’s offense will only go as far as those two let it.

Q: What’s a reasonable statistical line for Zimmerman this year?

A: Zimmerman admittedly is coming off a bit of a down season after wowing our socks off as a rookie in 2006. Though his home run total went up from 20 to 24, his average dropped from .287 to .266 and his RBI total from 110 to 91.

Some of that had to do with a lack of talent around him, but Zim also knows he still needs to mature as a hitter. He needs to lay off those low-and-away sliders and he needs to drive the ball more to right-center field.

The hunch here is that he will take the next step in his career progression, helped in part by the move out of cavernous RFK. Season numbers: a .290 average with 30 homers and 100 RBI.

Q: Speaking of that new ballpark, how much difference will it make? Are the Nats about to become a home run-hitting club?

A: Let’s not get too carried away. Though the new place is considerably smaller than RFK, it’s not a bandbox in the mold of Citizens Bank Park in Philly or Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

Experts believe the new stadium will play fair to both hitters and pitchers, which is how it should be. So, yes, look for Zimmerman, Kearns and Pena to hit more homers, but don’t forget that also means more homers surrendered by Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero.

Q: Is the starting rotation really going to be the Achilles’ heel of this team again?

A: It sure looks that way, but there is this one caveat: Unlike a year ago, when injuries forced the Nationals to go with a rotation that included the likes of Mike Bacsik, Micah Bowie and Levale Speigner, there is considerably more depth in the system this time around.

The five guys in the big-league rotation may not inspire fear in most opponents, but consider the guys waiting in the wings at Class AAA Columbus: John Lannan, Matt Chico, Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Tyler Clippard. Those are real, live, actual prospects, and there’s a good chance you’ll see all of them before the year ends.

Q: If the rotation is the weak link on this club, is the bullpen the saving grace?

A: Indeed it is. It’s not at all ludicrous to suggest that Washington has the best relief corps in the NL East. Yes, you’d probably take Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman over Cordero and Rauch (no offense to those two), but the true strength of the Nationals’ pen lies in its depth of quality arms.

Luis Ayala is all the way back from Tommy John surgery and ready to baffle right-handed hitters with his sidearm delivery. Saul Rivera may be the least-recognizable workhorse in the majors. Ray King still knows how to get lefties out. Jesus Colome dominated for half a season in 2007. And keep an eye on starter-turned-reliever Joel Hanrahan, who was downright unhittable this spring and forced his way onto the roster.

Q: Who will have the biggest impact among the newcomers?

A: Milledge. This guy looks like the real deal. He kind of got a bad rap in New York because he comes across as overconfident and he plays with style. But he’s got star-potential written all over him.

It’s not just his physical skills (of which he has many). I was particularly impressed this spring with Milledge’s work ethic. He doesn’t use BP as a home-run hitting contest. He uses it to work on situational hitting, and I think you’ll see that hard work pay off this year and beyond.

Q: OK, it’s that time again. How many games will the Nats win in 2008?

A: You know, I came to camp strongly believing this team was good enough to break .500. But that was under the assumption that Hill and John Patterson would be healthy, that Lo Duca would have returned from his knee injury a lot quicker and that roles would be clearly defined by the end of March.

Unfortunately, there have been just enough bumps in the road this spring to make me believe 82 wins is just out of reach. Not saying it can’t happen, but I think 78-84 is a safer bet.

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