Here are the ten questions that all Nats and NL East fans need to know for the upcoming season, cross-posted on MetsGeek:
1. Flashback to October. The season has just ended. What should be on the Nationals to do list? (via trades, acquisitions, promotions, non-tenders)?
The Nats' biggest weakness was at third base, where Tony Batista recorded one of the worst full-time on-base percentage for any regular last year. I would have focused on signing a quality third baseman, a la Troy Glaus, and keeping Maicer Itzuris, who was later packaged with Juan Rivera for Jose Guillen. (And I wouldn't have signed Cristian Guzman or Vinny Castilla, whose combined contracts approximate that of Glaus' deal with the D-Backs.)
Offense was clearly the problem for the Nats last year -- and heading into 2005. The team had a really nice core of skilled young hitters: Brad Wilkerson, Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro and Termel Sledge. Getting league-average players at the other positions would have been a priority. Under a Nationals Review regime, Endy Chavez would have been shipped out to a team (perhaps with another SP like John Patterson), to a speed-hungry team like the White Sox. I'd try to swing a Chavez-Paterson for Carlos Lee deal; if not, I would've tried to pry a Damaso Marte and/or Juan Uribe from the South Siders. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, and Endy's trade value has regressed since the start of spring training.
2. What were the best and worst moves of the Nationals offseason?
Best move: Bowden's restraint in not trading Nick Johnson or Termel Sledge this offseason. One of them will have a breakout year in 2005.
Worst move: Signing Vinny Castilla to the two-year deal. It's not disastrous, but Brendan Harris was a ready replacement for Batista and Castilla's primed to flop next season.
3. Evaluate the Nationals lineup, bench, rotation and bullpen:
The biggest potential weakness for the Nats is their lineup. But since demoting "Inning" Endy Chavez to AAA New Orleans, the offensive future looks a bit brighter. Nick Johnson, Brad Wilkerson, Termel Sledge and Jose Vidro are all prototypical players that stat-analysts love, and will likely all be starting for the Nats. They walk a ton, are young enough to improve (with the possible exception of Vidro) and don't receive the same attention as bigger-market players of their caliber. And Jose Guillen, while not a big walker, should produce handsomely out of right field.
Still, some dead weight in Castilla and Guzman could weigh down the lineup. I don't expect much out of Castilla; Guzman, on the other hand, is 27 and has had several productive seasons earlier in his career with the Twinkies. By virtue of not playing Endy, general improvements from the heart of the order, and the automatic upgrade from the 2004 Tony Batista, this team's offense won't be great -- but the Nats' offense won't be the league's bottom-feeder, either.
The rotation is very deep and very underrated. Three guys were once, recently,
among their former team's top prospects: Tony Armas, Jon Rauch and John Patterson. Livan is a legit ace, and Ohka and Day have put up very solid numbers at times over the past few years. Health has been an issue for the pitching staff in the past, but if they stay off the DL, the Nats' rotation could be one of the best in the division. I'll take the Nats' #6 and #7 starters, John Patterson and Jon Rauch, over any of the drek the Mets have been scrambling for in their attempts to replace the injured Steve Trachsel.
The bullpen is headlined by Chad Cordero, the young fireballing reliever who took over the closer's job to replace Rocky Biddle last year. With Antonio Osuna as a setup man, it's a decent 1-2 punch. The rest of the pen is a mixed bag: Joey Eischen, TJ Tucker, Luis Ayala and Joe Horgan are all no better than average. Perhaps one has the potential to surprise.
One of Bowden's offseason priorities was to add to the team's offensive depth. He did a surprisingly good job with that. Termel Sledge, who would be starting for most teams, is the team's fourth outfielder and only left-handed hitter on the bench. Jamey Carroll is a jack-of-all-trades utility infielder with an adequate bat. Tony Blanco, a Rule V draftee from the Reds, shined in spring training, but he won't be around too much. Accused wife beater Wil Cordero and Pirates castoff JJ Davis, are the last two guys off the bench, and they're more than adequate as pinch-hitters.
4. Who are the Nationals' top prospects?
Not many. The team's best prospect, Mike Hinckley, is one of baseball's best pitching prospects. He got shelled in spring training, and needs a lot more minor league seasoning. Bill Bray was a top draft pick from William and Mary who shows a lot of promise, but he's at least two years away.
Brendan Harris was acquired in the Nomar-Cabrera deal last year and should've been the team's starting third baseman. He could be a league-average hitting third baseman,but he's already 26 and doesn't have that high of a ceiling.
Ryan Church will likely be the Nats' center fielder, and was named the team's minor league player of the year in 2004. He's a good defender, and can hit a bit. Expect a .340/.440 type season from him, splitting outfield duty with Sledge.
5. What are the Nationals' top goals for 2005?
The biggest goal for the Nats is to secure and grow an already-large fan base, and to contend in the tough NL East. If the Nats sell 3 million tickets and win at least 75 games, the season will have been a huge success. I think the likelihood of both happening is quite good.
1. Which team had the best and which had worst offseason?
The Mets improved themselves the most this offseason, adding Beltran and Pedro. The Phillies had a quiet offseason, but made a very significant acquisition in ace Jon Lieber.
No teams in the division had a bad offseason, but I think the Braves hurt themselves by not finding an adequate replacement for J.D. Drew. Getting Tim Hudson was great for them, but I don't think he'll be enough to allow the Braves to maintain their unprecedented run of NL East titles.
2. What was the best move in the division? What was the worst move?
Best move: Mets signing Pedro Martinez. In the NL, he'll rebound to his peak form.
Worst move: Nationals signing Vinny Castilla. Totally unnecessary, and he'll struggle to be above replacement level in 2005.
3. Which team has the best: starting rotation, lineup, bench, bullpen?
Best rotation: Marlins. They've battled injury problems, but is this the year when AJ Burnett, Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter terrify NL East bats?
Best bullpen: Phillies. With Billy Wagner back and Ryan Madson primed to be a force in the pen, the Phils outdistance a mediocre bunch of relievers in the NL East.
Best lineup: Phillies. Top to bottom, the Phils can score a bunch of runs. An Abreu-Thome-Burrell-Utley heart of the order is damn good. They also have very few holes: David Bell and Kenny Lofton, the two worst hitters in the lineup, could be league-average at their positions.
Best bench: Nationals. There's no better bench player than Termel Sledge, and JJ Davis could be another solid pinch-hitter. Wil Cordero and Jamey Carroll are both nice utility players to have around the bench. What was a miserable bench in 2004 could now be the division's strongest.
4. Who is the best rookie in the division?
I don't know if he still counts as a prospect, but David Wright is easily the best in the division. Relievers Ryan Madson of the Phils and Chad Cordero of the Nats also fit in that rookie/second-year purgatory, but they should both shine.
Among "true rookies," watch Ryan Langerhans, who may get some playing time in the corner outfield spots for the Braves. He's been a decent minor-league hitter, and may be key to Atlanta's success. Ditto Ryan Church for the Nationals. Heck, I'll go with Church as the division's top rookie.
5. Who will win the NL East this year?
This should be a very competitive race. I like the Phillies, since they have the fewest black holes of any lineup, the best bullpen, and a deep-enough rotation. All five teams -- even the Nats -- have a shot. The Mets will disappoint yet again, with Benson, Zambrano and Ishii all flaming out -- counteracting the positive gains of Pedro. The Braves need to replace the bat of JD Drew and the arm of the 2004 Jaret Wright, andI don't think they did enough by just adding Hudson and Danny Kolb. Florida has great pitching, but has some truly awful guys in the lineup and have precious little depth.
Lieber was exactly what the Phils needed; he'll be the reason why the Phils will edge out Atlanta for the NL Eat title.