2009 Washington Nationals Preview: A Reds Fan's Perspective

Hi.  My name is Brendanukkah and I'm an admin over at Red Reporter.  We've been doing team previews for all of the NL teams, and since I live in DC, I figured I'd take a crack at the Nationals.  A lot of the other preview authors have solicited information from the various SBN communities, but I was lazy and didn't get enough of a start on that to ask you fine folks.  So here's what I wrote.  Let me know if I got anything egregiously wrong, and I'll change it on Red Reporter.  Thanks.

(Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I entitled it "Cesspool on the Potomac."  Respectfully.  Good luck this season!)


W, a-s-h, i-n-g!  T-o-n, baby!  D.C.!

That's Race-ist!



Moneyball is all about finding areas of the game that have been undervalued, then exploiting that inequity in the marketplace.  Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball using objective statistics.  Both good methods.  But guess what?  Reading omens has been around longer than both of them, and therefore it is best.


If you're not aware, the Nationals have a President's Race in the 4th inning of every home game.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt all start in left field, run along the outfield fence, then sprint down the first base line to the finish.  Teddy has never, ever won a President's Race (He was the only one of the four presidents to only be elected once, though he did serve longer than Lincoln).  So who has won the most races?  Ah, here's where things get interesting.

The President's Race began in 2006 after Ted Lerner bought the Nationals from MLB.  In that inaugural season, Thomas Jefferson won the most races, just edging Lincoln.  In 2007, George Washington was the clear winner, and in 2008, Abraham Lincoln dominated, winning 49 races (complete standings available here).  So three of the presidents have been season champion once, while one has never won a single race.  Hmm...

It sure seems like 2009 is Teddy's turn to shine, right?  In fact, I would not be surprised if he won EVERY SINGLE RACE this year!  And if Teddy can win, after being a doormat for so long, then surely the Nationals will come out of nowhere to sit atop the NL East, right?

Well... no.


2008 Recap


59-102, 5th place in NL East Division, worst record in baseball

Scored 641 runs, Allowed 825 runs, Pythagorean record: 62-99

After playing their first three years in cavernous RFK Stadium, the Nationals began the season in their new house, the $611 million, 41,888 seat Nationals Park.  The new ballpark, which is the first LEED-certified green baseball stadium, boasts views of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Anacostia River, as well as cherry trees in the outfield and a Ben's Chili Bowl stand.  The move from E. Capitol St. to S. Capitol St. started off on an incredibly positive note as the Nats beat the Braves 3-2 on a walkoff home run by Ryan Zimmerman in front of a sold-out crowd and a national television audience.  President George Bush threw out the first pitch, then inadvertantly called the first home run at the stadium as Chipper Jones hit a blast while the president was talking with ESPN's Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.

Fan interest quickly dwindled though as it was apparent that the team was just not very good.  Even the new stadium only helped them draw 2,320,400 fans, good for 13th of 16 NL teams (shamefully, the Reds were 14th).  The biggest draw at Nationals Park was actually Pope Benedict XVI who drew a crowd of 47,000 on April 17th.  On the field, the team struggled with injuries, young players, some worn down veterans, and a team that seemed hazardly put together.  The team didn't hit well, finishing 14th in runs, 15th in home runs, and last in slugging in the National League (87 OPS+ as a team).  They didn't pitch well, ranking 13th in both walks and strikeouts and 14th in home runs allowed (94 ERA+ as a team).  They didn't draft well, failing to sign pitcher Aaron Crow, their first round draft pick.  Just a mess of a team.

2009 Outlook

Things have gotta be better at this year, right?  Well, they probably will be, but the offseason was pretty cringeworthy.  First, the team withheld rent to the District because it maintained that the stadium was not "substantially complete."  Next they made a big play for free agent Mark Teixeira who grew up 30 miles down the road in Severna Park, MD.  Teixeira of course went to the Yankees instead, and team president Stan Kasten maintained that they would not be adding any more free agents (which turned out to not be the case).  Opening Day Odalis Perez left the team after not being guaranteed a major league contract.  Wikipedia says that Perez received counseling from Derek Bell, of "Operation Shutdown" fame, then was furious with Bell when the Nats released him.  Hilarious.

The Nats got new uniforms that largely did away with the block "Nationals" script.



And they got a terrifying, skinny mascot, who manages to be even creepier than the terrifying, fat mascot they used to have.





But the big news came when it was revealed that Esmailyn Gonzalez, the Nationals' big signing in their foray into the Latin American markets, turned out to be four years older and actually named Carlos Alvarez.  The team had signed Gonzalez/Alvarez on GM Jim Bowden's recommendation, and Bowden was soon involved in his own debacle.  The FBI began investigating him on charges of skimming signing bonuses to Latin American players, dating all the way back to his days with the Reds.  Nationals consultant and former Red hero Jose Rijo and his baseball academy were also implicated.  The Nats fired Rijo and on March 1, Bowden resigned.  Mike Rizzo is currently handling the GM responsibilities.

And they signed Adam Dunn.

Let's meet the 2009 Nationals.

C - Jesus Flores: (.252/.301/.387) Flores is a youngster with some potential.  He's been a backup in his previous two seasons, but after taking a bath on Paul Lo Duca, the starter's job is Flores's.  He has a lifetime OPS+ of 80 and has thrown out under 30% of attempted basestealers.  Still, he gets high marks for his defense, and the Nats are hoping that he can take a step forward.

1B - Adam Dunn: (.247/.381/.518) This is indicative of the problems the organization has when it comes to building a team.  Three of the top five highest paid players on the team are first basemen (Dunn, Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, who was sent outright to AAA).  Another member of the top 5 is Austin Kearns, whose numbers have absolutely tanked.  Anyway, Dunn should do his customary thing at the plate.  I have a hunch that he won't reach 40 home runs for a sixth season in a row, but if he does, he'll match Babe Ruth as the only player to hit 40 or more home runs in that many consecutive seasons.  Dunn isn't noted for his defense anyway, so don't be surprised if he boots a few at first base.

2B - Anderson Hernandez: (.232/.283/.292) This guy has never played in more than 28 games in a season, but has him listed as the starter.  I don't really know how to read defensive stats, but this guy had better be a wizard with the leather, because he is TERRIBLE with the bat.  Their other options are super-utility man Willie Harris, World Series ring owner Ronnie Belliard, or the Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.  Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if you see Gonzalez get at least half the starts here.

3B - Ryan Zimmerman: (.282/.341/.462) The face of the franchise, and one of the best gloves at the hot corner.  His fans like to refer to him as the second coming of Brooks Robinson, but interestingly his second closest comp as a hitter is Edwin Encarnacion.  After playing in all 162 games in 2007, he missed some time due to injury in '08.  He's only 24 and should be a cornerstone of this franchise for years to come, but he has yet to be offered a long-term contract.

SS - Cristian Guzman: (.270/.307/.386) Guzman had a surprisingly good season in 2008, serving as the Nats' lone All-Star representative, and finishing 4th in the NL in hits, although 73% of those were singles.  He parlayed that success into a $16 million contract extension and the Nats have to be hoping he stays healthy.  Guzman missed all of 2006 with a shoulder injury, and most of 2007 with a hamstring injury.  How he fares will be an indication of whether this team's fortunes have turned.  If things stay true to form, he will be hurt and not very productive.

LF - Josh Willingham: (.266/.361/.472) Willingham came over to the Nats from the Marlins along with Scott Olsen (below) in an offseason trade.  The folks at Federal Baseball refer to Adam Dunn as "Big Wilkie" because of the players' similarity, but he's really "Little Donkey."  Willingham walks less, strikes out less, and hits fewer home runs, but at least he's nine months older than Dunn.  Nevertheless, lists him as the left fielder.  The outfield in Washington, as you may have heard, is a little crowded.

CF - Lastings Milledge: (.263/.329/.407) Milledge is an athletic youngster, and was the co-leader on the team in home runs (Fourteen!  w00t!).  He was a highly touted Mets prospect until he was traded for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider.  His first full season as a starter was not great, but he showed good speed and good power.  He's only 24, and can be a great asset to this team in the long run.

RF - Elijah Dukes: (.235/.359/.443) The noted texting enthusiast put up a pretty awesome 125 OPS+ last season with 13 home runs in only 81 games.  He did miss a lot of games with injury, including a sprained patella suffered on July 5 at GABP.  Dukes and Dunn form a legitimate power combo in the middle of the Nats lineup, with Zimmerman and Milledge providing decent pop as well.  If Dukes can play a full season, the Nats shouldn't finish at the bottom of the league in slugging again.  Also, his middle name is David.  Elijah David Dukes.  That's kinda funny.

SP - John Lannan: (11-17/3.95/1.371) Probably the most potential on a staff of very young pitchers.  His closest comp is Pete Schourek.

SP - Scott Olsen: (31-37/4.63/1.452) The other Marlin the Nats picked up for Emilio Bonifacio (pretty decent trade).  He's a talented pitcher, but he's an angry little prick.  He's gotten in fights or altercations with Randy Messenger, Joe Girardi, Miguel Cabrera, Chase Utley, a section of Brewers fans, Sergio Mitre, and the Aventura, FL PD, who tazed him after he fled and resisted arrest following his failure of a sobriety test.  He wins the Marion Barry "Bitch Set Me Up!" Award for the 2009 Nationals, in a surprise victory over Dukes.

SP - Daniel Cabrera: (48-59/5.05/1.549) Something of a reclamation project.  Cabrera was once a highly touted prospect for the Orioles, and in fact finished third in the 2004 Rookie of the Year voting.  He also pitched for the Dominican Republic in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.  He throws a fastball in the high-90's and a couple different curveballs, but has yet to really put it together.  He was the losing pitcher when the Rangers beat the Orioles 30-3 in 2007, and last year was ejected for throwing a beanball at Dustin Pedroia (Pedroia to ump: "You're gonna fix that, right?").

SP - Shawn Hill: (7-15/4.93/1.459)  Never mind.  I just saw that Shawn Hill was just released by the Nats.

SP - Collin Balester: (3-7/5.51/1.500) This 22 year old made his debut last year.  He went 1-1 against the Reds, only allowing 1 run (a homer by Votto) in his victory over our own youngster, Johnny Cueto.  He should really be spending some time in the minors, but the Nats just don't have any depth.

SP - Shairon Martis: (1-3/5.66/1.422) He's eleven days away from his 22nd birthday, but this kid has some talent.  He pitched for the Dutch team at the age of 19 in the 2006 WBC, and was a member of the Futures Game last year.  Another guy who should be in the minors but will instead be learning the ropes in the Show.

CL - Joel Hanrahan: (11-6/4.72/1.567) He became the closer last year after the Nats traded Jon Rauch to the Diamondbacks so he could go be tall with Randy Johnson.  He notched nine saves, which isn't bad for half a season with a team that didn't win 60.  He also struck out 93 in 84.3 innings.  Nats fans are guardedly optimistic about him, but I will mention that he's pitching for Team USA in the WBC.  The last Nationals reliever to do that was a fellow by the name of Majewski.

Bench: High-priced is the adjective that comes to mind.  Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns are among the highest paid players on the team, but don't figure to have starting positions.  Johnson is a fantastic player, but has been significantly injured throughout his tenure with the Nats.  Kearns was wildly disappointing last year, with a Pattersonian 65 OPS+.  We'll see if he's reinvigorated by the return of his pal Adam Dunn.  Next come the Wills.  Willie Harris is their utility guy, and something of a fan favorite, in the mold of a Ryan Freel or a Cherry Hudson.  Wily Mo Pena theoretically brings power off the bench, and Wil Nieves is their backup catcher.  Kory Casto was never a Red, but sure sounds like he should have been.

Bullpen: The Nationals have significantly upgraded the pen recently, signing Joe Biemel and Julian Tavarez.  Add them to Saul Rivera, who is legit, and long man Jason Bergmann, and that's the makings of a pretty good pen.  They're going to have to be, since the starters are likely to be in trouble early and often.

Manager - Manny Acta: A likeable guy and somewhat of a new-school thinker, saddled with a terrible team.  May God have mercy on his soul.

Prospects: Their top prospect is pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.  There's an outside shot that he wins a spot as the fifth starter out of spring training, but he will likely begin the season in AAA Columbus.  In the minors, he's put up a record of 15-5/2.75/1.140, with 205 strikeouts to only 65 walks.  Kid is good.  I can't wait til he makes the team (which given their proclivity for injuries, could be sooner rather than later) so we can see the Zimmerman-Zimmermann combination.  And while not yet technically a prospect, Nats fans have been counting down the arrival of Stephen Strasburg since last year's draft.  Strasburg is a junior at San Diego State University.  His fastball tops 100 mph with movement, he has a 94 mph slider, and Buster Olney wonders if he's the best prospect ever.  He was the only collegiate player on the Olympic team last year.  He's likely to be the #1 pick and could be up in the bigs as early as September.  It may be safe to say that if the Nats don't sign him, you can basically stick a fork in the franchise for the next five years.

Bill Hall All-Star: Brendanukkah.  The Nats are 6-0 against the Reds in the last six games this douchewad has been at.

Any Former Reds?



It might be faster to just name everyone on the team that hasn't been a Red.  Actually, 2009 seems to be a low point for former Reds, following the departures of Jim Bowden, Jose Rijo, and Barry Larkin.  Still on the team are:

  • Adam Dunn (1B/OF)
  • Austin Kearns (RF)
  • Wily Mo Pena (LF)
  • Ryan Wagner (non-roster sprint training invitee)
  • Javier Valentin (non-roster sprint training invitee)
  • Dmitri Young (non-roster sprint training invitee)
  • Corey Patterson (non-roster sprint training invitee)
  • Rob Dibble (broadcaster)
  • Bob Boone (Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development)


Baseball Prospectus thinks the Nats will go 76-86 and finish 4th in the NL East.  That's a 17 game improvement, which is pretty darn good.  I would predict this to be their ceiling though.  They'll be battling with the Marlins for last place, but I like the Marlins' young talent better than I do the Nats.  Now that Bowden is gone, the team may start to make some progress.  They should look to make some trades from the crowded outfield and first base pools and try to shore up some pitching.  Injuries and poor performances have made their veterans hard to move though.  We'll see if Mike Rizzo sticks as the GM, but it would seem to make sense for the organization.  Rizzo was the Scouting Director for the Diamondbacks from 1999-2006 and added players like Brandon Webb, Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Justin Upton to that system.  If he could do half of that for the Nationals, they would be in good shape.  The future starts with Strasburg.

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