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10/1/07 OK...ALRIGHT...That's Long Enough...WHO ARE THE NATIONALS GONNA TRADE FOR TO MAKE A SPLASH?

Opening Day                               Final Game

Felipe Lopez 2B                          Felipe Lopez SS
Cristian Guzman SS                    Ronnie Belliard 2B
Ryan Zimmerman 3B                  Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Austin Kearns RF                        Dmitri Young 1B
Dmitri Young 1B                         Austin Kearns RF
Brian Schneider C                       Wily Mo Pena LF
Ryan Church LF                           Jesus Flores C
Nook Logan CF                           Justin Maxwell CF
John Patterson SP                       Jason Bergmann SP

      I stared at these two lineups atop last evening's post for maybe ten minutes before I included them in the report on the Washington Nationals last game yesterday in Philadelphia, and I couldn't help but think how the list of names and positions and their order together could essentially tell the story of the Nationals 2007 campaign.

     Start with Opening Day's leadoff hitter, Felipe Lopez. In April, Lopez was set to start the season at second after having been acquired (as a shortstop) at the previous year's trade deadline along with Austin Kearns for a package of pitchers the playoff-sniffing Reds thought they needed. Lopez was shifted to second to make room for Cristian Guzman who was starting the season looking to recover from his previous onfield struggles in DC.

     ...And Guzman was well on his way to doing so when he sprained his thumb and was thought done for the season on June 24th. Guzman was batting .329 at the time of his injury, with 57 hits, 6 doubles, 6 triples, 2 HR's and 8 RBI's in 43 games, and had taken over the leadoff spot the Nationals had been looking to fill for most of their two seasons in the nation's capital.

     Guzman made a strong-willed return to the lineup in late September, but in his absence, Ronnie Belliard had staked his claim on second by hitting .290 with 11 HR's and 58 RBI's while playing a fairly consistently excellent and deeep second base. All three infielders are signed for next season, so it should be interesting to see how things shake out in the infield and atop the order in '08.

     Their is no question about the three spot in the Nationals order. THE KIDS CALL HIM ZIM!! THE KIDS CALL HIM ZIM!!! Ryan Zimmerman, or as DY introduced him "The DC Heartthrob, or Franchise" Ryan Zimmerman, has third base and the third spot in the batting order locked up until he feels like hitting cleanup.

     .266 on the season, (After hitting .236 in a brutal April), 24 HR's, 91 RBI's, 99 runs scored, .374 against left-handers, 43 doubles, 5 triples and 4 stolen bases. Zimmerman made what might seem like a staggeringly high 23 errors in the field, but I think Manny Acta, Nationals Manager, and the DC fans understand that Zimmerman saves twice as many runs with his glove as his errors may give away.

     After Zimmerman in the three spot, was Austin Kearns, batting cleanup when the Nationals first took the field back in April. Kearns was batting in front of DY, and Acta and Nationals GM Jim Bowden seemed to think Kearns would provide the most power in a lineup that would seemingly, on paper at least, score very few runs.

     Kearns started hot, batting .283 in April, but three months of .225, .255 and .250 followed before Kearns got together with the Nationals hitting guru Lenny Harris, and batting .306 in August and .270 in September. Kearns connected for 16 HR's and 74 RBI's, hitting .266 on the season, but I think 30, 100 and .330 was more what the Washington Brass had in mind when they started the season.

     While Kearns went about finding his stroke, the Nationals looked downright prescient in their last minute offer to ostracized outfielder Dmitri Young, who was bounced from Detroit's roster for off-field troubles, and acquired by the Nationals just before Spring Training as a back-up plan in case Nick Johnson's return from injury was delayed.

       Johnson's return never happened, and potential first base replacements Larry Broadway and Travis Lee never made it out of Florida, so there was DY standing at first as the season started, and then batting .320 for the year, with 38 doubles, 13 HR's and 74 RBI's in 460 at bats, playing in 136 of 162, and leading the Nationals on the field and in the clubhouse.

     The Nationals other leader, Brian Schneider, once again struggled at the plate in 2007, dropping to .235 on the season, after batting .268 in 2005, and .256 in '06. With two months below .200 on the season, Schneider wasn't long for Opening Day's sixth spot in the order, and his own and the Nationals lack of power overall led to GM Jim Bowden's acquisition of the man who finished the season batting sixth.

     Wily Mo Pena, had history with Jim Bowden in Cincy, and the Nationals GM had made no secret of his desire to acquire the 6'3'' 245 lb outfielder, who was seeing little playing time with the Red Sox in Boston. Pena was in the starting lineup for 37 games with Washington after the trade, and during that time he provided glimpses of what Bowden saw, and what he himself might be capable of in Lenny Harris' hands.

     Pena batted .293 with the Nationals in 113 at bats, collecting 4 doubles, 8 HR's and 22 RBI's, including a few "tape-measure" shots in DC, and played a "good-enough" left field to earn the starting spot when next season rolls around.

     A big question for next season revolves around whether or not the seventh and eigth batters on Opening Day earned themselves starting spots for '08. Ryan Church and Nook Logan moved around the order and the outfield all season with both showing all of the positive attributes that had earned them their spots, but still leaving fans and team officials wondering if they figured in the Nationals long term plans.

     Church hit .272 on the year with 15 HR's and 70 RBI's, but he struck out 107 times, and hit only .229 against left-handers, forcing Manny Acta, Nationals Manager, to more often than not again sit him lefties in favor of Logan, who himself hit so poorly from the left side of the plate that he permanently switched to the right side, after pinch-hitting his entire tenure in DC.

     Nook Logan finished the season batting .265, but provided no power with 0 HR's and only 21 RBI's. Logan stole 23, scored 39 runs and collected 18 doubles and 4 triples on the year, batting .320 in August, a month in which he produced 12 of his 21 RBI's, hit 5 of his 18 doubles, and stole 8 of his 23 bases.

      Logan's lack of balanced production and Church's struggles from the left side of the plate may in fact be directly responsible for Justin Maxwell's start in center in the final game of the season, as the Nationals Brass felt comfortable enough with the rookies play to put him out in the field in a game that would in one way or another decide the NL East.

     "J-Max" or as he was called at birth, Justin A Maxwell, was the Nationals second draft pick, (out of Maryland), after Ryan Zimmerman in the 2005 Amateur Draft, but the 6'5'' 225lb outfielder took a slightly-more traditional route to the Majors than MR. THE KIDS CALL HIM ZIM!!!

     Maxwell was, according to washington.nationals.mlb.com writer Bill Ladsen, "...the only player in Minor League Baseball to record at least 25 doubles, 25 HR's and 25 stolen bases in 2007," made the jump from Class-A to the Majors so that the Nationals could get a good look at how the twenty-three year old outfielder would hold up in the Bigs.

     Maxwell's first hit was a pinch hit grand slam in Florida, and the center fielder went on to hit .269 with 2 HR's and 5 RBI's in 26 at bats in September while showing he can play center field at the Major League level, or at least not exposing any flaws in his game in his short stint in the field. With Wily Mo Pena, Church, Logan, and Kearns in the outfield and under contract for next season, the outfield will once again be up in the air heading in to Spring...

     As for the starting pitcher on Opening Day,  John Patterson...well we have until next April for the pitchers...