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Around The Horn

Much of this offseason has been spent discussing the starting rotation. I've been no exception in this regard. The rotation fiasco is alluring in a manner similar to an eighteen-car pileup at a NASCAR race. Sorting through the mess is what makes it interesting. When else would every single spring training appearance take such paramount importance for so many people? Even if it's foolish to believe eight or so spring innings really constitute any kind of basis for a meaningful evaluation, I suppose the situation is what the situation is. Please excuse the passive handwaving.

There's another side to the game, of course, and the position players provide at least a bit more stability. There are still some issues to be decided, but with the exception of Nick Johnson's lamentable injury situation (and I guess whether Cristian Guzman can indeed play the field), the choices are comparatively subtle.

This is not to say there is nothing to consider of the position players. Although it looks like Logan and Church will start out in center and left respectively, and although it seems Broadway will get the call to fill in for lack of a credible challenger, there are still issues to consider, now and in the longer term.

In his Baseball Book: 1990, Bill James conducted an interesting little quick-and-dirty experiment. He listed all of the mainline members of the Philadelphia Phillies at the time (Von Hayes, Lenny Dykstra, Charlie Hayes, Whatever, Whomever) and made a quick notation about each player's chances of playing on the next Philly pennant winner, whenever that would be (1993, actually). The notations were like "Sure," "No," "Maybe," "Doubtful," etc. This wasn't exactly stringent analysis, but it was a simple way of gauging where the Phillies were as an organization.

In the 2001 (and final) edition of the Big Bad Baseball Annual, I repeated the exercise. I don't recall the specifics, but I believe I concluded Scott Rolen was a championship-caliber player and Omar Daal was not destined for any particular distinction. Imagine that.

Anyway, I figured I would try the exercise again with some of the current Nats position player possibilities. What, again, precisely is the exercise? Glad you asked, because with these Nats I don't really know. The inquiry is whether the following guys are likely or not to be contributing members of the next first Nats pennant winner. By "contributing member," I suppose I mean "core regular." But what time frame are we talking about? Next year? Probably not? Five years from now? Hopefully not? Let's just say three to four seasons from now. Can the following guys be core members of a pennant winner (or heck, a playoff team) in three to four seasons?

So here we go---and, yes, I used, well . . .

[Note: Casto is listed in right field because I ran out of room in left. Oh well.]

If you can't read the tiny writing or are not sophisticated enough to recognize fine art, I'll recap briefly: Everybody's a no or a maybe or a doubtful except for Ryan Zimmerman and perhaps Nick Johnson (if the latter can stay healthy in any lasting sense) and Austin Kearns. I'm not sure this is a shocking result. This is a rather jumbled and ragtag bunch, and it's hard in its own right to project guys three or four years into the future. If you have a young star, he'll tend to project pretty safely, but the other fellas are more dicey.

What this exercise does demonstrate is how far the Nationals have to go before they have the core of a true contender. I don't mean a mix-and-match, lightning-in-a-bottle, one-blissful-season contender, although those are fun. Instead, I mean a strong and reliable contender. The Nats have a long way to go---and we're not talking about the pitching at the moment.

Now, I don't mean to be glum. Ryan Church is a valuable player to the Nats because he can contribute some decent offense at a low cost. Will he be as attractive to the Nats two years from now, when he's 30 and going on his second season of arbitration eligibility? Probably not---chances are, he'll be gone. That's the sort of thing I mean about the current position players. Most of these guys strike me as transitory. Even Felipe Lopez, who's relatively young and has some offensive ability, stands a decent chance of being gone in three or four years unless he becomes less erratic afield.

So the Nats will build around Zimmerman, quite obviously, because he stands to be a lasting cornerstone. Maybe Casto or Snelling (separated in age by mere days) develops into a contributor. Maybe Flores becomes a stud at catcher. And then you have guys on the up like Marrero or King or Englund or Maxwell. Maybe they'll be ready to fit into the lineup within four seasons. (That's perhaps a little soon for Smiley Gonzalez.) Which isn't to say all of those guys will pan out.

There's a lot of time between Here and There, and I know Stan Kasten is a patient man. But, unless he's supremely patient, it seems he will have to buy into at least some talent. And, again, I haven't really mentioned the pitching.

* * * *

Well, maybe that was more glum than I meant it to be. To liven up the moment, Nationals Review thinks the offense will turn out okay . . . at least in lineups recommended by Nationals Review and not the ones referenced by the real-life team. This is a good post, one that employs a far more concrete Bill James concept, the runs created metric. I certainly recommend this one; it's a nice bookend to a post I composed back in January, except it incorportes the Broadway/Lee/Young first base combo. The sentiment "Nick Johnson, get well soon" is certainly something resembling a prayer.