By Mike Steffanos
We continue our quick looks at the NL east with a preview of the one team that has no chance of competing for the division title this year.
Two years ago, in their first season in Washington, the Nationals managed to ride the enthusiasm of their fans to compete for a playoff spot and finish with a .500 record. They couldn't keep that momentum going in 2006, finishing twenty games below the break-even mark, and it promises to be even uglier as they head into their third season in the nation's capitol. The Nationals are rebuilding, but they don't even have many major league ready prospects to give a look at this season. As a life long Mets fan, what Nats fans are facing in 2007 is depressingly reminiscent of no-hope years gone by in Flushing.
Rotation: Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas, Jr. and Ramon Ortiz have all moved on. The oft-injured John Patterson is the putative ace of the staff. After a promising 2005 season that featured 31 starts and just under 200 innings, Patterson managed only 8 last year, spending most of 2006 on the DL with a forearm injury. He's good if he can stay healthy, but I wouldn't bet the farm on that. Beyond Patterson, the remaining options include a disheartening bunch of retreads, projects and kids with modest talent.
Bullpen: Chad Cordero is one of the best young closers in the game, though he's not likely to get a lot of save opportunities. Luis Ayala was one of the better young setup men in baseball from 2003-2005, but he missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. 6-11 righty Jon Rauch is the one other dependable arm the Nats have. He's solid, if unspectacular. After that, it's as much of a scrum of modest talent as the rotation picture.
Nick Johnson, the Nats' best hitter, is likely to be out until June rehabbing the broken femur he suffered last September. Ryan Zimmerman will look to build on his terrific rookie campaign. Cristian Guzman will attempt to win back the shortstop job after missing all of 2006 with injuries. If he does, look for Felipe Lopez to take his indifferent approach to fielding over to second base. Brian Schneider is dependable behind the plate, and Austin Kearns showed signs last year that he might finally be able to live up to his promise. While there are a few decent bats left in the nation's capitol, it's doubtful they'll score enough to offset their woeful pitching.
Much has been made of the talent Omar Minaya traded away while trying to make the playoffs in a last-ditch attempt to save the Montreal franchise. While that has certainly hurt the Nats' rebuilding efforts, what has hurt even more was the neglect of the farm system in the years that MLB ran the club. Under stable local ownership at last, Washington is in the process of rebuilding their scouting and development. Considering that greater Washington is a large market that will support a good team, I would expect things to change for the better in D.C. in a relatively short period of time. However, this year is going to be excruciating for their fans in a manner that will evoke long time Mets fans memories of those pathetic late 70s - early 80s clubs. It would take a miracle for this team not to lose 90 games this season.
Next week we'll wrap these NL east previews up.