Official Beat Writer Prediction
But before we get to that, I'd like to thank you all for your suggestions and shared experiences regarding last night. Some things will obviously change prior to the opener, but I think the biggest difference will be between now and next Monday, April 7, when the first true homestand begins.
Gates open: 3:30 p.m.
Braves batting practice: 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Nationals batting practice: 5:45-7 p.m.
First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
Keep in mind: The $5 seats (less than 400 of them) go on sale at 3:30 p.m., and fans who are lucky enough to get them must go right into the park.
Coverage from last night: Sports today had a look/guess/preview/wonderment about how the park will play. Naturally, we covered the benching of Lopez and Young, and the notebook has a reminder not only that Odalis Perez is the Nationals' Opening Night starter, but that Tim Hudson owned the Nationals last season.
I also get the feeling that Boz likes the ballpark. Perhaps I'm wrong. You tell me.
As much as this is a sports story, however, the first few days are a news story, so there is a glimpse of how transportation worked. Fan reaction was almost universally positive, it seems. And Marc Fisher, who has a keen eye and ear and has an interest in the ballpark, checks in with some ushers.
On to baseball. Yesterday, I asked you to pick your won-loss record for the Nationals this season. The average win total predicted by readers of Nationals Journal (requisite drumroll, please):
That would leave a record of 81.5-80.5. Or, for fun, let's just round up, so it's 82-80. There were 50 legitimate votes (I took the liberty of tossing out the 132-30 and 1-161 suggestions), and 29 folks predicted a winning season, 18 had a losing season, and three predicted an even-steven 81-81.
With that, I unveil what's behind Door No. 3: My prediction.
Here's some (or, to rephrase, "way too much") background. In the days leading up to last season, I went on Comcast SportsNet's "Washington Post Live" and told Stan Kasten that of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, I thought the Nationals would rank 31st. (Was kinda backed into a corner, and was just being snarky (shocker), but it's on tape somewhere, a fact of which Mr. Kasten is well-aware.)
Whatever my prediction a year ago, it certainly wasn't 73-89 and in fourth place in the NL East. Again, I find it kind of amazing how much praise the Nats received for going 16 games under .500, but given the framework going into the season, a lot of that was appropriate.
However, that Nationals' team got five wins from Mike Bacsik, four from Micah Bowie, two from Billy Traber, six from Jason Simontacchi and two from Levale Speigner. That's 19 wins right there, and even though Traber remains alive in the majors (with the Yankees, no less) and Bowie has found a home in Colorado, I think it's safe to say that 19 wins - more than a quarter of the Nats' total - was far more than the team had a right to expect from that group.
The point: The Nationals over-achieved last year. Thus, I kinda feel like they'll settle back into what they are in 2008.
What are they? An interesting question. The offense, I believe, is improved. I know there are differences of opinion on Paul Lo Duca's offensive ability, and indeed Brian Schneider's .326 on-base percentage in 2007 was better than Lo Duca's pathetic .311. But Lo Duca now feels his hamstrings are healthy, and I think he'll help roll over the lineup a little bit more (though I'd like to see him batting a little lower).
The real improvements in the offense, however, come from Lastings Milledge and Nick Johnson. Milledge gives the Nationals something they haven't had near the top of the order - other than 2006, when Alfonso Soriano led off - and that's true power potential. If Milledge hits second all year, I bet he and Zimmerman go back-to-back three times.
Johnson is an on-base machine who sees lots of pitches, something that will help the entire lineup. It's hard to say, after Dmitri Young's impressive 2007, that Johnson is a clear upgrade. Or is it? Young went .320/.378/.491 last year. The average and on-base percentages were career highs, and he has out-done the slugging percentage just twice in an 11-year career. Could he repeat that? Doubtful. Johnson went .290/.428/.520 in 2006, the last time he played. This is one of those cases where you can't be fooled by a 30-point difference in batting average. By any other measure, Johnson's '06 was better than Young's '07.
Toss in some random home runs (and plenty of strikeouts) from Elijah Dukes (to start) and Wily Mo Pena, and there's at least a threat of damage lower in the lineup. Plus, I like the idea of Belliard hitting eighth. He's exactly the kind of hitter who won't be rattled by hitting in front of the pitcher. The guy rarely gets himself out, and I believe - just as with Lo Duca - that he'll help turn the lineup over.
The bench, too, I think is better. Once Johnny Estrada comes back from his injury, they'll have three switch-hitters - joining Felipe Lopez and Dmitri Young. Aaron Boone is a veteran right-handed bat who's a huge improvement over Tony Batista in that role. Rob Mackowiak had a horrible spring, but perhaps that was due to the injury. And I really like Willie Harris as a 25th man because he can play almost anywhere defensively and will be a good pinch runner when Dmitri comes up and whacks a pinch-hit single. (Of course, one of these guys will likely have to go when the Weapon of Mass Production comes off the DL).
So the offense is improved. Pitching?
I love the bullpen. Somewhat concerned about Chad Cordero in the new park (and still a little concerned about his lack of velocity in spring training), but he's a proven commodity. Yes, he'll blow some saves. But I'm willing to ride him. Jon Rauch doesn't concern Manny Acta at all, and Luis Ayala may be getting back to 2005 Luis Ayala. Remember his ERAs his first three big league seasons were 2.92, 2.69 and 2.66. That's not a terrible record for a guy pitching the seventh. I'm still intrigued by Joel Hanrahan (though he hasn't thrown 97 mph again like he did in that mid-spring outing against Atlanta), Saul Rivera is quietly efficient (one home run allowed in 85 appearances in 2007). I wish there was one more lefty, but judge Ray King by left-handed hitters' batting average and OBP against him (.187 and .284, respectively) and not by his ERA (4.76). And at this point, I am just praying for Jesus Colome's family and his buttocks.
So it comes down to the rotation. Here's where I have real question marks. I liked the way Odalis Perez threw in spring training, and his changeup is a very nice pitch. But the reality of the major leagues is that if he's you're No. 1 starter, then he's supposed to beat the other No. 1s in your division. This year, that would be Tim Hudson - who we'll see tonight, and who was 4-0 with a 0.60 ERA against the Nationals last year - and Johan Santana and Brett Myers/Cole Hamels. Yikes.
Which is why so much, to me, comes down to Shawn Hill's health. There is no one with better pure stuff on the Nationals' staff. I'd say Tim Redding is throwing the ball well enough to win 8-12 games. Jason Bergmann is good enough to win and at times dominate, but he just hasn't done it consistently. Matt Chico is making a major overhaul of his delivery on the major league stage, and his ERA away from RFK (4.48) was better than at home (4.76), so he could be adversely affected by the new ballpark.
Are the options to turn to when/if those guys go down this year more intriguing? Sure they are, and I have some faith that John Lannan can pitch at the major league level, and pitch effectively, right now. But even if the Nationals turn to Collin Balester/Tyler Clippard/Garrett Mock at some point, they're bound to take their lumps even as they give glimpses of what the future might hold.
(Man, this is long-winded stream-of-consciousness-type stuff right now. My apologies.)
So, in conclusion and summary, I believe the 2008 Nationals to be better than the 2007 Nationals. And what does that translate to?
All that improvement yields only three more wins? Like I said, this is based on the theory that they over-achieved last year, and that a better team will be more fun to watch, more competitive on a nightly basis - but not worth that much more in the standings.
I'll get you lineups from - gulp - the first game at Nationals Park when I can. Tonight should be truly fun. Bundle up, and enjoy.
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