Heading into last season, many suspected the Washington Nationals would be amongst the worst teams in baseball history. With no pitching and a flimsy lineup whose most promising players were injury prone (Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, etc), forecasters spoke of impending, potentially historic disaster.
The Nats were not a good team in 2007 but they also were not even close to playing poorly enough to be considered among the worst teams of all time. They weren't even the worst team in their division, and in 2007 eight other MLB teams finished the year with fewer wins than Washington. While a 73-win season is hardly cause for celebration, Washington exceeded expectations and move into a new stadium for 2008. Given this, General Manager Jim Bowden believes the time is now and through a series of bold moves, has made marked improvements for his club on the offensive side.
Last year's Nationals won despite some truly atrocious performances from players who will not factor into the 2008 version of the club.
PA AVG OBP SLG B. Schneider 477 .235 .326 .336 N. Logan 350 .265 .304 .345 R. Fick 221 .234 .309 .305 R. Langerhans 187 .198 .296 .370
That's 1,235 plate appearances of straight awfulness right there. Moreover, Felipe Lopez had an exceptionally down season; a 75 OPS+ campaign for a guy who, coming into the season, was considered a solid offensive middle infielder. In Lopez, Cristian Guzman and Ronnie Belliard, the Nats figure to assemble at least an average hitting middle infield.
In the outfield, the loss of Ryan Church hurts but the Nats should suffer no downgrade at all thanks to the addition of Lastings Milledge. Between Kearns, Milledge, Wily Mo Pena (124 OPS+ with Washington last year) and troubled newcomer Elijah Dukes, Washington figures to comfortably outproduce last year's outfield combo.
Corner infielders Dmitri Young and Ryan Zimmerman were the two best hitters on last year's club. Although Young is a clear regression candidate, that could easily be alleviated by contributions from the oft-injured Nick Johnson and/or continued improvement from the youngster Zimmerman. All in all, I see similar production in the aggregate coming from Washington's corner infielders in 2008.
At catcher, Brian Schneider was just awful but Paul Lo Duca is nothing spectacular either. Coming off of his worst season as a pro in 2007, it is hard to figure the 36 year-old will be all that great. Still, 2007 was such an outlier down season for him that one has to figure Lo Duca bounces back a little bit. Say, up to an 85 or 90 OPS+ type of campaign. This would represent considerable improvement over Schneider's output in 2007.
Where Bowden still has his work to do is on the pitching side. The bullpen boasted a 3.81 ERA in 2007 but the starting pitching once again figures to be atrocious. A serviceable innings eater or two would do wonders for this club. Whether Bowden can pull this off will go a long way in determining whether the Nats make any noise or not in the competitive National League East next season.
There is no denying that Bowden has taken the initial steps, however. This figures to be a lineup without any glaring holes featuring a candidate or two capable of posting a superstar campaign sprinkled in (Zimmerman, Pena, Milledge, Kearns, Young). That's all it takes to have a top-of-the-league type of offense. We will see what Bowden does from here.