Nats' hopes still bank on change

April 03, 2009|By HOWARD FENDRICH

WASHINGTON -- It is apparently the fate of the Washington Nationals to be a franchise forever in flux.

Then again, at this point, perhaps the more change, the better, given that the Nationals lost a majors-high 102 games last season.

"This," manager Manny Acta said, "is the best team we've had in the three years I've been here."

Clearly, that's not saying much. And yet, after switches in cities, owners, stadiums and managers in recent years, run down the list of what is different in 2009 as Washington prepares to play its first game Monday:

There is a new cleanup hitter, Adam Dunn, signed for $20 million over two years. There are four new members of the starting rotation, including top prospect Jordan Zimmermann.


And on it goes. An almost completely new coaching staff, including hitting coach Rick Eckstein, 2006 World Series MVP David's brother. A new leadoff hitter (Lastings Milledge, still manning center field but in a different batting spot). A new eighth-inning setup man (free-agent lefty Joe Beimel). A relatively new closer (Joel Hanrahan), who took over the job by default last season and owns a career total of nine saves.

Oh, and then there is the not-insignificant matter of a new general manager. Jim Bowden, the only GM the team had known since moving from Montreal in 2005, resigned in spring training amid an investigation into improprieties involving signings of Latin American prospects.

At first, Nationals president Stan Kasten declared, "I'm in charge," then had assistant GM Mike Rizzo take over day-to-day duties. Kasten noted this week that Rizzo's title is still "assistant general manager" -- and not "general manager."

Kasten also insists that all of the unusual off-field goings-on -- the revelation the team gave a $1.4 million signing bonus at Bowden's behest to a shortstop from the Dominican Republic who is now 23, it turns out, not 19; the subsequent firing of Bowden's special assistant Jose Rijo; the shuttering of the team's Dominican academy -- will not have lingering effects.

"What clouds that we had to live through a month ago," Kasten said, "we've come through well."

What Kasten and everyone else associated with the franchise harps on is that the Nationals couldn't possibly wind up with as many injury problems as last season, when eight members of the opening day lineup, plus others, spent time on the disabled list.

"Last year was such a different animal because so many people got hurt. I think if we're healthy last year, we're not that bad of a team," said third baseman and No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who tied for the club lead with 14 homers despite missing 55 games. "If you look at our lineup now, when everyone's healthy, and if you look at the pitchers that we've picked up, I think there's no way we could lose as many games as we lost last year. Not even close."

This much is clear: Because of additions such as Dunn, outfielder Josh Willingham and left-handed starter Scott Olsen, when injuries do happen, Washington is in better shape than in 2008 to recover.

"It's not like if one guy goes down, there's a domino effect like last year, where we pretty much then had two holes in the lineup," Acta said.

He is counting on Dunn to be a real difference-maker for a team that ranked 28th in the 30-club major leagues in runs (641) and homers (117).

The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Dunn, who was drafted by Bowden for the Cincinnati Reds and liked the idea of a reunion, has hit at least 40 homers and struck out at least 164 times in each of the past five seasons.

"He, by himself, changes our whole lineup," Acta said.

So, too, could the return of a healthy Nick Johnson, who missed the whole season in 2007 and all but 38 games in 2008 with injuries.

"Nick is ready to go, to play first base for us and hit pretty much in the middle of our lineup," Acta said. "Considering you can have him and Dunn at the same time in our lineup is a big, big difference."

In striving to avoid another last-place finish in the tough NL East, the Nationals also are counting on young players such as Zimmerman, Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores to stay away from the DL and continue to develop.

The key to how many wins and losses the Nationals accumulate, though, probably resides with the pitching.

Opening day starter John Lannan is the only holdover from last season's rotation. He'll be followed by Olsen (acquired from Florida), Daniel Cabrera (let go by Baltimore), Shairon Martis (four career starts in the majors) and Zimmermann (35 professional starts, none higher than at Double-A Harrisburg).

"The big question mark remains the starting rotation, and, of course, it's maybe the most important part of any franchise. We have great talent in our rotation, it's just that they're so young. And we all know young pitchers can have their ups and downs," Kasten said. "We're going to have to live with some of them."

At 27, Cabrera is the old man of the bunch. Olsen is 25, Lannan is 24, and the other two are both 22.

Veterans such as Odalis Perez -- who agreed to a deal to return, then backed out and was cut loose -- and Tim Redding are gone.

"We're going to take some lumps. It's not all going to be rosy for them the whole season," Acta said. "But we're willing to take those lumps with guys that are 24 years old or younger, rather than guys that are not going to be part of our future."

Clearly, this is a work-in-progress.

Another trade or two could be on the horizon.

The Nationals have a glut of outfielders, and they wouldn't mind adding pitching -- even if they are expected to select San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur draft.

"We still hope to do something, maybe small, before opening day," Kasten said this week. "If we could do something of larger impact, we'd try that, too."

Always something new around here.

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