The Washington Nationals will kick off the NL East previews this week here at Crashburn Alley. I was able to flag down my favorite Nationals blogger Steven Biel of Fire Jim Bowden to answer some questions about his team. No, the Nationals aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot nor are they even expected to sniff .500, but it’s not all doom and gloom in Washington. Phenom Stephen Strasburg is on the horizon and ready to take the Majors by storm and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has emerged as one of baseball’s most productive players, finishing 2009 as one of eight position players with 7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or more.
Are Strasburg and Zimmerman enough to bring hope to the nation’s capital? Let’s see what Steven thinks of the Nats going into 2010.
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1. When should fans plan to buy tickets to watch Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut?
Mike Rizzo really emphasizes not rushing prospects, and he seems to have decided (correctly in my view) that regardless of how wicked Strasburg is on the mound, it would be rushing to ask him throw his first professional pitch in a big league game. Also, you have the risk of funky weather in April and the financial incentives to delay the start of the arbitration clock… all that I think points to a mid-June call-up at the earliest. Jim Riggleman spoke this week about a 158 inning limit for Strasburg this year, so I would imagine that you’ll see him pitching for the Nationals from shortly after Memorial Day until maybe Labor Day, and then they’ll shut him down, again, assuming all goes well.
2. Ryan Zimmerman was one of eight position players in the Majors worth 7 WAR last year. CHONE projects 5 WAR for him in 2010. Where do you see him finishing?
A 5-win player is still a perennial all-star, and with his glove, he’d have to really regress at the plate to fall below that level. I would say 5 WAR could be pretty close to his floor, assuming he’s healthy. I would expect some regression though from last season at the plate. He just took a huge leap from 2008 to 2009, and usually there’s some fall-back after a breakthrough year like that. So I’ll put the over-under at 6.0.
3. Adam Dunn drew some ire from the likes of Marty Brennaman and J.P. Ricciardi prior to coming to Washington. Is he well-received in Washington?
Getting criticized by J.P. Ricciardi is kind of a sign that you’re on the right track, no? Dunn has a dry sense of humor and mellow, country boy personality, so you can see how that might have been misread as complacency when he was younger. But all you hear from the team is that he’s a great presence in the clubhouse and a great competitor. He’s close with Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. Rizzo loves Dunn, and he cares a ton about clubhouse chemistry–more than he should, in my opinion, though that could be a function of just trying to clean up some of the worst excesses of the Jim Bowden home for misguided youth. Bottom line, Dunn is well-liked by fans and in fact probably quite a bit overrated as a player, given his enormous defensive deficiencies.
4. Besides Strasburg, give the readers a hint at another young pitcher who could contribute a lot to the Nationals this year.
Drew Storen was drafted as a signable, low-ceiling, major-league ready college reliever with the #10 pick last year. If he’s not pitching in at least medium-leverage innings by July 4, something’s gone wrong.
After that, there isn’t anything close to an impact arm anywhere in the organization–just a lot of guys who project as 5th starters at best, like Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Matt Chico, etc.
I’ll give you one guy who your readers probably haven’t heard about–Aaron Thompson, the lefty who came over from Florida in the Nick Johnson trade last summer. He’s a former #1 pick (2005) who has progressed slowly but steadily and really turned a corner last year in AA. His fastball sits at 90-91, and he has the strong groundball tendencies Rizzo loves. I would be surprised if you don’t see him at some point in 2010.
5. The Nats are expected to take Bryce Harper with the first pick in the draft this year, but he won’t help out the 2010 squad. Jesus Flores has had shoulder issues and won’t be ready for Opening Day, making Ivan Rodriguez the everyday catcher. Do you think he still has enough left in the tank?
Derek Norris is actually their top catching talent in the organization and one of the best catching prospects in baseball. The job will be his by hopefully next year. It’s awfully hard to say what position Bryce Harper will play eventually. I don’t think they’ll draft for positional need with that pick anyway.
As you said, Flores hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but he also hasn’t actually been that good. He had great luck on balls in play in a small sample size last year, so this line looks better than it was. In 2008 he was really pretty awful and should have been in the minors. His strikeout rate just keeps going up. He’s actually not a particularly strong defensive catcher. In a better organization, a guy like this wouldn’t get nearly so much ink.
MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners
For the Nationals, MVP will be Zimmerman, Cy Young will be I guess Jason Marquis by default, and their rookie of the year will be Strasburg of course.
In the NL, I’ll go with Albert Pujols for MVP and Roy Halladay for Cy Young. Hard to pick against those two. For rookie of the year I’ll go out on a limb and say Jason Castro. For manager of the year, I’ll guess Bobby Cox wins in a sympathy vote for his last season.
Nationals regular season win total
I’m not ready to make the official prediction that I’ll be held to, but it won’t be far from 70 in either direction.
Place in NL East
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Keep up with the Nationals this season by checking out Fire Jim Bowden, one of my favorite blogs on the Internets. Aside from being a great blogger, Steven Biel was among many responsible for helping send Mark Zuckerman to Viera, Florida to cover the Nationals during spring training. The team had no independent beat writers, and Zuckerman was asking for a meager $5,000 to take the case himself. With the help of Biel and other kind souls throughout the baseball blogosphere (including Brian Oliver of Nationals Farm Authority and Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner and FanGraphs), Zuckerman was able to afford the trip and provide Nationals fans with the independent news that fans of other the 29 teams enjoy and often take for granted.
Tomorrow, we will preview the New York
Mess Mets with Steve Keane of Kranepool Society.