Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ten Burning Questions: Spring Training Edition

While Spring Training is interminably long, this one might be different. Of course, the extra anticipation might make it even worse!

Either way, we’ve got two months to kill and plenty of questions that need to be answered. If you’ve got anything to add, chip it in in the comments!

It’ll be interesting to see if our answers are any different come April.

1. Whither Endy?
Endy seems to be the lynchpin of the spring. If he can show the improvements he needs to and develop into the lead-off hitter everyone’s hoping he can be, the team will be better off. Wilkerson can drop down in the order, utilizing his power potential and the team won’t have a complete offensive zero in centerfield.

The bad news is that 1,100 major league and 2,100 minor league at-bats give us a pretty solid track record to go on. It’s safe to say the kind of player he is: a slap-hitting, non-patient enigma. Maybe this spring will bring something different.

2. How’s Vidro’s knee?
Jose Vidro is probably the team’s best player, when you adjust for position. He’s a solid doubles machine, the really poor man’s Nap Lajoie. Unfortunately, he had knee surgery last September. Hopefully, he’ll be fully healthy by the time the season starts without any lasting impact. He’s already reported to camp and is reportedly rehabbing hard.

It’s especially important because, by all accounts, he’s a pretty wretched defensive second baseman. Most every defensive system I’ve seen agrees. Assuming the benefit of the doubt, that he’s average, at best, his knee surgery can’t be a good sign for his mobility in the field. Second basemen aren’t known for their long-term durability and with his huge contract, the Nationals better hope he shows a solid recovery.

3. How exactly do you play four people in three spots?
This is the corollary to the Endy question. With Chavez, Nick Johnson, Termell Sledge and Brad Wilkerson all fighting for playing time, someone’s going to be the odd-man out, especially because they’re all left-handers, so platooning isn’t an option.

Barry Svrluga suggested that Sledge is on the trading block, but for what, I don’t know. Absent a trade, it’s going to create some interesting rotations to keep steady playing time for everyone. And I don’t expect that Frank Robinson is the second-coming of Casey Stengel when it comes to running a platoon.

4. Is Guzman really a good defender?
Although he’s been brought on for his defense, Guzman’s defensive record is quite spotty. I’ve suggested that much of his poor showing may be a reflection of the environment he played in and just an illusion--one that disappeared when the MetroDome turf was changed.

We’ll have plenty of opportunity to see if the old numbers were right, or if the scouts were. The pitching staff really hopes it’s the latter.

5. Can Guillen be a model citizen?
His problems have been documented elsewhere extensively and no one’s ever accused him of being a nice guy. But as Mel Ott can attest, nice guys finish last. He doesn’t need to be mister personality, but he certainly needs to keep his head on straight and in the game.

It’ll be interesting to see how he meshes with Frank Robinson. Frank had a bit of a hot-headed reputation, especially when he came up early in his career. I imagine the two will be sitting down to some long conversations in the warm Florida sun.

6. Will Day like the bullpen?
Various reports have indicated that Day may be headed to the bullpen. This doesn’t make much sense to me, because Day has the potential to be one of the team’s best pitchers. Just 26 years old, he’s had an ERA above average every year of his career and shows a lot of promise.

I guess the thinking is that he’ll be able to avoid some injury and will provide them with strong middle innings to bridge the game to Cordero. With his sinker, Day’s a pretty extreme ground-baller, he could be very useful in situations where a double play is needed--kind of like Ramiro Mendoza was used by the Yankees a few years ago.

But, that’s also contingent upon Rauch or Patterson stepping it up in spring. There’s definitely some potential there and it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out in the spring.

7. Can Loaiza set the clock to back before midnight?
Last year, he was definitely a big fat pumpkin, and batters teed off him like he was throwing them to the plate. Loaiza’s a player who’s been mediocre his entire career except for that one magical Cy Young Runner-Up season. For his career, his ERA is 2% below league average, but he does give you innings. And with the various injuries this team had, there’s certainly value in that.

It’s been claimed that he suffered from a tired arm last year, after having thrown a career high in innings the year before. He still has a pretty solid sinker, which was especially powerful when combined it with the cut fastball, a pitch he learned before his 2003 season. Hopefully, the time off will give him his command back. And who knows, maybe come August, we can trade his sorry carcass for a prospect or two.

8. Will any of the kids get a chance?
There are definitely a few spots up for grabs, particularly in the back of the bullpen and in the outfield. Will players like Ryan Church, John Patterson or JJ Davis get a fair crack? Or, will the lack of consistent playing time mean they’re being shuffled down to the bayou and players like Jeffrey Hammonds and George Arias get a chance? In Church’s case, he’s got options left, so I’m sure he’ll be eating gumbo. In Patterson’s case, it’ll be DC or bust. Which ones get a chance and how will those final 3 or 4 roster slots be used?

9. How does the bench look?
This one’s a variation on the previous question. Right now, catcher Garry Bennett, 1B Wil Cordero and IF Jamey Carroll are probably locks and form the corps of a pretty weak bench, at least offensively. None of them have any power, although Cordero has a pretty decent history of mashing lefties. With JJ Davis and Alex Escobar the favorites for the backup OF slots, somebody’s going to need to step up and show they can hit major league pitching.

Versatility is a great asset on an NL bench, but hitting ability sure comes in handy too!

10. How many long relievers does a bullpen need?
It's another riff on the kids question. Livan, Ohka, Loaiza, Armas and Day should form the starters (Although Day’s slot is in question.) Cordero, Ayala and Osuna are the relief aces.

That leaves about 4 slots open for other relievers to make their mark. Rauch, Patterson, Vargas, Beltran, Tucker, Horgan and a cast of thousands all have excellent chances to make the bullpen as well. Throw in a youngin’ like Mike Hinckley and the Nationals are a team with a solid and deep middle relief corps.

I, nor anyone, has any idea how that’ll all sort itself out. But, the games and performance over the next few weeks will give us a pretty good answer.


  • That's probably the most thorough "burning questions" list (and accompanying answers) I've seen this offseason, professional or blogger. Excellent work!

    It is funny, isn't it, how so much of this team's direction centers (no pun intended) around Endy Chavez? We've all written about that, of course, but it still strikes me as funny. And I don't really see what is so enignmatic about him; what you see is what you get, and that probably won't change, as you indicate.

    One last thing: Not that I would at all propose this, but am I crazy for thinking that Loaiza seems an example of a guy who can shift from cruddy starter to Proven Closer(tm)?

    By Blogger Basil, at 2/15/2005 4:11 PM  

  • Thanks for the compliments!

    Chavez is an enigma in that most people haven't figure him out yet. Check out the message boards sometime and there are people who still think he can change the type of hitter he is. 3,300 professional ABs probably say otherwise.

    Loaiza as closer? Hmm... I dunno. Without a dominant third pitch, the bullpen might be a decent change for him, but his strength really is his durability. He WILL give you 180+ innings of league average ball. There's certainly value in that.

    The problem becomes when you're carrying dead weight and don't have much front-line talent surrounding the average players.

    Despite his sinking fastball, I think Loaiza gives up plenty of longballs. He's never been a hard thrower and doesn't have one dominant pitch, like Gagne or Smoltz did.

    I do know we've got enough bullpen talent that I really hope we don't have to find out! :)

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/15/2005 4:17 PM  

  • Ah, I see what you're saying about Chavez being enigmatic---or at least the broader perspective regarding him. That's a good point.

    You're certainly right that we do _not_ need to find out if Loaiza can close; I was thinking we could pawn him off to someone else for that experiment. ;-)

    I do wonder whether he can still be banked for 180 IP of league-average ball. Not to play multiple endpoints, but he's got the one fluke season flanked by two bad, bad seasons. (One of which was an injury year, I'll acknowledge.)

    Of course, I was, well, "not totally negative" when he signed last month, so I should at least be consistent. ;-)

    Later, Basil

    By Blogger Basil, at 2/15/2005 4:26 PM  

  • I'm firmly in the anti-Endy camp, but one thing I haven't gotten a handle on is who else can play CF.

    I've heard pretty much everyone mentioned at one time or another. My impression is that Wilkerson is probably stretched there as a regular, but I don't know that much about how people regard Church, Sledge, Escobar, or Davis.

    My impression based on what little info I have is that Davis certainly can't play CF -- he gets fairly bad numbers as a RF from BP. Church and Sledge have played CF in the minors, but not regularly enough to give me the impression that anyone thinks they can play there regularly in the majors. Escobar has a decent defensive reputation, but he also doesn't seem to have been a regular CF in the upper minors, at least.

    Anyone out there have any idea?

    (For the record, I favor sitting Endy even if it means a defensive hit, but it would be a more obvious move if we had someone who could just slide in there.)

    By Blogger Randolph, at 2/15/2005 4:27 PM  

  • From the defensive stuff I've seen, Sledge is a very good left fielder, but I'd probably put him in the Wilkerson category--a good short-term replacement, but not a regular.

    I think that Baseball America said that Church was the best defensive outfielder in our system. But, he appears to have little chance of beginning the season in DC.

    For Escobar, he had some knee problems. I don't know if his move to the corner was to keep him healthy, or because he stinks. I remember he was regarded as a pretty decent OFer in center. But that was before his knee surgery.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/15/2005 5:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home