Thursday, February 23, 2006

10 Burning Questions

With position players making their grand entrances today, let's look ahead to what the key questions of spring are.

1) Where's Soriano going to play?
I'm sick of this question already. I've mentioned before that I would suspect that Soriano is going to back down. He wants cash. And the only way he's going to get cash is by putting up numbers this season, and not being too much of a problem. Even if he does come to ST with just an infielder's glove, I'm sure someone can loan him an outfielder's.

But much of that depends on....


2) How's Vidro's health?
Jose Vidro had an injury-riddled year. Coming off knee surgery, he never got himself into game shape, which eventually took its toll on his body, breaking him down again.

He's at the point in his career at which second baseman typically start falling apart. Other than catcher, they have the shortest careers -- all the twisting, turning, collisions greatly affect what is typically the slightest frame on the diamond. Vidro doesn't quite look like the classic second baseman, so perhaps he can avoid the classic fate.

At any rate, he avoided surgery in the offseason, thanks to the advice of James Andrews. I have faith in the good doctor, and hopefully an offseason of rest, rehab, and conditioning will keep Vidro on his feet, and ripping doubles for 90% of the season.

3) Can Jose Guillen Swing A Bat?
He played most of the second half with a torn labrum -- the sort of injury that knocks pitchers out for months. He had major surgery on it right after the season, and there's a good chance he won't be ready to go til Mid-March, making an April start difficult.

Somehow I think he'll suck it up.

As Guillen went, so did the team. He's certainly their most consistent hitter, and we can't forget how tremendous his first half was. He hit for average, and power, driving in runs frequently when the team needed them the most. Then came the second half. He couldn't buy a hit with RISP to start, then couldn't buy a hit, period, to end.

If Frank can keep him off the field til he's fully healthy, there's no reason that Guillen can't duplicate his first-half numbers, giving the Nats a key piece that they missed during their dog day swoon.

4) Is Zimmerman Really Ready?
It'd be foolish to doubt Ryan Zimmerman at this point. Everything we saw, majors and minors, indicate that he can make the transition to the big leagues. But will he?

While we're wowed by the near-.400 average, and the doubles he cranked out, he didn't walk much. And pitchers finally started figuring him out that final week.

It will be up to him to make the adjustments this year, as pitchers get a better grip of what he's good at, and where he's exploitable. We may need to temper our enthusiasm. He's probably not going to hit .300 this year.

But... if things go wrong, who's capable of taking the job? Damien Jackson hasn't played much third. None of the other players have either. Could that be the one hope that Brendan Harris has?

5) Who's In Center?
Ryan Church? Marlon Byrd? Brandon "Endy 2.0" Watson?

Watson seems to be the favorite -- or at least the great speedy hope. Frank/Bowden seem concerned that the centerfielder also serve as the leadoff hitter, and Watson's speed makes them salivate.

But Watson is a slap-hitter in the Endy Chavez mold. He wraps singles, but doesn't hit for any power, or walk all that much. His value is tied up solely in his ability to smack singles -- something that's easier to do against Triple-A pitching than versus Pedro Martinez. It seems like he'll be given plenty of rope to hang himself this spring.

We've heard the criticism of Ryan Church ad nauseum. But the man has hit at every level of the majors and minors. Marlon Byrd has had a decent track record, especially in smacking around left-handed pitchers. The ideal situation, it seems, would be a platoon of the two of them. Combined, they could probably hit .280/ 20/ 80. From a centerfielder, that's great -- and it would fulfill Eddie Rodriguez' pathological need for L/R balance!

6) Can Guzman Rebound?
This is perhaps the most important question of the spring. It's fish or cut bait time. If his laser eye surgery, and a new hitting coach, who by all accounts doesn't have his head on the golf course, can't fix him, nothing can.

6A) If he does fail, is Royce Clayton (especially at $1 million!) the answer?
Nope!

7) How's Livan's knee?
Livan Hernandez had his knee drained every three starts last year, and the pain was pretty noticeable. He was rarely able to push off, and frequently looked like he was trying to step his way over a razor fence that was a little too high. It seemed like he threw even more slop than typical, perhaps because he couldn't get the extra juice on the fastball.

If he's healthy, there's a chance that he could get closer to 2004's form than to 2005's. If so, we'll like the results.

8) Will We Be Saying "Livan and Nasty, Then Pray For Something That Rhymes With Nasty?"
The rotation is dreck beyond the big two. While that's probably a bit harsh, there are questions, especially now that Brian Lawrence's shoulder stiffness is lingering. Right now, he's penciled in solidly in the third spot, leaving a fight to the death for the other two spots.

It comes down to Jon Rauch, Ramon Ortiz, and Tony Armas. We know Armas. Oft-injured, lots of potential (or so the scouts say). But he's never been able to put it together. For what it's worth, pitching coach Randy St. Claire says he looks great early on. Ramon Ortiz is interesting. He's had some decent years in the past, but he loves the gopher ball -- which will be much less of a problem here than it was for him in Cincinnati. Jon Rauch pitched effectively as the Nationals designated loser last year -- the pitcher they'd throw out there in extra innings to take a tough loss when the Nats couldn't scratch a run home to save their life. He's also out of options, which means that he'd have to be exposed to waivers (where Jim Bowden loves giving pitchers away) before being able to be sent down. If someone claimed Claudio Vargas, they'll claim Rauch, too.

Ryan Drese is in the mix as well. Drese also had labrum surgery last year, but says he feels well, and that he's able to get back up to the high arm angle which makes his sinker so effective -- as opposed to last season when the low arm angle forced him to lob cantaloupes up to the plate.

9) Who winds up in the pen?
The losers of the starters battle will fight there way into an already crowded bullpen. Cordero, Ayala, Majewski, Eischen, and Stanton seem entrenched. That's before we factor in Felix Rodriguez. There are only a few slots, and lots of guaranteed contracts.

Bowden isn't going to just crap money away and release some of these guys is he? He could trade some, I suppose, but for what? To who?

10) How Important Are The Stats?
Not very. Spring Training stats are dangerously misused. Batters don't come to the plate too much in the thirty or so games they play, and they're not always facing the best pitchers or fielders. Spring training is more about scouting than stats. The team's personnel need to look and see how a hitter is doing. Is he making hard contact, hitting line drives that are being caught? Has he lucked out with a few bloop singles? Unforunately, those are things that aren't really clear from the box scores. We have, at best, an incomplete picture. At worst, a misleading one.

Same goes for pitchers. Sometimes they're facing minor league lineups. Sometimes they're just working on one pitch, throwing nothing but a changeup, trying to learn a new grip. The team knows what's going on, but we can't, unless one of the writers fills us in.

Most importantly, don't worry about wins and losses. They never reflect how a team will actually do. It usually seems like the team with the most veteran Triple-A lineup does the best -- in which case, I expect Ruben Mateo and George Lombard to lead the Grapefruit League in hitting, and the Nationals to be in first place by the end!

One thing that I do find valuable, though, is K/BB ratio for pitchers. It's not a perfect measure, but it gives you an idea of a pitcher's control, as well as how good his 'stuff' might be. Even if he's giving up runs, if he's still striking out batters, it means he's doing something right. Patterson's numbers last spring were quite good. That might be one way to sort out the starter's logjam.

_____

I'm looking forward to the games. I'm sick of the off-field drama!

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