Five Questions: Washington Nationals

Last year at this time, the rice was still being thrown. The honeymoon had just started, and the love affair renewed in Washington, D.C. as the 34-year absence of Major League Baseball in our nation’s capital returned. The thing is, this year isn’t much different from last year; the Nationals are still owned collectively by MLB. That’s about to change. But the question is, what will this translate into for the Nats’ 2006 season?

1. Are John Patterson and Chad Cordero really that good?

After going 4-7 with 5.03 ERA in 19 games with the Montreal Expos, John Patterson was looking to hold down a roster spot entering last season with the Nationals. By the end of the season, Patterson had the stingiest ERA with the Nationals, posting 3.13 ERA and a 9-7 record over 31 games. Patterson will be looked upon to pick up some slack, with Esteban Loaiza traded this offseason to the A’s and Livan Hernandez moving into his 30s.

Not content with a low-90s fastball, great curve and slider, Patterson has added a changeup to his repertoire of pitches this offseason. As Patterson said to the AP, ”The pitch I’m most impressed with right now is my changeup,” the right-hander said. ”It’s come a long way, and it feels really good.”

Patterson threw just under 200 innings last season (198.1 IP). Look for more innings out of Patterson and for his stock to climb further in 2006 if he’s able to effectively use the newly added changeup. He’s also been a bright spot for the Nats in Spring Training. His line reads:

W  L   ERA  G  GS  CG  SHO  SV  SVO    IP  H  R  ER  HR  HBP  BB  SO  
1  0  0.00  3   3   0    0   0    0  12.0  7  0   0   0    1   2  13

The other pitcher to watch will be Chad Cordero. Up until the last week of Spring Training last season, Frank Robinson talked of going the “closer by committee” route. He opted to go with just Cordero, and it paid off handsomely.

Cordero led the league in saves last season with 47 in 74 games and posted a skinny 1.82 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP. Last season, when Cordero came out of the bullpen, the Nats posted a 59-15 record. He had 31 saves before the All-Star break alone.

The key will be in the ability to get him in the game. As Robinson said, “I’m not going to sit here and say we expect him to save 47 games this year because saves are kind of an odd situation. You have to have the opportunities to do it, and things have to go right for you behind you defensively and offensively,” Robinson said. “We expect him to go out there and do a good job for us with the opportunities that he will have.”

2. How big is the loss of Luis Ayala?

In three seasons, Robinson has used Luis Ayala 214 times in relief. This season, he won’t have that luxury, as Ayala will soon need surgery after an acute sprain of the ulnar-collateral ligament in his right elbow, a black mark from the WBC when Ayala was pitching for Mexico.

How big of a hit is this to the pitching staff? Let’s let Robinson put it in perspective. “Are we going to miss him? You’re damn right we’re going to miss him,” he said. ”There’s no doubt about it. I’m going to miss him. He’s a very important part of our staff for three years, ever since he set foot here.”

More bad news: of the 15 National League pitchers who made 200 or more appearances over the last three years, only Houston’s Brad Lidge had a better ERA (2.59) than Ayala.

3. What to do with Alfonso Soriano?

General Manager Jim Bowden is in a pickle, and it’s his doing. As Alfonso Soriano comes back from the WBC, the key question was whether the $10 million investment that the Nationals made (hey, he was asking for $12 million, but lost in arbitration) will move to left field. Given that Soriano has the worst fielding percentage of any player in the past 50 years with a minimum of 650 career games at second base, it’s obvious that he won’t be supplanting Jose Vidro at second. He rode the pine during the WBC and came up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning against Cuba. How’d he fare? He struck out, thus eliminating the Dominican Republic.

So here the Nationals sit with a $10 million investment that had refused to play left field. Chalk this distraction to a list of distractions that Robinson is dealing with before even one regular season game is even played.

To Robinson’s defense, he was able to sit down one-to-one with Soriano just before the WBC to try and negotiate with Soriano—get him to play ball as it were.

On Monday, March 20, Soriano was slated to play left field in a game against the Dodgers and was on Robinson’s lineup card. The problem was that when the team took the field, only eight players came out of the dugout. “He made it pretty clear that he was not going to play,” Bowden said. “We hope that when he reflects on it, we hope that he changes his mind and plays left field.”

On the following Weds., Soriano bent and played left against the Cardinals. He has said that he will play left for the remainder of the season, but the situation has been a huge distraction. The whole situation has had me wondering if there will be changes in the Uniform Player’s Contract due to the events with Soriano.

Before Soriano has played one regular season game with the Nationals, there has been talk of trading him. No one has bitten, leaving the Nationals in this awkward position as the regular season approaches.

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And even though Bowden was granted a one-year extension, is it any wonder that his butt is on the line on this ordeal?

4. Will the new owners translate to changes on the field this season?

To rip off Harry Caray, Holy Cow, the Nationals are soon to get new owners!

As the Nationals start the 2006 season, they’re saddled with the same problem that they’ve had since MLB purchased the Montreal Expos: MLB owns the club.

This season, more than others prior, this issue seems to have clouded the club going into the season. With the ownership issue held in limbo, and concern by MLB over whether the new stadium for the Nationals would ever be approved (it finally has been, and here’s the pictures to prove it), the Nationals front office was stuck in purgatory, for the most part.

Now that the funding has been approved, talk has been that the sale of the franchise will occur before the beginning of the season. (The Lerner family has been rumored to have won the bidding process, with former Braves President Stan Kasten being brought in to run the day-to-day baseball operations.) The official announcement will come sometime after the beginning of the season.

The change, unfortunately, means little in terms of the on-the-field player personnel.

With the sale ostensibly occurring after the beginning of the season, the Nationals will be dealing with front office issues and transition. Player personnel changes with the new ownership will be no more than minor adjustments (look for Ryan Zimmerman). The next year is when there will be real changes. Welcome to another season of MLB-owned baseball.

5. Which team will show up?

The Nationals finished 81-81 last season, and they had a season that could only be described as split personality. After going 52-36, and going into the All-Star break in first place, the wheels came off as they went 28-45 after the break and were eliminated from playoff contention on Sept. 26.

To put this in perspective, the Nationals set a record by having over 10 consecutive one-run wins AND losses in one season. The Nats won 12 straight one-run games before the All-Star break. On the loss side of things, the Nats dropped 13 consecutive one-run losses during one stretch from July 9 until they beat Houston by one run on Aug. 9. Washington led the league with 30 one-run wins and 31 one-run losses.

The question is, what team will show up? If Spring Training is any indicator, it appears the team that was losing at the end of the season will be more prominent in 2006. With the loss of Ayala and a suspect starting rotation (after Hernandez and Patterson, there is little firm foundation), pitching is a large hole going into the season, and Robinson has already had closed door meetings due to lackluster play in Spring Training. (As of March 17, the Nats had committed 26 errors in 18 games; they had committed two or more errors in a game five times.)

The Nationals finished fifth in the NL East last season. Unless Robinson and the Nationals are able to capture what made them winners in the first half of last season, look for a repeat of a fifth-place spot in the NL East for 2006.

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Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for freelance and looks forward to your comments.

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