By Matt Canamucio, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (67-95) - Fifth Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Gary Bennett, 3B - Vinny Castilla, 1B - Wil Cordero, OF - Jose Guillen, SS - Cristian Guzman, SP - Esteban Loaiza, RP - Antonio Osuna
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Tony Batista, OF - Ron Calloway, C - Einar Diaz, OF - Val Pascucci, OF - Juan Rivera
PROJECTED LINEUP: Endy Chavez (CF), Cristian Guzman (SS), Jose Vidro (2B), Jose Guillen (RF), Brad Wilkerson (LF), Vinny Castilla (3B), Nick Johnson (1B), Brian Schneider (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Livan Hernandez (RHP), Tony Armas (RHP), Esteban Loaiza (RHP), Tomo Ohka (RHP), Zach Day (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Chad Cordero (RHP)
MANAGER: Frank Robinson
Everyone knows that it will be a new era of baseball in Washington, DC when the Nationals take the field at RFK Stadium this season. But will the product be any better than what the Montreal Expos have been able to offer for the past decade -- only two seasons finishing higher than fourth in the NL East?
In 2004 the Expos finished fifth in the division -- 29 games behind the Atlanta Braves. They were the second-worst hitting team in baseball with a .248 average.
As the Expos moved south and transformed into the Nationals, offense was the top priority of general manager Jim Bowden. He signed free agents Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla to man the left side of the infield and dealt for problematic Angels rightfielder Jose Guillen.
As for upgrading the pitching staff, Bowden added free agent righthander Esteban Loaiza, who split last season between the White Sox and Yankees. The hope is that he can come close to the 2003 season that saw him win 21 games and provide stability in the middle of the rotation.
This will surely be a season of change for this franchise, but will it be a change for the better? The Nationals are likely to have more success in terms of attention and attendance in DC than they did in Montreal, but will it carry over onto the field?
Guzman has been unable to regain top form after a shoulder injury interrupted his breakout 2001 season, but last year he hit a respectable .274 with eight homers and 46 RBI for the Twins. Nationals manager Frank Robinson will likely pencil Guzman in as his No. 2 hitter behind centerfielder Endy Chavez. While Robinson needs his second-hole guy to put the ball in play as much as possible, he'd also like for Guzman to improve upon his meager .309 on-base percentage from last year.
Jose Vidro battled knee problems for the second straight season in 2004, and his campaign was cut short due to surgery in September. He finished hitting .294 with 14 homers and 60 RBI, marking the first time in six years that he wasn't over .300. The biggest thing for Vidro, who hopes to approach the 100 RBI mark again, is health, and his knees could be helped playing on grass as opposed to the horrible turf at Olympic Stadium.
Castilla has earned a stigma during his major league career, that he can only be a dangerous power hitter playing home games in Colorado. He averaged 38 homers between 1995-99 with the Rockies and just over 16 the next four seasons with Tampa Bay, Houston and Atlanta. The 37-year-old returned to Denver and stroked 35 long balls last year, hitting .271 with 131 RBI. It remains to be seen whether or not RFK Stadium will favor hitters or pitchers, but early estimates are that it will be fair to both.
Nick Johnson has yet to prove he can be a consistent everyday player, and that's partially because of injury problems. He has decent home run power, but has yet to see it fully blossom because he hasn't been able to play a full season. Last year the 26-year-old hit .251 with seven homers and 33 RBI in 73 games for the Expos. If he cannot produce, Brad Wilkerson will likely be moved to first base.
Brian Schneider is a solid, but unspectacular hitter -- .257 with 12 homers and 49 homers in 2004 -- but he continues to grow into his role as starting catcher at the age of 28. More importantly, Schneider has developed into an outstanding defensive backstop who can control his pitchers well from behind the plate.
Chavez struggled in the leadoff spot last season, causing Robinson to move Wilkerson there. He hit just .277 with an on-base percentage of .318, often being too impatient for the No. 1 spot in the order. He did steal 32 bases, which were by far a career-high. Expect him to be given a chance to succeed in center and as the leadoff man, but Robinson can't wait too long for him to thrive.
Guillen had some off-field issues last season, most notably a fit he threw after being removed for a pinch-runner in September, which was part of the reason he was sent packing. He was suspended the final eight games of the season, which essentially punched his ticket out of Anaheim. Washington will provide a fresh start for Guillen, who hit .294 with 37 home runs and 104 RBI for the Angels.
Wilkerson, who could see significant time at first base as well, will drop from the leadoff spot. He was moved there when Chavez struggled and responded by finishing the year hitting .255 with 32 homers and 67 RBI. Wilkerson's talents, and the fact that he isn't very fast, make him more suitable for the third or fifth spot in the lineup, which is where he'll be as long as there is production coming from those above him.
Livan Hernandez will give the Nationals one thing this season, and that's the attitude of a true workhorse. The 30-year-old tossed a career-high 255 innings in '04 and led the majors with 3,926 pitches thrown. He finished with an 11-15 record and 3.60 ERA in 35 starts. The only worry is that Hernandez' hefty workload will eventually catch up to him with injuries, but so far that hasn't happened.
Loaiza has had a pretty unspectacular major league career if you take away his 21-9, 2.90 ERA, 226-inning season for the White Sox in 2003. At no other time in his career has he won over 11 games, had an ERA below 3.00 or pitched over 200 innings. Basically, the Expos are hoping he can find some middle ground between that spectacular season and the bloated 5.71 ERA he posted last year with the ChiSox and Yankees.
Tony Armas Jr. was never really 100 percent in '04 after missing the first two months recovering from shoulder surgery he underwent in 2003. As a result he averaged under five innings per-start and finished the year 2-4 with a 4.88 ERA in 16 starts.
Tomo Ohka suffered a broken right forearm that killed most of his 2004 season, but the hope is that if healthy he can contribute double digit wins and almost 200 innings like he did before the injury. Zach Day has been bothered by injuries the past two seasons, but the Nationals are excited about his sinkerball that could pay dividends with ground balls on the new grass at RFK.
Chad Cordero was an All-American closer at Fullerton State and assumed the role for the Expos last June, much earlier than the team had planned. He saved 14 of his 18 opportunities last season and recorded a 2.94 ERA. The 23-year- old fanned 83 in 82 2/3 innings of work.
Setting up Cordero will be Luis Ayala, who, after struggling early on, wound up having a solid campaign with a 2.30 ERA. Free agent signee Antonio Osuna, the elder statesman of the late-inning hurlers, will also see action in the seventh and eighth innings. He will provide stability and has the ability to close as well.
Terrmel Sledge was the Expos' Minor League Player of the Year in 2003 and, after a horrible start in the majors, he finished hitting .269 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI last season. Sledge, a lefty, has had a year to adjust to big league pitching, and tweak his approach at the plate, so the Nationals are hoping he can break out. He could see significant time playing in left field if Wilkerson has to be moved in to first base.
Veteran catcher Gary Bennett and the versatile Wil Cordero will also prove valuable in reserve roles.
The Nationals have a fresh slate as they being play in the nation's capital, but it will take more than new fans and natural grass to turn this club around. The offense should be improved with the additions made, but the pitching staff has some question marks because of past injuries. Robinson's squad will likely make some progress, but the NL East is too competitive for the Nats to make a significant impact.