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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Moving Forward

As of May 5, the Washington Nationals are the owners of a record of 14-18, good for last in the NL East, but only 4.5 behind division-leading Philadelphia. They have won eight of the last eleven, and the home record stands at 10-8. It seems that despite their lack of hitting success, they've managed to right the ship towards being competitive, where two weeks ago things looked absolutely desolate.

We're roughly one-fifth into the 2008 campaign, and it seems a fair time to take a look at what the Nationals have accomplished, and look forward to what we might expect going forward.

Through 32 games, the team stands next-to-last in the NL in batting average, 14th in runs scored, last in home runs, 13th in on base percentage and 15th in stolen bases. Those are not numbers that project any sort of winning baseball. But there are glimpses of goodness in there. Let's take a closer look.

The Good: Nationals hitters in the first spot in the order, whether it's Cristian Guzman or Felipe Lopez, are hitting .326/.365/.471 with 20 runs scored overall. That's basically what you want your lead off hitter doing!

Get this! The Nats' eighth spot hitter (including Wil Nieves, Lopez again, various others) are hitting .312/.400/.413. not much power, but the 8-spot getting on base 40% of at bats?!? Who'da thunk it?

The Bad: Where to start? Paul LoDuca's only played 15 games, and has hit .233/.340/.302 in 43 at bats. Nick Johnson is the team leader in homers with four, and is hitting .211/.390/.422. His OBP is palatable, but there's no on around to drive him in once he's on base.

The Ugly: Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .217/.252/.333 with three homers and 14 RBIs. Wily Mo Pena is .230/.273/.246, with one double his only extra base hit among his 14 hits, and some of the worst outfield defense we've seen since the team moved. And that's saying a lot! Ronnie Belliard is .214/.333/.339 and forgot how to catch the ball.

Special Honorable Mention: Austin Kearns, despite Bob Carpenter and Don Sutton's best beliefs, is completely lost and really hurting the team. His overall numbers are bad (.212/.333/.292, 2 HRs/13 RBIs) but they only begin to tell the story. He's hit into six double plays, and as the team's primary hitter in the 5-spot, he's been an inning waiting to end--with no homers and five miserable RBIs from that run-producing spot.

Let's suppose for just a minute that Dmitri Young and Elijah Dukes both get healthy and are available May 15. I know it's a stretch. But let's play this game anyway. Who goes to make room for them?

Currently, the team is carrying three catchers, although Johnny Estrada seems an afterthought right now. I suppose he's the switch-hitting pinch-hitter the team envisioned for Young coming out of spring training. But Estrada has been terrible both at the plate (.179/.220/.179) and behind it (9/13 in stolen bases against, two passed balls in eleven games). It seems a safe assumption that Young should fill that slot on the bench again, and spell Johnson against lefties (.176/.356/.324).

So now, where to put Dukes? He'll actually probably beat Young back, so this is a tougher--and quicker--decision to be made. After Estrada, the rest of the bench currently is Nieves, Ronnie Belliard, Aaron Boone, Willie Harris and Rob Mackowiak. Nieves and Belliard are safe, and one has to figure so is Boone, since he can play both corners. The leaves Harris and Mackowiak. Harris is faster and the better defender. Mackowiak got the guaranteed contract in the off-season. Neither is hitting each other's weight (Harris: .205/.340/.333; Mackowiak: .167/.259/.208). Both play primarily outfield, although Harris could go to second base if needed. I think Willie's speed keeps him on the roster, and the Nats have to bite the bullet on Mackowiak.

So the question at that point is this: Wither Kearns? When Dukes comes back, do you let him ride the pine, or get him in the line-up? Do you oust JimBow fave Wily Mo out of left, or bench the Kentucky Headhunter in right? Right now, it's a toss-up, because neither are producing. And one seriously has to wonder how long the window of opportunity will remain open for either one.

Things are heating up, and it's not just the temperature around the region. The team is playing better, getting some pretty decent pitching (I'll save that for another column) and actually winning some games and generally being competitive, at least in the new park. So where it goes from here, especially considering the reinforcements that are just a couple weeks away from contributing, will be very interesting to watch as Washington's short spring will turn to it's typically oppressive summer very quickly.

1 comment:

Tom Servo said...

I've gotta think you sit Wily Mo, since Kearns at least gives you defense.