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[April 1st] -- Nationals' General Manager Jim Bowden proved Friday Night that the was right in sending Ryan Church to 'AAA' New Orleans and making Brandon Watson the team's starting center fielder. I was wrong. All of us were.


Seriously, Watson played well in front of the home folks at RFK, slapping a single into center field and beating out an infield hit, going 2-5 with a stolen base and making in the outfield what Charley Slowes called the "best defensive play of the spring." Wow. It's only one game, but he played well and didn't do anything stupid. At this point, we shouldn't expect much more.

Ryan Zimmerman continued doing what he does best, making errors and hitting doubles. He had two of both until the official scorer took pity on the youngster and changed one of them to a hit. Jose Vidro continues to look healthy, getting two hits as well. Other than that, there wasn't much else to get excited about in the Nats' 9-6 loss to the Orioles. John Patterson wasn't sharp, and Jon Rauch was downright bad. The team has found ways to lose all spring, but played all of their regulars for most of the game, so we can't blame the "kids" for the loss. In fact, the only home run of the night came from Kenny Kelly, a guy I forgot was still around.

At some point, we can't keep justifying this spring's 9-22 record and begin to admit that it is indicative of something.

We just don't know what it's indicative of. Yet.



[March 31st] -- The start of the second season is just days away, and many questions that have surrounded the Washington Nationals this past off-season remain unanswered. Who will the owner be? Has Jim Bowden's poor personnel moves doomed the team to a last place finish? Will Washington be able to see more than just a handful of games on TV anytime soon? All of these questions, however, and many more, can be combined and asked in a different way.

What has the tumultuous off-season done to baseball in Washington?

Which RFK Stadium will greet the Nationals this summer? Will it be the one full of frenzied fans, filling every seat from the stadium's waffle-topped roof all all the way down to the lowest box seat, or will it be the half full, half-hearted stadium populated by fans with nothing else better to do on a warm summer's eve?

I'm not sure that anyone knows at this point.

The Nationals drew nearly 34,000 fans last year having little television exposure and litle more than "word of mouth" advertising to excite the community. The fans came during that magnificent first half when the team surged to a 50-31 record, and the fans came when the team fell flat on it's face, limping home with a 30-51 effort. Fans were willing to put up with the craziness because they knew, they knew, that come that fall, the team would have a stadium, an owner, a resolution to the cable tv fight and a general manager capable of putting together a team able enough to compete with the teams in the N.L. East. How have they done? With the Nationals back in D.C. this morning, the team has a new stadium to play in.

In three years.

To make matters worse, the Jack Abramoff fiasco has scared away hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ticket-buying lobbyists, shrinking the ticket base before the season even begins. But how will the Nationals' fans react to the continued uncertainty that surrounds their team? Ticket sales are down, not a lot, but their down nonetheless. When the team loses six in a row, or seven out of nine, how many fans will come to the "old lady"on a hot humid night to watch a team struggling to remain competitive?

I don't know.

it's been a several years since I've lived in Washington, but I suppose the old saying remains true: "Everyone in Washington is from somewhere else." Part of RFK will always be full of fans from St. Louis to watch the Cardinals, from Philadelphia to watch the Phillies, and from Los Angeles to watch the Dodgers. They will always be there. The Nationals fans, well, there I'm not so sure.

Most all of us didn't become baseball fans in September of 2004. No, we have been fans since we were kids, rooting on other teams in other cities. Not because we wanted to, because we had to. Many supported the Braves because they were on TBS every night. Others supported the Orioles, remembering the lyrics from a song that rocked D.C. during the last year the Senators were in Washington, "If you can't be with the one you love, then love the one you're with."

Many Washingtonians were Orioles' fans because it was "convenient." Those Orioles' fans, those Braves' fans who boxed up their team hats and pennants in favor of the Nats must now be wondering if it was a wise choice.

Will the fans of Washington take their anger out on the team? They won't be able to turn their collective backs on the D.C. City Council, or Bud Selig, or Jack Abramoff, or Jim Bowden, or Peter Angelos, or even Comcast Cable. But they can turn their backs on the Nationals. Oh, it won't be like that, really. But perhaps Lake Burke, or the Smithsonian, or the C & O Canal, or the battlefields of Manassas will take priority. Sure, the radio might be tuned to the Nationals' station, or they'll check the internet when they get home to see how they did, but the team won't have quite the priority that it once did.

Have you ever wondered why baseball is so important in St. Louis? Because there is nothing else to do.

I lived there for several years, and can attest to the fact that the Cardinals are it. But in Washington, there are literally hundreds of attractions to keep it's people busy. The Nationals may one day be at the top of that list, but they'll have to earn it.

And until there is an owner and a cable agreement and and new general manager and a completed stadium, we have to hope that the fans on the periphery "stay tuned."

We'll be here. Will they?



[March 31st] -- I got a slew of emails regarding a story I published yesterday where I mentioned I lived in Idaho. Since this is the third time the subject has come up in my in-box, I thought I'd take a slow news morning to answer them.

Here is a representative email from Steve in Alexandria: .... ...."Farid, I've been reading your blog since before the Nationals first played a game and I always assumed you lived inside the beltway like the rest of us. Why is an Idahoan (is that right?) so interested in baseball in Washington?

Steve, I lived in D.C. from 1959 (when my family moved from Beirut) to the late 1970's, when I joined the Air Force.

My first tour of duty was in Japan, where I met my (American) wife. After my discharge, we returned to Falls Church, where my second daughter was born. Kendi, and later a second daughter, Kaitlin, came into this world with severe physical and mental handicaps that required specialists that weren't available in D.C. Over the next ten years, we lived in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Detroit, St. Louis and Miami, traveling from doctor to doctor, trying to make our children's lives worth living.

It is expensive to raise a handicapped child, and it is downright prohibitve to raise two. At this point, my guess is that my wife and I have spent half a million dollars on their well being. We came to realize that the cost of wheel chairs, heart surgery, walkers, braces and medical tests were about the same from city to city, but the cost of living was not. For example, I was able to purchase a 2,000 square foot home ten years ago here in Pocatello for $47,000 -- today it's worth about $75,000. Mortgage payments of $367 a month allowed me to return to college without having to work. I can afford to live here and travel to Salt Lake City, about two hours away, to take care of their special needs.

I lost Kendi a little more than a year ago (due to a nurse's mistake) and Katie is healthy enough that I probably could move home and be okay financially. However, I went back to school three years ago to get a teaching degree, and there is no way I could survive inside the beltway on a beginning teacher's salary.

I miss D.C. very much -- but living in the middle of nowhere does have it's advantages. A driver's license here is $15.00. License plates are about $25. There are no safety inspections, no city or county stickers or tags to buy. No other costs at all. Idahoans howled when the sales tax was raised to 5% a few years ago. It's very safe (one murder in Pocatello in the last 15 years) and Yellowstone Park is just two hours away.

So, I hope that answers the question. I would love to come back home and see a game at RFK one more time before the team moves to the new stadium (I'd guess that I've been to about 100 games there watching the old Senators play). Who knows, maybe I'll get to meet my some of my fellow bloggers one day; that would be one of "those" moments that would stay with me forever. But just because I love the Nationals from afar, it doesn't mean that I love them any less.

Thanks for asking. Thanks For caring.




[March 31st] -- Now that we know that Wiki Gonzalez is the Nationals' backup catcher for 2006, what do we know about him? For most of the spring, we were looking at Matt LeCroy or Robert Fick to be the team's new backup catcher, and guys like Alberto Castillo, Mike DeFelice and Wiki Gonzalez went pretty much un-noticed. Now's a good time to get to know him.

It's not like Wiki Gonzalez was a high round draft pick who never panned out. Gonzalez was signed by the Pirates in 1992 as a "non-drafted" free agent [update: a reader points out rightly that players outside of the U.S. aren't eligible for the draft -- oops!]. Four years later, he was still playing 'A' ball for Pittsburgh, and was allowed to became a Rule 5 draftee of the San Diego Padres. He got his first "cup of coffee" in the majors three years later, batting .253 in 83 at bats with San Diego. He was the Padres' number two catcher the following year, batting .232 with 5 homers and 30 RBI's in 284 at bats. He retained his "backup backstop" position for two more seasons, always hitting well for a defensive catcher. Gonzalez was traded to the Mariners in 2004 as part of a six player trade that headlined Jeff Cirillo. The Mariners left him at 'AAA' Tacoma for two years before giving him a chance with the big club in late 2005 where he hit . 267 in 45 at bats. He opted to leave Seattle via the six-year minor league free agent rule, and signed with the Nationals on December 13th 2005.

Gonzalez has good power for a #2 catcher, hitting 17 homers in 801 major league at bats. He is patient and has above average speed for his position. He has a career .312 OBP and a .362 SLG average. Defensively, his short and stocky build allows him to easily block balls in the dirt. His speed (for a catcher) helps him reach more pop fouls than most catchers. His arm is above average, but nowhere near the strength of Brian Schneider.

Based on what Gonzalez can do, and what Gary Barnett did do last year, he represents a significant upgrade for the Nationals in 2006. He has a one year contract, however, and plays a position that goes through a yearly game of "musical chairs." There is always a dozen guys just like him who can be had for the same money. Though he'll help the Nationals this season, chances are, he'll be helping someone else in 2007.



[March 30th] -- There are now 25 Washington Nationals.

Michael Tucker was released outright, meaning his days as a major leaguer are likely over. He really never had a chance to make the team anyway, but his poor play this spring sealed his fate. Kevin Gryboski was optioned to New Orleans, which surprised me a bit; I thought his good spring might have given him at least an outside shot at making the team. Travis Hughes and Alberto Castillo and Travis Hughes were also added to the Zephyr roster. Wicki Gonzalez made the club as the team's backup catcher, as did Daryle Ward, who will likely be a lefty pinch hitter.

Your Washington Nationals:

Catchers: Brian Schneider, Wiki Gonzalez

Infielders: Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Royce Clayton, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt LeCroy, Daryle Ward, Damian Jackson, Marlon Anderson

Outfielders: Jose Guillen, Alfonso Soriano, Brandon Watson, Marlon Byrd

Pitchers: Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, Pedro Astacio, Ramon Oritz, Tony Armas Jr., Gary Majewski, Felix Rodriguez, Jon Rauch, Mike Stanton, Chad Cordero, Joey Eischen

This is a 72 to 75 win team. Ryan Church would have added three wins to those numbers. Hopefully, he'll be back soon enough to make an impact.

More later.



[March 30th] -- Marlon Byrd is probably as upset as Ryan Church, even though he's staying with the "big club."

Byrd, obtained for Endy Chavez last spring, out performed Brandon Watson in virtually every measurable statistic this spring, yet heard Frank Robinson tell the press yesterday that he'd be using Watson as an every-day player, hitting regularly against lefties. That leaves Byrd to cull only the late-inning defensive replacements, because he's never going to see a pinch-hit at bat, not with Matt LeCroy on the team.

Both Church and Byrd are stunned by the team's decision. Church has done something the Watson hasn't; succeed as an every-day major leaguer. Marlon Byrd had an outstanding rookie year with Philadelphia, and has recently found something in his bat that Brandon Watson doesn't have; power. Ryan Church was on his way to a 23 homer season before being injured last summer. Jim Bowden has repeatedly said that since working with Mitchell Page in New Orleans last summer, Marlon Byrd has become a "25 homer a year guy." So, let me see if I got this right. The Nationals have essentially benched 50+ homers this year in favor of a guy who has four career minor league homers in 2400+ at bats. Yet, when you ask either Frank or Jim what the team needs most, the answer is always the same, "more power!"

Well, be not afraid, my fellow Natheads. Just as a body rids itself of unwanted foreign "bodies," so too will major league pitching rid teams of incapable hitters. If we are right about Watson (and we are), we'll see a change in the outfield picture sometime in early-to-mid May. Ryan Church will be back, Marlon Byrd will be in the rotation, and all will be right with the the world.

Well, not "right" with the world. Jim Bowden will still be in Washington. Let's call it "better" with the world for the moment...



[March 29th] -- I was surfing the web this morning and came across a baseball website from France. The French just never quite seem to understand anything American. They watch our movies and think that Hollywood accurately portrays the American way of life. They think that the fact that we saved their country from occupation in two world wars was "A nice little thing to do, but we had it under control, thank you." And goodness, they can't even get baseball right.

The rules for French baseball is a little different from our own. The batter has the ball velcroed to his backside as in the picture to the right, and then must run the bases in an attempt to score at home plate. The defensive players try to rip the ball off of the opponents back -- if they do, the player is out. The player trying to score is allowed to use his bat to ward off the defensive players.

And we wonder why France disagrees with everything America does. Its all a big misunderstanding.



[March 29th] -- It took me nearly sixteen months to dislike Jim Bowden. It took me only one day to hate him.

There are always going to be disagreements between management and fans as to who makes the team out of spring training. That's part of the fun, to second guess the big-shots and poke fun at their choices. But when those decisions hurts the team, when foolish choices cut deep into the very fabric of the team, it goes beyond a friendly disagreement. On Tuesday, Jim Bowden placed his desire to remain as team GM above the Nationals' long-term best interest, and I can't believe he's going to get away with it.

None of us really believe that the Nationals have any real hope of duplicating last season's "run to 81." The pitching is worse and the team has added even more problem players. This should have been a year to play the kids and give the mid-level prospects a chance to either prove they can play at the major league level or get rid of them and free up space for the next batch of hopefuls. The honeymoon is still in full bloom all around the beltway, and another 2.5 million fans would put up with the decaying infrastructure of RFK to support baseball in Washington. They would have come if the team won 75 games, or if they won 65. Let's see who can do what, and then let the new owner and his team decide who stays and who goes.

But Jim Bowden can't do that. He can't risk a sub-standard won-loss record in 2006 or his already slim hope of retaining his position will be all but gone. So instead of bringing his broom, he's brought in rotting timber to shore up the S.S. National for just one more year in hopes of another payday. Dead weight like Royce Clayton is blocking Brendan Harris from showing if he can, as many of us believe, play every day at this level. If bringing in one aging reserve was wise, then signing six must be a stroke of genius. Of course, several quality prospects must now play another year in the minor leagues, unable to prove, or disprove their talents and abilities. Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio, who've pitched as poorly as anyone for the Nationals during spring training, are keeping Jon Rauch and Billy Traber far far away from RFK Stadium. It appears that the team will keep Kevin Gryboski, a journeyman with little left in the tank instead of Bergman, who only has his entire career ahead of him. And now Ryan Church is a Zephyr.

Church, National League rookie of the month last May, was well on his way to a .295-23-89 season when he hurt his shoulder running into a wall in Pittsburgh, making a spectacular catch that sealed a win for the Nats and a save for Chad Cordero. He is most often compared to former Expo Grady Sizemore, who hit 22 homers for Cleveland in 2005. In his place will be Brandon Watson, who is this year's Endy Chavez but with a better set of ears. Rotoworld.com believes that the Nationals are a poorer team with Watson in center, saying, that the only possibility that makes sense is that Bowden is working on a trade that will send Church packing. So what will Bowden do when Watson is batting .200 in late May and Church is batting .300 with 5 homers playing for Pittsburgh, or Seattle or San Francisco? Does anyone really believe that Marlon Byrd is able to play center field every day?

No, my friends, none of these personnel decisions was based on what was best for the Nationals. This is Jim Bowden's best hope of keeping his job. He is trying to catch "lightning in a bottle" one more time with his "future is now" moves, hoping he can squeeze a .500 season out of this group and, assuming the new owner has never heard of Alfonso Soriano, sign a long-term deal with the Nationals.

In an interview with Bill Ladson, Bowden said that Church's demotion was a "wake up call." Reports are now surfacing that the organization didn't like his "body language" in the outfield. What? Alfonso Soriano says for three months that he wouldn't play the outfield, finally relents and botches a bunch of balls, and all that is said is that "as long he continues to improve, we're happy." But Ryan Church, who has done all that was asked of him, who is a proven major league hitter, was sent down to New Orleans in part because of his "body language?" Maybe the body language is the result of broken bones incurred when running into outfield walls for the team?

Did any of these guys work for TASS in an earlier life?




[March 29th] -- The Washington Nationals thumped the Cleveland Indians Tuesday night 8-3, continuing there hot play of late.

Take a look at this picture of Ryan Zimmerman and Frank Robinson. Is Robinson greeting Zimmerman, or is he taking a swipe at him? I guess it could be either, because the Nats' young third baseman continued his spring infatuation with home runs and errors, hitting two more homers and committing yet another throwing error. For the spring, Zimmerman now has seven home runs and and seven errors. Both numbers are surprising, but my guess is that Zimmerman is feeling "too" comfortable and isn't concentrating. Some guys aren't good "practice players," but are able to turn it up a notch when the game starts, Maybe Zimmerman is one of them. As far as the home runs, is there anyone who isn't surprised by his power? Ryan is now second in the Grapefruit League in total home runs, behind only Ryan Howard's ten. We keep waiting for major league pitchers to find a weakness. Is it possible that, somehow, the Nationals have lucked into a once in a decade superstar that doesn't have any? My original prediction was .275-14-65 for Zimmerman, but I may have been way too conservative. Perhaps .285 - 25 - 85 might be more likely?

Jose Guillen launched his third homer of the spring, all coming in the last three games, good news for the wrist and shoulder worriers among us. Jose Vidro got two more hits and is beginning to look more and more like the Vidro that Washingtonians have never seen. Ramon Ortiz barely pitched well enough to win, giving up three runs and eight hits in five innings. Joey Eischen, Billy Bray and Chad Cordero gave up no runs in three innings of work.

So, the wins are coming more frequently now, and the once horrid spring training record is now just really bad. Some of the team's key offensive players are hitting, others (hello Nick Johnson and Royce Clayton) are at or below .200, not a good sign this late into spring training. And nothing has happened to make the Nats' faithful less worried about the pitching staff. Livan Hernandez and John Patterson have a combined ERA of 1.43, but the "other guys" have an ERA way over 6.00. Without a sudden improvement in the back of the rotation, the 2006 season will be over before it begins.



[March 28th] -- Since January, we've been hearing indirectly (Bill Ladson) and directly (Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden) that the Washington Nationals wanted, the Washington Nationals needed Brandon Watson to win the starting job in center field this spring. The team's 45 stolen bases was an embarrassment, and Watson, it was hoped, would help bring station-to-station baseball to Washington. It was hoped that Watson would hit around .300 this spring, steal a few bases and have an improved on-base percentage. So far this spring, Watson is batting .311, has a .368 on base percentage, and has stolen seven bases in eight attempts. He's done everything asked of him.

So why is the Nationals' unofficially-official spokesman Bill Ladson telling the world that the center field job will go to either Ryan Church or Marlon Byrd? What went wrong?

Well, part of what went wrong is Alfonso Soriano's significant defensive liabilities. Brandon Watson is over-matched in center field, and has trouble getting to balls hit over his head. His arm isn't terribly strong either. He'd be perfect in left field, and my guess is that if Soriano wasn't stuck there, Watson would be the team's starting left fielder. Unfortunately for Watson, Soriano would be even worse in center that Watson. Because the team is beginning to realize just how bad Soriano is going to be in left, they understand that the team has to have a center fielder good enough to clean up at least some of his mistakes. Watson just isn't able to do that. Both Ryan Church and Marlon Byrd are good enough defensively to not only hold down their position effectively but cover a third of Soriano's as well.

Because Byrd strikes out less than Church (1:3.5 vs. 1:4.5), and because he has some experience at the top of the lineup, Byrd will likely win the starting job, but with Church getting plenty of playing time as his backup.

The Soriano trade continues to haunt Jim Bowden. He wants Watson in the outfield, but can't play him there because he's got to hide Soriano somewhere. The good news is, if this is good news, that Soriano will likely be traded for prospects by mid-season, allowing Watson to be called up from New Orleans and take over left permanently, leaving Church and Byrd to continue their battle in center.

Will the "Soriano saga" ever end?



[March 27th] -- Ryan Zimmerman is his own worst enemy. Because he's made the jump from Vinegar Hill* to Viera less than a year, because he hit .397 in 58 September at-bats last season, and because he continues make defensive plays that are favorably compared to Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson, managers, fans and sports writers are expecting perfection from the kid every time he takes the field.

He's just 21 for crying out loud.

After making two errors Saturday against the Tigers, manager Frank Robinson said he was "concerned" about his third baseman. Zimmerman, in a refreshing bit of honesty, said that he was finding it hard to concentrate during his first spring training. The word he used to describe his time in Viera was "monotonous," which in and of itself required a quick explanation from Frank as to what is and isn't proper to say during spring training. "That's just not something a player should say" mused one of the team's coaches Sunday.

See, and that's the point. Ryan Zimmerman the baseball player is a guy who most of the time looks every bit as polished and poised as Scott Rolen of the Cardinals. But Ryan Zimmerman the individual is just a kid, who just completed his junior year in college and should be on one of the back fields at the Carl Barger minor league complex, where making two errors in a game isn't even noticed, and is far away from the cameras that capture player's "mis-speaks."

Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden have publicly placed the bar so low for Zimmerman that it'll be impossible for him not to have a successful first season. In just spring 66 at bats, he's hit about half the number of home runs that Bowden said he'd be satisfied with over the entire 2006 campaign. But privately, there is no question that Frank and Jim are expecting big things from Zimmerman, and they are likely to get piqued when he makes mistakes that 21 year-olds will always make. Zimmerman's errors this spring haven't been mechanical, they've been mental. Some days, the kid looks a little overwhelmed by his surroundings. He gets overwhelmed because Bowden traded Vinny Castilla last October and told him that he was now the team's staring third baseman. He's never even seen a 'AAA' stadium yet. These mistakes that he's making now were also made by Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt and the other players he's been compared to. The difference is that Rolen made his mistakes at class 'AA' Reading at this age, and Schmidt made his miscues while playing college ball for Ohio University. They came to the majors later in their careers, and therefore were less apt to lose focus during spring training.

Ryan Zimmerman is going to be the cornerstone of this franchise. At the age of 20, he's already caught the eye of the Elias Sports Bureau, who notes that Zimmerman holds the record for most doubles (10) in a season with 60 at bats or fewer. This spring, in about the same number of at-bats, he has 5 doubles and 5 home runs, showing that as he continues to gain experience, he continues to hit the ball harder and farther. Where's his top end? I can't say, but it sure isn't the .300-20-100 that many sports writers (and me) suggested over the winter. He might have Albert Puljols power, maybe just a tad less. But six spring errors aside, he'll win his share of gold gloves before he finishes his career. I don't think Zimmerman's errors or his finding spring training boring are even worth reporting. He's using spring for what it was intended: to make mistakes and learn from them.

No matter how much more damage Jim Bowden will do to the Nationals before new ownership fires him, we have him to thank for drafting Ryan Zimmerman last June. Zimmerman is so special to Washington fans because he is the "first" National, the first guy drafted by a team that didn't have that silly tri-color "M" logo on their hats. He just may be to this generation what Frank Howard was to mine: a friendly, humble player who never took his press clippings too seriously.

Go ahead, Zim. Boot a few more this week. I won't change a thing.

* Vinegar Hill is near the UVa campus where, legend has it, a truck lost a huge barrel of vinegar at the crest of the hill. It rolled down the hill and burst open, covering the entire area with vinegar. Some say you can still smell it today. It's part of the beginning of a drinking song that my brother used to sing during his days in Charlottesville in the early 1960's, "From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill, we're going to get drunk tonight ...."


[March 26th] -- Forget everything I said in my Saturday post about how horrible the Nationals' offense is. Maybe I was wrong.

Nah, I wasn't wrong. That said, Sunday's game was a lot of fun to listen to.

Alfonso Soriano, given Saturday off to spend with his family, repaid manager Frank Robinson's kindness by launchng Brandon Backe's first pitch of the game deep over the left-center field fence to tie the game at 1-1. From that moment on, the game resembled little more than batting practice for the Nationals. Jose Guillen and Ryan Zimmmerman hit two homers and drove in four runs a piece. Michael Tucker had a pinch-hit, two RBI triple off of the Astro's all-world reliever, Brad Lidge. The team amassed fourteen hits against the Astros.

John Patterson continues to show that he just might be the best pitcher on the Nationals right now.

In 5.1 innings of work, Patterson gave up just two runs on four hits, striking out seven while walking only one. In twenty innings of spring work, Patterson has given up only eleven hits and three walks while striking out twenty (11 k's per 9 innings).

The only sour note on Sunday was Gary Mejewski's ongoing spring problems and Soriano's shaky fielding in left. In just two-thirds of an inning, he gave up four runs on three hits and two walks. He now has an spring ERA of 29.70. We can only hope that his problems come as a result of not being used regularly during the WBC.

Soriano sprinted towards the line trying to catch slicing ball off the bat of Lance Berkman, but he didn't read the ball's spin properly, and had to leap at the last moment to try to catch the ball, but it went over his head and rolled to the wall, scoring Willie Taveras all the way from first.

All in all though, a great game. Great offense, great defense, and (other than Majewski), great pitching. Can't ask for much more than that.



[March 26th] -- Frank Robinson peered up at the scoreboard late this afternoon and saw that his Nationals were one strike away from losing to the Detroit Tigers 4-0. It wasn't that his team was about to lose for the 18th time this spring. No, that wasn't the problem. It was the number displayed next to the "0" in his team's linescore. Four. As in four hits.

The Nationals now have a .249 team batting average, and although there are many new faces in the lineup, the production remains the same as last season. Bad. It was hoped that somehow Alfonso Soriano's presence in the outfield would make a team of barely average hitters better. But since Soriano himself will hurt the team offensively, things just look worse.

Let's be honest. Under the best of conditions, with everyone healthy, the Nationals will be a middle-of-the-pack offense in the National League: Here is what I see as the team's best case scenario in 2006:

  1. Brandon Watson----------.272 - 00 - 33
  2. Jose Vidro----------------.289 - 12 - 50
  3. Nick Johnson-------------.291 - 18 - 90
  4. Jose Guillen--------------.288 - 25 - 90
  5. Alfonso Soriano-----------.265 - 23 - 85
  6. Ryan Zimmerman--------.273 - 14 - 60
  7. Brian Schneider----------.270 - 12 - 55
  8. Royce Clayton------------.252 - 08 - 40

This would be an 81-win offense if the team had more than two starting pitchers who have had any real success the past two to three years. With the exception of Soriano (and only because he played in a band-box that upped his stats) and Zimmerman (because he's still young and untested), the entire lineup is made up of complimentary players, players that are used to surround a team's star. The Yankees had guys like Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neil that supported Derek Jeter; the Giants' Jeff Kent protected Barry Bonds. The Nationals' players are being asked to do something that they can't, to be leaders instead of followers.

There might come a day when Ryan Zimmerman becomes that guy who can carryhis team for days at a time, but that day hasn't arrived. The team's support players get on base often enough, but there isn't that "it" guy to double into the gap, or hit that clutch, two-out home run that everyone else in the NL East seems to have. What can be done? Well, we have to hope the team does poorly this year.

The new owner will certainly open his pocketbook and buy the team a few players next fall. But it the Nationals finish with a record that is better than half of the teams, they'll give up draft picks when they sign those free agents. If they finish in the bottom half (like they did this year), then there is no "cost" in signing those players. My guess is that the new owner will sign two pitchers and a position player. If the team can do that and not give up any draft picks, then things will finally start to look up for this once moribund franchise. Hopefully, Soriano will be dealt at mid-season for a few more prospects, further laying the groundwork for a solid team come 2008, when the new stadium opens.

As things sit today, I'm guessing the Nationals are a 73 win team, which should guarantee them getting the "best of both worlds" next fall.

I'm not trying to be grim, just realistic.

And trust me, it isn't much fun.



[March 24th] -- Alfonso Soriano is for real. Well, he was real on Friday night anyway. With two on and two out in the top of the 5th inning, Soriano turned on a 2-2 fastball from Brave's ace Tim Hudson and drove it over the left field wall to give the Nationals a 4-2 lead. Ryan Zimmerman lined a Hudson pitch into left center to drive in the team's other run. That was pretty much the team's entire offense as they could garner only five more hits against four Braves pitchers. Good news: Jose Guillen got his first hit of the spring, a double off of Hudson.

Livan Hernandez is ready for opening day, giving up just two runs in six innings, allowing six hits while striking out two. He lowered his spring ERA to 1.93. Gary Majewski came back from consecutive bad outings, pitching a scoreless inning.

It seems that little has changed for the Nationals from last year. The team continues to have stellar pitching that often goes to waste because of the team's anemic offense. Sure, they won tonight, but they managed only seven hits in the win. I'm not too worried, though, as Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider and Ryan Church haven't begun to hit yet. Once they do, the team should have at least an adequate offense.



[March 24th] -- Okay, Jose Guillen is entrenched in right field, and Alfonso Soriano is set in left, at least for 2006. All that's left to figure out is who is going to man center field for the Nationals. There are three options: Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Frank Robinson's favorite, Brandon Watson.

Had Ryan Church not been injured, he would have likely ended the season somewhere around .300-22-85, numbers he was projected to finish the year with on the day he got hurt. He is one of the very few lefties in the league who hit southpaws better than righties. Church reminds me of former Expo Grady Sizemore, who hit .289-22-81 for Cleveland last year. But Jim Bowden isn't a fan because he thinks he didn't play with pain. No matter what he does here, Bowden, and Frank Robinson to an extent, considers him "tainted goods." He'll probably make an all-star game or two during his career, but he's not going to do it here in D.C.

Marlon Byrd was thought so little of by Ed Wade and the Philadelphia Phillies that he was traded to the Nationals for Endy Chavez. Byrd, who hit .303-7-45 as a rookie in 2003, fell on his face the next year before being traded to D.C. Byrd's build is that of a power hitter, but he's never been able to hit more than 7 homers in a season. Frank Robinson grew tired of his lack of power and sent him to New Orleans last summer to work with roving hitting instructor Mitchell Page. It worked. He came back a different hitter, consistently stroking the ball off, and over, the outfield fence. Bowden was so impressed that he said that Byrd "would hit 20-25 homers a year" if given the chance to play every day. Thus far, he is proving Bowden right, hitting two home runs and sporting a .999 OPS this spring. Given 500 at bats, Byrd would likely produce numbers similar to Church.

The Nationals have two players under team control, capable of combining for 45 home runs and 160 RBI's, and yet the team hopes that Brandon Watson will be the Nationals opening day starter. Watson, in 2,500 minor league at bats, has a career .301 batting average. But he also has a career .699 OPS, suggesting that his offense is too soft to make a real difference. True, he's stolen 130 bases in the minors, but with only a 65% success rate. A player who averages a home run every 625 at bats needs an OPS of at least .800. Wastson has never come close to that number.

Without a doubt, Brandon Watson is the least talented of the three. Church and Byrd have combined for more than 1,400 major league at-bats; Watson has 40 at bats. Five years from now, Byrd and Church will be major-league starters, and Watson will probably be out of baseball. Like Endy Chavez before him, his speed and quickness have caused Bowden and Robinson to overlook his deficiencies. Sooner or later, the team will give up on Brandon Watson and move on.

By then, however, he probably will have been the starter for half a season, and Byrd, maybe Church, maybe both, will be playing for another team, leaving Michael Tucker as the team's only hope in center field.


When it comes to choosing outfielders, speed kills.



[March 23rd] -- Ramon Oritz is saving his best stuff for end of spring training. After being beat to a pulp for much of the spring, Ortiz gave up two runs in four inning in his last outing, with both runs coming in his first twelve pitches. He tossed three scoreless innings after that, and was even better Thursday against the Orioles. Ortiz pitched six innings, giving up five hits and no runs, striking out three. Forty-seven of his sixty-three pitches were strikes, showing that when he throws strikes, he'll be as good a starter as the Nats have. It's when he doesn't have his control that bad things happen. All along, Ortiz kept telling us not to worry about his record, that he was "working on some things."

Maybe he was telling the truth after all.

Offensively, the Nats were, well, offensive. They only got only five hits, scoring their lone run on a sacrifice fly that plated Ryan Zimmerman. Alfonso Soriano fielded three fly balls in the game, handling them flawlessly. He went 0-4 for the game.

Felix Rodriguez, the heir apparent for Luis Ayala in the bullpen, pitched two solid innings, allowing only a couple of singles.



[March 23rd] -- If the Washington Nationals win their opener against the Mets on April 3rd, they will have Pedro Martinez' toe to thank for it.

The Mets pitcher said on Wednesday that he didn't see much hope that he would take the mound against the Nationals. "Unless I can work some magic, I don't think I'll have enough time. I need at least two outings. You're not going to throw me two innings in a game and expect me to go on Opening Day. That's not fair to me, my teammates or anybody."

If Martinez is unable to go, 40 year old Tom Glavine (13-13, 3.53) will get the start for New York.

This is great news for the Nationals. There's a far better chance that Glavine's pitches will miss the corners than Martinez' fastball will suddenly become subsonic. A fan's greatest fear is that his or her team will start the season slowly, losing four or five in a row. With Martinez out, and Glavine old, I like the Nats' chances of starting strong in 2006.

At least, I like them a whole lot more than I did when I went to bed last night. But it's not all good news. Last season, Glavine was 3-1 against Washington with a 2.89 ERA in 28 innings.

It's kind of like you're running for president, and Ronald Reagan backs out at the last minute. That's the good news. But then you find out he's being replaced by Franklin Roosevelt. Things may get better, but only a little.



[March 22nd] -- After 105 days of hell, Alfonso Soriano has decided to play left field after all. In a simple statement made through a team spokesman, Soriano has said he is now "on board" with the idea of playing in the outfield.

I guess it's okay to forget the past three months of obstinance, arrogance and conceit on his part. We're just one big, happy family as of 11:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, March 22nd.

Now that Soriano has decided to play left field for the Nationals for the entire season (and that is a big assumption), we have to consider how his decision affects the rest of the team. For the past three months, Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Brandon Watson have been waiting for Soriano to decide his future, and now they are unsure of theirs. Ryan Church was a starting outfielder last year, and Watson and Byrd could be starting outfielders this year.

Church and Byrd both have the potential to hit .280-20-80 in a full season, and Watson, at least so far, has the potential to be a top-of-the-lineup guy with 30+ stolen bases. Now, three guys with "starting lineup" talent have to fight for a single spot. Chances are, unless he gets hit by a bus, that Watson will win the center field job, leaving Church and Byrd to fight for the fourth spot in the outfield.

Does this make sense?

The Washington Nationals will likely finish 4th in the division, 5th if the Marlins' kiddie-corps matures early. The team has a new stadium, will soon have a new owner, and should begin to build for the future. The team's fan base will forgive a few years of woeful play as long as the team is building a solid foundation. But how is Alfonso Soriano helping? There is ZERO chance he'll be around next year. He'll only be keeping warm a starting spot that will likely go to either Church or Byrd next year. Wouldn't it make more sense to give them the opportunity to play every day now, making them better players in 2007? As it stands, one of them will likely be packaged in a trade for pitching before the season starts. Because the team needs Watson (or at least Robinson thinks the team needs him), and because Byrd has no trade value (remember, we got him for Endy Chavez straight up), Ryan Chuch will probably be sent packing. A few years ago, the club sent a guy very similar to Church to the Indians in the Bartolo Colon trade. He was a guy, like Church, with a little power, a little speed and with a decent glove. In 2005, Grady Sizemore batted .289-22-81 with 22 stolen bases.

The Nats don't have a single player left on the roster from that deal. Those are the type of numbers that Church will produce if given a chance. Sadly, it'll probably happen with another team.

My hope is that once Soriano has shown even a modicum of ability in left, Bowden will trade him for prospects and begin that process of rebuilding this franchise. It's weird; it's really weird. Now that we have Soriano, now that he's been forced into playing the outfield, I don't want him on the team.

No matter how well he plays, he'll never be accepted by the Nationals' fans. He's a one-year wonder just biding his time, keeping our guys from playing every day. With Soriano, the team won't win 81 games. Without him, they still won't.

So why pay a guy $10 million to not make a difference?



[March 22nd] - It all comes down to today. After months of posturing and postulating from both sides, it's "do or die" time for the Nationals. It's rather simple, really. When Frank Robinson writes his name into the lineup, will Alfonso Soriano jog out to left field at Roger Dean Stadium? WTEM radio is reporting that Soriano told Frank Robinson that he will play in left field this afternoon, but really, who knows until he does ... or doesn't.

Both sides are now lining up their experts in what could become the sports case of the century. Terms like "seminal moment" are being bandied about by representatives from both sides. Labor lawyers are reading the same player's contract and are coming up with two very different conclusions. Yes he has to play the outfield; no, he doesn't have to.

The legalities of Soriano's stance takes a back seat to what will happen when he next plays a major league baseball game, especially if he continues to refuse to change positions. He will be a pariah wherever he plays. He will be booed mercilessly both at RFK at on the road. Fans now know that he lied about his age and sat out a season in Japan to become a free-agent. He has a past, fans no longer care about his future, and sports writers will make his present very, very difficult.

I keep glancing at the clock on my den wall, watching the seconds tick away to either the end of the Nationals' season before it even starts or the beginning of yet another divisive clubhouse. You know you're in trouble when Jose Guillen is saying he's worried about the clubhouse environment if Soriano stays on the team.

Tick - tick - tick - tick .....



[March 21st] -- It's been nearly 24 hours since Alfonso Soriano refused to take his position in left field against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The anger has subsided and the stories have abated. It's time to try understand the just what to do next.

The trade was never about Alfonso Soriano, or even Brad Wilkerson or Terrmel Sledge. It was about Jim Bowden. If you remember, Bowden was one of the finalists to replace Theo Epstein at the Red Sox' GM. He went to the Dallas winter meetings wanting to get into the headlines and then stay there. After having several small trades fall through, he thought he had completed a Ryan Church for Javier Vasquez deal, only to have the Diamondbacks pull out at literally the last minute. He began to seriously pursue Soriano only a few hours before the winter meetings were due to break up. Bowden felt he had to do "something," and with time running out, Soriano was the only "something" available.

The Nationals were coming off a very good 81-81 season, but the chances of repeating that success in 2006 were never very good. Once Esteban Loiaza and Hector Carrasco left for big free agent contracts, the team was much closer to "starting over" then they were to repeating their .500 run the season before. The minor league system was barren, and major league roster was little more than a hoge-podge of second tier starters and players finishing out their careers. The team was not a player or two away from contending. Instead of trading three potential starters for one, Bowden should have been thinking about "blowing up" the Nationals and beginning anew. It was, after all, the perfect time. With a new owner and stadium in the offing, fans would have been very willing to watch the team struggle through some growing pains while talented youngsters got some much needed 0n-the-job training. Instead, Bowden signed a bunch of stop-gap, 30 something players who can't help the Nationals win.

When the new owners name their first general manager, he's going to do what Bowden should have done last year, which is to stock the farm system and trade some talented players who won't help the Nationals win now. The team might sign a free agent or two, but unless the team's '06 record is in the bottom half of the league, they'll lose a draft pick for each player they sign, something the team can't afford to do.

As much as I'd like to see Soriano rot on the Disqualified List, perhaps the best thing to do would be to trade him for prospects. With Soriano or without, the team isn't going to contend. The stadium agreement has bought the team some goodwill with the fans, and now is the time to use it.

I have been a supporter of Jim Bowden since his arrival in Washington in October, 2004. His mistakes have been honest ones. That is, until this mess. I am afraid that whatever Bowden's decision, it will be in his best interest and not the teams. He knows that as Soriano goes, so goes his career. No other team will give him a chance based on this trade -- his only hope is to impress the new owners by what he does now.

Whatever that is, it'll be camouflaged to cover his mistakes.



[March 20th] -- Just like that, things went from bad to worse.

Alfonso Soriano arrived in camp on Monday, had a chat with manager Frank Robinson about being a "team player," and was then penciled in as the Nationals' left fielder for tonight's game against the Dodgers. Eight players took the field. One didn't.

And so it begins.

After waiting several moments for Soriano to take the field, Robinson came out and informed the plate umpire that there would be a change in the lineup, and after an awkward moment of indecision, Brandon Watson jogged onto the field, glove in hand.

Round one to Soriano.

Robinson spent 20 minutes with Soriano before the start of the game, and thought he had made progress with the Dominican. "If he's going to play here, he's going to have to be out in left field," Robinson said.

"He said he's ready to play, he needs to play, he's ready for the season, and I penciled him in the lineup in left field."

Sounded like he agreed to the move, didn't it? Perhaps he changed his mind, or perhaps it was wishful thinking on the part of Robinson.

GM Jim Bowden, whose is the real villain in this story, said that if Soriano refused to play on Wednesday, he'll be placed on the disqualified list and will not receive any money until he plays the outfield. It seems that Bowden was the only person on the planet that didn't see the trade as a problem. There is a thread on the "Bleed Cubbie Blue" site that is discussing the Soriano saga. The Cubs, who were one of the few teams interested in a trade with the Nationals, have fans who would still like to see a trade occur. But "LT" wondered out lout what we've all been saying under our breath: "Why didn't the Nats know this before they made the trade? They have made some strange moves in their short existance...." You know you're in trouble when Cubs' fans question your team's moves and motives.

We've been waiting for four months to see how all this would play out. Now we know. Alfonso Soriano is indeed being selfish and putting himself before the needs of the team. Placing him on the disqualified list is Bowden's only real option, as every other team understands the situation and is going to offer far less in trade than Soriano is worth. Bowden can't do that, won't do that. All that's left is the disqualified list.

The disqualified list does more than just cause a player to lose their salary; the free-agency clock stops ticking as well. If Soriano were to be a total butt and sit out the entire year on the disqualified list, he would still be under team control for 2007. By not playing, he's hurting himself far more than he's hurting the Nationals.

At this point, even if Soriano relents and agrees to play the outfield, he has lost any good will the Nationals' fans may have shown him. There is no chance he'll be forgiven by the faithful, who would now rather see him rot on the disqualified list for the entire year than be traded for player(s) who could eventually help the team.

After a week of feel-good news, "it's" happening again. Stay tuned. It's going to get ugly.



[March 20th] -- For the first time since December 7th, a definitive article has been written about the Alfonso Soriano fiasco, covering the moments leading up to the trade to tomorrow's probable showdown. Additionally, Thom Loverro wrote an insightful article for the Times, not quite as "meaty" as Sheinin's but just as powerful. Thank you, Dave Sheinin and Thom Loverro.

I have spent entirely too much time today thinking about Soriano and the team's likely actions, or reactions, to him. You know there is a problem when you're pondering all of the possible Soriano scenarios in your head during a moment of silence in church.

Dave Sheinin reports that Soriano (tied with another player) has the worst fielding percentage of any second baseman with more than 650 + games since the Truman administration. He's not just sub-par defensively, he's as bad as you can be and still have a job playing baseball. Can the Nationals survive with Alfonso Soriano at second base? Well, this spring is a microcosm of just what might happen if the team de-emphasizes defense. The Nationals have committed 35 errors in just 21 games. Their record is 5-15. Nationals pitchers have given up 22 unearned runs in 21 games, more than one per game. When your team is down 1-0 before a pitch is even thrown, it's going to be very hard to win games. Soriano playing second base would only add to the problem. And considering he's never played a regular season game in the outfield, he's probably going to hurt the Nationals' defensively in the outfield, at least in the short term.

I'm afraid that, under any scenario, Soriano will be a burden to the Nationals. Balls will flit under his glove at second base, balls will drop in front of him, and behind him, and to the side of him, in the outfield. He might have been more prepared with some practice, but the WBC took care of that. He'll strike out as often as Brad Wilkerson did, but won't get on base as much. RFK demands "small ball" and sterling defense as ingredients for success. Alfonso Soriano offers a porous glove and an "all or nothing" swing.

Dave Sheinin reports that Jim Bowden was willing to make the trade with the Texas Rangers on the condition of his talking to Soriano personally, to verify his willingness to move to the outfield. The Rangers refused, knowing that if Bowden talked to their second baseman, the deal would instantly fall apart. But Bowden sought the limelight in Dallas, wanted a "blockbuster" trade to his credit, and made the deal anyway. The Nationals are paying for his conceit these many months later.

I'm not worried that Alfonso Soriano will say no. I'm worried that he'll say yes. There is no question that any trade won't bring fair value in return, but at this point, "anything" is better than Soriano in the outfield. And that's all we'll get in trade: anything.

So, tell me Jim, was your "15 minutes of fame" worth the deconstruction of your team?



[March 19th] -- With his team out of the World Baseball Classic, Alfonso Soriano plans on returning to the Nationals spring training facility on Monday, Tuesday at the latest.

Now, it that a good thing or a bad thing?

Since that December trade that brought Soriano to Washington, he has been adamant that he is a second baseman, period. He knows that Jose Vidro is healthy, and that, barring another injury, he'll either be an outfielder or a member of another team very shortly. He seems unconcerned with the impending standoff. "I can't wait [to go to camp]," Soriano said following the loss. "I want to play so I can get my timing back."

What about a possible position change? "No comment" says Soriano. Frank Robinson will try once again to talk him into moving to the outfield, but no one knows if he'll have any more luck this time around. Common sense says that a move to the outfield will only make Soriano more valuable on the free agent market this fall; he must know that. So why won't he move? My guess is that he believes a second baseman who can hit 30 home runs is more valuable than an outfielder who can hit 30 home runs. Normally, that would be true, but his poor defense negates much of his "unique" qualities.

Robinson says that things might not be settled until "ten minutes before opening day." I doubt it. With his job on the line, and with his starting rotation so very thin, Jim Bowden will probably trade Soriano the moment he is certain that he won't move to the outfield.

I have no doubt that there are two or three trades lined up as we speak, just waiting for Soriano to make his move. One will bring pitching, another will bring a leadoff hitter. Either way, the Nationals will be an improved team, addition by subtraction so to speak.

Should be an interesting week.



[March 18th] -- After Ramon Ortiz gave up two runs in the top half of the first inning, including his second lead-off home run of the spring, I began to prepare for an article entitled "ORTIZ SUCKS AGAIN!" But after that troubling first frame, he settled down and pitched three innings of shutout ball, allowing only one hit the rest of the way. In all, Ortiz pitched four innings, giving up four hits and only one earned run while striking out three. Both he and the Nationals desperately needed a good outing today, and they got it. Kevin Gryboski continues his push to make the club, allowing one hit in two innings, lowering his ERA to 1.80 for the spring.

Every time I think that Ryan Zimmerman is about to break my heart by becoming "mortal," he jumps out in front of the pack yet again. He was 3-3 against the Mets on Saturday with two doubles and an RBI. He raised his average to .317 and now has a .391 on-base percentage and a .610 slugging average. Wiki Gonzalez just might have the job as Brian Schneider's backup all but nailed down, going 2-2 with four RBI's and is now batting an astounding .444. Royce Clayton hit is first home run of the spring and Nick Johnson walloped his second. After a slow start, Daryle Ward continues to impress, going 2-2 and is now batting .278. There is no question that Matt LeCroy and Robert Fick are ahead of Ward on the depth chart; I wonder if he'll accept demotion to 'AAA' New Orleans or will he refuse and become a free agent once again? Larry Broadway IS the first baseman for the Zephyrs, which means he'll be the DH if he remains with the club.

Don't get too excited about today's big win against the Mets. The Nationals played most of their starters against a split squad that didn't have any veterans. But, a win is a win, especially when you're 4-14 going into the game.



[March 18th] -- The Washington Nationals are "mad as hell," and they aren't going to take it any more.

Luis Ayala was shut down for much of Steptember because of bone chips in his throwing shoulder, chips that were removed this off-season. He came to spring training sore, and was to be put on a regimen that would slowly return him to health by the beginning of the season.

According to an article on the team's weblsite, Ayala agreed with the Nats initially, but was pressured by members of Team Mexico to play for his home country. Each attempt made by the Nationals to protect his arm was rebuked by Major League Baseball and the players union, and by Ayala himself. So he played, and in return for his 1.2 innings pitched, he is lost for the season.

Nats' trainer Tim Abraham said that when Ayala left for the WBC, he was only able to pitch batting practice. "We cautioned him the whole time. We said, 'Louis, you are coming off surgery. We want you to be healthy for the whole year,' and that's all you can tell him." Pitching coach Randy St. Claire said that the team gave Mexico specific instructions on how to use Ayala, but they weren't followed.

Some players are upset with Ayala and the WBC as well. Jose Vidro felt the same pressure as did Ayala to play with Puerto Rico, but he realized the damage it might have caused his knee. "I thought about it a long time, and I thought it was best for me to stay here. We felt the same thing about Ayala. Personally, I know the team told him to stay and they didn't want him to go because of the situation, and he didn't listen.

Hopefully, he learns from this."

Luckily, Luis Ayala is a replaceable component; the signing of Felix Rodriguez and the good play of Steve Watkins and Kevin Gryboski has made sure of that. But what if it had been John Patterson or Livan Hernandez? The team could never have survived that type of loss.

GM Jim Bowden wants a new rule in place in time for the next WBC three years from now. Any player who had surgery during the off-season shouldn't be allowed to play. Period. Perhaps no other team will have to suffer this type of loss again.



[March 17th] -- Start worrying about the starting pitching.

Well, that's not entirely correct. Start worrying about two - thirds of the starting lineup. John Patterson and Livan Hernandez are pitching "lights-out" this spring. In a combined twenty innings, the two have given up only one run for a microscopic 0.45 ERA, and have allowed only nineteen base runners (14 hits, 5 walks). No problem there.

Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio are the problem. The de-facto number three and four starters in the rotation have combined for an 0-3 record and a 10.80 ERA. They have given up an astounding forty base runners in just fifteen innings, striking out seven. The other two players being considered for a starting slot, Ryan Drese and Tony Armas Jr., have yet to pitch an inning in a spring training game. Drese will likely be on the disabled list until May and Armas, who was promised several starts during the World Baseball Classic, ended up pitching just two total innings. Jon Rauch (0-1, 6.35) has pitched better of late, but has had only had one solid outing. A few other pitchers, like Billy Traber, have pitcher very well, but manager Frank Robinson has already said they aren't in contention for a starting job.

The time has arrived for the Soriano situation to go away. The Nats are in desperate need for one more starter, and Soriano has no place to play in Washington. Frank Robinson has flatly stated that Jose Vidro is ready to take back second base, and the team will be just fine by using Brandon Watson, Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Jose Guillen in the outfield. Bowden has to trade Soriano, and he has to get starting pitching in return. Now that Nick Johnson has been signed through 2009, a package of Larry Broadway and Soriano should be able to bring a quality starter in return. It might be a pitcher in his last year of his contract, like Soriano is, but that's okay; we're going to lose him regardless.

Could a Soriano/Broadway package bring Matt Clement and a minor leaguer? I think so, and I think it would be a fair deal as well. It doesn't have to be Matt Clement. He just has to be Clement-esque. C'mon, Jim. Pull the trigger, now, before other teams realize that Soriano went 0-11 in the WBC and committed a costly error against team Puerto Rico, causing him to be benched in favor of the Tigers' Placido Polanco.

Soriano can't start on Team Dominica, and he can't start for the Washington Nationals. Time to move him before he becomes a Zephyr.



[March 17th] -- Time is getting short. Alfonso Soriano's Dominican team will end it's season this Saturday, Monday if they reach the finals. According to the Washington Post, players have 72 hours to report to their spring training camps. Alfonso Soriano will be back in Viera no later than Thursday, and team officials still pretend that they haven't given the situation a second thought since he left.

Don't believe it for a second.

Had this been a "normal" spring, had the team been sharp and attentive, had the team played reasonably well, and had Soriano been a "cog" in the Dominican machine, all sides might be a little more amenable to a compromise then they were the day Soriano left Viera. But none of that happened; heck, none of that came close to happening. Because the Nationals lost so many players to the WBC, reserves were starting games and minor leaguers were playing as reserves. The Nationals have compiled a 4-13 record, second worst among baseball's 30 teams. And it's not just that they lost, it's how they lost that has maddened manager Frank Robinson enough to have two closed door meetings this spring. At one point, the Nationals had made18 errors in 6 games. Players given a chance to play because of the loss of the WBC players seemed lethargic and unconcerned as to their status. This year, just as last year, the relief pitchers have been outstanding, the starters slightly better than average, and the offense has been terrible.

And What of Soriano and the WBC? Well, the Dominican manager gave up on him. After going hitless in his 11 at bats and committing an error at second base that helped Puerto Rico beat the Dominicans, Soriano was benched in favor of Detroit's Placido Polanco. A Spanish-only website I came across suggested that Soriano will be limited to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the classic.

So, an angry player will return home to find a disgruntled manager upset that so much of his team is still unsettled.

Two of the three outfield positions are up for grabs, all three if you assume that Jose Guillen won't be ready for opening day. The Nationals don't have a backup catcher yet, and no one really knows the status of Cristian Guzman. Pedro Astacio and Ramon Ortiz are getting pummeled, and Brian Lawrence is out for the year. In fact, one of the few constants that makes Robinson happy is Jose Vidro's progress. He's healthy and fit, and Robinson said last week that he "is ready to be a second baseman again."

And trust me, that won't make Alfonso Soriano happy.

Ryan Church proved last year that he is very capable of starting in the outfield for the Nationals this season. Marlon Byrd is continuing to prove this spring that last September was no fluke, and that he too is quite capable of being a starter for the Nats as well. If Soriano continues to refuse a move to the outfield, a Church - Byrd - Guillen outfield would be "serviceable" at the worst, and surprising at best. Church was on the way to a .300-20-80 season when injuries slowed him down, and Byrd, according to Jim Bowden over the winter, is now capable of hitting .300 with 20-25 home runs. Nothing he's done this spring has convinced anyone otherwise.

Soriano will not play second base for the Nationals this year. The Nationals have the makings of a very good outfield with the players who want to play the outfield for Washington. Church and Byrd are under team control for several years to come, as Guillen will be once his extention is ready for signing. Do the Nationals really want to break up that kind of long-term security for a guy who has already said that he's going to be back in the American League next year?

I'm thinking that Mr. Soriano is screwed.

Frank Robinson isn't in the mood to placate a prima dona (albeit a nice, soft spoken one). Unless Soriano is shaken by his benching in favor of Polanco, and that perhaps, just perhaps, it's in his own best interest to learn the outfield, that he will be quickly shown the door. My guess is that Bowden has a couple of trades in place, just waiting only for Soriano's answer to the big question next Thursday. I doubt the Nationals will try to persuade Soriano should he says no. I think they might even be looking forward to "moving him" and putting the whole Soriano situation behind them.

Well, not "they" and "them." I should say "he." Unless Jim Bowden makes this mess work for the Nationals, he'll never be retained by the new ownership. And he knows that better than anyone else. It's "saving face" time for Bowden. Let's see how he does.



[March 16th] --Isn't it amazing that all it takes for the Nationals to start winning a few games is to play the team's regulars.

They did just that on Thursday in Viera against the Detroit Tigers, and they won, 8-2.

Many of us thought last year that John Patterson was the best starter on the team, but his 9-9, 3.13 record didn't seem as "sexy" as Livan's 15 wins. Regardless of what Hernandez does in 2006, I feel certain that Patterson will better him. The tall Texan threw five more innings of shutout ball against the Tigers, giving up just four hits while striking out six. For the spring, he has yet to give up a run in twelve innings, allowing only eleven base runners [seven hits, four walks] and striking out 13. Give him 35 starts and he'll win 20 games. He has that type of ability. Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez pitched well in relief.

Marlon Byrd continues to push for a starting job, going 2-4 with 2 RBI's, upping his average to .371. Jose Vidro went 0-2 and is now batting .240, but I'm sure his healthy knee far outweighs any concern about his batting. Royce Clayton, however, is a concern; he went 0-3 and lowered his average to .189. Clayton will be the starting shortstop for the next couple of weeks while Cristian Guzman rests, so he'll have ample time to show that he still has the tools to be a starter. Nick Johnson, coming off of five days of the stomach flu, launched his first homer of the spring, and Ryan Zimmerman collected another two hits, including his third homer. Wiki Gonzalez continues his push to back up Brian Schneider, and going 2-2, 3 RBI's against Detroit. Kenny Kelly continues to impress, getting two more hits and is now batting .308. He's not going to make the team, but he might be one of the first options out of New Orleans.

With the Nationals now able to point to a new home, and able to continue to merchandise their own name, they are now beginning to win on the field as well. Hopefully, the team will end spring training on a roll and continue it into the season.



[March 16th] -- I'm getting tired of being right.

Remember that old joke about one brother telling his sister that their cat died, and the sister got very upset, saying that he should have broken the news to her gently .... that the cat was one the roof, and the fireman came to get the cat, that it fell, and it was going to be okay, but [sigh] it just didn't make it. The brother apologized and she forgave him. "So, how's Mom?" the sister asked. "She's on the roof" began the brother ....

Well, Cristian Guzman is on the roof.

Ten days ago, Guzman's shoulder was sore, but nothing so bad that a cortisone shot wouldn't take care of it. Yesterday, the team announced that he was to travel to Cincinnati so that Reds' team doctor Tim Krenchek could "assess" his situation. Today, mlb.com is leading with the headline, "Concern grows for ailing Guzman." Now we're told that a second cortisone shot didn't help. His agent says that every time he throws the ball, Guzman hears "something" that is causing problems when he throws and bats left-handed. " According to the article, "the MRI showed something inside the shoulder, but [the Nationals] don't want to draw any conclusions until after he goes to Cincinnati" said Guzman's agent. Jim Bowden said that he's "not a doctor" and that he wants to hear the second opinion before beginning to worry.

Worry, Jim. Worry.

Shoulder. Noise when he throws. Pain. MRI shows something. Hmmm ... doesn't this sound eerily familiar? Didn't some guy named Lawrence lose the entire 2006 season under this same scenario? Now, I'm not going to assume anything [Jose Guillen's plight comes to mind] but I'm thinking that Guzman is going to be out for some time.

So does Royce Clayton.

Clayton said he came to camp thinking he'd be the starting shortstop. "My approach hasn't changed in 15 years. It's not about to change now," Clayton said. "I'm healthy. That is the most important thing. I feel good out on the field. My legs are under me. I worked out all my aches and pains. Actually, I couldn't ask for a better spring." Well, we could. Although he's defending well, his batting average is a Guzman-like .206. He also said that team hasn't contacted him about sweetening his $1 million dollar contract if he makes the team. Oh, b-r-o-t-h-e-r.

I think it's obvious that Guzman's sub-par 2005 season was a result of whatever is ailing him now. He says he can't throw and can't bat right-handed. That was the problem last year; it's just gotten to the point where he can't even play badly any more.

Guzman's pending trip to the DL will likely mean that Brendan Harris will get a real shot to make the club, and if Clayton plays poorly out of the gate, look for Harris to be given a chance to play every day. This team isn't going to win any championships as assembled, and [hopefully] new ownership will ask Frank to play the kids.

P.M. UPDATE: A Nationals' press release indicates that Cristian Guzman has a "slap tear" and will be treated, at least initially, non-surgically, and will be side-lined for two weeks before being re-evaluated. A "SLAP tear" is an injury to the labrum, a part of the shoulder. Jon Rauch had a similar injury last year.

I can't tell you if this is a smoke screen.

Would the Nationals like to keep Guzman off the field for two weeks, giving Frank and Jim the opportunity to evaluate Royce Clayton with a better sampling of at-bats? And if Clayton plays well, would Guzman be shelved on the disabled list with another mysterious diagnosis?

I don't know. And I bet, neither do the Nationals.



[March 15th] -- Yesterday's renderings of the new stadium just weren't detailed enough for me, so I made some still images of the video that was also made available on Tuesday. For the first time, the design and intent of the architects is clear. Hopefully, these images will help you too. Click on either image to see another perspective.



[March 15th] -- As soon as the rendering of the Nationals' new stadium was made public, the "caveats" began. "Of course, those parking garages in the outfield will more than likely be underground by the time we get to building them" and "There was supposed to be limestone on the outside of the stadium, but cutbacks forced us to use pre-cast concrete, but of course, that could change again" and the must have caveat, "Remember, this is only a rendering." And, as we all know (well, at least my dictionary knows), a rendering is " to submit or present, as for consideration, approval, or payment. " So for now, let's just think of the design as something to be "considered."

A very unscientific survey of the blog-o-sphere found a couple of people who really like the stadium, a few who hate it, and most in the middle -- like me -- who just aren't sure this point. And it's really hard to be sure, because the finished product probably will look very different from what was shown us today.

Take a look at the above rendering of Yankee Stadium, drawn in 1920. The original design called for a fully enclosed stadium with tall, column-like openings that gave the stadium a Romanesque appearance (or is it Greek-esque; I never get that right). The capacity of this version was 69,000. Of course, what the artist envisions and what the architects and engineers can produce are seldom the same thing. The photo shown here of Yankee stadium just before completion in 1923 looks similar, but clearly is not the same design.

The facility was scaled back due to rising construction costs (where have we heard that before!) and the outfield upper deck was left off, with the intention of adding it when the team could afford to build it. Although the Yankees, have always drawn well, they never needed those extra seats.

The Renderings of Nationals' Stadium (my term until they come up with something else) are just guidelines. It'll be close, but close like that rendering of Yankee Stadium and it's actual photograph. I think we all should take a wait and see attitude until we get a better idea of what starts blossoming from the earth. How many changes will the new owner make? Maybe he likes limestone. Those parking garages might be so far underground that Satan himself will park his car there. So, if you hate it, hang on, changes are a-coming. If you like it, don't get too excited, because, well, because, well, you know.... changes are .... a-coming.



[March 14th] -- After seventeen months of frustration and uncertainty, the future of the Washington Nationals has finally arrived.

So, what do you think?

I've been staring at these drawings for several minutes now, and my initial reaction is that it's a very nice stadium, that it doesn't look like Camden Yards, and that it's, well, nice.

But is it great? I don't know. I hope so. Said the officials who unveiled the drawings this morning, " The stadium designers had three goals with the ballpark. The first was to create an addition to the city's "monumental core" that would anchor the skyline to the south of the federal mall. Architects were working with a 20-acre plot whose southern nexis was sharply angled by South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue. In this picture, you can see clearly how the design team used of the space -- creating a hard-edged facade along South Capitol Street that ends in a sharp, knife-edge at the intersection. This linear form is cut through by the curve of the stadium bowl. The idea was to create a visual element of lines and curves that is unique and will allow the ballpark to be identified immediately on a postcard as "D.C.'s ballpark," architects said. The use of glass and pre-cast concrete (limestone was eliminated to save money) make the ballpark look modern and breaks from the popular red-brick throwback stadiums. A final note -- the sign that says Nationals in blue will be substituted for in reality by the name of a corporate sponsor -- such as FedEx Field for the Redskins."

"The limestone was was eliminated to save money" says the report.

I think that might be the underlying theme within the new stadium, that many of the "special effects" that were planned into the facility have been stripped away due to the financial infighting between all the sides.

Concrete replaces limestone, plastic replaces wood, and so on. Certainly, it will be a fine baseball facility. But will Washingtonians go to Nationals' games because of the facility? If the answer is no, then they might as well have refurbished RFK and called it good.

Until I see some better images, my initial reaction is that it's more like the new Comisky Park with outside walls than anything else. Though I'll wait for more information before making any final judgment, I will say that I like it.

But I was hoping that I'd love it.

LET BYGONES BE BYGONES: More good news: The Nats have come to an agreement with Bygone Sports [read: buckets of money are changing hands] for the use of the team name and all merchandising rights. Tony Taveres said that he doesn't know the particulars, but he thought it was all about money. The Bygone website is down as of this afternoon.

So, we've got a lease, a stadium and a name. Anyone for an owner??

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