Some will say that they are in a tough division with the Phillies, Mets, Marlins and Braves all well established, but this is not a powerhouse division like the AL East with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. The NL East can be had, especially if the Mets, Marlins and Braves played mediocre baseball in 2009.
If there is one thing that will be certain for the Nationals in 2009, it is this: they are going to hit and hit at will. In the off-season, the Nationals loaded up on some big boppers and now have an extremely tough lineup.
Adam Dunn comes over from Arizona to platoon in left field with former Marlin Josh Willingham. Dunn is a excellent power hitter, but not a great hitter. He hit 40 home runs and drove in 100 last year, but hit only .236. He is a guy who is all or nothing. If he can't crank it out of the park, more often than not Dunn will strike out swinging. Last year, he struck out 164 times, and in 2006, while with Cincinnati, Dunn struck out 194 times.
Still, his bat will definitely be a factor, and he provides the Nats with a needed left handed bat in the lineup.
As for Willingham, he is fairly consistent player. Last year for the Marlins, Willingham hit .254 with 15 homers and 51 RBI, but don't be fooled, Willingham has 20 plus home run power. In 2007, Willingham had 21 homers and 89 RBI; so the guy can be a stable bat for any team.
Having both Willingham and Dunn in the lineup will be a boon to franchise player Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman is the most underrated player in baseball. He is an excellent third baseman and a very good hitter. Last season, Zimmerman hit .283 with 14 homers and 51 RBI, but the year before, he hit 24 homers and drove in 91. Zimmerman has the potential to be a 30 home run, 100 plus RBI machine, especially if he is in a good lineup. This year's version of the Nationals should help Zimmerman reach his potential.
Also, don't underestimate the impact a new and improved lineup will have on Lastings Milledge. Met fans remember Milledge for his arrogance and flamboyance that drove him out of town after the 2007 season. In year one with the Nats, Milledge hit .268 with 14 homers and 61 RBI with 24 stolen bases. He is the perfect number two hitter behind another former Met, second baseman Anderson Hernandez.
Expect Milledge to have a big year with all of the power hitters behind him.
In spite of the jolt the Nationals will receive offensively, there are pitching concerns. Scott Olsen comes over from the Marlins as a de facto ace. Olsen went 8-11 with a 4.20 ERA for the Fish in 2008, but the big concern is his temper. Olsen is known for lashing out at coaches and teammates, especially when he is struggling. When Olsen gets too emotional, he doesn't pitch well and begins to overthrow instead of pitch. It will be a challenge for Manny Acta and company to get a handle on Olsen. If they can control him, Olsen can be very special. He is young and a left handed pitcher with some nasty stuff.
Former Oriole, Daniel Cabrera, mainstays Matt Chico, Joel Hanrahan and Colin Balester will follow, but neither is better than mediocre at this point in their careers. One guy to keep an eye on is lefty John Lannan.
Last year, Lannan was the Nats best pitcher with a 9-15 record and a 3.91 ERA. He is tough and eats up a lot of innings. Last year, Lannan pitched in 182 innings and struck out 117 in the process. He could be the ace of the staff, especially if Olsen can't get focused, or Chico remains average.
As for the bullpen, the Nats are now depleted in this area. Gone are Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch. Rauch was traded last year to Arizona, and, before the trade, was the best reliever for the Nats with a 2.98 ERA. Cordero was the team's closer two years ago, when he notched 37 saves, but injuries cost him 2008 and he has since moved on with his career.
That means it will be up Steven Shell, who closed two games last year to step up to be the closer, and Saul Rivera to be replace Rauch as the durable eighth inning man. Rivera is shaky at best. He had a 3.96 ERA in 2008, but was 5-6 in the process. Shell showed potential pitching to a 2.16 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 50 innings, but it remains to be seen if he is the full time closer. If all else fails, they could lean on Hanrahan, who had nine saves last season.
The Nationals in 2009 will be improved from last year's club that won 59 games, but that isn't saying much when the bullpen and rotation are in flux. The Nationals will score a lot of runs this year, and that might be their only blessing in disguise; however, there are not many teams that go very far winning 10-9 or 8-7 every night.
Prediction: NATIONALS 5th Place 66-96.
NOTE: This concludes our preview of the NL East. If you want to review the Mets and Phillies, go up to the tab for March 2009 on the blog archive on the right hand side of the screen. Scroll down, the Mets were previewed on March 1, and the Phillies on March 14. Next week we will preview the AL East.