Behind the Washington Nationals' batting cage last weekend, Mayor Anthony Williams asked, "So, how good are these guys?"
That's what everybody wants to know. Though it's far too soon to judge, it's not too soon to guess: Quite a bit better than most think. The Nationals will probably win 10 more games than last year's 67 and approach .500.
The first surprise for Washington fans may be the discovery that their team has a pitching ace worthy of the word. Livan Hernandez has always been a workhorse as well as a 4-0 postseason star as a rookie for the '97 world champion Marlins. But in the last two years, hidden in Montreal, he has become one of the game's best and least heralded pitchers.
Don't let his 95-94 record fool you. Hernandez led the league in innings and complete games the last two years with a 3.41 ERA. On a contending team, he'd probably have won 35 games instead of going 26-25.
Nothing stabilizes a staff like a true rotation leader, especially if he eats 240 innings a year. Hernandez, a 245-pound right-hander, may also be the team's best all-around athlete. His big smile, competitive nature and ample waistline may well become the "image" of the first Nats team.
Because Hernandez has such presence, there is less pressure on Esteban Loaiza, Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka, who've proven they can win in the big leagues. Few teams have a rotation with four starters who've had a 12-win season in the last three years. The Nats do. They aren't searching for established pitchers. The issue is keeping them healthy. How bad can a rotation be when the only spot under discussion is the fifth starter?
"Not many people know this team -- yet," says Omar Minaya, the former Expos general manager who runs the Mets. His jaw clenches when he has to explain how solid a team he has handed to Washington. A bullpen with Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala and Joey Eischen may be obscure, but it is not weak. Their career ERAs are 2.79, 2.79 and 3.45. T.J. "Shrek" Tucker, 266 pounds, has done a belligerent job in middle relief.
Just two years ago, essentially this same staff had the eighth-best ERA in baseball (4.01). If Loaiza (100-89) can do as well as Javier Vasquez did then (13-12) and Armas returns to his '02 form (12-12), the Nationals could easily have a decent staff. It could conceivably be better than average.
But can they hit?
That is the question. In Florida, everybody wants to debate the Nats' pitching. Why? It's the hitting that stank last year. And it's hitting that the team added in abundance in the offseason. Season after season, the easiest way to improve a 95-loss team like the ex-Expos is to add offense. Pennants require great pitching. But you can hit your way back to the middle of the pack. And GM Jim Bowden has probably accomplished just that.
The Expos had the third-worst offense in baseball in '04. And if they'd scored two fewer runs, they'd have had the second-worst. They were so bad that if they'd scored 60 more runs, they still would have been fifth-worst.
When a team is that crummy, it's not hard to upgrade a lot even without acquiring future Hall of Famers. Let's cut to the "Moneyball" chase. The Expos' OPS -- combined slugging and on-base percentage -- was .705 last year. That's utterly abysmal. And it led to 16 shutouts and only 635 runs.
However, that's reason for hope, not despair. Teams which merely have an OPS of about .750 usually score about 750 runs. This relationship is one of those statistical quirks. At an OPS of .700, a team never seems to achieve the critical mass to score. At .750, it makes a quantum leap and becomes a presentable, if modest, major league offense.
Getting to .750, which is still below average, shouldn't be hard because such players fall out of trees. Bowden appears to have done it. The Nationals' revamped OPS lineup should include Brad Wilkerson (.872), Vinny Castilla (.867), Jose Guillen (.849), Jose Vidro (.821), Nick Johnson (.757), Brian Schneider (.724) and Cristian Guzman (.693). Terrmel Sledge (.798 as a rookie) should probably get a lot of at-bats, too.
If those hitters can't create a .750 team OPS, even with the dead weight of pitchers and Endy Chavez (.689), it should be ashamed. And if Chavez can't get to .750, Frank Robinson should end his days as center fielder and leadoff man. You just can't start your attack with somebody that lame.
What would a .750 team OPS produce? Probably about 100 more runs than last year's 635. It's just an immutable statistical law. Get the OPS to .750 and a team can't avoid scoring 725-plus runs. And, based on more than a century of data, that should be worth about 10 wins to the Nats.
The Nationals have several high-ceiling OPS players, meaning they draw walks as well as hit for sufficient average and have extra-base power, too: Wilkerson, Guillen, Vidro, Johnson, Castilla, Sledge and, to a degree, Schneider. The wild card is outfielder Ryan Church, who was the Nats' minor league player of the year. He had an OPS in Class AAA of 1.053. Yes, 1.053. If he hits well in spring training, he'll create pleasant problems for Robinson.
All in all, the Nats have enough front-line talent to threaten .500. But, because their farm system has been eviscerated, they lack depth. Utility infielder Jamey Carroll is first rate. New backup catcher Gary Bennett is a much-needed upgrade. But that's about it. Stay healthy or else.
The Nationals lack superstar talent and depth. What they have is a lot of solid to very good players who get along extremely well -- out of necessity. Bonded by their uncertain playing conditions the last three seasons, the Expos are an unusually tight-knit team. Many came up in the organization together and are longtime friends. Their clubhouse is so relaxed and collegial it feels like a team from the pre-megabucks '70s. New arrivals Castilla, Loaiza and Guzman fit right into this mature mix.
"We're ready to show what we can do," said Wilkerson last week. "It's tough to come out and play in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people [in Montreal]. Your fans can get you over the top. People underestimate that extra boost."
The Nationals' early season crowds may be 10 times that number. "No more excuses," said Wilkerson, beaming at the novel thought of playing before a sea of friendly fans for the first time in his career. "I'm ready for that right now."