Some people think, at 37, Castilla is too old. Some people think his production last year -- when his 131 RBI led the National League -- was a combination of good fortune and the thin air of Colorado. And no one else was prepared to do what the Nationals did -- sign him to a two-year, $6.2 million deal.
Though he struggled during spring training -- both at the plate and with a hyperextended left knee -- the Nationals are realistic about what Castilla can bring offensively. If he were to hit .270 with 20 homers and 80 RBI, they'd be ecstatic. Though some club officials feel Castilla would be exposed if he hit fifth, he is an asset hitting sixth. And his defense might be the most underrated part of his game. Last year, he committed just six errors in 148 games. One of the biggest weaknesses on the club, though, is that there's no capable backup for Castilla should he go down. Jamey Carroll started eight games at third last season.
_____ Baseball '05 _____
• It will be tough for the Orioles- Nationals matchup to join the ranks of great baseball rivalries. • A closer look at the Nationals' rivals in the NL East. • Thomas Boswell: The old rivalry between Washington and Baltimore should not take long to heat up. • The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is the best in sports and only figures to get more intense this season. • A timeline of the Red Sox and Yankees' shared history. • Many teams have laid claim to being the top rival of the Yankees. • Started in New York City and continued in California, the Giants- Dodgers rivalry is one for the ages. • Baseball Preview Section
The Nationals' Mr. Versatility, Wilkerson's flexibility can be a blessing for the team but a curse for himself. Last year, he started 78 games at first, 51 in left, 16 in center and nine in right. "It's no secret I'd like to stay in one spot," he said, "but I'll play wherever they put me."
That's a big reason he was named the franchise's player of the year in 2004. But he did that mostly hitting leadoff, which he did for 107 games. That hurt his production. He was the only player to hit more than 25 homers and drive in fewer than 70 runs. The theory is simple: If he hits lower in the lineup, he could rack up 100 RBI. But Robinson desperately wants Wilkerson to cut down on his strikeouts (161 in 2002, 155 in '03, 152 in '04). Terrmel Sledge provides an excellent backup. As a rookie in 2004, he led the team by hitting .337 with runners in scoring position.
Endy Chavez, CF
There is no more important spot in the Nationals' lineup. Chavez's inability to be a true leadoff hitter -- his career .303 on-base percentage, including .291 when batting first in 2004 -- have been discussed at length among Washington's coaching staff and front office. He isn't devoid of potential. He won the International League's batting title in 2002, hitting .343 with Class AAA Ottawa. His 32 steals last season were sixth in the National League. He's an excellent defensive center fielder with exceptional range.
But for the Nationals' lineup to click, Chavez must change his approach at the plate by taking more pitches, showing he can bunt, and learning how to hit in various situations. General Manager Jim Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson were pleased with Chavez's adjustments during spring training. But if he doesn't do it in the season, he will be moved down in the lineup -- or to the bench. The problem: The other alternatives in center -- Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge -- weaken the club defensively.
Jose Guillen, RF
He has smiled. He has laughed. He has joked with teammates. And he has hit the ball hard. Even with all the questions surrounding the Nationals' lineup, no player came into camp more heavily scrutinized than Guillen. He's only with Washington because of his past transgressions in Anaheim and elsewhere.
Those transgressions -- tossing batting helmets, complaining to his managers, loafing -- have resulted mostly from not playing. That won't be a problem with the Nationals. Guillen should play 150 games in right field, and, unless his offense is unexpectedly poor, bat cleanup throughout. He is with his seventh club in nine seasons, and Washington hopes he finally flourishes here. He's coming off a season in which he trumped his previous career high in RBI by 18.
One thing that could be overlooked when discussing Guillen's ability and his attitude is his arm, which is among the best in baseball.
Terrmel Sledge will serve as the primary backup here, too.