Change Marked Nationals' Season

Ryan Zimmerman, Alex Escobar and Alfonso Soriano, left to right, watched Brian Schneider's three-run home run help beat Atlanta on Aug. 16. Zimmerman, Escobar and Schneider will be back, but Soriano will be an expensive free agent.
Ryan Zimmerman, Alex Escobar and Alfonso Soriano, left to right, watched Brian Schneider's three-run home run help beat Atlanta on Aug. 16. Zimmerman, Escobar and Schneider will be back, but Soriano will be an expensive free agent. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The Washington Nationals began the 2006 season with Livan Hernandez on the mound, with Brandon Watson hitting leadoff and playing center field, with Jose Guillen batting third and playing right field. Presiding over it all was Frank Robinson, the manager, an employee of Major League Baseball -- as were all the Nationals, who were still owned by the other 29 teams.

When the 2007 season opens, it's all but certain none of those individuals will return to the same positions. Hernandez was traded, Watson cast aside, Guillen injured and Robinson let go as the skipper. The past season -- in which MLB sold the Nationals to the family of Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore Lerner -- was a season of tremendous transition for the club, which arrived from Montreal the year before.

The tumult will continue this offseason. Yesterday, the club officially announced that Robinson's contract won't be renewed. This week, officials are expected to meet with the representatives for Alfonso Soriano, who energized the Nationals and their fans as he became the fourth player in history to hit at least 40 homers the same season he stole at least 40 bases. Soriano will be the marquee player on the free agent market, and though he continues to say he would like to stay in Washington, he could command $15 million per season, and the Nationals are in the process of evaluating whether they could and should spend such a large percentage of their payroll on one player.

"I want to stay, but it's not up to me," Soriano said last week. "They know I want to stay, but we have to see what happens. I don't know. They get first choice, but we don't know what they [will] offer yet."

It's possible, then, that the 2007 Nationals will field an Opening Day lineup consisting of only three players manning the same positions as they did a year earlier. Catcher Brian Schneider and first baseman Nick Johnson both signed long-term deals with the club prior to the 2006 season, and they figure to open next year as regulars again -- though Johnson will be coming off a broken right leg. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- perhaps the leading candidate for the National League's rookie of the year award -- will enter next year as the one true building block, the piece that is without question a part of the long-term future.

"I think if you look around here, we've got a pretty good lineup," Zimmerman said. "You keep that lineup together -- and sign 'Sori' -- and I think we'll be able to score a lot of runs."

That phrase -- "If we sign 'Sori' " -- is uttered a great deal by Nationals players when asked to assess the team's prospects. But there may be a more pressing issue: Pitching. The Nationals' ERA entering last night's game against the New York Mets was 4.97, worst in the NL. Only the Chicago Cubs got fewer innings from their starting rotation, and the starters' ERA of 5.28 was also worst in the league.

There are, of course, explanations for it all. Hernandez, the workhorse and supposed ace, struggled with a knee injury early in the year and was traded to Arizona in August. Right-hander John Patterson, who has the most electric repertoire on the staff, made only eight starts while battling a forearm problem that eventually led to minor elbow surgery. Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. were woefully inconsistent; both are free agents, and neither is likely to return. Brian Lawrence, acquired in an offseason trade with San Diego, never threw as much as an inning in spring training before blowing out his shoulder.

The Nationals used 12 different starters, and the man with the most wins -- Ortiz, with 11 headed into his final start today -- also dropped 15 games, leading pitching coach Randy St. Claire to say this was his most difficult season in his position.

"They all have their mechanical issues that you can say, 'Oh, he's doing this, he's doing that,' " St. Claire said. "To me, you still got to go out there and perform. The mental stuff is I think [what] the starting staff was really lacking this year. I don't think they had the right mental approach to the game and how to go about their game. I think that hurt us."

There are at least as many questions about the staff headed into next year. Patterson, who has made more than 19 major league starts just once, will inherit the role of ace, albeit by default. The only other starters on the end-of-the-season active roster who remain under club control are unproven -- lefty Mike O'Connor and right-hander Beltran Perez, both rookies.

Because of that dearth of proven talent, most observers believe that if the Nationals are to spend money in the offseason, it will be on pitching. Washington was the worst offensive team in baseball in 2005, but hitting wasn't their biggest problem this season. The addition of Soriano and unexpected production from Zimmerman were catalysts, but a trade at the all-star break for two everyday players -- shortstop Felipe Lopez and right fielder Austin Kearns -- helped as well, and those two are expected back as regulars next season. Late-season addition Nook Logan, a switch-hitting speedster, will get a shot in center field as long as he can improve offensively.

"Just look at this team," Patterson said. "Look at what we didn't have last year, and look what's in this clubhouse right now. You got speed. You got power. And everybody's young. Give this team two or three years to mature and get everybody's health together. Let us move into the new stadium. The city's already behind us. The momentum's moving in the right direction, and anything can happen."

The first opening, though, will be to find Robinson's replacement. Several names are already surfacing, from proven major league managers (Lou Piniella), to current major league coaches (Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez, Jerry Manuel and Manny Acta of the Mets, Tony Peña of the New York Yankees), to major league managers currently employed by other teams (Florida's Joe Girardi, the Chicago Cubs' Dusty Baker).

"We will make the right choice," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

There are, of course, other questions. Shortstop Cristian Guzman missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, and when he returns for spring training, he will find Lopez in his spot. Can the club move veteran second baseman Jose Vidro -- and the $16 million left on his contract through 2008 -- in order to return Guzman to shortstop and move Lopez to second? Will key reliever Luis Ayala, who missed the whole year with an elbow injury, be effective next season? And will RFK Stadium -- which will draw just more than 2.1 million fans this season -- become a happening place to be in 2007?

"We're not where we need to be, and we know that," Kasten said. "But we have a plan in place, and parts of it are taking shape, even behind the scenes. We're excited about that, and we're going to stick to it. We know -- not think, know -- that when we get into the new stadium [in 2008], we're going to be well down the road to being in much better position to compete."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company