Thomas Boswell: Offseason Additions Make for a Promising Mix

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sometimes, you need to revisit a rant. The Lerners and the Nats are doing a lot better by their town and team than they were two months ago when I questioned their "stewardship" and their willingness to spend enough to field a presentable team in a publicly built park. There's room to go, but real progress has been made.

To be sure, the Nats are one of the franchises most committed to building by developing young talent. But no team, not the Tampa Bay Rays or anybody else, builds with children alone. The Nats have finally shown the common sense, and wallet, to add free agents as well -- a 40-homer cleanup man, at $10 million a year, and a left-handed reliever for $2 million, so that their kids, as well as Nats fans, won't be mortified 102 times again in '09.

The Nats also added $6 million in salaries by trading a rookie for arbitration-eligible established players Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham. During spring training, the Nats brought in a stream of vets to ensure the kind of depth they lacked last season, such as catchers Josh Bard and Javier Valentin, starter Kip Wells and reliever Wil Ledezma. Some may go to Class AAA. But, now, at least they're available.

Young players don't grow to normal stature if they are thumped mercilessly and feel abandoned. Now, the Nats look like a team that belongs in the big leagues. And, if their young pitching comes on fast -- not the way to bet, but possible -- they could even be one of those rare teams (57 in the past 50 years) that improve by 20 wins in just one season. After 59-102, expect 70 to 77 wins in '09.

The trend of baseball is toward youth and away from aging expensive players who may have built part of their career reputation on steroids, HGH or uppers. That construction method defines the Nats with Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Jesús Flores and Elijah Dukes -- all 24 on Opening Day -- in their lineup and Olsen (25), John Lannan (24), Shairon Martis (22) and Jordan Zimmermann (22) in their starting rotation. Even the new-prototype Rays had "only" six players younger than 25 in key roles a year ago.

But that's about all the youth one team can stand without some veteran presence for ballast. With the arrival of Adam Dunn at cleanup with his five straight 40-homer seasons, the whole batting order gains coherence. And the dugout, with his presence and humor, gains confidence.

Now, Milledge can move up to leadoff, bunt and steal bases, instead of being asked to be an RBI man. Cristian Guzmán (.316 average) can bat second where he did well for playoff-bound Minnesota teams. Zimmerman has protection behind him once again, as he did in '06 with 110 RBI. No. 5 Dukes will have Dunn, and his high on-base percentage, in front of him as well as the best pure hitter on the team, Nick Johnson (healthy so far), batting behind him. And the lineup goes right-switch-right-left-right- left-right, like a real team, to hurt foes' late-inning relief matchups.

If anything, the bottom of the batting order is overqualified with have-bat-will-travel Ronnie Belliard and Flores, while the bench is so deep, with Willingham and Austin Kearns, that somebody probably gets traded soon.

How did this happen? Instead of a lineup in which nobody had "protection" and everybody felt overmatched, the addition of Dunn and (perhaps) the health of Johnson dramatically changed everything. That's baseball; lineups create synergy. Or destroy it, as was the case with the demolished Nats of '08. That poor, pulverized team got 722 fewer at-bats from its top eight hitters (only 3,083) than the average MLB team. The healthy Orioles had 4,263! This year, even if Johnson breaks again, Willingham suffices.

Only in one area have the Nats been, perhaps, penny wise. I railed that the Nats should sign Dunn and Joe Beimel, but also grab either Randy Wolf (12-12) or Jon Garland (14-8) because the market for free agent pitchers of modest pedigree was collapsing. By waiting, the Nats got even better bargains on Dunn and Beimel. I'd have wasted a chunk of their money. Maybe the Lerners really are good at this business thing.

But Wolf ($4.75 million for '09) and Garland ($6.5 million) signed elsewhere for short-term contracts that wouldn't have jammed up the Nats' pitching pipeline. Of course, if the Nats think they can sign Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State with the overall No. 1 draft pick, then maybe it's better to save the cash and roll the dice.

The change in the Nationals' attitude at spring training this year has been their sense that, while they are still young and probably one to two years from "arriving," they are no longer defenseless and in danger of embarrassment. When an Anderson Hernández (now injured) is given a shot at the starting second base job or Zimmermann and Martis know that a rotation job may be theirs, they no longer feel that their failure will doom the team. They look at Zimmerman, Dunn, Dukes, Johnson and Willingham and know runs will score. Now they see Beimel, 3.04 ERA in 216 games the past three years with the Dodgers, setting up closer Joel Hanrahan, with Saúl Rivera, Jesús Colome and others behind them; while that bullpen still seems treacherous, it no longer looks like an open manhole cover.

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