Nationals Will Improve in 2009 if New and Returning Players Produce
There's an old saying: "If" is the biggest word in sports. "If" will certainly be a big word for the 2009 Washington Nationals, whose regular season opens next week. The Nats had the worst record in the major leagues last year, but they made some changes during the offseason, such as signing home run slugger Adam Dunn. So Washington hopes to be much better this year. But the Nats will improve only if -- there's that word again -- certain things happen.
The Nats will be better if . . .
The starting pitching holds up. The Nats plan to use John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera as their top three starters. These guys are not exactly aces, with a combined record of 25 wins and 36 losses in 2008. The Nats will use Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann as their fourth and fifth starters. Martis and Zimmermann have loads of talent, but they're young (both are 22 years old) and have not pitched much in the majors. They probably won't be big winners right away.
Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes improve. The Nats' two young outfielders showed flashes of brilliance last season. Milledge hit .268 with 14 home runs and stole 24 bases. Dukes played only half the season because of injuries but still managed to smash 13 home runs with 44 runs batted in. The Nats would love to see these two talented players take the next step to becoming consistent major leaguers. That would give a big boost to the Nats' chances to move up in the National League East Division standings.
Nick Johnson stays healthy. The Nationals' first baseman is a wonderful player. He gets on base about 40 percent of the time, has some power and is a super-slick fielder. But Johnson is always hurt. He missed most of the past two seasons with leg injuries. He's had only two seasons with 450 or more at-bats since he arrived in the big leagues back in 2001. A healthy Johnson would definitely help the Nationals.
Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn have big years. Zimmerman and Dunn are the Nationals' best players. Zimmerman, who should win a Gold Glove for his acrobatic fielding at third base, hit .283 during a 2008 season in which he was hurt a lot. Dunn, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall and 275 pounds, has slugged at least 40 home runs in each of the past five seasons. The Nationals need their top stars to hit homers and drive in lots of runs.
Baseball has a long season. The Nats have lots of games to play. And lots of ifs.
Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's sports opinion column and is an author of sports novels for kids.