HITTERS
C Jesús Flores | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Jesus Flores (The Post)
Jesús Flores will admit that he kind of came from nowhere. One day in December 2006, then-GM Jim Bowden selected two players in the Rule 5 draft — essentially, a market for players forgotten by their own employers. The Nationals ended up with pitcher Levale Speigner, who never panned out, and Flores, coming off a season in Class A ball with the New York Mets. A few in the organization, including Manny Acta — a former coach in New York — knew of Flores’s talent, and decided he was worth a chance. After several injuries opened the door for playing time last year, Flores emerged, and several in the organization now call Flores a future all-star. Of course, Flores still hasn’t played a full big league season, having been limited to just 301 at-bats (.256 average, eight home runs, 59 RBI) last year, when a sprained ankle erased his September. Now, he’ll get the chance to do more.
Backup: Josh Bard or Wil Nieves
1B Nick Johnson | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Nick Johnson (The Post)
History indicates that it won't work, that the Nationals are foolish for penciling in Nick Johnson as their everyday first baseman. Four times in his career, Johnson has been placed on the 60-day disabled list. Four other times, he's been on the 15-day disabled list. The constant injury problems - unrelated, except that they all indicate an abnormal fragility - have limited Johnson to just one season in which he reached 500 at-bats. For Johnson, though, there remains a very powerful if. If he can remain healthy, the Nationals can take advantage of his above-average defense, his exceptional plate patience, his reliable on-base percentage, and even a decent power stroke. Because of what a healthy Johnson represents, the Nationals are rolling the dice, certain that 500 at-bats from this 30-year-old far outweigh whatever value he can net in a trade. This spring, Johnson looks healthy. It's stoked hope that he can keep it up, history be damned.
Backup: Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham
2B Anderson Hernández | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Anderson Hernandez (AP)
Anderson Hernández is only 26 years old, still an unproven commodity, but once before he went into the year as a starting second baseman. That was 2006 - for Hernández, a lifetime ago. That year, he had the everyday job with the Mets. He kept it for all of two weeks. Batting .146 on April 17 of that year, Hernández injured his back. Soon, he was blocked by better players and all but forgotten. When Washington traded for him last summer, they pulled him out of the worst professional season of his career; he'd been hitting just .203 with Class AAA New Orleans. But new surroundings reinvigorated Hernández's career, and down the stretch with the Nationals he showed the promise that he never quite scratched in New York. In 28 games, Hernández batted .333 with exceptional defense. It was enough to ticket Hernández for the starting job this spring. Though it's familiar territory, he hopes the opportunity leads him somewhere new.
Backup: Ronnie Belliard or Willie Harris
SS Cristian Guzmán | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Cristian Guzman (AP)
Last season was Cristian Guzmán's fourth with the Nationals. But it was the first time the team saw any semblance of the player it expected. Following three miserable, injury-plagued seasons, Guzmán last year reemerged as a contact-hitting force, a durable shortstop with Lasik-improved eyesight and, finally, an easy smile. Guzmán represented the Nationals at the All-Star Game. He finished fourth in the National League in batting average (.316) and fourth in hits (183). One game, he hit for the cycle. Oh, and he also hit the lottery. In July 2008, Guzmán, who would have been a free agent at year's end, signed his second contract with Washington - this one for two years and $16 million. Given the economic crash that followed, chilling baseball's winter economy, Guzmán could not have timed the deal any better. On the flip side, Guzmán will face pressure to validate his salary. Hitting above .300 would go a long way.
Backup: Anderson Hernández or Alberto Gonzalez
3B Ryan Zimmerman | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Ryan Zimmerman (Getty Images)
For the fourth season in a row, Zimmerman enters April with the third baseman's job and the face-of-the-franchise crown. At minimum, Zimmerman can manage the first part of that role. He's a Gold Glove- winner-in-waiting at third base and a lifetime .282 hitter who averages 21 home runs and 94 RBI per 162 games. The bigger question, of course, as Zimmerman enters the prime of his career, is whether the 24-year-old is merely a fine player or a fantastic one. In other words: Is Zimmerman ready to make a jump? His previous season muddled his career trajectory, because he missed almost two months with a shoulder injury, limiting him to career lows in home runs (14) and RBI (51). But Washington also was comforted by the way Zimmerman, finally healthy in the last two months, hit down the stretch. From August until year's end, Zimmerman hit .306, slugged .466 and showed renewed power in the gaps. He looked a lot like the player who deserves all-star-type money to remain a franchise building block. But Washington might want to see more before a deal is signed.
Backup: Ronnie Belliard
LF Adam Dunn (See Impact Players)
CF Lastings Milledge | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Lastings Milledge (AP)
In his first season with the Nationals in 2008, Milledge mostly fulfilled expectations at the plate. His 14 home runs, 61 RBI and .268 average - which spiked in the second half of the season - drew the picture of a raw but talented player whose learning curve figures to glide up. This year, the Nationals think Milledge can top 20 home runs, hit .275 or so, maybe even steal 30 bases. But there is another part of Milledge's game that will require a more rapid improvement: defense. According to one defensive metric calculated by Baseball Prospectus, Milledge's fielding last year in center cost Washington 12 runs over the course of the season. Certainly, there is reason to think he can improve. Last year was his first at the position. Learning how to take direct routes to balls takes time, but the Nationals need to see quick evidence of improvement.
Backup: Willie Harris
RF Elijah Dukes | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Elijah Dukes (The Post)
People already know way too much about Dukes's past - summarized with a long list of criminal problems and suspensions - and not enough about what he can do if that past no longer interferes with his career. Assuming Dukes can stay out of trouble (and last year, he did), then Washington has landed itself one of the most promising talents in baseball. But even then, a question remains. Can Dukes stay healthy? Last year, he missed time with three lower-body injuries - first a hamstring issue, then a knee tear, then a calf strain. In all, it meant that Dukes only appeared in 81 games, and only hinted at the best-case scenario for his career. If everything goes right this year - and yes, it's a massive if - Dukes can be a force in the lineup. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA measurement projects Dukes this year to have 20 home runs and a .485 slugging percentage. That is, of course, a projection with plenty of variables.
Backup: Austin Kearns

PITCHERS
John Lannan | Left-Handed Starter (See Impact Players)
Scott Olsen | Left-Handed Starter | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Scott Olsen (The Post)
By most measurements, Scott Olsen is the most consistent starting pitcher on Washington's roster. In each of his three full big league seasons, he has started at least 31 games. He's always won between eight and 12 games. He's always thrown at least 175 innings. In a sense, then, the Nationals knew what they were getting when they acquired the left-hander from Florida last November. But with Olsen, consistency is only half the story. Last year, for reasons no Marlins coach ever figured out, Olsen's velocity dropped about 4 mph. He's trying to recapture that speed this year by tweaking his lower body mechanics, but so far, his spring outings have indicated no corresponding improvement. As a result, the Nationals will be satisfied if Olsen can simply live up to his track record, eating innings and enabling enough wins. Said Manager Manny Acta: "As long as he gives us enough innings, keeps us in the game, I'm not going to judge him on his velocity."
Daniel Cabrera | Right-Handed Starter | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Daniel Cabrera (The Post)
Daniel Cabrera is 6 feet 9. His height makes him imposing, but several Washington coaches speculate that it also interferes with the nuances of good, repeatable pitching mechanics. "I think he's still maturing and learning his body," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. Cabrera spent his first five pro seasons with Baltimore, which released him in December. The Orioles had run out of patience waiting for his development. Washington saw reason to think it could happen about 40 miles southwest. For one thing, Cabrera will no longer have to face the brutal American League East. For another, Cabrera is still just 27 years old. "You can watch him," St. Claire said, "and he has really outstanding games, and then for some reason in a game he'll walk eight, nine guys." Maybe Cabrera can finally figure it out. More likely, Washington will get lots of ups and downs.
Jordan Zimmermann | Right-Handed Starter | (Rookie)
Jordan Zimmermann (The Post)
Jordan Zimmermann stands at the line dividing life as a prospect and life as a major leaguer. Life as a prospect, for Zimmermann, has been all good. Taken in the second round of the 2007 draft from Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point - his college didn't even have a pitching coach - Zimmermann skyrocketed through the organization. Earlier this year, Baseball America ranked the 22-year-old as Washington's best prospect. Zimmermann fueled the hype this spring, allowing no runs in his first 12(1/3) innings and all but announcing his readiness for the big leagues. But once he arrives, Zimmermann will make a tricky transition. He's never pitched above Class AA. This spring, he's rarely faced hitters more than once or twice, granting him a pass on making those on-the-fly adjustments that define major league pitching. Those tests await. Zimmermann, whenever he gets to the big leagues, will take his lumps this year. But that's the only real way to start the next part of his career.
Shairon Martis | Right-Handed Starter | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Shairon Martis (AP)
At the beginning of the spring, Shairon Martis made a tough decision. A native of Curacao, Martis had been invited to represent the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. Indeed, the right-hander had pitched in the 2006 WBC and the 2008 Olympics. He would have been the team's ace. Though Martis had Washington's blessing to participate, he declined. Why? When Martis was asked at the time of his decision, teammate Collin Balester, eavesdropping, answered for him: "Because he has a team to make." At the time, it was a long shot. Martis had started just four big league games, and was far behind Shawn Hill, and even Balester, in the line for a rotation spot. Well, Hill was released, and Balester has struggled this spring. Martis has shined. And now that Washington has selected Martis for its rotation, it's not just a credit to Martis's performance, but his sacrifice.
Joe Beimel | Left-Handed Reliever | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Joe Beimel (Getty Images)
Joe Beimel doesn't think he should be a left-handed specialist. He's not wired for it. Plus, he's too good against right-handed hitters. Last year, for instance, righties batted .263 against Beimel; lefties hit .278. Still, Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Joe Torre used Beimel mostly against left-handed batters, meaning Beimel would enter the game with a very clear job. Face one hitter. Six times last year, Beimel threw just one pitch and exited. He didn't like the role. "It was definitely a transition for me," he said. "I would prefer pitching full innings, just because you can make a mistake, give up a hit, and you have a chance to get the next guy. As a left-handed specialist, if you give up a hit you're done for the day." Signed by Washington to a one-year, $2 million contract, Beimel will receive his desired role. He'll handle the eighth-inning duties, no matter what kind of hitter is up.
Joel Hanrahan | Right-Handed Closer | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Joel Hanrahan (AP)
One calendar year ago, Joel Hanrahan had almost no experience as a relief pitcher. He was a starter in the minors, and a starter with the Nationals in 2007. A closer's job? One major transition, plus a line of better candidates - Luis Ayala, Jon Rauch, Chad Cordero - stood in the way. Then came 2008. With Hanrahan developing as a reliever, Cordero was injured, Rauch was traded, and Ayala, suddenly ineffective, was shipped to the New York Mets. Out of nowhere, Hanrahan received the closer's job. In a sense, it's an ideal fit. Hanrahan is a two-pitch guy with velocity and, sometimes, control problems. When he has one inning to throw, nothing more, he can go all-out. He saved nine games at the tail end of last year, performing well enough to keep the job. Something unexpected would have to happen before that changes.

IMPACT PLAYERS
LF Adam Dunn | Career Stats | 2008 Game Log
Adam Dunn (AP)
In many ways, Adam Dunn is baseball's most cartoonish power hitter - a massive, one-liner-cracking slugger who, most of the time, hits balls far or not at all. Dunn led the National League in strikeouts in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Marginal improvement in the past two years still hasn't cleared him off the leader board's top five. Still, there is a flip side to Dunn, and it explains why the Nationals signed the 29-year-old to a two-year, $20 million contract this offseason, making him the most decorated free agent in this franchise's history. Dunn hits home runs like no player ever to wear a Nationals uniform. For five years running, Dunn has hit at least 40 home runs. Sure, he spent most of that time in Cincinnati, playing at the homer-friendly Great American Ball Park, but team officials - and even those throughout baseball - acknowledge that even a fair stadium like Nationals Park won't redefine Dunn's numbers. When he connects, the ball travels. Dunn spent most of March playing for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic, where he racked up a .739 slugging percentage and tied for the team lead with three home runs. Oh, by the way, he also struck out 10 times in 23 at-bats.
Backup: Josh Willingham
John Lannan | Left-Handed Starter | Career Stats | 2008 Game Logs
John Lannan (The Post)
For several reasons, John Lannan is not your typical ace. He was a rookie only last year. He is still just 24. He was an 11th-round pick, just deep enough in the draft to never be categorized as a true prospect. Only in 2008, by making 31 starts and finishing with a 3.91 ERA, did Lannan finally show his value. Lannan had been overlooked because his style reveals itself more with results than raw power. Last year, for instance, Lannan threw 2,946 pitches. Only 11 - according to data compiled by Josh Kalk, who created a pitch measurement tool called Pitchf/x - equaled or topped 90 mph. So why does Lannan succeed? Simple. He keeps the ball low, mixes his pitches, maintains his composure. Plenty of times in 2008, Lannan's quality outings were turned into losses or no-decisions by an offense that gave him little run support. Lannan never complained. Indeed, the team was 9-22 in games he started. Now Washington is counting on an improved offense to give its lefty a better record - and maybe some stats that truly show his ability.

MANAGER
Manny Acta | Third Year
Manny Acta (AP)
Manny Acta already has his stock quote about his job security. Asked almost every week this spring about his contract status - the team has yet to pick up its option for 2010 - Acta responded, without fail, that he's simply lucky to have a job. There's a natural context, of course, that goes even beyond the economy. As a minor league manager during most of the 1990s, Acta managed every year on a one-year contract. He's no stranger to insecurity. His team's performance in 2009 will dictate whether Acta's third season in D.C. enables a fourth. Despite 102 losses in 2008, Acta still has many supporters in the organization and is seen as one of the brightest young managing talents in the game. He has admitted that this year's team is his most talented. It is also his most important.

-- Chico Harlan

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