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NATS ROUT 'STROS, TEAM TAKING SHAPE

[March 23rd] -- Spring statistics - and standings - are meaningless. Take that to the bank. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that the Kansas City Royals had the best record in spring training and the worst record during the regular season. But now that the regulars are playing most of the time, we're beginning to get a better idea of just how good (or bad) this team is really going to be. However, after watching Buster Olney (on ESPN 2's Cold Pizza) say that major league baseball scouts were having their own "Final Four," trying to guess how many games the Nationals would lose in 2007, I have to defend my team. The high mark, by the way, was 130. Losses. Incredible.

Memo to Buster and the scouts: The Nationals aren't going to be that bad.

The Nationals' 16-2 rout of the Houston Astros on Thursday went a long way to answering many of the questions that have plagued Nats' fans since the beginning of spring training. Certainly, there are areas of concern, but on the whole, most positions are more solid than scary:

First base: Travis Lee and Dmitri Young are more likely going to platoon until Nick Johnson returns. Assuming that Johnson returns somewhere near mid-season, I think the team can count on one/the other/both to hit somewhere near .265-12-45 over 80 or so games. Those aren't all star numbers to be sure, but neither are they particularly embarrassing. When Nick returns, one/both can be traded for more prospects (though I haven't changed my tune; Broadway shouldn't have gotten the job)

Second base: Felipe Lopez was going to hit; it was only a matter of time. He went 2-3 with a couple of RBI's against the Astros and raised his average to .214. By the end of the season, Lopez is going to hit .275-14-50 with 45 stolen bases.

Short: I'm looking at the box score from last night's game and I see that Cristian Guzman went 3-4 and raised his spring average to .414. Might the brand new shoulder and "never been used" eyeballs really be making that much of a difference? No way. Guzman is currently sporting a .469 OBP - that's luck, not talent. But, extrapolated over an entire season, Guzman is on pace to walk 40 times and strikeout 80, both numbers are near his career average. What I think we're seeing is a guy who is 1) desperately trying to show he's worth his contract and 2) playing better because he's feeling better.

Third base: Need I say anything? If Zimmerman could hit this way over a full season, he'd end up with 70 doubles, 24 homers, 144 RBI's, and most importantly, only 80 strikeouts. He said he wanted to reduce his strikeouts this year, and - so far at least - he has. Astros' play-by-play announcer Milo Hamilton said that Zimmerman "is as good a fielding 3rd baseman as has ever played in the major leagues, ever." Strong words from a guy who's been broadcasting baseball for decades.

Left-field: I've never understood why everyone has been fawing over Chris Snelling this spring, and am puzzled why Jim Bowden would suggest that he could end up the team's starting left fielder come opening day. Snelling is batting .257 with 3 homers and 12 RBI's. The 3 home runs are nice, but remember, he hit two of them into that 30 mph jet stream last weekend. Pop-ups were landing on the warning track that day. I love watching him play, but there is no way he'll ever come close to producing like Ryan Church can/will. Church went 3-5 on Thursday with a long home run and 5 RBI's. If given the opportunity, Ryan will hit around .280 with 20 homers and 80 RBI's. Snelling will never approach those numbers. Some players are destined to be regulars, others are better suited at coming off the bench and providing a "spark." That's Snelling. Call him "Sparky."

Center-field: Nook Logan. That's all I have to say about that.

Right-field: Austin Kearns was the only starter not to get a hit last night. That said, he's still hitting .289 and is a lock for a .270-24-95 type season. I wish that he hit right-handers better than he does (.243 in '05, .257 in '06), but he still change the game with one swing of his bat.

Catcher: Brian Schneider is a known commodity, but we've all been worried about a 22 year old catcher right out of 'A' ball being his backup. So far, he looks every bit as good as Jim Bowden and Manny Acta said he'd be. He got 3 hits against the Astros including his first home run. His OPS is a mind-boggling 1.373. The pitchers will learn how to pitch to him, and he'll probably end the year with humbling numbers, but he's shown he has the talent to be a solid major leaguer.

Starting Rotation: Okay, this is where it gets tough. Right now, John Patterson, Jason Simontacchi (when he's healthy), Shawn Hill, Matt Chico and Jerome Williams or Levale Speigner will make make up the starting rotation. By season's end, they could surprise and be rather good, or they could stink. No one knows at this point. Patterson has the talent to win 15 games, Hill, Chico, Simontacchi and either Williams or Speigner can win 10 games apeice. That's not a division winning rotation, but neither are they going to lock the bathroom door and refuse to come out when it's their turn to pitch.

By the way, the pitcher that most impressed Milo Hamilton was Speigner, who allowed just two hits over three innings. Over 11.2 innings, he's yet to allow a run and has given up just 6 hits. I can't imagine that Manny wouldn't prefer to have him in the rotation rather than the bullpen.

I'm not suggesting that the Nationals are going to approach a .500 record, but neither are they going to embarrass themselves. I think the team will win somewhere between 65-75 games, probably ending 2007 like they did 2006, with 71 wins.

Sorry Buster, sorry Cold Pizza -- we're not going to be your whipping boys. 2007 isn't going to be as painful as you think.

Notes: It looks like Garrett Mock won't be able to play for 'AA' Harrisburg until May because his knee - repaired last fall - is still causing him discomfort.


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