When you consider the talent they had on the roster, the Nationals' performance in their inaugural season was pretty impressive. They finished 81-81 while being outscored by 34, which is a little lucky but not insanely so. Helped along by a hurler-friendly home park, Washington fielded a pretty sweet little pitching staff. Chad Cordero posted 47 saves and a sub-1.00 WHIP. Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, and Esteban Loaiza were as low-profile a trio of lockdown starters as the NL's ever seen. Rookie Gary Majewksi (who was born, by the way, on the precise same date as me, 2/26/1980) was nifty in a setup role, as were Luis Ayala and super swingman Hector Carrasco. The Nationals were this close (0.6 in the case of Ayala) from having seven pitchers with 20+ VORP.
And then there was the offense. I always heard Nick Johnson was good. Last year, he was great (.408 OBP). Jose Guillen, who was about due for a good year, had a good year (.283/.337/.479, and randomly a league-leading 19 HBP -- Craig Biggio must be slipping). Brian Schneider is quietly one of the best catchers in the National League. (Which is a funny sort of thing to say. Looking now at the list of catchers' VORP in the NL, I would say about 7 of the top 12 qualify as going about their business "quietly." Have folks figured out about Michael Barrett yet? I guess maybe folks have. But what about Javier Valentin?) But as for the Nationals, Ryan Church, Jose Vidro, and Brad Wilkerson hit a bit, and after that it got ugly. Please take advantage of our "comment" feature to make your own Cristian Guzman jokes, because they just never stop being funny. Guzman's .219/.256/.314 line last year -- in the first year of a spectacularly ill-advised long-term deal -- is a gift that keeps on giving. Please, please, please may Frank Robinson give him 500 plate appearances again this year. Can Guzman possibly beat that 55 OPS+ figure from last year? Who doesn't want to see him try? HOW LOW CAN HE GO?
Anyway, with the exception of Guzman the starters weren't bad (which is sort of like saying that German history is pretty upbeat if you just overlook 1936-1945), with Vinny Castilla providing a pretty typical sea level Castilla season. But the bench (starring Deivi Cruz, Junior Spivey, backup catching retread Gary Bennett, and new Rockies acquisition Jamey Carroll) was awful and nobody hit any home runs except Preston Wilson, who's gone. Mix that with a barn of a home field and the result is the fewest runs scored in the majors. The rotation dropped off precipitously for the fourth and fifth starters' spots, so when you get right down to it, it was pretty remarkable the Nationals won as many games as they did. If they'd been in the NL West, they could have won the thing (as the Padres, a team they greatly resemble, actually did). As it was they led the NL East for an astonishingly long stretch and stayed nominally in contention for far longer than they had any right to.
OK, so what's new for 2006? Well, they have a new hat option, presumably because certain constituents of their fanbase feel uncomfortable trotting around with a big "W" on their caps. For reasons unclear, they traded Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano, which has already come back to haunt them before camp even began, with Soriano predictably whining about not wanting to play in the outfield. They lost a bidding war for Esteban Loaiza to Oakland of all teams, and traded Castilla for Brian Lawrence to try and replace him. Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio are in the rotation mix as well. Patterson and Hernandez (assuming he doesn't retire out of thin air as he threatened to at one point last season) should be okay. After that...well. Yeah. New faces Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez probably won't make a huge difference, but the bullpen retains Cordero, Majewksi, Ayala, and Joey Eischen; they should be fine there assuming they ever get any leads to protect.
On offense they exchange Castilla and Wilkerson for Ryan Zimmerman and Brandon Watson (or Church). Soriano, assuming he ever recovers from his bout of poutiness, will be hard-pressed to make up for that much lost power by his lonesome. Alfonso's home/road splits last year were dramatic: .315/.355/.656, 25 homers at Ameriquest, .224/.265/.374, 11 homers elsewhere. It's fun to imagine Jim Bowden's thought process. "What can I do for an encore after the Guzman contract? Is it even possible? Maybe I should just retire now, I'm never going to be able top that one. Wait! Eureka! Alfonso Soriano is the answer!" Even in a best-case scenario Soriano will maybe hit 30 homers and keep his OBP barely above .300, which is in fact subpar for a corner outfielder. Worst-case scenario, Guzman and Soriano collide trying to field a pop-up in short left and a black hole of critical suckitude opens up spontaneously right there on the sickly RFK lawn.
The offense is going to be even worse for the 2006 Nationals, they've gone from a 60% legit rotation to (maybe) 40%, but the bullpen remains pretty good. They're not going to go 12-6 in interleague play again, and they'll probably be a lot worse than 36-41 in a division that still has three pretty good teams. I would be mildly surprised if the baby Marlins nudged by and relegated Washington to last place in the division in '06, but I certainly wouldn't be shocked. If so, you better believe Frank Robinson will blame it all on the unconscionable sale of Jamey Carroll.