NL East Spring Training Preview: The Nationals

We've officially re-opened the Clearwater bureau of the Philadelphia Daily News, which for the time being is a Starbucks on Route 19. Why, you ask, is an esteemed scribe like David Q. Murphy forced to write on a pleather couch while sipping on a two-dollar cup of joe in front of a dirty coffee table? Because Panera was booked (It was like Mad Max and the Thunderdome trying to find an open outlet in there. I tried shooting dirty looks at an elderly lady who was typing on her laptop and trying to explain something to an elderly man who couldn't have looked any less interested, but I don't think she saw me).

I'm not a big fan of Starbucks coffee, and not just because a cup of it costs more than a gallon of gas. Frankly, McDonald's brew tastes better. Besides, I take mine with cream and no pretention. I mean, I don't need to hear soft Indie music when I am drinking my coffee to make me feel smarter and more sophisticated than the unwashed. And nothing makes me laugh harder than Ethos Water, the only kind you can buy at Starbucks. Ethos Water claims to donate five cents per bottle toward humanitarian water programs that help provide clean drinking water to impoverished folks around the world. That's all well and good. But if I really wanted to eradicate World Thirst, I'd stop drinking bottled water and switch to the free stuff out of the tap and then donate the difference.

But the fact remains, I am at Starbucks, and daylight is fading over southwestern Florida, and the Phillies are still three days away from opening Spring Training (Pitchers and Catchers hold their first workout on Thursday).

Between now and the Phillies Grapefruit League opener in early March, we'll take a look at each of the other four teams in the National League East and where they stand at the start of spring training. We might end up taking a look at all four by the end of this week. I'm trying to give myself some wiggle room here. I wasn't even planning on writing something like this an hour ago when I sat down at my computer to look up some info on the Washington Nationals. But I don't have anything Phillies-related to pass along at this point, and I already did the research, so hell, why not put it out there in the public domain.

Our first team, as I mentioned in the previous graf, is the Nationals:

2010 Line-up
1. Nyjer Morgan CF (L)
2. Cristian Guzman SS (S)
3. Ryan Zimmerman 3B (R)
4. Adam Dunn 1B (L)
5. Josh Willingham LF (R)
6. Adam Kennedy 2B (L)
7. Elijah Dukes RF (R)
8. Ivan Rodriguez C (R)
9. Pitcher

2010 Rotation

1. Jason Marquis (R)
2. John Lannan (L)
3. Garrett Mock (R)
4. Shairon Martis (R)
5. Scott Olsen (L)
*Chien Ming-Wang
*Stephen Strasburg

2010 Bullpen
RHP Matt Capps
RHP Brian Bruney
LHP Sean Burnett
LHP Matt Chico
RHP Tyler Walker
RHP Drew Storen
RHP Tyler Clippard

2010 Bench
UTIL Ian Desmond (R)
C Jesus Flores (R)
OF Willie Harris (L)
INF Alberto Gonzalez (R)
OF Justin Maxwell (R)

OUTLOOK: What's more amazing: That despite finishing ninth in the NL with a right-around-league-average 710 runs (more than the Cubs, Mets, Giants and Astros, among others), 10th with a .258 average (the same as the Phillies), ninth in home runs (more than the Braves and Dodgers) and eighth in OPS, the Nationals still managed to become the only team in baseball to eclipse 100 losses (103 to be exact)? Or that with their NL-worst 5.00 ERA, 63 quality starts and .276 BAA, they didn't lose more?

The Nationals certainly moved to improve their woeful pitching this offseason. But what, exactly, they accomplished remains to be seen. The conventional wisdom is that they had nowhere to go but up, and the signing of Marquis brings a steady veteran presence to a rotation that was badly in need of one. But keep in mind that the Nationals also lost 23-year-old up-and-comer Jordan Zimmerman (4.63 ERA, 9.1 K/9 in 16 starts) to elbow surgery.

If this were 2008 spring training, the Nationals might be a sleeper in the NL East. They'd have a starter in Chien Ming Wang (assuming the Nats ultimately fulfil the conventional wisdom and sign him) who is coming off a 19-7, 3.70 ERA, 199.1 inning season, and another in Jason Marquis who posted a 4.60 ERA in 190+ innings. They'd have a closer in Matt Capps who posted a 2.28 ERA in 76 appearances the year before and a promising young set-up man in Brian Bruney. They'd have a still-productive catcher in Ivan Rodriguez to go with stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Cristian Guzman.

Alas, it is not 2007, which is one of the reasons the Nats were able to acqurie so many "names." The bullpen can't help but be improved, even if Capps struggles like he did last season. And former Stanford standout Drew Storen, the 10th overall pick in last year's draft, could be poised to break into the big leagues even before the much-hyped Stephen Strasburg (Storen struck out 11.9 K/9 in 37 minor league innings last year and finished his season by pitching 12+ scoreless innings at Double-A).

The Nats will once again field a solid offense, although Ivan Rodriguez can't be expected to upgrade anything but the experience department. Their defense is upgraded with Adam Kennedy at second base, and Nyjer Morgan will be around for the whole season.

But even if Wang signs and returns to full health and Marquis proves to be the pitcher he was the first half of last season, the Nationals still have a pitiful rotation that will keep them from putting on a Marlins-esque run.

That said, it was a great offseason for Washington, mostly because they have given people a reason to come to the ballpark. While it is unclear how much guys like Marquis and Wang and Rodriguez will contribute, at least fans will know who they are watching.

That, along with the potential arrival of Strasburg somewhere down the line, will at least make the Nationals interesting to watch.