I want to thank everyone who has called/written/blogged over the last month and offered kind words and encouragement in the wake of the elimination of The Washington Times' sports department. Your support truly has been appreciated and has made this experience much more tolerable.
As for my employment status ... well, there's not a whole lot to report. Been rejected for a few things. Been waiting to hear about a handful of other things. Been offered several freelance opportunities. Hopefully, something will come together in the near future. But until then, this seems like an opportune time and place to get into the blogging business and get back to covering the Washington Nationals.
I've decided to launch this site because, frankly, there's a serious dearth of quality Nats coverage out there right now. Between the Times' decision to axe all of us and the Post's ongoing search for a new beat writer, there are only a handful of places left to find comprehensive coverage of this team.
So I'm going to attempt to fill some of the void here. Because this isn't a full-time job, I'm not getting paid and I have an extremely limited travel budget, obviously there's a limit to what I can produce. But between my five years' experience covering this team, nearly a decade's worth of experience covering Major League Baseball and my contacts both inside and outside the Nats' organization, I hope I can add something to the mix and turn this into a site you'll want to visit on a regular basis.
With that, let's get right down to business. This blog isn't about me; it's about the Nationals, who have been quite busy this winter trying to upgrade a roster that lost 103 games in 2009.
A quick review of who's been added and who's been dropped since October...
C Ivan Rodriguez (free agent)
RHP Jason Marquis (free agent)
RHP Matt Capps (free agent)
RHP Tyler Walker (free agent)
RHP Brian Bruney (trade)
RHP Miguel Batista (minor-league free agent)
LHP Eddie Guardado (minor-league free agent)
IF/OF Eric Bruntlett (minor-league free agent)
OF Chris Duncan (minor-league free agent)
LHP Chuck James (minor-league free agent)
1B Josh Whitesell (minor-league free agent)
LHP Doug Slaten (waiver claim)
OF Austin Kearns (option not picked up)
1B Dmitri Young (option not picked up)
RHP Mike MacDougal (non-tendered)
RHP Saul Rivera (released)
RHP Livan Hernandez (free agent)
C Josh Bard (free agent)
LHP Ron Villone (free agent)
And general manager Mike Rizzo doesn't appear to be finished tweaking. We all know he's been making a strong run at free agent Orlando Hudson, and if the two sides can close the gap salary-wise, the two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove second baseman will find himself in Viera later this month. And he's certainly still interested in adding another veteran starter ... at the right price, of course.
"I don't think they're done yet," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said yesterday at NatsFest. "If they can make a few more [moves], I think this is definitely the best offseason we've had as far as making our team better."
Now that the calendar has turned to February and the reporting date for pitchers and catchers is fast approaching, it's easy to start getting into panic-mode and feel like these last, key roster moves need to be made pronto. But don't get fooled by the calendar and the February 19 reporting date, because it's hardly a deadline to make things happen. If anything, the Nats have shown a penchant for signing veteran players during spring training who wind up making significant contributions over the course of the season.
Remember Joe Beimel, Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Josh Bard, Odalis Perez, Julian Tavarez, Kip Wells, Tony Batista and Pedro Astacio? All were signed during spring training the last five years. OK, so that roster may contend for the Dumpster Diving Hall of Fame. But Young did win Comeback Player of the Year and was an All-Star, Belliard was a pretty productive player for 2 1/2 seasons and Beimel was a quality reliever who was later moved at the trade deadline.
Point is, a roster can change a lot between February 1 and April 1, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Nats' roster looks much different on Opening Day than it does today.
Which brings me to the real question at hand: How much have the Nats improved since last season? There seems to be a genuine belief both inside the clubhouse and around the sport that this team will be significantly better in 2010.
"It's hard to tell, but it's hard to lose 100 games," Zimmerman said. "Obviously with who we've picked up and what we've done, it's easy to say that we're going to be better than we have been the last two years."
The folks at Baseball Prospectus apparently think major improvement is realistic. Using their elaborate PECOTA formula for predicting player stats, they've got the Nats going 81-81 and finishing in third place in the NL East, behind the Braves (85-77) and Phillies (85-77) and ahead of the Mets (78-84) and Marlins (76-86).
A .500 record?! Really?! I'm not sure even the men in charge of assembling the Nationals' roster believe 81 wins is a realistic goal. In fact, I know they don't. They know the leap from 59 to 81 would be historic and would happily settle for, say, a 13-game improvement to 72-90.
Just don't ask any of these players to settle for 72, or even 81 wins.
"I don't see why we can't shoot for the stars," Marquis said. "Why do you want to limit yourself to 81 wins? Why do I want to limit myself to 15 wins? If I'm taking the ball 34 times, I should win 34 times. If we take the field 162 times, we should win 162 times."
Something tells me the Nats are going to come up just a tad shy of the 162-win mark in 2010, but let's not underestimate the progress Rizzo and Co. have made. If they manage to land Hudson but do nothing else between now and April, they're looking at an Opening Day roster like this...
POTENTIAL 2010 OPENING DAY ROSTER
Ross Detwiler or Craig Stammen
Jason Bergmann or Doug Slaten
Jesus Flores or Wil Nieves
Mike Morse or Chris Duncan
Alberto Gonzalez or Eric Bruntlett
Justin Maxwell or Roger Bernadina
On the surface, that's not a 100-loss roster. It's probably not an 81-win roster, either, especially with that starting rotation. But let's remember that Stephen Strasburg will join the group at some point (my preliminary guess: June 1) and there's still a chance Rizzo adds a reliable veteran to the bunch. Those additions make the rotation much more respectable and give this team a chance to be competitive. Not to contend for anything of consequence. But not to contend for baseball's worst record for the third straight year.
We've only scratched the surface, and there's plenty more that needs to be discussed and dissected in the days and weeks ahead. Consider this a re-familiarization of the Nats and a preview of things to come.
I look forward to reading your comments and finding out what you think. And if there are topics you'd like me to address in future posts, please let me know. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to follow me on Twitter @MarkZuckerman for breaking news, analysis and links to more articles.
Talk to you soon!