Change & Hope made Barack Obama a winner in the recent presidential election, but without more changes to this roster there is little hope for the Nationals this season.

President Barack Obama ran on a platform of change and hope to land the job that put him into the White House.  'Change & Hope' might also be a battle cry for this year’s Washington Nationals as in, “Unless this roster changes, the team is going to suck hind teat this season” or “I hope we don’t lose 100 games.  Again.”

Hey Manny, it's going to
be a long season again

It was fun being a Nationals fan last year…for all of three games.  The team opened their brand spanking new park with a walk-off win over the Braves in the MLB season opener – well, the first game that was played here in North America.  Washington followed that triumph by taking the first two of a three-game series in Philadelphia.  Suddenly the Nationals were 3-0.

Manny Acta’s crew would go 56-102 from that point on, ranking near the bottom of the National League in all but one category.  That one column was the Loss column where the Nats finished at the top of the list.

And yes, things could get worse.  Washington missed playing one of their games last season, a late rainout against the Marlins at home.  So there’s a chance they could lose 103 times this year if they play all 162 games on their schedule.

I’m not saying they will lose 103 in 2009, but if they lose less than 95, I will be surprised.

OFFENSE / DEFENSE
Then again, with Jim Bowden gone from the front office, maybe the Nationals are destined for improvement this season.  Seriously, what the hell was Bowden thinking when he assembled this roster heading into Spring Training?  Granted, if having a surplus of outfield castoffs from other MLB teams was the path to glory, the Nats would be heading towards a World Series title this year.

The Nationals have at least nine outfielders battling for what will probably be five slots on the roster.  After signing free agent Adam Dunn – who could be July trade bait, no doubt – you would think the big Texan has a guaranteed starting job in left field and batting somewhere in the 3-4-5 spots of the order.  Acta has also gone on record as saying Lastings Milledge is his everyday center fielder, and Elijah Dukes is his man in right.  If that’s really the case, then it leaves six players vying for just two jobs, three at most.

Elijah Dukes part of crowded outfield

Washington traded for Josh Willingham before they signed Dunn, and unless they trade the former Marlin before the season begins, he’ll be about a $3 million reserve outfielder and emergency No. 3 catcher.  They won’t be able to send him to Triple-A without running Willingham through waivers, so he would seem a very likely candidate to have one of the reserve openings.

But then, that’s the same predicament the Nationals find themselves in with Austin Kearns, Willie Harris and Wily Mo Peña, plus they have Ryan Langerhans to contend with.  Being able to play more than just the outfield should help Willingham’s and Harris’ chances, and could lead to the club carrying a sixth outfielder.  But something has to give before April 5.

There’s some extra weight, literally and figuratively, at first base as well.  Then again, Nick Johnson is part of that group so having a good backup or two is a good thing.  He’s reportedly healthy and showing no signs of the bum wrist that sidelined him in 2008. The club also has Dmitri Young hanging around, and at 290+ on the scales, there’s a lot of him hanging out of his uniform.  Dunn could also play some 1B.

Cristian Guzman and Ryan Zimmerman man the left side of the diamond, and I’m looking for a solid season from Zimmerman following shoulder trouble that limited him to just 106 games last year.  He still managed to share the club home run lead with 14 despite missing 50 games.

Second base is coming down to a fight between Ronnie Belliard and Anderson Hernandez.  Belliard finished strong after the team dealt Felipe Lopez, so that’s where I’m leaning right now.  Jose Castillo and Alberto Gonzalez – not the former Attorney General under the Bush regime – are candidates for infield backups.

Behind the dish handling the catching chores will be Jesus Flores…that is if his current cranky elbow is just a minor issue.  Wil Nieves is first in line to be the second catcher, though Javier Valentin could sneak into that slot as a non-roster invitee.

PITCHING
Let’s see here.  Last year’s pitching staff was 14th in the NL in ERA (4.66), 14th in home runs allowed (190), 13th in walks issued (588) and 13th in strikeouts recorded (1,063).  Stinky, stinky, stinky.

The staff should smell a little better this year, but is going from gut-wrenching to mildly putrid on the Olfactory Meter really an improvement?

Ladies and gentlemen, your
staff ace, John Lannan

If nothing else, Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire will have three ‘names’ to work with in the rotation this season as lefty John Lannan returns, southpaw Scott Olsen came to the team in the same deal that brought Willingham, and righthander Daniel Cabrera was signed away from the nearby Orioles.  If those were your 3-4-5 starters, your pitching staff would probably be in pretty good shape.  But as 1-2-3 in the order, well like I said, it’s not quite as smelly as it was in 2008.

Collin Balester has the best shot of being the team’s No. 4 starter, with Shawn Hill in the 5-hole.  But since Hill has shown a penchant for the trainer’s table, is coming off elbow surgery last September and already experiencing soreness in his right elbow and forearm, he might not make the rotation out of Spring Training.

If Hill can’t go, or should the team need extra starters as the season wears on, Jordan Zimmerman and Shairon Martis are the top candidates to step into the rotation.

While the bulk of the rotation is set, the bullpen is anything but.  The Nats figure to open the season with Joel Hanrahan as their closer.  Hanrahan took over those duties after the club dealt Jon Rauch to the D-Backs in July ’08, and did record nine saves in a dozen chances.  But his ERA rose slightly in that stretch, stopping at 3.95 at season’s end.  Maybe he’ll be more comfortable in the role and have greater success this year.  Maybe.

The top candidates to serve as setup or in middle/log relief jobs at this time are Steven Shell, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, Jason Bergmann and Michael Hinkley.  Also keep your eyes on Garrett Mock, who seemed to cotton to relieving over starting from August on in 2008, and Justin Jones, a port-sider who was a Rule 5 draftee from the Twins a couple of years ago and has caught the eye of Acta this spring.

SCHEDULE
Ok, so this team is not going to compete for a playoff spot this year, everyone got that?  But that doesn’t mean the Nats won’t compete and at lease become something more than a patsy for the rest of the clubs.  If they are going to be a thorn in some team’s side, we might know that the first 3-4 weeks of the season when Washington opens playing nothing but NL East foes.  Who knows, between the Phillies, Mets and Marlins, the team with the worst record against the Nationals might just be the team that misses the playoffs.

  • First 21 games vs. NL East
  • 25-26 (Home-Away) through May; 66-66 through August
  • Four, 4-game road series vs NL Central teams

PROJECTIONS
In five simulations, the Nationals average 67.2 wins.  Their best record was 72-90; their worst was 57-105, the only time they lost 100+ in the mock runs.  I’ve got them pegged with a 67-95 record, and therefore like the Under at The Greek where the total has been set at 71½ (Over -130, Under +110).

Betting odds at 5Dimes presently list the Nationals at +3000 to win the NL East, +7500 to claim the NL Pennant and +12500 to win the World Series.  Seriously, if you’re thinking about buying any of those futures, please reconsider sending your money to President Obama to use in one of the many worthless stimulus packages.  Your country thanks you.

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