If you're like me, you haven't spent a lot of time this season thinking about the Washington Nationals. But that doesn't mean they're not an interesting team--quite the contrary. As Brewers fans well know, losing teams can have a lot going for them, and the Nationals have more than their fair share of promising youngsters and surprising (well, somewhat) veterans.
To help introduce us to this team, I turned to Cathy of Miss Chatter, an excellent Nats blog. Here's what she had to say:
Q: Usually I start with something more general, but I can't restrain my curiosity. Jesus Flores, last year's Rule 5 pick, has been filling in at catcher, and now I read that he may keep getting playing time when Paul Lo Duca returns. Tell us about Flores -- what are your impressions so far, and do you think he's ready to leave the minors behind for good?
A: Jesus Flores has worked out wonderfully for a rule 5 pick. He was respectable as Brian Schneider's backup all last season, and since he's come up this season with Paul Lo Duca on the DL, he's made it hard to send him back to the minors. I think he's proven he can hit at the major league level and the pitchers have raved about his game-calling skills. The pitching coach (Randy St. Claire) and manager Manny Acta praise how he sticks to the game plan. I would far rather have him and Wil Nieves as backup than Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada, who haven't been hitting and can't seem to throw runners out (but Lo Duca does give juicy quotes). If this season is all about giving the younger guys a shot and seeing what shakes out, why not? I guess there's about six million dollars tied up in the other contracts why not.
Q: Speaking of youngsters from other organizations, how are Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes fitting in? Something must be working, because they seem to have been controversy-free for quite a while now.
A: Yes, Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge have been controversy free so far. Dukes has an ex-cop assigned to him 24 hours a day as a mentor, counselor, and friendly ear. He's wrapped up all his court appearances and community service time, so hopefully he can dedicate himself to the team and baseball without any distractions. I think for both of them, a lot of it was getting them out of the environment they were in, although the transgressions of the two aren't really comparable. It'll be interesting to see if Dukes can stay out of trouble and turn his season around at the plate. We haven't yet seen the raw power and stroke Jim Bowden raved about when he took a chance on him. Milledge seems to have a hoot of a personality and I have no issues with that - in fact, I was impressed he high fived fans.
Q: I would understand if you had a negative view of the Brewers, since the Milwaukee alums in your organization this year are Johnny Estrada and Ray King. Really, I swear they were overweight and ineffective before we got them. Do you think Estrada was worth picking up, and do you wish (as I do) that Ray King would pitch as long as Jesse Orosco did?
A: Ha, thanks for them! No, I absolutely don't think Johnny Estrada was worth picking up, but at the time, who knew Wil Nieves would have a breakout season as a backup catcher? Plus, Estrada was recovering from elbow surgery when he was signed and he's still sidelined and on the DL due to that. It's a shame that Ray King was let go, but as a lefty specialist who wasn't particularly effective with right-handed batters, the Nats didn't have room for him on the roster. For the first several weeks, our starters couldn't get more than 5 or 6 innings in before turning things over to the bullpen and we needed more long relief. Ray King recently said he'd like to do sports commentary or play by play and I heard he was on Baseball Tonight the other day. I wish I had caught that! (I haven't yet found a YouTube or Red Lasso of the segment).
Q: Over the weekend, the Brewers are going to face Odalis Perez, John Lannan, and Tim Redding, all of whom have pitched quite well so far this year. Can you give us an idea about what to expect from these guys?
A: I can't tell you much about Odalis Perez other than he's pitched above expectations so far. I expected Tim Redding to do well based on the last half of last season and he seemed pretty confident in the off-season that he would win a spot in the rotation. He's proved he deserved it. John Lannan is an awesome story unless you're a Phillies fan (he broke Chase Utley's hand hitting him with a pitch in his debut last year and was ejected from the game). Lannan keeps his cool and focus at a level far beyond his years and experience. All of them are more control pitchers than flame throwers.
Q: To wrap up, let's go big picture. Jim Bowden has always gotten mixed reviews as a GM, but I've been impressed with the job he's done amassing youngsters and putting together a passable pitching staff on the cheap. Do you think the Nats are on the road to contending in the near future--if not, what has to change to get them pointed in that direction?
A: Baseball is a funny thing - a constantly changing beast. Expectations constantly shift due to injuries, slumps, etc. I would like to think the Nationals will be ready to contend in two years based on "The Plan", but they still have some holes in the farm system, particularly in the infield. The future pitching is shaping up to be ready in two years, if not sooner, plus the outfield has plenty of options. Ryan Zimmerman will hopefully be entrenched at third base, but who will be the shortstop? Second baseman? Hard to say.
Unless they start making major trades or signing big free agents, when they contend is hard to predict. Bowden and Rizzo have done a great job amassing young arms and without as many high picks this year, it'll be interesting to see who they get in the draft in a couple weeks. They are also aggressively pursuing talent in the Dominican. Jim Bowden still gets mixed reviews - many fans are critical of how his trades have worked out for the team, but everyone agrees he's done well with the drafts he's overseen. Kearns and Lopez were supposed to be the steal of the century when he traded for them with the Reds.