Visions of Spring Training

By Carla Peay
Updated: February 20, 2007

The Washington Nationals new stadium set to open in 2008

The Washington Nationals new stadium set to open in 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To echo the sentiments of long time acquaintance Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN fame, I don’t get too excited about sports out of season.

Once asked by a reader a couple of winters ago if he was excited about pitchers and catchers reporting, Wilbon responded that he wouldn’t be excited if pitchers and catchers reported to his front lawn. Not in February.

It’s NBA All-Star weekend. The playoff push begins the minute the All-Star game ends. We are mere weeks away from March Madness, one of the single greatest sports events in existence.

So, when my sports editor asked me to write a spring training preview of the 2007 Washington Nationals, I had to stifle a yawn.

Other than the fact that I’d love to be in Florida right now instead of buried underneath this unforgiving ice storm that hit the Northeast a few days ago, it’s just too early to think about baseball.

But think about it I did as I began to ponder the burning question of what’s in store for fans of the Washington Nationals this season.

My first thought was, where’s the buzz? Seriously, is there any reason at all for fans in this town to be excited about this team? Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled the team is here.

I’m a fan of the sport, not of any particular team, and there are worse ways to make a living than spending a warm spring day or breezy summer evening at the ballpark. It’s a sport I enjoy writing about. And to their credit, the Nationals staff provides great access to the team.

As for the players, by and large they’ve been an easy group of guys to interview. In two years, I haven’t met a diva or a jerk in the bunch.

And to the fans credit, a large number of them aren’t overly concerned about the fact that this team is years away from being a contender. After 33 years without a baseball team, and having to endure the indignity of traveling up I-95 to Baltimore to cheer for another city’s team, the now inter-league rival Orioles, many are just happy that the Nationals are here at all.

That being said, what are baseball fans in Washington looking forward to in terms of on the field product for 2007? Probably not a whole lot.

Many notable names are gone. Hall of Fame manager Frank Robinson is gone, replaced by rookie big league manager Manny Acta, who once served on Robinson’s staff in Montreal.

The awkwardness surrounding Robinson’s departure is well documented [see “Frank Robinson Says Goodbye”, Oct. 4, 2006]. The awkwardness lingers on. Robinson was apparently under consideration for a front office position with the team, but was informed several weeks ago that no position was available.

Sources close to Robinson describe his reaction as “incensed”, feeling that he was misled by the team. National’s brass had also been planning a Frank Robinson Day, to be held on May 20, when the Nationals host the Orioles, but Robinson has declined the “honor”, saying simply that this is not the right time. National’s brass have said they hope Robinson changes his mind.

Also exiting stage left was All-Star left fielder Alfonso Soriano, one of the few reasons that old RFK was rockin’ last year. (Seriously folks, when fans jump up and down on the risers at RFK, the stands actually do rock.) Soriano signed an eight-year, $136 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, who will reportedly play him in center field. Seems Fonsie has taken quite a liking to the outfield and no longer has any desire to play second base.

Despite an initially rocky start during last year’s spring training when he resisted the move to left field, Soriano and the team quickly moved past that episode, as did the fans, who cheered him like a conquering hero every time he came to the plate.

He had a 40-40 season in 2006, only the fourth major league player in history to accomplish that feat joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. An easy going, likable star, Soriano will be missed here in the nation’s capitol.

Also gone are outfielder Jose Guillen and second baseman Jose Vidro, now both with the Seattle Mariners.

A few bright spots. Pitcher John Patterson returns after making only eight starts last season due to a forearm strain. A 6-foot-5 hurler nicknamed “Big Nasty”, Patterson had a great season in 2005, when he went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA.

The record is misleading, as Patterson threw several gems that ended up as no-decisions. With good health and a little run support, Patterson could win 15-plus games. As for slots two through five in the rotation, it’s an open competition between about 12 pitchers right now.

The bullpen is in better shape with 2005 All-Star closer Chad Cordero, whose save numbers dwindled in 2006 because a 91-loss team just didn’t get to him often enough. Set up man John Rauch returns, as does 2005 set up man Luis Ayala, who missed all of 2006 with a torn ligament in his right elbow.

Behind the plate is Brian Schneider, one of baseball’s best defensive catchers. Schneider had the best percentage in 2005 of throwing out runners, again, dropping off in 2006 due mostly to an inexperienced pitching staff following the trade of workhorse starter Livan Hernandez to Arizona at midseason.

Schneider is a class act who provides solid veteran leadership, and with a little help from his pitching staff, can still gun down a would-be base stealer at just under a 40 percent clip.

Third base is secure with superstar-in-waiting Ryan Zimmerman, who finished second in last season’s rookie of the year voting behind Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Shortstop will see the return of Christian Guzman, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Guzman had a below average season in 2005, batting only .219, but after undergoing laser eye surgery, is expected to perform at a much improved level in 2007.

Replacing Vidro at second will be Felipe Lopez, with another question mark at first base for the first couple of months, while Nick Johnson continues his recovery from a broken leg suffered last season in a collision with outfielder Austin Kearns.

In the outfield, Kearns will start in right and Nook Logan in center, with left field still an open competition between Ryan Church, Kory Casto and Alex Escobar. Logan is a speedster who is likely to bat leadoff, and is good for a few stellar defensive plays in the outfield.

National’s brass has made it clear that they don’t intend to overspend on free agents. Their plan is to rebuild the team’s farm system. With the brand new 41,000 seat stadium in Southeast Washington set to open next season, and season tickets for this year being sold with the hook that buyers in 2007 will be first in line for good seats in 2008, fans and media alike are hoping that 2007 does not turn out to be a throwaway year.

But one of my favorite things about the Nationals is a scrappy, never quit attitude among the players. Despite the predictions of yet another last place finish, fans in this town won’t have to worry about a lack of effort. Whatever they’ve got, they’ll bring it. Fans, those are your 2007 Washington Nationals.

My assignment for the paper completed, I watched my second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeat Minnesota. I watched the West destroy the East in the NBA All-Star game. I watched yet another blanket of snow cover the already frozen ground and suddenly longed for a sun-drenched, 80 degree day at the ballpark.

Baseball and spring. Are we there yet?