2006 Preview: Troubled Nats are MLB’s black mark

This is Part One of my 2006 season preview. Today, I’ll examine the state of the Major League Baseball owned Washington Nationals. Yesterday, I looked at the White Sox’s attempts to repeat at World Champions. Tomorrow, I’ll look at baseball’s worst team, and it’s not one from Florida.

The Washington Nationals are in trouble, and it is all Major League Baseball’s fault. While Commissioner Bud Selig is basking in the glow of success cast by the World Baseball Classic, the Nationals situation – a story that should be a bigger scandal – grows worse with every passing day.

To recap, Major League Baseball bought the Expos in 2002 when the Expos owners bought the Marlins and the Marlins owners bought the Red Sox. In 2004, MLB announced that the Expos would be moved to Washington, DC. Meanwhile, every few months, Bud Selig promises to find an owner for the Expos/Nationals. First, it was going to by Opening Day 2004, then the All Star Break, then after the World Series, then Opening Day 2005, then late April, late July, the end of the regular season, and November.

As Selig looks everywhere for an owner, Major League Baseball went about antagonizing the Washington, DC city council to the point that a stadium almost wasn’t approved. A few weeks ago, the Nationals finally got their stadium approved, and it is supposedly going to be ready by Opening Day 2008. Meanwhile, Selig said an ownership group would be in place shortly after the stadium deal was finalized.

Guess what? No owner. The Nationals are in trouble.

So while this saga reflects poorly on Major League Baseball, it has left the Washington Nationals organization in shambles. First, this is a team with a farm system that hasn’t produced much talent since the late 1990s. With no money in the bank, the Big League executives haven’t been able to secure big bonus payments to high round draft picks, and they haven’t been able to recruit foreign talent.

In 2005, the Nats were ranked 26 out of 30 by Baseball America. When the 2006 list hits the Internet at some point this week, the Nationals won’t be any higher and could fall to 28 or 29. For the Nats to see some improvement in their system, they need an owner in place before the amateur draft this year. An owner would enable the Nationals to spend the bonus money on players who can make an impact.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Nationals’ system however. Ryan Zimmerman, last year’s first round draft pick, will be starring in RFK Stadium this season. If his Spring Training is any indication, his presence will make Nationals’ fans forget Vinny Castilla’s 2005 season ever happened. After a two-home run game yesterday, Zimmerman has 7 homers on the spring and an offensive line of .329/.382/.700. While his defense has been some cause for concern, his bat will fill a void in an offensively-challenged lineup.

At the Major League level, the Nationals are in trouble. They have been hit with injury after injury this season. They lost key relief pitcher Luis Ayala to an arm injury that would have happened even if he had not participated in the World Baseball Classic. Before that, they lost their projected third starter Brian Lawrence to a season-ending arm injury. Lawrence was supposed to replace Esteban Loaiza who signed a three-year deal with Oakland this winter.

With this key pitchers out, the Nationals’ bullpen is weaker. Plus, the rotation will be relying heavily on Russ Ortiz and Pedro Astacio. If Spring Training is any indication, the Nats better hope for a miracle or a AAA replacement player. Combined, Ortiz and Astacio have been downright horrible. The two have combined for 35.2 innings, giving up 57 hits and 30 earned runs. They’ve walked 14 and struck out 16.

But every cloud has its silver lining. One more “key” part of the Nationals organization may miss the entire season with an injury, but in this case, the team is lucky. Cristian Guzman may be out for the year with a shoulder injury. Cristian Guzman was so bad last year he actually took runs and wins away from the team. He had a VORP of -9.6, ranking him last among all Major League short stops, and an MLVr of -.270. With this injury, the Nationals will be forced to improve. The worst they could do is plug in someone with a VORP of 0, and already, they would a better team.

In left field, the Nationals are in trouble. Already, one supposedly marquee trade has blown up in the Nationals’ face. I have already written extensively on the Soriano saga. But this is not a positive situation for the team or the second baseman/left fielder. It just shows how rudderless the team is.

Off the field, the Nationals are in trouble. A walk around Washington, D.C., reveals approximately no signs that baseball season is starting this weekend. There are no ads in the Metro for another exciting season of Washington baseball. The television rights debacle created by Major League Baseball’s desire to placate Orioles owner Peter Angelos is now attracting the attention of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). And a story in yesterday’s Washington Post suggested that the Nationals business will suffer because, in the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal, lobbyists won’t be taking their Hill clients to the expensive seats at RFK Stadium.

So as the 2006 season dawns, the Nationals are clearly a team in trouble. They are a sagging, struggling team, facing two more seasons in a subpar stadium that is, in my opinion, the worst facility on the East Coast (and probably in all of baseball). They have no ownership and little hope for the future.

Hopefully, 2006 will finally be the year when Major League Baseball sheds itself of ownership responsibilities, and the Washington Nationals can finally begin the long, hard climb back toward respectability. It would be nice if they weren’t in trouble all the time.

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