With the Nationals' pitchers and catchers reporting to Viera, Fla., on Friday, we've got five days (counting today) to preview, analyze and dissect what might happen before it gives way to what is happening. So with that in mind, I've decided to spend a little time each day highlighting one of the five storylines I'm most interested in this spring.
I'll take a specific topic each day, break it down and close it with a couple of questions that you can answer down in the comments section. Sound good?
Without further ado, let's get on with the first installment:
The Nationals' outfield, at first glance, is one of the most settled components of the team, and that, in itself, is a microcosm of how much the team has changed from a year ago, when former general manager Jim Bowden was stocking up on beefy corner outfielders like a shopper might grab salty snacks at Costco.
The Nationals opened camp in 2009 with Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham and Wily Mo Pena all chasing spots in left or right field. Lastings Milledge, the natural left fielder with only a rocky 2008 season to his resume in center field, entered camp as the unquestioned choice to start at that position -- and was named manager Manny Acta's leadoff hitter a month into camp, to boot.
To say the whole experiment fizzled quickly would be putting it kindly. Bowden was gone by March 1, leaving Mike Rizzo to piece together an outfield out of the misshapen group. Milledge showed up late for a team meeting the day before the opener in Florida, misplayed a ball on Opening Day that allowed the Marlins' Emilio Bonifacio an inside-the-park homer, hit .167 in the first week of the season, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on April 15 and was shipped out in a trade to Pittsburgh at the end of June.
Pena was cut in camp. Kearns stung a handful of line drives in the season's first week, fueling hope he was ready to rebound after a disastrous 2008 season. But then he slumped, got hurt, had surgery, got hurt again and left in free agency. Dukes alternated stretches of unbridled potential with puzzling lapses and nagging injuries; he, too, was sent down to Syracuse to iron out problems in his game. After struggling in the outfield, Dunn eventually settled at first base when Nick Johnson was traded to Florida at the deadline. And Willingham, who began the season behind Kearns, surged to hit 24 homers, even though his production dipped at the end of the season.
But the biggest catalyst in the change hasn't been mentioned yet -- Nyjer Morgan, who came over from Pittsburgh in the June trade that sent Milledge and Joel Hanrahan to the Pirates. He hit .351 in six weeks with the team, becoming a threat at the top of the lineup. Most importantly, he flashed a stellar glove and impressive range in center field, solidifying the position for perhaps the first time since the team moved to Washington.
That's how the Nationals enter 2010 -- with Morgan, who is recovered from a broken hand, at the center of their outfield picture and a major reason why the Nationals feel they're entitled to modest optimism this spring. Willingham and Dukes will be on the corners, with little competition on the horizon at a pair of positions that oozed uncertainty a year ago.
None of this is to say, however, the Nationals begin the season without questions in the outfield. Chief among them is Dukes, who, for all of his potential, has never played more than 107 games in a season. He will be arbitration-eligible after this season, though, and stands to get a significant raise with a productive year. Dukes was scheduled to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but was forced to cut the stint short when his father died in November. He impressed the Nationals, though, by showing more maturity and openness toward the end of the season, and manager Jim Riggleman has all but guaranteed Dukes will be his right fielder.
Morgan isn't likely to hit .351 again, but has the potential to bat .290 with a .350 on-base percentage and steal 40 bases -- though the Nationals would like him to cut down on the number of times he's thrown out on the basepaths. But he, too, has never played a full season; last year's 120 games were the most he's played.
Willingham has a fairly consistent track record at this point in his career: a .260-.270 average, a .360 on-base percentage and 22-26 homers. He's still affordable enough that the Nationals could entertain further trade offers for him, and the Nationals' lineup would look a lot better if he was putting up those numbers in the No. 6 hole, with Dukes doing enough damage to bump Willingham down a spot.
And the Nationals enter the season with a handful of risks among their choices for a fourth outfielder. Free agent pickup Chris Duncan could be the guy -- he's hit 20+ homers twice in a season. He would give the Nationals the most experienced option if an injury forced them to look for an everyday player. Kevin Mench and Jerry Owens, two other non-roster invitees, could also merit a look. But the Nationals are anxious to see if either of their in-house options, Justin Maxwell or Roger Bernadina, can fill the spot. Maxwell had an impressive September, and clearly has the range in the outfield to play every day. He needs to be able to adjust to pitchers, though, and Bernadina could face the same struggles after overhauling his swing in 2008 and missing most of 2009 with a broken ankle. Neither player is a young prospect, either; Maxwell will turn 27 this year, and Bernadina will be 26. If either one is going to turn into a consistent big-leaguer, this might need to be the year.
The guess here is that Maxwell is the fourth outfielder, unless Duncan takes the job from him this spring, or the Nationals feel comfortable enough with utilityman Willie Harris as a defensive option that they keep Duncan for his bat. It's tough to see them keeping five outfielders again -- they have a steadier group of starters, and will have some tough decision to make in the infield with Ian Desmond, Alberto Gonzalez and Eric Bruntlett. Harris gives the Nationals some flexibility, so they're not likely to spend another roster spot on an outfielder who can't play anywhere else on the diamond.
So here are my questions for today. Fire away in the comments section:
1. Are you comfortable with Dukes as the everyday right fielder, or do the Nationals need another option, in case he gets hurt again or continues to struggle with the curveball?
2. What do you expect from Nyjer Morgan? Is a .290 average/.350 OBP with another season of a 4.0-5.0 WARP reasonable?
3. What should the Nationals do about a fourth outfielder?
Thanks in advance for your responses, and I'll take a look at another key issue tomorrow.