Mailbag: Nationals a rising power?

Mailbag: Nationals on the rise in the East?

With the Nationals starting their second season on April 3 against the Mets at Shea Stadium, a lot of fans want to know about the team as the players work on their skills during Spring Training.

Here are some answers to your questions. Keep those e-mails coming. Thanks a bunch.

I'm curious to know your gut feeling as to whether you think this year's team will be stronger than last year's.
-- Dan R., Chico, Calif.

Dan, it's too early to make a prediction right now. I believe Washington has improved its bench dramatically and its bullpen will be outstanding again. I need to watch the Nationals play the exhibition season before I say anything about the starting pitching and offense. I also stated in the past that the team needs a new attitude, but I will not know if that has improved until they go on a losing streak during the regular season. No matter what happens during Spring Training, everybody is upbeat, so that is not a good barometer.

I don't understand why the Nationals have been so critical of Ryan Church. He's done nothing but play well. I know they were upset that Church didn't play through the toe injury, but I don't see how making their displeasure so public can help his confidence at all.
-- Joel, Frederick, Md.

I think the Nationals are trying to motivate Church to be tougher. I must say that Church has taken the criticism very well. He will get every chance to prove that he should be the everyday center fielder.

How will being in the World Baseball Classic affect Chad Cordero and Brian Schneider with the Nationals?
-- Will G., Arlington, Va.

Will, that's a great question. Manager Frank Robinson feels that Cordero may not pitch enough innings in the WBC. Remember, the United States already has closers Huston Street, Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge on its squad. Cordero may not be the main closer on the team.

Robinson also feels that Schneider will not get to know the routines of newcomers like Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz right away. Schneider has a special camaraderie with right-hander John Patterson, so that will be interrupted during Spring Training.

Reliever Joe Horgan pitched well when he came up in 2004. Last year, he wasn't so good. What is Horgan's status for 2006?
-- Rick Snyder, Richland, Wash.

Horgan, who signed a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training, is a longshot to make the 25-man roster. As of right now, the Nationals have two established lefties in the bullpen in Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton.

Should the Nationals trade Alfonso Soriano for a good starting pitcher? He hasn't played one game for the team and he's already saying that he's not playing in the outfield.
-- Stephane P., Rimouski, Canada

The Nationals should not trade Soriano for two reasons. One, they need his bat in the worse way. Remember, this team finished last in runs scored last year and finished near the bottom the year before. And, two, let's see how he responds after he talks to Robinson. Soriano might change his tune. I said this before -- let's not prejudge Soriano until he arrives in camp.

I agree that if the Nationals are out of the National League East race by June, the Nationals should trade Soriano for prospects, which they desperately need.

Have a question about the Nationals?
Bill LadsonE-mail your query to Nationals beat reporter Bill Ladson for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
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If the Nationals don't re-sign Nick Johnson to a multiyear deal, who will be Washington's starting first baseman of the future?
-- Frank M., Reston, Va.

I've always said that Larry Broadway is going to be the guy, but in order for him to get the job, I think he is going to have to have a spectacular season for Triple-A New Orleans.

Broadway must get off to a good start; he has been a notoriously slow starter since he became a professional ballplayer. Broadway also must stay healthy. Last season, he missed a lot of time because of a new injury.

If Broadway doesn't have a good season, I expect the Nationals to look elsewhere for a first baseman.

Do you think the Nationals will carry 11 or 12 pitchers? It seems with their improved bench, 11 would make more sense.
-- Steve C., Syracuse, N.Y.

Pitching coach Randy St. Claire would like to carry 12 pitchers for Opening Day, leaving room for an extra reliever, but Robinson will go with his usual 11 pitchers and 14 position players.

Who is your all-time favorite Expo?
-- Garin, Avon, Ind.

I'm going to give you more than one answer to this question. As a teenager, my all-time favorite Expo was Andre Dawson. I loved the way he played center field and hit the baseball.

As a reporter covering the Expos, I had three favorites -- Orlando Cabrera, Jamey Carroll and Jose Vidro. They were great to cover because they didn't hide their true feelings about a lot of situations concerning the club.

With an organization that is short on pitching, how could the Nationals lose Darrell Rasner on waivers?
-- Jeff S., Perth, Ontario

The Nationals saw Rasner as no more than a fifth starter and felt he was an expendable. There are some in the organization who feel that there's something wrong with Ranser's arm. The velocity on his fastball has gone down ever since he was drafted by the Expos in 2002.

I know many believe that Sammy Sosa is washed up, but is it really fair to only offer him a $500,000 non-guaranteed contract, which is less than what Marlon Byrd makes?
-- Dustin C., Nova Scotia, Canada

Yes, it's fair because Sosa's production has fallen off dramatically. It's one thing if he hit .260 with 30 home runs, but he hit .221 with 14 home runs and 84 strikeouts in 102 games last season. Plus, he was put on the disabled list twice. There's no guarantee that he would be healthy this year.

Is left-hander Mike Hinckley 100 percent after having an injury-plagued season in 2005?
-- Jimmy C. Moore, Okla.

Hinckley had minor shoulder surgery in September, but he was throwing off the mound with ease at training camp on Monday morning. I expect him to start the season in the Minor Leagues.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.