Nationals Opening Day outlook

Nationals Opening Day outlook

Their Spring Training record doesn't reflect it, but the Nationals spent the entire exhibition season trying to improve their skills on the baseball field. Every day, they took extra batting, bunting and fielding practice.

Whether the Nationals learned their lessons during the regular season remains to be seen. Two things are certain, however: They will play hard under manager Frank Robinson, and general manager Jim Bowden will try to improve the team as the season goes on.

1. Brandon Watson, CF:
He's the only true leadoff hitter in the organization, and the Nationals are hoping that he can duplicate his performance that he had in Triple-A New Orleans, where he hit .355 and stole 21 bases.

2. Jose Vidro, 2B:
Healthy for the first time since the first half of the 2003 season, the switch-hitter is looking to play in more than 150 games and drive in at least 90 runs. Vidro hasn't been a run producer since the 2002 season.

3. Nick Johnson, 1B:
He is trying to avoid the disabled list for the first time since the 1999 season when he was in the Yankees' Minor League system. Johnson is the most patient hitter on the Nationals and an excellent first baseman.

4. Jose Guillen, RF:
Hard work helped him overcome wrist and shoulder problems this spring. He is expected to be one of Washington's biggest run producers this season.

5. Alfonso Soriano, LF:
Soriano reluctantly switched from second base to left field and still needs to work on his outfield skills. Despite the change of scenery, Washington expects his lethal bat to produce 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs.

6. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B:
Don't expect him to hit close to .400 like he did the last month of last season, but expect Zimmerman to play great defense and hit close to .300 in 2006.

7. Royce Clayton, SS:
Replacing the injured Cristian Guzman to start the season, Clayton has shown that he still has a magical glove. A .270 batting average from Clayton would be a bonus.

8. Brian Schneider, C:
He's one of the best catchers in baseball, but the Nationals hope that his right shoulder holds up for the season. There's a feeling among the organization that his bat will get better.

1. Livan Hernandez, RHP:
He has fully recovered from knee surgery and is making his third consecutive Opening Day start for the organization. Washington is expecting Hernandez to pitch a lot of innings this year.

2. John Patterson, RHP:
"The Big Nasty" is expected to be even better this year. He's added a dangerous changeup, which was taught to him by pitching coach Randy St. Claire. It's the same pitch that helped Hector Carrasco have his best season of his career.

3. Ramon Ortiz, RHP:
Like Patterson, Ortiz has been taught the changeup and he has had success with the pitch. Ortiz, who is expected to benefit from playing at the spacious Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, has also added a backdoor slider to his repertoire.

4. Tony Armas Jr., RHP:
After operating on Armas' shoulder, Dr. Tim Kremchek told Bowden that Armas was going to have his best season. Armas hasn't played a full season since 2001 and has been on the disabled list four consecutive years.

Chad Cordero is the leader of the bullpen. Entering the 2005 season, Robinson wasn't sure if Cordero could handle being a full-time closer, because he was known to nibble too much around the plate. But the right-hander ended up being one of the best relievers in baseball, finishing with 47 saves and a 1.82 ERA in 74 games.

Washington had three quality setup men in Luis Ayala, Carrasco and Gary Majewski last year. But Carrasco is no longer on the team and Ayala is out for the season after having Tommy John elbow surgery. That means Felix Rodriguez will join Majewski as one of the setup guys. The Nationals are hoping that Rodriguez can duplicate what he did for the Giants in 2001, in which he went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA.

The lefties in the bullpen are Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton. Eischen missed most of the first half of 2005 with a fractured right forearm, but he had a 2.49 ERA after the All-Star break. Stanton had a respectable 3.58 ERA for the Nationals last season before Washington traded him to Boston in September.

Jon Rauch's best role is as a long man, as T.J. Tucker, who's recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, is not expected back until June.

Ayala is out for the season because of Tommy John surgery. He blew his elbow out after pitching in the World Baseball Classic.

Right-hander Ryan Drese missed most of September because of a tear in his right shoulder, but he has pitched in Minor League games and should be taken off the disabled list by May.

Right-hander Brian Lawrence is out for the season because of a torn labrum and rotator cuff.

Catcher Robert Fick had elbow surgery during Spring Training, but he has already started playing catch and should be off the DL by mid-April.

Guzman has a tear in his right shoulder, but it's getting stronger. The Nationals haven't ruled out having surgery, which could sideline him for most of the season.

The Nationals finished last in the Major Leagues in offense in 2005. Will it get better this season? The addition of Soriano, who is expected to be an impact player, should help. The bench was improved dramatically during the offseason. The biggest pickup was the signing of free agent Marlon Anderson to a two-year contract. The left-handed-hitting Anderson batted .264 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs for the Mets last season, but it was his work off the bench that stood out. A career .308 (45-for-146) hitter with seven home runs as a pinch-hitter, Anderson went 18-for-56 (.321) with one home run and six RBIs off the bench last season.

"That doesn't tell you anything -- it's Spring Training. We are going to go as far as those guys take us. Our defense and offense are going to be good enough." -- Bowden, on the pitching staff

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