Nationals Opening Day outlook

Nationals Opening Day outlook

During his first press conference of the spring, general manager Jim Bowden predicted the 2008 Nationals will win more than they lose. That's a bold statement, considering the Nationals haven't been playoff contenders since 2005.

But Bowden has every reasons to have high expectations. The offense improved dramatically when he acquired Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes in trades and signed free agent Paul Lo Duca.

The Nationals also believe the starting pitching will be better with the addition of left-hander Odalis Perez, who is in the best shape of his life. Add the strength of the bullpen and one would understand why Bowden believes the Nationals will have a winning record this season.

Calling card
The Nationals have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Last year, the relief corps posted a solid 3.81 ERA and saved 46 games while leading the National League in innings. The relievers were the No. 1 reason Washington overachieved last season, despite an injury-depleted starting staff. Washington has the same bullpen it had during the second half of the season. Chad Cordero is the closer, while Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera are the setup men.

Achilles' Heel

Perez

No one on the current starting staff won 10 games or pitched 200 innings last year. Unlike last year, the starting staff must give the bullpen a break by going at least six innings per start. The Nationals have never had a true ace since Livan Hernandez left the club in August of 2006. It's about time that someone steps up and be the leader. Perez is the Opening Day starter based on experience. Let's see if he can be the man to step up and lead the staff.

Projected starting lineup
1. SS Cristian Guzman
2. CF Lastings Millegde
3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
4. 1b Nick Johnson
5. RF Austin Kearns
6. LF Elijah Dukes
7. 2B Ronnie Belliard
8. C Paul Lo Duca
Projected rotation
1. LHP Odalis Perez
2. LHP Matt Chico
3. RHP Tim Redding
4. RHP Jason Bergmann
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Chad Cordero
Setup: RHP Jon Rauch
Setup: RHP Saul Rivera
Setup: RHP Luis Ayala
Middle: LHP Ray King
Middle: RHP Jesus Colome
Long: RHP Joel Hanrahan
You'll know they're rollin' if ...
Watch for Dukes, Austin Kearns and Milledge to drive in runs in bunches. In their three seasons in Washington, the Nationals have had only one outfielder who did that -- Alfonso Soriano in 2006.

You'll know they're in trouble if ...
The No. 1 reason the Nationals finished with a 73-89 record last year was due to a sputtering offense. That's why players such as Kearns and Cristian Guzman must step it up this year.

Testing, testing
The Nationals have a three-game series against the Phillies starting March 31 at Citizens Bank Park. Washington will face Brett Myers in the first game. The starting pitching must show that they can get players like Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley out on a consistent basis.

Interleague Play
Washington will start Interleague Play starting on May 16, when it play a three-game series against the Orioles at Camden Yards. Baltimore is rebuilding, so the Nationals should be able win at least two out of three games.

The Nationals then go on the road in mid-June as they face the Mariners and Twins, two lineups that should test the Nationals' pitching.

Washington then returns to Nationals Park for nine games against American League clubs starting June 20. With the DH out of the picture, the Nationals should have the advantage against the Rangers, Angels and Orioles.

The Bottom Line
Despite what the experts say, the Nationals have better hitting and pitching. So look for them to finish over .500 and compete for a Wild Card spot.

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