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Touring The NL East: Washington Nationals

With most of the major moves behind us and spring training games right around the corner, now is a good time to start checking in on the Mets' competition in the NL East. Up first is Steven Biel of Fire Jim Bowden, a forward-thinking Nationals blog. Steven and I exchanged some questions and answers this past weekend and here are the results of my Nats-related queries.

Eric Simon: Unless the Nats go with the unorthodox nine-outfielder defensive configuration, it looks like you've got a bit of a logjam there. Who makes the starting lineup, who rides the pine, and who gets traded before the season starts?

Steven Biel: The logjam isn't just in the OF but at first base as well. My prediction would be that no one is traded. That would be Jim's track record. Let's take this from most to least obvious. Adam Dunn will play. I think Dmitri Young is probably done, as is Wily Mo Pena. Willie Harris will be the utility man defensive replacement. Kearns will be used as a fourth outfielder, but Manny will use him a lot in that role. Dukes and Milledge have to play every day if they aren't traded, and Manny has said that Milledge is the starting CF. Nick Johnson's the best player on the team if he's healthy, so he's plan A at first. So that leaves Josh Willingham as the odd man out. I think he's either waiting for an injury (if Nick goes down, Dunn goes to first and Willingham starts in LF). If no one gets hurt, Manny has quite a clubhouse challenge on his hands.

If there's a trade, it should be Willingham, but Johnson or Milledge are probably more likely.

ES: Was it smart to give Adam Dunn $20 million over two years? Is this deal more about keeping the fans interested or can Dunn help push the Nats towards respectability? (Note: PECOTA currently predicts that the Nationals will finish 79-83, seven games ahead of the Marlins).

SB: Oh absolutely. It'll help keep fans interested and also push us towards respectability. That's a bargain for a hitter of Dunn's caliber, and after he wasn't offered arbitration, what's the downside? The Nationals payroll is still just about $55 million--same as last year. They're basically giving the money they gave to Lo Duca, Felipe Lopez, and Johnny Estrada last year to Dunn. It's not like he's blocking any MLB-ready prospects. All our top prospects are a year or two away at least.

The thing I like about it most is that it gives us a chance to use Nick Johnson as plan A at first and Adam Dunn as plan B. Nick's a truly elite offensive player when healthy (compare his 2006 OPS+ to Mark Teixeira's career line), and the best chance for the Nationals to be any fun this year is with Dunn and Nick in the line-up.

ES: What are your impressions of Lastings Milledge? Is he miscast as a centerfielder? Will he break out in 2009?

SB: First off, whoever it was in NY who started the rumor that Milledge is a "bad guy" ought to be ashamed of himself [ed. note: that was the local media]. Yeah, he has a little personality and likes to have fun playing the game, but you tell me how New Yorkers would react if Brett Favre had high-fived fans after a TD pass? Yeah, yeah--baseball is different, blah blah blah. Milledge is a good kid. And I always thought the stuff in NY smacked of something uglier. When Billy Wagner from Tazewell County, VA tells a young black man to "know your place," there's more to it than baseball etiquette.

But enough of that. Most Nationals fans had stopped watching, but Lastings had a very nice finish to 2009, hitting .318 / .378 / .485 over his last 200 ABs. It's no secret that to maintain that pace over the course of a full season he needs to be more selective at the plate to get himself more pitches to hit.

Fans forget how young he is because he's been hyped forever, but he doesn't turn 24 until April. This year, I'll be watching for him to put up a .350 OBP and 8% BB rate. If he can do that, it'll be a great step.

But his long-term value is highly highly contingent on his ability to learn to play an at least average centerfield. He says it himself--you just don't get that excited about at 18-20 HR guy in left field, and that's what he would be. Give me that with a .350 or better OBP and average defense in CF, but if he can't play CF, he's a fourth outfielder.

That's why he should be and probably will be given more time to figure it out this year.

ES: Any chance we can have Jesus Flores back? I'd be willing to throw you the $25,000 Rule 5 money. You may still want to fire Jim Bowden, but that was a slick move.

SB: It's always good to stockpile catching talent, and no question that pick was a win for Jim. But I think that between the Omar-haters in NY and the Nationals fans grasping at any shred of hope, that a bit too much has been made of ol' Jesus Flores.

I'm not convinced he'll ever be close to an all-star, and he has a ways to go to get to average. In the pretty weak crop of NL East catchers (Carlos Ruiz, Brian McCann, John Baker, and Brian Schneider), CHONE expects Flores to have the lowest wOBA in 2009. He could easily be passed by Derek Norris or Adrian Nieto on the Nationals depth chart over the next couple years.

He's obviously very young, and the team wanted to give him a full year in the minors last year, but his line at the end of the season was .256 / .296 / .402. And before getting called up he was hitting .153 / .275 / .254 in 59 ABs at Columbus. His problem is plate discipline. He seemed to have been making progress in 2007, but then regressed in 2008, walking in just 4.7% of his PAs while chasing 37% of pitches out of the zone.

And defensively he's just ok.

Having now thoroughly trashed him, let me be clear: Flores has nice pop and has handled himself well at a very young age under difficult circumstances learning at the big league level when he really wasn't ready. Hopefully this year he takes a step forward.

ES: From afar, there's a lot to love about Manny Acta: he claims to hate bunting and stealing for no reason and he knows what PITCHf/x is. What's it like to have a manager who prefers players who are good at baseball to the "gamers" and "proven veterans" so beloved by most skippers?

SB: I like Manny a lot--first and foremost because I think he's a good motivator and has a knack for working with all kinds of personalities. There have been countless times over the last two years when the Nationals had every reason to give up, and they haven't (other than Lo Duca--he gave up). And I give him high marks for using his bench aggressively to find useful roles for all 25 guys. He's had a quickest hook with the starting pitchers of any manager in baseball, which effectively hid a terrible rotation under a pretty good bullpen in 2007, but it didn't work out so good in 2008.

He actually hasn't eschewed the steal and bunt quite as much as you'd think given the way he name-drops Baseball Prospectus. Last year the Nationals were 2nd worst in baseball with a SB success rate of 65.3%. Our 124 attempts put us in the middle of the pack. Last year we were tied for 10th in the NL with 64 sac bunts, and in 2007 it was the same--10th in the NL with 63. Manny doesn't use it more than other managers, but he doesn't use it notably less either. It'll be interesting to see what happens this year with Dunn in the line-up and hopefully strong years from Zimmerman, Johnson, and Dukes. That could be a lot more power and a lot less reason to bunt or steal.

Still, I'd take Manny Acta over most managers in baseball.