Rich Tucker

 

It almost feels like summer in Washington, D.C. At least as far as the sport scene is concerned.

Each August, Washington-area reporters, columnists and fans begin buzzing about how it will be a breakthrough season for the Redskins. They make bold predictions, claiming the team will go 11-5 or 12-4 and contend for the Super Bowl. And every year the Redskins struggle to reach .500.

Well, this year the rabid optimism has spread to D.C.’s baseball squad.

The Montreal Expos moved to our nation’s capital for the 2005 season, went 81-81 and finished in last place. They haven’t even reached the break-even point in the six seasons since. But this year, we’re told, will be different.

“We want to make the playoffs,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said this spring. His field manager went ever further. “We should make the playoffs. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Davy Johnson added. “You know, and they can fire me.” Whether they’d be firing him for missing the playoffs or for over-hyping his team is an open question.

There’s no doubt Washington has a strong, young team. It could make the playoffs, especially if by that one means the silly one game Wildcard play-in. But there are many things that could still go wrong. Let’s go around the horn.

At first base, the Nats are counting on Adam LaRoche to rebound from shoulder surgery. When he went under the knife last season he was hitting .172 batting and slugging .258 through 43 games. Will he rebound and come closer to his career .267 average? Or, at age 32, is he on the downswing? Time will tell.

Up the middle, Washington is counting on the young combination of shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa. They’re solid defensively and work well together, but neither carries a threatening bat. Espinosa hit .236 (on-base percentage .323) and Desmond hit .262 with an OBP of .304. For the Nats to contend, both men would need to get on base more often than they did last year.

At third, Washington has its true superstar. Ryan Zimmerman was the first player the team drafted after it moved, and he recently signed a contract extension that could allow him to play out his career in D.C. However, he’ll need to remain healthy. He played almost every game in 2009, missed 20 in 2010 and 60 last season. If he goes down, even for a few weeks, the team could go down with him.

In the outfield, Washington is counting on Michael Morse to be its cleanup hitter and big run producer. He certainly produced last year, to the tune of a .303 average and 31 homers. He also filled in at first base after LaRoche went down, so you know he’s a solid team player. Morse has been hurting this spring, though, and may not be ready to start the season. Like Zimmerman, he’s not a player the Nats can do without for long if they aim to make a playoff run.

In center look for journeyman Rick Ankiel to start the season. He’s a former pitcher known for having a good arm and solid glove, but he doesn’t chip much in at the plate. And he’s not expected to. He’s just holding the spot until super prospect Bryce Harper is ready to take over. Will that be in May, June or later? Nobody knows. Will the 20-year-old Harper, who was playing in a college league two years ago, be ready to handle the big leagues? Again, nobody knows. If he’s not, it could be a long year in center.

The right fielder is Jayson Werth, signed by the Nats last winter to a mega-bucks contract. Once he stopped playing home games at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park Werth’s batting average plunged. He hit .296 in Philly in 2010, .232 in Washington last year. Some are expecting Werth to rebound, based partly on the fact that he recently knocked a ball literally out of the park in a spring training game. But the fact is: he isn’t going back to Philadelphia, where the rinky-dink park transforms hits that would be pop outs in most stadiums into home runs.

The Nats’ strength is their pitching, and this alone could keep them in the hunt. But there are always question marks. Stephen Strasburg is the real deal and will start on Opening Day. But he’s coming off surgery in 2010 and will only pitch 160 innings this season. So his season could end just as the playoff hunt picks up.

Jordan Zimmermann is a solid second starter, but he had similar surgery in 2009. Assuming he continues to improve, the Nats could excel, especially since they’ve added proven starters Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez. Still, pitchers get hurt over the long season, so it’s too soon to pop the champagne corks.

Bottom line: Let’s set aside the playoff talk this season. Just as with the government’s annual promises to reduce spending, it’s wait ’til next year one more time in D.C.


Rich Tucker

Rich Tucker is a communications professional and a columnist for Townhall.com.