Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Season Opener & the NL East

(Editor's Note: I can't seem to bring myself to work on a certain writing project and I am completely disappointed in the Idaho Legislature today as I've watched their votes grow increasingly more dumb by the hour (the voter ID bill yesterday and today's trifecta of stupidity--an unconstitutional gun law, immunizations, and Barrett's gold & silver as currency bill). When did we hand this state over to lunatics, birthers and Birchers? Thank god for baseball...)

Today's spring training opener between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets ushered in a new season of major league baseball. And not a moment too soon.

The starting rosters for the Braves and Mets didn't show off all of their stuff, guys like Chipper Jones weren't on the field so new players and bench players could be seen by coaches and fans alike, but both teams bring to the new season two things in common--hope and mutual animosity for the Philadelphia Phillies.

As for the game, it could have gone better, but Braves fans were pleased to see a few things. First, Jason Heyward really is a giant! Having Heyward in right field is a welcome sight for Braves fans who suffered through the over hyped Jeff Francoeur years and the dud that was Ryan Church. And, low and behold, Jason Heyward has patience! He wasn't up there swinging from his ears to his toes the way Francoeur did in his final games in Atlanta. Something else pleasant for Braves fans was the decent pitching of both Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlan. These two young men are growing into the game. Of the two, Hanson had the most going for him last year, but felt a great deal of pressure in a franchise balancing on the shoulders of pitcher Javier Vasquez. With Tim Hudson back this season full-time, I suspect both Hanson and Medlan will be more relaxed. One last comment on the Braves and I'll move on to what I actually intended to focus this post on: Melky Cabrera is taking left field this season and as much as most of us Braves fans wanted to embrace Garrett Anderson out there last season, he just wasn't what the team needed. He was lovable and a great presence in the clubhouse, but Anderson's legs weren't up to playing every day in right field. Maybe he wasn't up for leaving the American League. Whatever the case was, he didn't produce and it cost the Braves in a season with very little going for them. At this point, with Bobby Cox saying this will be his last season, we really have to wonder if Chipper will stick around after that. Those are questions for another day...

While the Braves and Mets were squaring off in the Grapefruit League today, another Grapefruit League franchise and National League East contender was on my mind. Today's Washington Post is featuring a photo slide show from the spring training camp of the Washington Nationals. As I looked through the photos this morning, I was shocked at the number of players that wound up down at Space Coast Stadium, the spring training home of the Washington Nationals. Is this the year the Washington Nationals finally come together?

Of course I'd read about Strasburg. Everybody who knows anything about baseball has read about Strasburg. And I'd read what the greatest catcher in the history of baseball had to say about his new battery mate. Right there alone is two big-name ballplayers in Washington--Pudge Rodriguez and first round draft pick Stephen Strasburg. But there's so much more to talk about for the Nats.

Why do I care? Sure, I wouldn't be caught dead giving a position-by-position analysis of the Phillies, Marlins or Mets in the National League East. Sure, my allegiances lie in Atlanta. Sure, the chances of the Nats turning it completely around after their horrific season last year are slim. It comes down to this: The Nationals used to be the Montreal Expos and I loved the Montreal Expos. Ever since the Expos were sold and the Nationals were born, I've held at hope that they'd be the franchise that was once in Washington--the Senators. Long story short, I like tradition and I very much enjoyed the fact that prior to building their enormous new stadium, the Nats played at a venue named for RFK. Tradition, history, you know, all the usual things that catch my attention.

Back to the team. Jason Marquis is on the roster hoping to replicate what he managed to accomplish in Colorado last season. If nothing else, Marquis is a good clubhouse influence for the very young hurlers like Strasburg. Add to the pitching staff Brian Bruney who is promising, J.D. Martin, Lannan, and Scott Olsen and you've got a pretty interesting mix of talent. Then out of left field, forgive the pun, the Nats signed the embattled former Yankee pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. There's no telling what Chien-Ming Wang brings to the lineup because since he broke his foot running the bases away from the Bronx, he hasn't been able to get back to where he was pre-injury. Still, the Nats have come a long way from the middle of last season when they picked up Livan Hernandez not knowing if he'd ever pitch in the majors again.

For the first time in perhaps their entire time in Washington, the Nationals seem to have a solid outfield. When they finally realized that Adam Dunn can't play right field and the Nats were finally able to part with the disappointment that turned out to be Dmitri Young, the spot that opened up at first was a nice fit for Adam Dunn. ...At least in theory... Now that Adam Dunn has had some time to actually learn how to play first base, it might be an entirely different season for the slugger. In terms of hitting, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman are getting some much needed help this season. Adam Kennedy, who may not have been what other clubs wanted, is definitely an upgrade for the Nats. Josh Willingham may no longer be overshadowed by guys like Dan Uggla in Florida and the young Nyjer Morgan is something to watch. The Nats may just have found themselves a solid infield, too, with gold glove third baseman Ryan Zimmerman leading the way.

Though really, how can you not root for a team that has a nightly presidential race in their stadium? If the Nats start winning, does that mean good ole Teddy Roosevelt can start winning, too?

Only thirty-three days until the real baseball season is under way...

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