Soriano's addition a big boost
Health factor will also play a key role this season in Washington
Ask general manager Jim Bowden why the Nationals collapsed in the second half of 2005, and he'll talk about how the offense struggled. And he has the statistics to back it up.
Washington was last in almost every offensive category, including batting average, runs scored and home runs.
Bowden believes that he solved the offensive woes this offseason by acquiring Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Anderson and trading Vinny Castilla to the Rockies in order for Ryan Zimmerman to be the everyday third baseman.
Bowden even relieved hitting coach Tom McCraw of his duties and hired Mitchell Page, who is often credited for helping Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols become the All-Star that he is today.
But the Nationals looked lethargic with the bat this spring, hitting only .253. Zimmerman was the only consistent hitter, as he led the team in home runs and RBIs. Bowden believes when the season starts, the offense will get better.
"We have some good solid players and not a lot of strikeouts," Bowden said. "It's better than people think."
It's now up to Brandon Watson to make things happen on offense. The organization hasn't had a true leadoff hitter since Marquis Grissom played for the Expos in 1994, but the Nationals hope that the drought ends with Watson.
Watson outperformed Ryan Church in Spring Training to win the center-field job. Manager Frank Robinson has made it clear to Watson that he wants him to do the little things to get on base -- such as work the count, bunt and steal bases.
Soriano is expected to provide the run production Washington has lacked since Vladimir Guerrero left the organization after the 2003 season. Soriano has averaged more than 30 home runs and 90 RBIs during the last four years.
Then there's the health factor. The Nationals are relying heavily on some position players who had problems staying on the field during the second half of last season. Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider and Jose Guillen all had health concerns this spring, but it looks like they will be ready for Opening Day.
Bowden also strengthened the bench from last season. He now has power hitters such as Daryle Ward and Matt LeCroy, but Bowden's biggest pickup for the bench was signing Anderson to a two-year contract. The left-handed-hitting Anderson played for the Mets last season and hit .264 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs. 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.
Anderson, 31, ranked among the National League leaders in both pinch-hits and pinch-hit batting average. He also hit .351 (13-for-37) with one home run and three RBIs against the Nationals.
Anderson is expected to be the backup second baseman, and he also can play first base and the outfield if needed.
"I consider Marlon like Lenny Harris," said Bowden, referring to the all-time pinch-hit leader. "He has adjusted from being an everyday player to a guy coming off the bench."
Whether the Nationals' offense can jell remains to be seen. If it doesn't, they will have a tough time winning ballgames this year.
"Nothing is a guaranteed, but I'm hoping we improve with men in scoring position. Last year, we had a lot of opportunities and we didn't score," Schneider said. "How we do that? Hopefully, it just comes with experience. We have to be more disciplined at the plate."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.