Boy, yesterday was a roller coaster of a day for the Washington Nationals. Thankfully, the train road upwards for most of the day, with the Nationals taking game two of the series against the Rockies 4-1. The Nats were led to victory by the usual suspects: Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, and the bullpen, with a nice assist from a Colorado team that found itself throwing around the ball in the bottom of the sixth.
Then after the game, it was announced that Bryce Harper would replace Giancarlo (say one more time, baby) Stanton in the All-Star game, becoming the youngest position player ever to make an All-Star team. The only plunge on the ride though was the news that Desmond would not be participating in the game, sitting out to rest a sore oblique. I can’t imagine how difficult a decision it was for him to elect to miss his first All-Star game. But I do love the message he sent by choosing to put his health and his team before personal accomplishments. Come the battles of September, I can’t help but think that his team-first mentality is going to do a lot for the Nationals.
Game ball(s): Desmond. For all the reasons elucidated above, and oh by the way, he hit another home run yesterday, his 16th on the season.
Goat(s): Colorado’s defense. I guess I see now why the Rockies have committed the third-most errors in baseball.
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Yeah, and the kid made the All-Star game. I know the Harper-hype machine has a lot to do with it, but there is no doubting that he is playing at a high level, especially given his age. From day one, he has made the title of this award seem a bit silly and nothing so far indicates that this ride is going only where but up from here.
Current Record: 49-33
I used to think the only good reason to invade Canada would be to ensure a steady supply of the delicious bacon that tops my occasional Egg McMuffin. The last three days have given me another reason: Wins to add to the ledger for the Washington Nationals. Thanks Canucks!
Now, with a glowing heart, let us hand out the awards for the Nats three-game sweep of the Blue Jays.
Game ball(s): Anytime you go on the road (let alone a foreign country) and sweep a team, everyone deserves a pat on the back for a job well done. Ah, that’s so nurturing of you. But smiley stickers for everyone aside, the Nats bullpen does deserve kudos for logging eight innings of one-run ball over the three games. Each time they took over for Washington’s starter, the Nats held the lead. And each time, when the last reliever left the mound, the team still was ahead on the scoreboard.
Goat(s): The border officials who let the Nationals cross. Wait. They’re heroes!
Bryce Harper is still only 19: This may be the recency effect at play, or the simple fact that my heart already swells at the mere mention of Bryce Harper, but boy did Tyler Moore have a heck of a game today. Moore, starting for the first time in the series, went all crazy American, going 3 for 5 with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs. He probably strikes out too much to have a great average, but with an impressive record of power in the minor leagues, the two home runs isn’t so crazy.
Current Record: 38-23
On a night where both the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles were struggling to score much in the way of runs in their interleague opener, you could just sense that it was going to be just one hit, one moment that would decide the game’s outcome. And while my naturally defeatist senses were correct that the turn would not be in the National’s favor, it was ever so slightly off in its count. There were two game-deciding moments which came back to back.
In the top of the eleventh, with Ryan Mattheus facing Nick Markakis, on a 1-2 count, it looked like Mattheus punched out Markakis on a nice fastball. Regrettably, the umpire didn’t see it the same way and without fail, on the next pitch, Nick the Stick launched a solo home run to propel the Orioles to a 2-1 lead. With the Nationals offense, Game Over.
Game ball(s): Markakis. He’s half-Greek and half-German and unfortunately for the Nats, the German in him showed up last night.
Goat(s): The Nationals in the bottom of the eleventh. Get a man on to start the inning and promptly ground into a double play. Get lucky with Bernadina reaching on a wild-pitch after striking out, follow it up with a hit to put him in scoring position, only to ground out to end the game. What a frustrating end to a frustrating night at the dish for Washington.
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Edwin Jackson, who deserved better than another no-decision. While I fully support a gridlocked Washington, I guess I should clarify that I don’t want the federal government making anymore disastrous decisions, not the Nationals.
Current Record: 23-16
Me, yesterday, on Ross Detwiler:
And if Detwiler can continue to claw his way back to his first-round draft promise, the Nats would possess the league’s best swing-man and an obvious upgrade to the bologna sandwich combo.
I just hope they like bologna in Syracuse.
In Part One of the season preview, we focused on the Nationals pitching staff, broke down their prospects for the coming season, and remarked on the now suspicious injury history of Carl Pavano (okay, we didn’t, but it certainly does deserve the people’s eyebrow). Today, we turn our punditry towards the Nationals lineup and bench, and then will make overly generic predictions for the season that in 400 years’ time, will also be seen to contain clues about the end of time.
SS Ian Desmond – I probably should check with the judge to see if I’m allowed to write anything about Ian after drafting him last year in fantasy baseball, but it goes without saying that Desmond is hardly the ideal lead-off man. He does possess a little pop and can steal 20 bags in a season, but whiffs way too much, doesn’t take a walk, and thus, doesn’t find his way to first and beyond too often (career .304 on-base percentage). I hate to say this, but if Desmond and Espinosa hit most or all of the season at the top of the lineup, the hopes for a good Nationals offense goes out the window.
2nd Danny Espinosa – Well, I drafted you this year, which probably means we won’t be speaking by mid-May. You are talented enough to make many things possible. You have some real thunder in your bat, and a 20-20 season wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But you strike out by the bushel, so a batting average above .250 may be asking too much.
3rd Ryan Zimmerman – I fear he won’t age well, but for now, Zimm is the Nat’s franchise player. He is capable of a .300/30/100 (the latter of which he will probably will be denied because of the lack of base runners) season, all the while bringing gold glove defense to the hot corner every day. I think Baseball Prospectus may have been stretching it just a bit when it said to look to Zimm for a dark horse MVP candidate, but not by that much.
RF Jayson Werth – The good thing is that Werth probably can’t play much worse than last year. I suspect he is due for a decent rebound. Then again, I didn’t think Dana Stubblefield could make a sumo wrestler jealous and he did. That’s life as a Washington sports fan. I actually think it would be best if manager Davey Johnson moved Werth and his career .360 on-base percentage up to the #2 hole, which would work the opponent’s pitchers a bit more and increase the odds that Zimm hits with someone on base. That still wouldn’t solve lead-off, but you have to start somewhere.
LF Michael Morse – The breakout slugger from last season hasn’t done much of anything this Spring, hampered by a right lat strain that has lingered to the point of landing him on the 15-day DL to start the season. I think he got a touch lucky with his batting average last year, but the power is legit. Hopefully, his body holds up because it is bat that makes his butchery in the outfield (-7.9 UZR in 2011) tolerable.
1B Adam LaRoche – Oy. I’m not sure I like the addition of last year’s season-ending shoulder surgery to an already slow and elongated swing susceptible to long periods of wind-only production. Oh, and his shoulder has hurt him throwing during Spring Training. Hopefully, he hasn’t lost his ability to pick it at first, because that may be the only thing keeping him from the scrap heap.
C Wilson Ramos – Wilson’s emergence last year probably contributed to the Nationals willingness to give up Derek Norris as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade. Can’t say I disagree with at least that part of the trade, because a prospect is only good to you playing in the big leagues or as trade bait. And with Ramos in DC, the former wasn’t going to happen. Ramos has a nice bat capable of a solid average (think .270ish) and good power for a catcher (think optimistically 18 home runs or so), all the while playing solid defense. He’s the Ron Popeil of catchers. Set him and forget him.
CF Rick Ankiel/Roger Bernandina – Bleh. Honestly, it won’t be until Bryce Harper is promoted from Triple A that the Nationals will have the hope of fielding a legitimate center fielder. And of course, Harper offers more than just legitimacy beyond 2012 – true star potential. Until then, the combination of Ankiel (who will start the season on the 15 day DL with a tight left quad) and Bernandina will offer up only average defense and below average hitting. Bleh.
Having a deep and flexible bench is always a critical ingredient to a playoff-caliber team, and with a couple of injuries to start the season, it won’t take too terribly long to figure out how good the Nationals bench will be. Right now, it looks like Washington will initially carry backup catcher Jesus Flores, infielders Chad Tracy and Steve Lombardozzi, outfielder Brett Carroll, and jacks of all trades, Xavier Nady and Mark DeRosa, the latter who should see most of the starts in place of the injured Morse. At first blush, Washington appears to have a flexible but not necessarily overly talented bench. Finding a decent left-handed bat (Tracy isn’t it) and keeping DeRosa healthy should be the Nats top bench priorities.
The end is nigh! Oh, right, about the upcoming season. As it stands now, the NL East, while seemingly stacked, also has its vulnerabilities. The Phillies lineup is banged up and will actually be fairly pedestrian when it is all said and done. The Braves didn’t do much to improve a middling lineup and will rely too much on young starters that will end up taxing their good, but overworked bullpen. And the Marlins* rotation and bullpen beyond Heath Bell have a lot of question marks. So, do all these weaknesses crack open the door to a Nationals playoff appearance?
My heart says yes but my mind still can’t get all the way there. Stupid brain keeps asking questions like who in the heck is going to be on base when Zimm comes up to bat? Will the holes in the Nationals defense (Morse, Desmond, CF) cost them one too many wins? And the answers, to the extent they exist, are not satisfying enough to make me believe the Nationals will get all the way there. They will get close. Oh so close. But they will fall just short – 87 W, 75 L, 3rd place in the NL East.
*The Bernie Madoff Mets have Mike Pelfrey in their rotation. Your kid sister could hit .250 against him. They aren’t competing for a playoff spot.
Last season, the nation’s capital nearly saw something happen it hasn’t witnessed in a long time – someone breakeven. That someone, or something, was the Washington Nationals, who by finishing 3rd in the standings posted their best finish ever in the National League East Division at 80-81 (one rain-postponed game against the Dodgers was never made up). Not since their 81-81 inaugural season in 2005 have the Nationals come so close to a .500 finish, and last year they had Livan Hernandez soaking up 20 percent of the starts. Thus, it was no surprise this off-season that GM Mike Rizzo’s major initiative was to upgrade the starting rotation, while shoring up one of baseball’s best bullpens.
While the consensus is that the Nationals lineup has holes, especially an inability to get men on base (more on that tomorrow), many pundits are still predicting that the Nationals will contend for a playoff spot on the basis of a retooled rotation and strong bullpen. Let’s breakdown the pitching staff and whether it is truly playoff-caliber.
Stephen Strasburg – After making only 5 September starts post-Tommy John surgery, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding how Strasburg 2.0 will fare. Does his velocity reportedly being down a tick matter? How quickly will he recover his pin point control, which usually is a short-term casualty of the surgery? And will he recover his ability to induce ground balls at close to a 50 percent clip (it was near 40 percent last season, albeit in a very small sample). Despite these unknowns, the safe money is still on a sub-3 ERA, even with several bumps along the way.
Jordan Zimmermann – The second member of Washington’s Tommy John club, it is not unreasonable to think that Zimmermann may be the best pitcher on the staff this year. He possesses four plus or near-plus pitches and impeccable control; if he can just bump up the strikeout rate a tad, there doesn’t appear to be much between Zimmermann and elite status.
Gio Gonzalez – While I suspect that the Nationals overpaid for Gio, I think a move to the National League will help to continue to mask some of his warts (cough, walks way too many, cough). And while undoubtedly he represents an upgrade, I expect Gio’s ERA to be closer to 3.8 than 3 this year, which will leave many more sharing my suspicions at the end of the season.
Edwin Jackson – He looks almost every part the front-line ace he was supposed to blossom into all those years ago in LA. But he has settled into who he is, which is a strong #4, decent #3 starter, who eats innings with the promise of a sub-3 ERA but rarely the results because he is a bit too hittable and a bit too generous with the free passes. However, since the Nationals are slotting him in as their fourth starter, at $10 million this season, DC has seen plenty greater wastes of money.
John Lannan/Chien-Ming Wang – The final spot in the rotation ostensibly belongs to Wang, but since Wang’s constitution is about as strong as Carl Pavano’s manhood (I keep my promises), Lannan will start the season in his place. Both are about as exciting as a bologna sandwich, but since two sandwiches are better than one, the only way you can hate on this combo for less than a combined 12 wins is if you hate America.
Drew Storen – There is little doubt that Storen is an elite closer. Drew’s slider makes right-handed hitters buckle and cry like John Kruk ordering cake. But his tender elbow makes me worry that the Washington Tommy John Club Card is going to get another hole punched. And if that happens, the status of the bullpen’s excellence will come very much into question.
Tyler Clippard – At some point, probably this season, Clippard is due for a bit of regression. He’s good, but not quite sub-2 ERA good. Plus, he’s been ridden more than Seattle Slew the past 2 years, which makes me worry (hey, I’m an auditor) about his ability to remain on the mound and effective, which is so vital to the Nationals season this year.
The Rest – One of the best things about the Nationals pitching staff this year is the depth of their bullpen. With the addition of Brad Lidge joining the likes of Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, and Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have a very strong mix of righties and lefties, short and long-men who can bring a lot of peace to a manager’s mind. And there is even bigger upside if we all just close our eyes and click our heels three times…
If (and it is a big one) Rodriguez could ever find a bit more control, he and his triple-digit heat would quickly vault to near-elite status. If Burnett can bump his k rate back up close to 1K/IP, the Nationals could well lock down left-hander batters. And if Detwiler can continue to claw his way back to his first-round draft promise, the Nats would possess the league’s best swing-man and an obvious upgrade to the bologna sandwich combo.
While expecting all or even one of these wishes to come true is foolish, even without the leaps, it is fair to expect this bullpen to be one of the reasons the Nationals have a decent shot at a playoff spot.
To realistically compete for the NL East crown or a wild-card spot, the Nationals will have to make at least an 8 win improvement on last season. And despite all the preseason optimism, that’s not going to be easy. The good thing is that the pitching staff appears to be talented enough, and perhaps more importantly, deep enough, to carry out their end of the bargain. I’m realistic enough to expect that at least one of the arms the Nationals will be counting on will not nearly live up to expectations (Storen and his sore elbow and Gio and his penchant for free passes come to mind). However, strictly on the basis of the pitching staff, the Nationals do appear poised to make a run at the playoffs. Will the rest of the team make that run a successful one? Find out tomorrow as we preview the hitters and make a final prediction for the season.