April 24, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 22 Review: Nats rally from 3 runs down in ninth to top Angels 5-4

The Washington Nationals were staring down their first real slump of the 2014 season, trailing the Los Angeles Angels 4-1 heading to the bottom of the ninth, having dropped the first two games of the series. As Matt Williams said after the game though, “That’s why we play 27 [outs]. That’s why we have to play every out.”

The Nats made a furious comeback, capped by Adam LaRoche’s RBI single, which plated Jayson Werth from second base to deliver the Nats an unexpected 5-4 win, before 22,504 at Nationals Park.

The comeback started with Jose Lobaton homering off Angels closer Ernesto Friere (0-2, 9.35). After pinch-hitter Zach Walters struck out, Denard Span snuck a ground ball up the middle for a  single. Frieri walked Anthony Rendon on two close pitches, then Werth came to the plate.

The veteran, who seems to relish big ninth inning at bats, looked at three offerings — all outside the strike zone — then jumped on a 3-0 fastball, ripping it past the third base bag. The ball caromed off the jut in the left field fence and bounced into short left, where left fielder J.B. Shuck had to track it down. It took long enough for Rendon to scoot all the way home from first base with the tying run.

LaRoche then pounced on Friere’s next pitch, lining it over the shortstop to drive in Werth to start the celebration.

The ninth inning comeback made a winner of Drew Storen (2-0, 1.17), who gave up a run-scoring hit to Mike Trout in the top half of the inning.

The Nats struck first in what seemed like a different game. With one out in the second inning, Danny Espinosa bunted his way on and stole second base. A ground out by Lobabton moved him over to third, and Gio Gonzalez’ soft liner to left brought him home for the first run of the game.

Surprisingly, that single run didn’t stand up. Gonzalez cruised through five innings after a bit of a first inning scare. But he’d retired 11 in a row leading up to the sixth. Mike Trout drew a walk, and after ball one to Albert Pujols, pitching coach Steve McCatty came out to chat and Aaron Barrett started warming up. Pujols then smashed a double down the left field line that bounced off the jutting part of the fence in the same location Werth would later strike. Bryce Harper made a good play on the ball and his throw home was close, but Trout slid under the tag to tie the game.

Then, shockingly, after just 83 pitches, manager Matt Williams came out with the hook. Gonzalez finished with five innings pitch, two earned runs on four hits and three walks, with five strikeouts. After the game, Williams revealed Gonzalez experienced a bit of tightness in his shoulder in the cold weather, and the manager and player agreed that he should come out at that point.

Barrett was called upon, and after a ground out moved Pujols up a base, he scored on a single by Erick Aybar. Just like that, the Nats were trailing.

In the bottom half, Adam LaRoche beat the shift with a seeing-eye single. Harper came up an offered a bunt for strike one, then with two strikes inexplicable tried to bunt again, popping up foul for the out and slamming his bat in the batter box, showing his frustration.

The Angels added a run in the seventh. David Freese led off with a double off Barrett, went to third on a ground out to first, and scored on a wild pitch.

They weren’t done. In the ninth, Raul Ibanez scored from second on a single to left field by Trout. But all that did was set up the fireworks of the bottom half of the inning.

The Nats host the San Diego Padres in a four-game series starting Thursday at 7:05 pm. Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 3.94) hosts LHP Eric Stultz (1-2, 4.35).

Nats defensive woes not so much mental as physical

The Washington Nationals lead the National League in errors. It’s as simple as that. Ian Desmond leads all players with eight errors himself. Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman and even Bryce Harper in the outfield have multiple errors in 21 games. These errors are extending innings, creating more of a burden for the pitchers, and directly contributing to runs.

The Nats like to look at themselves as true contenders. But a championship caliber team does not give away base runners for free. The primary indicator for wins and losses is total baserunners for and against. The defensive lapses we’re seeing from the Nats, primarily on ground balls, are leading to more baserunners against, which of course leads to more runs against.

Manager Matt Williams placed an emphasis on defense and accountability during spring training, as if attention to detail was the reason for the Nats lack of performance in the field. The problem isn’t as much mental as it is physical.

Tuesday night after the Nats’ 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, a game in which the normally sure-handed Rendon committed two throwing errors — one of which lead to Albert Pujols three-run home run in the first inning — Williams was perplexed on the poor start defensively for the Nats.

“I’m baffled,” Williams said when asked how concerned he was about the defense and what he could do to stem the poor play. “What do you do? You just keep doing what we do. You keep working at it. We work on it every day. And we do extra. And we do all those things. It’s not what we want, for sure. But we can’t do anything but do what we’re doing, and that’s work at it.”

William has to take that attitude. He has no other option, really. But in reality, the Nats defense suffers from specific physical limitations that are difficult to overcome. Only Harper and Rendon are still a young players. They don’t seem to be part of the long-term problem. But the rest?

Desmond is 28 years old. We’ve seen this for several seasons now. He has tremendous range and a strong throwing arm. His range allows him to get to balls others watch go past, but as we saw in Monday’s game, that can be a curse as much as a blessing. He ranged far to his left to get his glove on the ball, only to have it clang off for a tough error. The ball bounced off the back of the mound, changing the spin on it and making it a much tougher play than it was going to be already.

Then there’s the matter of his arm. It’s a cannon. But it’s a loose cannon. They used to call guys like that “scattershot”, like the pattern of shotgun pellets spreading out in every direction at a high rate of speed. Last season, widely hailed as his best defensive season, he committed 12 throwing and seven fielding errors. This year, it’s an equal 4-4 so far. Desmond started slowly last season in the field too, so it may be a temperature thing with him. But the bottom line is this is who he is. At 28, he’s not going to get magically better throwing the ball.

Zimmerman’s problems have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Natosphere. His shoulder is compromised through injury to the point of curtailing any pregame throwing and altering his throwing mechanics to the point of being indistinguishable form how a human is supposed to throw overhanded. His broken thumb after 15 games allowed him to be DL’d for a actual broken bone as opposed to being sat down to allow the inflammation in the join to calm down. At this point, the Nats are trying to downplay this, saying they don’t feel the injury is a chronic thing. But realistically, Zimmerman needs to move to first base as soon as possible, if only to keep the inflammation out of the joint allowing him to him at a maximum, pain-free condition.

Espinosa is a good fielder, at both second base and shortstop. He gets a touch overrated in this market considering his teammates. But his health issues the past two seasons have taken a toll on his efficiency as well. He shouldn’t be part of the long-term problem either, but two errors in 17 games isn’t a great thing. Also, he’s 27, so he’s at his physical peak and won’t get better either.

Jayson Werth doesn’t have any errors in the outfield yet, but we’ve seen several balls fall in front of him or past him that he would have gotten to even at the start of his stint with the Nats. His range has drastically dropped each season he’s been here. It’ snot surprising, as his is 35 years old and being asked to man one of the more rigorous defensive positions. But it’s another point of data: Werth’s outfield defense is sub-par at this point in his career, and there’s very little the Nats can do about it for the next 3 1/2 years other than move him to left field and hope Harper can handle right.

As for Harper’s not-so-great fielding, we have to remember two things: 1) He was a catcher 2 1/2 years ago; 2) He’s learning to play outfield at the Major League level. There may be some “attention” problems attributed to Harper’s bungles, as he mostly has trouble with charging and picking up the ball. But for all his speed and effort (notice I didn’t say “hustle”) in the outfield, he still has trouble tracking line drives, both to his right and his left. Someone on Twitter casually remarked on a ball to the left field gap earlier this week that it seemed like a ball Harper could have made a play on, or at least cut off from going to the wall. If a casual fan can notice that, you can be sure the Nats are aware of it.

This all might seem like gloom and doom. Maybe it is. It’s certainly mostly anecdotal. But the takeaway here is that the Nats realistically aren’t a great fielding team, despite their pitching staff’s proclivity for being ground ball pitchers. And except for Rendon and Harper, the players they have are no longer in a growth mode — they are who they are, or getting worse (some significantly, and some very quickly). They can put as much work into it as they want, but in reality, the Nats are going to have to pitch and hit to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

Washington Nationals Game 8 Review: Werth’s slam in eighth wins crazy game with Marlins, 10-7

Crazy game.

The Washington Nationals fell behind 5-0 after a stalwart starter got lit up. They clawed back to take the lead in the middle innings. A former 40-save closer gave up a mammoth homer in the seventh to fall behind again. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, the Nats hairy guru made the Miami Marlins pay for intentionally loading the bases.

Jayson Werth clubbed a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen in left center for his first home run of the season, a grand slam that delivered the Nats a 10-7 win in one of the craziest games we’ll see all season long.

For starters it wasn’t Jordan Zimmermann’s night. The righty struggled with location and pitch count all night long. He gave up a single to leadoff hitter Christian Yelich and walked second baseman Derek Dietrich. Giancarlo Stanton followed with a run-scoring single and Dietrich moved up to third. Garrett Jones brought Dietrich home with a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0 before most folks had settled into their seats.

The second inning was worse. Adeiny Hechavarria lead off with a triple to the left center gap and scored on Yelich’s single. Dietrich then sent a ball that landed in the first row of bleachers above the out-of-town scoreboard in right center before falling back to the field of play. It was ruled a triple on the field, but after review Dietrich was sent home, correctly having been awarded his first home run of the season.

After singles by Jones and Casey McGehee, Zimmermann was done. He was yanked after 1 2/3 innings — his shortest stint as a big league starter. He allowed five runs, all earned, on seven hits and two walks, striking out one.

Marlins’ starter Brad Hand cruised until the fourth inning. Adam LaRoche continued his hot streak, singling to lead off, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single. After Ian Desmond struck out, Bryce Harper battled through a 10-pitch at bat, culminating in an absolute moonshot – three rows back in the upper tank in straight-away right field. It was Harper’s first home run of the year.

The Nats clawed their way back to one in the fifth. Anthony Rendon tripled to right field with one out and scored a batter later on Werth’s ground out. Washington completed the comeback in the next frame. Zimmerman doubled to the right field corner over Stanton’s head. The big right fielder bobbled the ball in the corner, allowing Zimmerman to move up to third. Ian Desmond’s swinging bunt brought Zimmerman home and all hands were safe.

Harper followed with a single the other way off lefty Dan Jennings to put runners at the corners, still with no outs. Jose Lobaton tapped a comebacker to Jennings, but the reliever fumbled the ball — Desmond scored to make it 6-5 and Lobaton rumbled safely to first on the E-1. Span singled to load the bass with one out, but Arquimedes Caminero came on to get Rendon and Werth to fly out to end the rally.

Drew Storen came on for the seventh and was rudely greeted, as Jerrod Saltalamacchia blasted a shot to dead center to tie it that was every bit as impressive as Harper’s was earlier.

But this game was far from over. The Marlins called upon Carlos Marmol for the eighth inning, and the Nats made them pay for that decision.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth was hit with a one-out fastball and went to third on Denard Span’s bunt single and error on the throw by Derek Dietrich, playing his first MLB game at third base. The Marlins walked Rendon intentionally to set up force plays everywhere with bases loaded, but Jayson Werth wouldn’t have any of it. Werth ripped a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen for his first homer of the season, a Grand Slam that gave the Nats a comfortable 10-7 lead.

It STILL wasn’t over. Rafael Soriano put two runners on in the ninth to make sure any fingernails left did not go unchewed, but struck out two to eventually nail down one of the nuttiest wins we’re going to witness in 2014.

Washington Nationals Game 6 Review: Jordan Solid as Nats Top Braves to Avoid Sweep

DESMOND HOMER LIFTS NATS, BLEVINS RECORDS FIRST WIN AS A NATIONAL

With Bryce Harper out of the lineup Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals tallied just four hits to top the Atlanta Braves 2-1 by the skin of their teeth.

Taylor Jordan (ND, 1.42 ERA) allowed one run, six hits and two walks over 6.1 innings pitched, but he kept the Nats in contention despite their slow-to-produce offense.

Manager Matt Williams gave Bryce Harper the day off after the 21-year-old outfielder went 0-for-4 Saturday in the Nats’ 6-2 loss to the Braves. Harper, who is 3-for-21 with 10 strikeouts, has shown visible frustration over the past few days, throwing down his helmet and stomping back to the dugout in dismay.

The Nats also sat Ryan Zimmerman for the start of Sunday’s matchup due to shoulder soreness, but he pinch-hit for reliever Tyler Clippard in the eighth, alleviating some fears for now.

Testing yet another new lineup, the Nats took an early lead in the first off left-hander Alex Wood (L, 1-1).

Leading off for the first time in his MLB career, Anthony Rendon reached on a bunt single and advanced to second on a single by Kevin Frandsen. Jayson Werth hit an infield single, allowing Rendon to come home on a throwing error by second baseman Dan Uggla. To bring the Nationals to a halt, however, Wood retired the next three batters.

In fact, Washington failed to send another runner to base until Sandy Leon reached first on an error by Chris Johnson in the fifth.

Before that point, Jordan found himself in a bit of a jam in the fourth after walking Johnson and Justin Upton with one out. The situation went from bad to worse on a throwing error by Danny Espinosa, which allowed Dan Uggla to reach first to load the bases. But, Jordan pitched himself out of the inning, retiring Gerald Laird and Andrelton Simmons to end the inning.

And, in the top of the sixth, the Braves seemed to figure out Jordan’s repertoire. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals 2014 “Natosphere” Preseason Survey

HAPPY OPENING DAY!

For the past several seasons, the DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association (DC-IBWA) has conducted a preseason survey, asking questions to key Washington Nationals issues and seeking predictions for season statistical leaders. You can find this year’s results here. Below is how our staff answered the tough questions.

1) Who will lead the Nats in home runs?

DAVE NICHOLS (Editor-in-Chief): Bryce Harper. Hopefully Harper stays healthy, lays off the breaking stuff, and is passable against lefties.

RYAN KELLEY (Prospects and scouting): Harper’s left-handed power is the best on a team with plenty of pop. In his early 20′s he’s put together a career .209 ISO during his first two MLB seasons, and there’s plenty more power to come. He also showed up to spring training with more muscle in his frame. If he stays healthy he could hit 30+ bombs, and even 40 wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to predict.

STUART WALLACE (Statistical analysis): Bryce Harper.

CHRIS GAROSI (Fantasy): Harper. A full healthy season sees him approach 30 homers.

ALYSSA WOLICE (Beat writer): It’s no secret that last season Jayson Werth edged Bryce Harper for D.C.’s home run crown with 25 total home runs. But the sophomore battled injuries for the greater portion of the year. And, his new stature makes evident the fact he’s had a productive offseason. Critics – or, pessimists, rather – say Harper’s weight gain could adversely affect his swing. But, I’m not buying it. If he can remain healthy, Harper will certainly lead the Nats in home runs – and, perhaps, he’ll even make a run for the 40-mark.

2) Who will lead the Nats in RBI?
DN:  Harper. If he hits fourth the bulk of the season he’ll have the best opportunity to lead the team in RBIs batting behind Rendon and Zimmerman. At least, in a perfect world that’s how it works out.
RK: Ryan Zimmerman. Lineup spot plays a direct part in determining totals. Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman are generally guys that stay closest to the middle of the lineup, and furthest from the leadoff spot. LaRoche will sit against some lefties this year though, and he looked punchless for much of last season.
Zimmerman has plenty of power and is a good hitter, but if Williams decides to spread his lefties out, there’s an outside shot Ryan could be pushed away from the RBI spots. He’s also a guy that will lose games to injuries every year. Harper has the most pop, but he’s young and he was owned by southpaws last year. So, I guess I’ll gamble and go with Ryan Zimmerman. He’s a good bet to be in the either the 3-hole, clean-up spot, or 5th spot in the lineup consistently and he’s a good balance of power, discipline and hitting ability–though his bat wrapping makes his swing very long.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Harper. If he keeps hitting fifth he’ll have plenty of opportunities to drive in Werth and Zim.
AW: Ian Desmond. Last season, the star shortstop knocked in 80 runs – just two shy of Jayson Werth. And, while Werth posted some of the best numbers of his career in 2013, Desmond has the advantage of relative youth. In fact, Desmond has batted in more runs year after year, and I would bank on that trend continuing, at least for 2014.
3) Who will lead the Nats in stolen bases?
DN: Denard Span. If spring training taught us anything, it’s that new skipper Matt Williams wants to be aggressive on the basepaths. I expect Span will be running a lot this season.
RK:  The Nats don’t have much speed. Supposedly, first-year skipper Matt Williams will run the team on the bases more aggressively than Davey did, but judging by the player he himself was — and the juiced-up era he learned to play MLB baseball in — it’s hard for me to envision the offense putting a lot of emphasis on stolen bases.
Harper, Span and Desmond have some speed, while McLouth is a heady baserunner, but none of them are truly plus runners. If I had to pick one, I guess I’d say Desmond, who is the best mix of aggression, veteran instincts and raw speed. His workload also means he’ll get plenty of chances. But if Eury Perez gets extensive playing time, that’ll be the guy.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Ian Desmond.
AW: Denard Span. Sure, Span had a less-than-stellar 2013 season. But if spring training can produce only one thing, it’s promise. And, Span gave plenty of reasons to hope for improvement this season. But of course, in order for Span to rack up the stolen base total for Washington, he’ll have to fine-tune his approach at the plate to avoid repeating last season’s .327 OBP.
4) Who will lead the staff in wins?
DN:  Stephen Strasburg. This is his year to put up 200+ innings and show he’s the workhorse of the staff he’s always said he wants to be. His stuff is downright nasty, he has a mean streak on the mound, and he’ll be working to a decent pair of catchers really for the first time in his career.
RK:  Jordan Zimmermann. I really like JZ, he’s an outstanding pitcher and one of the most underrated guys in baseball-even now that he’s gotten his money. His approach to pitching and demeanor are very similar to Mike Mussina, and statistically, he’s a similarly productive — and overlooked — player. He led the NL in wins last year with 19, and his 4.03 K/BB ratio was seventh in the league and tops among returning members of the staff. Considering he’s this talented, and he’ll get plenty of favorable match-ups in the middle of the rotation, JZ is the safe bet.
SW: Stephen Strasburg.
CG: Jordan Zimmermann.
AW: I’m finally going to write what I’ve been long hoping to write: I think this season will be Stephen Strasburg’s breakout year. Fans have every reason to believe he will emerge better than ever before, now that he’s had the bone chips in his elbow taken care of. Now that the birth of his daughter has provided Strasburg with a new perspective on life, I think he’ll approach each start with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Add to that, one can only hope Strasburg’s newly acquired slider will create even more frustrations for opposing batters. That’s not to say Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez won’t challenge Strasburg for most wins. But, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Strasburg could reach 20 wins this year, provided he remains healthy and garners the run support he lacked last season.
5) How many games will Ryan Zimmerman play first base?
DN:  25 or so. I think Zimmerman will get a handful of starts against lefties and get moved around a handful of times late in games when LaRoche gets pinch-hit for against LOOGYs. I think the Nats will resist the temptation of moving him over to first full-time until next year, but it’s coming. His throwing looked no better in spring training than it did for much of last season. It’s a shame that Zim and Espinosa both wrecked their careers (Zim defensively, Epsi offensively) playing through injury in 2012 in pursuit of a pennant.
RK:  10-15. It could certainly be more depending on how well LaRoche and Espinosa play against southpaws, but I don’t think the Nats will put him there too often so they can avoid raising discussion about him getting unseated there so early. Personally though, I don’t think Rendon plays like a long-term second basemen, and he looks much better at third. Espinosa’s value lays in the fact that he’s a middle infielder with plus defense and pop. So, it’s not a bad idea to get Zimmerman reps at first, especially because his third base defense has regressed to average, largely due to his throwing issues.
SW: 55.
CG: 45.
AW: I’ll give Zimmerman a dozen starts at first base, and 30 total games in which he makes an appearance on the right corner of the infield. I think it’s pretty clear the Nats are interested in having Zim switch corners, at least for curiosity’s sake. And, Matt Williams has already hinted that the star third baseman could be called upon to cover first in double-switch scenarios and the like – anything causing Adam LaRoche to be pulled from the game. Of course, if Zimmerman’s shoulder starts to show signs of wear and tear – or if Adam LaRoche misses significant playing time for any reason – that number could rise tremendously. But, assuming neither of those situations occur, I’d say Zimmerman makes an appearance covering first base a maximum of 30 games.
6) Who starts more games: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf?
DN:  Taylor Jordan. I think he’s got the better long-term package to succeed out of this group. But they’re all just a place-holders really until Giolito and Cole are ready. By then, though, one of those might be replacing Jordan Zimmermann, who it seems more and more likely that he’ll test the free agent waters.
RK:  Tanner Roark. Taylor Jordan is the best pitcher of the four, but he’s also the youngest and still isn’t that far removed from TJ surgery. Long-term Jordan is a more fundamental member of the rotation, but there isn’t enough need to push him now with options ahead of him. The organization really likes Roark, and though I have my doubts about his feel and the depth of his repertoire, he does have good command of a 94 mph fastball and has a very high floor. Ultimately, he still may be best suited for the bullpen, where he’d be very good in a Craig Stammen role or even as a closer.
SW: Jordan.
CG: Tanner Roark – He’s got more upper minor league experience. I think Jordan heads back to the minors once Fister is healthy.
AW: I’m going to take what we saw of Tanner Roark and run with it and say he earns the most starts with Washington of the four. That’s assuming he posts numbers that come even remotely close to his hard-to-believe 1.51 ERA and 7-1 record from last season. Do I think he’s going to post a sub-2.00 ERA again? Not at all. But, if he can maintain good movement on his sinker and approach the upcoming season with confidence, I think he’ll earn a bit of time in the rotation, particularly if Doug Fister struggles to return to good health.
7) Who will get more at bats for the Nats this season: Danny Espinosa or Jamey Carroll (Survey went out well before Carroll was released or Kevin Frandsen was added to roster)?
DN:  Obviously, the answer is Espinosa by default. But I’m very skeptical that Espinosa will contribute anything with the bat again this year. His two-homer game in spring training aside, he continued to look lousy at the plate in Florida despite cutting down his swing a bit. I just don’t think he has the power in his shoulder to generate MLB bat speed anymore.
RK:  Danny Espinosa. Carroll is insurance, at most. He didn’t look so “ageless” (what so many people refer to him as) last year when he hit .211/.267/.251, and he looked old this spring. The Nats want to see what they can get out of Espinosa, even in a bench role. And at the very least, they’ll showcase his skills enough to trade him at a better price when the market is hungrier.
SW: Espi (but this question is moot. He will get more ABs than Frandsen also).
CG: Danny Espinosa – I assume he’ll play at least one.
AW: The burning joke to make here would be to vote for Jamey Carroll, despite the Nationals’ recent decision to release the 40-year-old infielder. But, all burns aside, I think Danny Espinosa would have earned more at-bats, regardless. Call me an optimist but, I’d like to hope Espinosa has made enough improvements at the plate to make him a considerable option for the Nats’ reserves. I wouldn’t necessarily imply he might be a first- or second-choice in a pinch-hitting situation. But, injuries plague every team, and the optimist in me says that, should the opportunity for a second chance arise, Espinosa could deliver. After all, numbers aside, Espinosa has something to prove – perhaps more than any other player who could find himself on the Nationals’ bench this season.
8) Which minor leaguer are you most interested in keeping tabs on this season?
DN:  Hard not to say Giolito. Scouts are drooling all over the kid. Big fastball, two more plus offerings. Great makeup. This season will be his first full year after TJ surgery, so look for pitch counts and about 160 innings out of him. Next season, the training wheels come off.

RK:  Drew Ward. I really like Ward, and see him as a solid bet to be a Hank Blalock-type third baseman, and even if he moves to the outfield, his bat is good enough to be a slugging right fielder with plus on-base percentages like Geoff Jenkins or even J.D. Drew. But there’s considerable risk here, and his background is a throwback to when farm boys used to populate minor league circuits playing on hay-covered dust.

Ward played on a very rural circuit in high school, and while he looked good against stronger competition, he rarely had the chance to swing against high 80′s heat and advanced breaking pitches. His first taste of the pro’s was promising, as he hit .292/.402/.387 in the GCL. So, it’ll be interesting to see how he plays a level higher in 2014. If not for his playing on such a rural circuit, and him not graduating early, Ward would’ve likely been a top-20 draft pick this coming June.
SW: AJ Cole
CG: Zach Walters. He could be a very important piece if the Nats have to move Zimmerman to first base sooner than later.
AW: I’m most interested in seeing what becomes of RHP A.J. Cole this season. For starters, I’m interested to see how Cole works his way up the ranks after being reacquired by the Nats (he was dealt to the Oakland A’s in the Gio Gonzalez deal). I wouldn’t necessarily say Cole will be the Nats’ star prospect this season – that title could very well fall to Lucas Giolito, Matt Skole or Brian Goodwin. But, the Nats, no doubt, have seen something in Cole who, after struggling with the A’s High-A team in 2012, posted strong number fors the Nats’ Double-A Harrisburg. In seven starts last season, Cole recorded a 2.18 ERA and a 4-2 record with Harrisburg. And, if he can improve his curveball a bit, he could really garner some attention, wherever he finds himself in the Nats’ organization this season.
9) Who will reach majors first: Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito or Matt Purke?
DN:  Sammy Solis is the easy answer. He’ll be one of the first recalled if the Nats need a pitcher of any sort. Cole is next, with Giolito in close pursuit. Purke has a long way to go to prove he belongs in this discussion anymore.

RK:  Giolio’s age, recent recovery from elbow surgery and ceiling means he has no chance this year. Purke’s injury-laden resume and struggles this spring make him a long shot, even despite his contract, notoriety and left-handedness. So, that leaves Cole and Solis. Cole has more upside, with a premium heater, plus fastball command and nice athleticism, and he’s very polished for his age. He’s one of the top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in baseball in my opinion. Solis is older, craftier and more MLB-ready. He’s also left-handed, a skill that puts him right behind Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler on the team’s depth chart. So, either one of these guys.

I think Solis might get a shot in the ‘pen as soon as someone goes down with injury, so it’ll be him first. But if any of the team’s big name starters goes down for extended time, and if Jordan or Roark don’t live up to expectations, then the organization will be more than happy to start Cole’s arbitration clock early.
SW: AJ Cole.
CG: AJ Cole.
AW: I’m going to go with LHP Sammy Solis on this one, if only because Lucas Giolito will require a bit of time to earn his way up the ranks – and prove his ability to stay healthy. Giolito’s pitching repertoire is downright impressive – he boasts a nasty curveball and a top-notch changeup – but, he’s battled with his fair share of inactivity as the result of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.
10) How many all-stars will the Nats have? Whom?
DN: Two: Harper and Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann will have a tough time replicating his first half last season, just because it was so damn good. And I have a bit of worry about Gio this year.
RK:  Four. Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper are almost locks if they’re healthy. Not only are they elite-level players at their positions, but they’re fan-favorites and high fantasy picks. I know Desmond got snubbed last year, but there was enough hubbub about it that I don’t think the Washington area’s massive market will let that happen if the team lives up to expectations this year. Plus, Tulo and Hanley are both very injury prone.
Stephen Strasburg is a lock if he’s healthy (knock knock), so that’s 3, and it’s hard to believe that one of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard won’t make it. So that’s four, almost definitely. Wilson Ramos has star-level talent, and has produced when healthy — he just needs to stay healthy. And then Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth also have good chance, and it’s not like Storen, Fister and Rendon don’t have the chops. So I think it’ll be four, But, it could certainly be five, and six isn’t too crazy if the team wins and grabs the spotlight.
SW: 4 – Strasburg, Harper, Desmond, JZimmermann.
CG: Two — Bryce Harper and Tyler Clippard.
AW: Three: Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg
11) Total wins and what place in the division?
DN:  90 wins, first place. With all the injuries to Atlanta’s pitching staff, the Nats will win the division by default, and I believe the N.L. East is the worst division in baseball now due to the Braves plight. The Phillies are falling apart due to age, the Mets are a couple years away and the Marlins just have so very little big league talent right now, despite a couple of very good pitchers.

RK:  95 wins, 1st place. Matt Williams’ managerial resume is pretty light, so he’s a bit of a wildcard no matter what kind of player he was. With that said, I think the Nationals are the MLB’s best bet for first place.

Besides Atlanta, the Nats’ division is weak and their balanced roster is overflowing with All-Star talent. The team transformed into a winner in 2012, and while they had a sophomore slump in 2013, the franchise’s studs–Harper, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gio– are now entering their primes and their leaders–Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth–are hungrier than ever for a World Series.
After the front office neglected their need for left-handed pitching and power last year, they did a great job addressing it this offseason. Now, the club not only looks supremely talented, but supremely balanced. Rafael Soriano as the closer looks like the lone weak spot, but the team has enough bullpen talent between Clippard, Storen, Stammen and Detwiler that this issue isn’t troubling. Their run differential could approach a full run per game if they’re well managed, so they could bring home as many as 100 wins and be one of the most dominant teams since the ’98 Yankees. But, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The rotation is gifted but somewhat fragile and every big league season brings plenty of disappointment.
SW: 91-71; 1st
CG: 89 wins, first in N.L. East.
AW: With the Philadelphia Phillies all but defunct and the Atlanta Braves coping with serious injuries before the season’s first pitch, I say the Nationals absolutely have to win the NL East this season. I’ll give them 96 total wins to edge the Braves, who will likely enjoy a bit of a revival in the second half of the season.
Essay: What should be the single most important development for the Nats this season?
DN:  Ryan Zimmerman’s defense, in conjunction with Adam LaRoche’s offense. Ryan Zimmerman is the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could outlast all of Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper. His bat is better at third than it would be at first base, but if he can’t get his defense sorted out — and it’s more than just the throwing at this point — he’s going to have to be moved.
LaRoche is essentially a platoon player at this stage in his career. Granted, it’s the side of the platoon where he’ll see the bulk of at bats. He’s never been good at hitting lefties, but last year he was down-right atrocious. The Nats can’t afford that type of production from their first base position. LaRoche is still decent in the field, but not as great as people in this market seem to think. If LaRoche doesn’t show signs of bouncing back early in the year, it’s a bad sign and will force the Nats into shuffling things around.

RK:  Wilson Ramos and the team’s catching. Ramos has shown All-Star-level ability, with outstanding power for a catcher, a strong arm and the ability to keep the ball in front of him. Injuries have been his downfall, and it’s what forced Davey Johnson to give a rundown and weak-swinging Kurt Suzuki so many starts over the previous two years. In Ramos’ absence, Suzuki proved not only to hurt the team with his poor pitch-framing, but he didn’t make opposing base-stealers hesitate before going for second base–not one bit–and his 70 wRC+ during his time in Washington means he was horrific with the bat.

Ramos is being handed the reigns to one of the most gifted rotations the game has every seen–and certainly the most valuable. He too is young, and his job comes with plenty of pressure. Even with Jose Lobaton added to the team as both the back-up and injury insurance, the weight still falls heavily on Ramos’ shoulders. For this team to live up to it’s potential, he’ll have to catch 100 games this season and be a stud both in the box and behind the plate.
Can he frame pitches well enough to keep the pitch counts down for fragile guys like Strasburg, Gio and max-effort Tyler Clippard, whom all have exhausting mechanics? Can he get Jordan Zimmermann and Rafael Soriano strike calls while they live on the edges of the zone? After his ACL and hamstring injuries, can he still block the plate well enough to keep the staff’s young guns confident in their premium breaking stuff? And can he get out of his crouch quick enough to slow down base stealers despite a so-so career 27% CS%?
Ramos has a hefty amount of responsibility. He could step up the the plate and flourish, establishing himself as a star, or it could certainly be more disappointment for him. But the team really needs him to play his best. Because even if Lobaton is a solid game caller and receiver, he’s not a first-tier catcher like Ramos is. And after him, the organization has little beyond glove-only Sandy Leon and a few bullpen catchers.
SW: The most important development of the season for the Nats will be the maturation and continued development of Anthony Rendon, both at the plate and as a utility player. Possessing one of the more impressive and advanced hit tools for a player his age, continued seasoning from MLB plate appearances will further hone his contact rate, his understanding of the strike zone and how opposing pitchers will handle him, which will only improve his offensive stock. A full return to health after being a little banged up last season will also add to his performance.
However, the biggest piece of the puzzle for Rendon will be in the field, as he continues to learn how to play 2B at the major league level, while also retaining his above average skills at his natural position of 3B. Given the merry-go-round of players and their positions in the infield with Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa as well as Rendon all looking at new positions part-time or otherwise, it will be up to Rendon to provide a precociously steady influence at both second and third for the other two to have successful transitions. The hitting will always be there, but health and fielding from the young Texan will play an enormous role in the overall success of the bottom half of the batting order and the team’s defense.
AW: Saying the bench should be the Nationals’ single-most important development this season might not fire up fans. But, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be item No. 1 on the Nationals “must-fix” list. Washington boasted some of the league’s best pitching last season, and came up with absolutely no run support to swing the win-loss column in their favor. With the addition of Nate McLouth and the lingering hope that Danny Espinosa could show at least marginal improvement, one would hope Washington will perform better in clutch situations this year.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats power past Houston 8-5

Home runs by Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos in the first inning led the Washington Nationals past the Houston Astros 8-5 on Friday in Viera, FL.

Both home runs came of Astros start Brett Oberholtzer, who allowed five runs total on six hits in two innings of work. Ramos finished 2 of 3 with 3 RBIs, Zach Walters continued his good spring by driving in two runs, and Adam LaRoche had a pair of base hits in three trips to the plate.

Tanner Roark started when Doug Fister was scratched with a sore elbow. The team indicated that it wasn’t an issue, but just normal soreness at his point in the spring. Roark pitched 2.2 innings and allowed one run on four hits, striking out three. The run came on a solo home run by minor league 1B Marc Krauss.

“He’s got a little inflammation in his elbow,” Williams said of Fister. “So we had an MRI taken of it yesterday and it shows a little inflammation in there, so we’re going to push him a couple of days just to make sure, get it out of there. But it came back good, he’s just go some inflammation.”

Christian Garcia, trying to earn a spot in the bullpen, allowed two runs — neither earned — on two hits and a walk in 1.1 innings. He struck out three. Rafael Soriano made his first appearance of camp and gave up two runs on three hits in one inning and struck out one.

Jerry Blevins, acquired in the offseason in a trade with Oakland for minor league speedster Billy Burns, threw 1.2 scoreless, hitless innings, though he did walk one.

The Nats host Atlanta tomorrow from Space Coast Stadium at 1:05 pm.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part II: The Outfield

Jayson Werth high-fives Bryce Harper after gunning out Greg Dobbs in the ninth inning. - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Health and self-preservation are key for the Nats outfield this season. (Stock photo Sept. 2012, Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.

If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.

With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.

For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.

Josie’s on a vacation far away…

THE OUTFIELD

Jayson Werth, RF: Werth was a stealth candidate for MVP last season, and actually ended up 13th on the postseason award ballot. The .318/.398/.532 line he posted at age 34 had everything to do with that. Werth enjoyed one of his finest seasons in the bigs, despite missing 33 games due to injury, which has to be expected from the guy at this point in his career. There’s no way he’ll every live up to the immense contract he signed to come to D.C., but when he’s been in the lineup the past two seasons he’s outdone what could have reasonably been expected of him. How long does that production continue? His defense is already slipping greatly and he has four more seasons to his contract, so it becomes an important question as Werth enters the twilight of his solid career.

Denard Span, CF: Trivia: He’s the only player in Major League history by the name of Denard. Or Span. Anyway, Span rescued his season with a torrid seven weeks at the end of the season, which was along the lines of what GM Mike Rizzo expected when he traded pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for him. Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Bryce Harper, LF: Bam Bam put up a .274/.368/.486 line his sophomore season at the age of 20. That’s at once hard to comprehend and easy to overlook. He’s doing remarkable things at such an early age. Unfortunately, he’s his own worst enemy right now with his “balls to the wall” approach at defense. At some point, self-preservation has to take hold. No manager or coach wants to tell Harper to slow down, but he needs to stay on the field – and healthy – to fulfill his promise. After crashing into the wall at Dodgers Stadium in May, he played all season on a knee that required surgery at the conclusion of the season, under the radar while many weren’t paying attention to baseball. He needs to figure out lefties (.214/.327/.321/ in 158 PAs) and breaking balls, but the talent is there. He just needs to stay on the field.

Nate McLouth, OF: Last season was the first time since 2009 McLouth played more than 90 games at the Major League level. His resurgence for the Orioles is nothing short of astounding, considering the trajectory his career was taking. In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He rediscovered himself in Baltimore, hitting .26/.342/.435 and .258/.329/.399 the past two years. Now 32, McLouth will see plenty of at bats with the injury-prone Nats outfield and as a late inning pinch-hitter. By default, he becomes the leader of the Goon Squad.

Scott Hairston, Corner OF: Hairston is the right-handed hitting Ying to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” – signal the end is rapidly approaching the once versatile and useful player. It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Jeff Kobernus, Corner OF: Kobernus made his MLB debut last year at the age of 25, past prospect status. His tryout lasted 36 PAs and resulted in a .167/.306/.267 slash as he played all three outfield positions. Small sample caveats abound, as the converted second baseman held his own in Syracuse, hitting .318/.366/.388, all minor league career highs. You like to see a player whose numbers rise as he goes up the ladder. He’s had 40+ steals each of the past three seasons in the minors and folks love his work ethic. But there’s not a lot of room in the bigs for a right-handed hitting speedster without obvious elite skills and no pop, especially in the outfield.

Eury Perez, CF: Did you see the last sentence I wrote about Kobernus? It applies even more toward Perez. His stolen base numbers have plummeted as he’s risen through the ranks, from 64 to 51 to 23. He’s always made good contact, as his lifetime .305 average will attest to. But there’s no power, less willingness to walk, and he’s only an average defender despite his speed – though he has a decent arm. Perez is destined for pinch runner/Quad-A status.

Steven Souza, Corner OF: Souza was a third round pick in 2007 out of high school, so he’s been in the system for-e-ver, toiling first in anonymity, then infamously due to his PED suspension in 2010. But Souza has blossomed a little bit the past two seasons and put himself back on the radar of the big club. He has an interesting pop/speed combo (15 homers, 20 SBs in 323 PAs for Harrisburg in ’13) with good plate discipline (.396 OBP) and had a nice appearance in the Arizona Fall League in October. The 25-year-old could have a chance to impact the big roster yet.

Brian Goodwin, CF: Goodwin is the heir apparent to the center field position at Nats Park. The 34th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Goodwin has an impressive arsenal of tools. He possess elite plate discipline, something that might actually hurt his counting numbers in the minor leagues, as he simply won’t expand his strike zone for inferior pitchers. When he does swing, he has a nice blend of pop to go along with squaring up on the ball. Goodwin is a fine defender in center, though his arm isn’t the greatest, and he’s still learning to use his speed on the bases (just 19 of 30 last season). He struggled at the start of last season in Double-A, but picked up as the season went on. There’s plenty of time for the 23-year old as Span plays in his walk year this season (barring Nats picking up Span’s $9M option for ’15).

Michael Taylor, OF: Scouts have been drooling over Taylor’s athleticism since being drafted in the sixth round of the ’09 draft. Unfortunately for Taylor, he’s never really been able to translate all that athletic ability into production on the baseball field. He’s still young (23 in March), so he’s got time to “put it together”, but in over 1600 minor league at bats, Taylor owns a .249/.319/.399 slash. He repeated High-A last season and tore it up on the base paths (51 of 60 on steals) and his slash went up a little bit across the board. Double-A this year will tell the story of whether he’s a baseball player or athlete.

NATS: Happy 21st Birthday, Bryce Harper (Photos)

HAPPY 21st BIRTHDAY BRYCE HARPER!

Washington Nationals Outfielder Bryce Harper was born on 10/16/1992 in Las Vegas, NV.

Follow Bryce Harper on Twitter (@BHarper3407) and be sure to wish #34 a Happy 21st Birthday.

Bryce Harper - Philadelphia Phillies v. Washington Nationals, October 1, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper – Philadelphia Phillies v. Washington Nationals, October 1, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper soaking up every last bit of information from hitting coach Rick Eckstein - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper soaking up every last bit of information from hitting coach Rick Eckstein – Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

 

Bryce Harper – St. Louis Cardinals v. Washington Nationals, 9/02/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Nats 3B Coach Bo Porter hugged Bryce Harper like a proud papa after his first MLB walkoff. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Nats 3B Coach Bo Porter hugged Bryce Harper like a proud papa after his first MLB walkoff. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper, from action in Sept. 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper, from action in Sept. 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

 

 

David DeJesus flies out sharply to jumping center fielder Bryce Harper in 8th inning – Chicago Cubs v. Washington Nationals, 9/3/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper taking curtain call after hitting his first MLB home run, May 14 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper has strides like a gazelle and gets into position for sliding into 3B in 5th inning – Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

It just doesn’t get much better than this. Centerfielder Bryce Harper wearing his stirrups on Labor Day. – Chicago Cubs v. Washington Nationals, 9/3/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Nats problems in 2013 not associated with karma, pressure or curse

Now that the Washington Nationals have been eliminated from the playoff hunt, everyone, their brother, and their Uncle Junior is going to have opinions on what went wrong this season. It’s pretty simple to me. Heck, I outlined the reasons in my Aug. 7 column during the Braves sweep that unofficially ended the Nats season.

And no, the Nats struggles of the first two-thirds of the season have nothing to do with karma,  the baseball gods, pressure to live up to expectations, the Nats decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg last season or the team signing Rafael Soriano.

Now that the Nats have played almost two months at the level everyone thought they would play all season, let’s take a look at what kept the Nats from doing so the first 115 games of the season.

1) Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos spent a significant portion of the year on the disabled list or futilely playing through injury.

No one likes to use injuries as excuses, but that’s a third of your everyday lineup on the shelf, forcing inadequate backups into way too many at bats (as we’ll outline below). Harper missed 40 games, Ramos 45 and Werth 30 – all before Aug. 9.

Up until Aug. 9, when the Braves completed that sweep, the Nats were at or very near the bottom in team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging and averaging just 3.7 runs per game, which would be next to last in the N.L. this season (ahead of only Miami) extrapolated for 162 games. That’s pretty much the Bermuda Triangle of offensive futility. Since that time, though, they’ve averaged exactly 5.0 runs per game, which would clearly lead the league. That pace might not be entirely sustainable, but it’s not far off of the true capability of this offense.

The Nats will finish the season sixth in the N.L. in runs per game, eighth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging, even considering how atrocious they were for the first 115 games. The final 47 games of the season showed a remarkable turnaround in offensive performance, and it was primarily due to the team being healthy again and keeping their bench players on the bench.

2) The Nats wasted 150 at bats on Danny Espinosa.

We all knew Espinosa was hurt. During the winter meetings, the team announced Espinosa tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder last August (and played through it, including his dismal performance in the playoffs). Then, Espinosa broke his right wrist getting hit by a pitch in early April and either he hid it or the team allowed him to play through it until they could no longer take it.

Espinosa “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 44 games before being placed on the D.L. and was not much better in his exile in Triple-A. His poor health decisions, going back to when he originally injured the shoulder during last season’s pennant run, could end up costing the better part of three seasons instead of one — if not jeopardizing his entire career.

Combined with the other injuries, during May and into June the Nats essentially played with four pitcher’s spots in the batting order.

3) The strength in Ryan Zimmerman’s surgically repaired right shoulder did not return to him until August.

Up until that Braves series the first week of August, Zimmerman hit .269/.340/.427 with 12 homers in 115 games. Not terrible, but certainly not numbers fit for an All-Star in the prime of his career.

Zimmerman hit a home run that night on Aug. 9. In the 42 games since, all he’s done is hit .300/.367/.556 with 13 home runs and 23 RBIs, primarily out of the two-hole. It’s been a remarkable, and much welcomed, turnaround for the face of the franchise.

As for his fielding, it too is noticeably better in the last two months than it was the first four months of the season. It’s apparent that his shoulder is much stronger now that it was early in the season and hopefully Nats fans don’t have to worry about moving Zim to first any time soon.

4) It took Denard Span three months to adjust to the National League.

I normally scoff at notions such as this. In the “old days” there was a perceived difference between how pitchers pitched in the two leagues. I don’t think it was ever really as pronounced as some oldsters might lead you to believe, and I don’t think there’s any difference now, with as much team-hopping and interleague play that there is these days.

However, and this is a big however, this was the first time in his career Span was told “You are the man.” It’s the first time a team has told him that he would unequivocally play every day and lead off every day (not that he did). It was also the first time he had to bat behind the pitcher’s spot, so perhaps that went into his mindset as well.

Regardless, he did not get off to a good start. He was very patient, as his history suggested, and even more so very early on. That limited his aggressiveness and he found himself in plenty of bad hitter’s counts, which resulted in a LOT of grounders to second. He was also completely anemic to left-handed pitching – a trait he was not alone in with the Nats this season.

Davey Johnson moved Span to the seventh spot in the order for a couple of weeks in late-July and early August and he was just about at his lowest slash of the season (.259/.311/.357) on – you guessed it – the start of play on Aug. 9, when he was put back in the lead-off spot. From that point forward, Span hit .326/.366/.425. Coincidence the Nats played their best baseball when their lead-off hitter was playing his best? I don’t think so.

5) There was no viable left-handed relief presence (and other bullpen meltdowns).

Rizzo allowed Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez all to walk last off-season. Zach Duke made the team out of spring training as the sole left-handed reliever, and in a long-man role at that. The theory was that Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were as tough, if not more so, on lefties as they were righties. Storen has limited lefties to a .242/.302/.355 slash in his career, marginally worse than he’s done against righties. Clippard is actually tougher on lefties (.181/.264/.315) that righties (.203/.293/.374), so the theory was good.

Except – Davey Johnson only uses Clippard in the eighth inning and Storen was a mess until he was demoted and came back with a revamped delivery, scrapping the slow, straight leg action for a more traditional kick which restored the tilt on his slider. The other problem was who was left to face lefties in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Duke was a disaster, Henry Rodriguez wild pitched his way out of town and Ryan Mattheus punched a locker.

The team had no other option. They called up Ian Krol, who mixed bouts of effectiveness and batting practice equally, and Xavier Cedeno and Fernando Abad, two players Houston let go this season. Both have done a decent enough job when called upon, but neither is a long-term option.

6) The bench, which performed admirably in 2012, was dismal in ’13.

Last season, when the Nats went through their injury phase, players such as Kurt Suzuki, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina and capably filled in for the injured starters, as we noted above. This year, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Suzuki showed some promise to return to his 15-homer seasons of his early career after coming over to the Nats mid-season last year. Five homers in 164 plate appearances gave hope. But he was abysmal at the plate in ’13 (.222/.283/.310) while playing full-time most of the first half while Ramos was out.

Lombardozzi has a level and he played to it this season. It’s just not very high, and certainly a drop-off from a healthy Harper or Espinosa, the two positions he’s filled in at the most. There’s just no way a contending team can give Lombardozzi 400 at bats an expect good things to happen.

Moore simply was overmatched and didn’t get regular enough at bats to get on track. He’s had a better approach since his return from the minors and may very well platoon with Adam LaRoche at first base next season. I’m not sold on Moore’s potential as an everyday player, but he could succeed in this role if he can keep himself fresh with semi-regular at bats.

You can almost understand the long leash with Bernadina this season. He was properly used last season (almost exclusively against RHPs) and gave the Nats his career year. Pressed into more general duty this season, he was exposed. Some also think he might have been hiding a nagging injury, carried over from the World Baseball Classic.

Chad Tracy, at 33, is at the end of the line. His overall numbers (.184/.221/.288) are pitcher-esque. He’s hitless for September in nine plate appearances and is 5-for-25 since Aug. 1.

Rizzo traded for Scott Hairston in early July to be the right-handed bat off the bench. He has a .683 OPS for the Nats in 57 plate appearances. Hairston has another year on his contract and is capable defensively, but he’s hit just .221/.267/.500 against lefties this season.

7) Dan Haren was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for the first three months of the season.

Haren was signed in the offseason for a not-so-meager $13 million. In the fifth spot in the rotation, the Nats only needed him to be a .500 pitcher for the team to have success. Unfortunately, for the first half of the season he was the worst starter in baseball. He was two different pitchers this season.

Before he went on the D.L. (it was either that or be released), Haren made 15 starts. The team went 4-11 in those starter. His record was 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA and his opposition slash was a dismal .306/.340/.548 against, with an NL leading 19 home runs allowed in 82.0 IP. Essentially, he made every hitter look like an All-Star.

When he returned, he was a different pitcher. He was able to get more separation between his four-seam and cutter and he was able to keep hitters off-balance again. In 14 post-D.L. starts, Haren has gone 5-5 (team record 7-8) with a 3.57 ERA and one save in that marathon game. Opponents have hit .234/.277/.365 against him, and he’s limited the homers to 9 in 80.2 IP.

So, attribute all the intangibles you want to why the Nats played poorly the first 115 games of the season. Call it karma, pressure or curse. But this team perfomed pretty much as expected the final 47 games of the season, and I have no reason to doubt they will next season as well.

Washington Nationals Game 153: Harper helps Nats clinch winning season with win over Miami

Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez helped the Washington Nationals trim their NL Wild Card deficit to five games and clinch a winning season in their 3-2 victory over the Miami Marlins Thursday night.

Gonzalez was solid, allowing just two earned runs on seven hits, two walks and three strikeouts through 6.0 innings pitched. His first trouble spot came along with the first two batters faced, as Donovan Solano doubled and Ed Lucas singled him home to start the game, 1-0 Miami.

In the bottom of the inning, though, Harper more than evened things out for the Nats’ southpaw, who celebrated his 28th birthday on the mound. With one out, Ryan Zimmerman singled and Jayson Werth walked, allowing Harper to gift Gio a three-run shot off Henderson Alvarez (L, 4-5). The long ball marked Harper’s 20th home run of the season.

From there, the Marlins made some contact off Gonzalez, but failed to score through the next four innings. Gonzalez found himself in a trouble spot in the third after Donovan Solano and Ed Lucas hit back-to-back again, this time in the form of two singles.

Luckily for the Nats, Christian Yelich grounded into a double play in the next at-bat before Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Ruggiano each drew walks. After a coaching visit, Gonzalez regained control in time to jam Placido Polanco with a 94 MPH fastball for the third out.

The Nats went on to threaten in the bottom of the third, but Alvarez, too, pitched out of the jam. [Read more...]

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