September 2, 2014

Washington Redskins Season Preview Part II: Running Backs

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

Monday, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.

Tuesday, we examine the situation at running back. Who will be the third down back, who didn’t make the team and just how deep are the Redskins in the backfield.


[Read more...]

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part I: Quarterbacks

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

Monday we look at the competition at quarterback. More realistically, we asked the question: Is there a competition at quarterback?


In the recent history of the Washington Redskins, the biggest question that is most often repeated year after year is “Who should play quarterback in order to give the Redskins the best chance to succeed?”

Under the helm of Mike Shanahan, he brought in Donovan McNabb to replace a developing Jason Campbell. Then he benched McNabb during the end of a game against the Detroit Lions to have Rex Grossman attempt a game-winning drive. Next, we had the Grossman and John Beck fiasco that ended in a wasted season, enticing the Redskins decided to move up in the next draft to grab Robert Griffin III.

Surprisingly, Washington drafted another quarterback, Kirk Cousins,three rounds later and questions automatically began to fly about whether there would be a battle for the starting signal caller. In 2012, all of those questions were put to rest as Griffin led his team to the division title and a home playoff game for the first time since 1999.

Unfortunately for both the Redskins and Griffin, 2012 ended with its offensive leader going into the offseason broken and physically incapable of getting ready for the next season. Questions again arose about whether Griffin would be able to start the season against Philadelphia and if Cousins should fill in until the week five bye after having an impressive pre-season showcase.

After dropping five straight games after a 3-5 start, Griffin was benched for “safety precautions”. Cousins had a trial run of three games but did not win any of the encounters, though he showed potential as a leader. With the incredibly disappointing 3-13 record, both head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan were given the boot and replaced by former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

Beginning the 2014 training camp there seemed to be no controversy as Gruden immediately named Griffin as the starter. Everyone felt that with a full offseason and playing without a hindering knee brace, the former Heisman winner could return to form and lead this team once again.

However, after a mediocre and lackluster preseason from the first string offense, there were some doubters if Griffin was the best option for the team. Griffin went 13 for 20 for 141 yards, two interceptions, was sacked four times, and multiple questionable decisions. The controversy was fueled by former Redskins great Joe Theismann when he made the following comment:

“Let’s stop beating around the bush. Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has. Now, Robert is learning to work out of a pocket. He doesn’t look as smooth or as comfortable throwing the football. I mean, your eyes will tell you everything you need to know.

It’s going to be a decision that Jay Gruden will to have to make. Right now, Robert Griffin III is his quarterback. Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to, because of the efficiency with which he has run [the offense]. Now Kirk, like I said, is basically a drop-back quarterback. I see Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, I see Kirk Cousins that way”.

Although Cousins has looked impressive during the course of the first three preseason games, he did so against backup defenders, many of whom will not be employed in the coming month. It was crystal clear that Cousins had a much cleaner pocket with more time to throw when compared to Griffin running for his life against the Ravens. Furthermore, Cousins already had his chance to compete for the starting job when he played against starting caliber defenses at the end of last year, where he faired okay, but not to the extent where he would unseat Griffin.

To add another twist to the already confusing puzzle, the St. Louis Rams lost their franchise quarterback Sam Bradford, again to that same dreaded torn ACL injury. With Cousins being a young and capable backup with some game experience, rumors began to swirl linking the two teams because of their history in trading picks for the Redskins’s right to select Griffin. However, at this time Rams’s coach Jeff Fisher claims he is sticking with his veteran backup, former Maryland standout Shaun Hill.

For now, there will not major developments or changes at the quarterback position for the Redskins. Griffin will start and continue to do so until he physically cannot or he loses the support of his teammates. Some fans may be quick to blame Griffin for last year’s disappointment simply because he did not save a team that had an atrocious defense and special teams.

Cousins will continue to be the guy who is one play away from getting into the game. Cousins will have to bide his time while Griffin gets every opportunity to fulfill the promise that everyone saw in 2012. Perhaps Cousins’ best opportunity might be with another franchise, but for now, he’s the backup unless Griffin proves once and for all he’s unfit for the job.

Colt McCoy will be retained as the third string signal caller because of Griffin’s injury history and is more than capable in that role, as he could be many teams’ primary backup.

The organization, coaching staff, players and all Redskins fans hope Griffin shakes off the rust, quiets the doubters, and takes his team to new heights.

Nats second opening day comes with added enthusiasm

The Washington Nationals play the Atlanta Braves in the first of a three-game series Friday at 1:10 pm. Sounds clinical when it’s put in those terms. That could describe any series opening game at any point in the season.

But this series opener is also the home opener on the schedule — the first of 81 games in the regular season for the Nats to play with a homefield advantage. It’s also the first time for many in attendance — yours truly included — to see the Nats for the first time in person this calendar year. Unless you were fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to Viera for Spring Training, or shuffled up to New York to see the Mets series, you’re in the same boat.

This game would have been special – for fans, the players, the organization, the city – regardless of circumstances. But it comes on the heels of a three-game sweep of the division rival Mets. Most opening days come with as much uncertainty as excitement. But Friday’s home opener comes with added enthusiasm. We’ve already seen a lot of what the Nats could be this season in just three games

We’ve already seen Stephen Strasburg recover from a shaky start to strike out 10 in six innings. We’ve seen Gio Gonzalez dominate an undermanned Mets team — and smack a home run to boot.

Ryan Zimmerman’s second inning blast Thursday reminds us of just how important a player he is for the team, just as his throwing error Wednesday reminds us that his defense isn’t what it used to be, and may never be again.

Tanner Roark showed more of the promise in Thursday’s emergency start that he gave a glimpse of at the end of last season. Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa all had a promising opening series after last season’s disappointments. And Jayson Werth kept on hitting.

What we haven’t seen yet is Bryce Harper bust out with any noise yet. Manager Matt Williams indicated in his pregame press conference that Harper’s swing was a “tick off” so far. Asked to elaborate, Williams declined, saying he was not at liberty to talk about it. Cause for concern? Maybe, but worry? Not yet.

The Nats have won coming from behind late. They’ve dominated a game. And they’ve grinded a win out for a late-blooming prospect. We’ve seen a lot so far in just three games, and that makes the home opener that much more exciting for the home fans. This is a season of big possibilities. It’ll take six months to play out.

But we’ve already seen a lot.

Happy Opening Day everyone.

Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview: Five biggest issues to watch

Here we go again.

The Washington Nationals, despite not qualifying for the playoffs last season and spending the first three-quarters of the season in the bottom-three in the N.L. generating base runners, are preseason favorites in the N.L. East and a popular pick again for the World Series.

The Nats are a talented team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. With big paydays ahead for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann (with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper not too far behind), the time is now for the Nats to really start making noise on the national level.

Most of the prognosticators are ignoring all the warning signs and putting their reputations on the line for the Nats. Are they capable of making a long playoff run? Yes. But simply ignoring warning signs from last season and expecting another near-perfect run in the regular season like 2012 would be foolish.

GM Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason. The addition of Doug Fister (presuming health) was enough to merit a good grade, but they also added veteran outfielder Nate McLouth to strengthen the bench and mitigate the inevitable Jayson Werth trip to the disabled list or Bryce Harper crashing into an outfield wall. The cherry on top was picking up lefty Jerry Blevins, who’s useful against righties just as well, for the bullpen.

Last week, Rizzo picked up UTL Kevin Frandsen off the waiver wire from the Phillies. This may prove to be a key addition to the bench as well.

But there are still plenty of question marks heading into the 2014 season. What are the top five issues Nats fans need to watch for? At the end of last season, I wrote a couple of columns on what went wrong in 2013. That’s a good place to start since many of the same issues still exist.

This might seem like I’m down on the Nats chances. Not so. The bar for this team is set around 91-92 wins. Best case scenario sees Harper bust out instead of incremental improvement, Werth’s normalization from last season’s overachieving isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production instead of sliding further.

They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East by default. Atlanta was crippled by injuries to its rotation and the rest of the division is either too old (Philly), not ready (Mets) or flat-out lacking in talent (Miami). Of course, worst-case scenario sees all of the below scenarios blowing up and derailing another promising season.

GETTING ON BASE

Overall, the team carried a .313 OBP, in the bottom third of the league and it could have been worse if not for a hot stretch the last five weeks of the season — as late as mid-August they were next-to-last in total baserunners and finished just 12th in the league. They have to be better setting the table to truly contend.

But the starting roster is intact from last season, when the Nats needed a scorching hot final seven weeks to climb out of the cellar of run scoring and putting runners on base. That stretch coincided with Denard Span’s hot streak, so maybe Rizzo figures Span’s adjustment period to the N.L. is over and he’ll contribute a his career average .350 OBP at the top of the order all season long.

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.

Hopefully, Anthony Rendon will eventually settle into the second spot in the order. In his rookie season (while learning a brand new position at the Major League level), Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 23 doubles. In his short minor league career, the now 23-year-old hit .269/.408/.531 and he’s always been lauded for his plate discipline.

If Rendon can handle the two-spot, it goes a long way in helping Matt Williams set the heart of the order and provide protection for the next bullet point.

HITTING AGAINST LEFTIES

The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Span’s .223/.278/.261, Bryce Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche’s .198/.254/.313. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties.

I have very little doubt Harper will figure it out. He’s a world class baseball talent and hitting against lefties is the last element from him absolutely exploding at the plate.

Span is still in the prime of his career and should bounce back closer to his career norms of .281/.358/.374 (including last season) against southpaws.

LaRoche is a completely different matter. He’s 34. He’s never been good against lefties to begin with (.244/.300/.430 career). In his career year of 2012 he only hit .268/.319/.506 vs. LHP. This is very much a player in steady decline and really should be relegated to platoon work at this stage in his career.

He’s still capable with the glove, but he’s overrated in this market with exactly how much value he brings defensively considering the stone hands the organization ran out there before him at the position. If LaRoche slides anymore from what he provided with the bat in ’13, it’ll be time to consider other options at the position (see below).

RYAN ZIMMERMAN’S SHOULDER

Ah yes. Here it is. I was speaking with DSP’s fantasy baseball contributor Chris Garosi the other day during an on-line draft, and he remarked that the most important Nats player this season is Zach Walters. His theory: Zimmerman’s shoulder (and defense in general) is so unreliable at this point that his move to first base is more imminent than anyone in D.C. wants to admit. With Danny Espinosa’s problems with the bat (more below), Walters could factor very big in D.C. mid-season.

While that might be gloom and doom, it’s probably not far off.

I’m not a doctor. But I have had my share of shoulder injuries. In fact, I had the same injury as Zim (tear of the Acromioclavicular joint). Mine was a complete tear. Obviously I don’t have access to Zim’s medical file, and he’s had it surgically repaired. But he spent most of last season still mired in the throwing problems and had a not-so-mysterious lack of power until late in the season. It’s entirely possible that it took that long for the joint to gain strength back.

Offensively, Zimmerman should be fine. His defense got better as the season went along, but we still saw some problems with his throwing in spring training. This situation bears close attention, as Zimmerman remains the most important National and the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could very well outlast Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper.

His bat is much more valuable at third than first base. But if he can’t provide the defense, he’s going to have to move. If that move is predicated by ineffectiveness by LaRoche, or Zimmerman’s throwing woes, it’ll come sooner than later, and perhaps even this season.

BACK OF THE BULLPEN

Do you have confidence in Rafael Soriano?

According to Fangraphs, Soriano has lost speed off his fastball the past four seasons in a row. He’s walking less, but striking out shockingly less, as hitters are making much more contact on him on pitches inside — and outside – of the strike zone. Outside the strike zone, baters went from 22.9 percent contact rate in ’12 to 29.6 percent in ’13. On strikes, the contact rate went from 60.8 percent to 63.9 percent. He’s given up 12 hits in five inning in Florida.

His hits per nine innings jumped an alarming 1.5 hits from ’12 to ’13 (with normal .296 BABiP) while his K/9 rate fell to 6.9. His line drive rate and fly ball rate are going up, his ground ball rate is going down.

All of this is dangerous territory and a recipe for unmitigated disaster. This is a pitcher whose skills are eroding very quickly.

As for options, of course Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen remain. Both have 40-save seasons to their credit. Clippard continues to defy logic with his repertoire of high fastballs and disappearing changeups from his awkward delivery.

Storen, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

Our Stuart Wallace took a look at Storen’s alarming rise in walk rate last week. Storen was fairly horrible the first couple months of last season, due to a large number of batted balls falling in and a higher walk rate (5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP before demotion). After his exile in Syracuse, he came back with a more streamlined, natural delivery, rather than the unusual and clumsy straight leg kick he used. He had better command, kept the ball down and was pretty much his old self.

But he’s been back to getting lit up this spring. All caveats on spring training stats, but he’s walked six in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up nine hits and six earned runs. How long a leash does he have this season?

HELP FROM THE BENCH?

Last season the Nats bench was horrific. There’s no other way to say it. .207/.264/.351. Those are pitcher’s batting numbers.

They picked up Nate McLouth as a free agent to be the primary left-handed bat on the bench. McLouth is a capable fielder at all three outfield spots, so if the Nats have an injury there they at least have an MLB-caliber replacement, something they didn’t have last season in Steve Lombardozzi.

But for everyone’s fawning over the 32-year-old, let’s remember: prior to his career renaissance last season with Baltimore, McLouth had been simply waived by Pittsburgh (twice) and Atlanta.  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’s never hit higher than .276 and is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter. He’s a capable backup, not more.

The other outfielder is Scott Hairston. Hairston is the right-handed hitting Yin 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 for 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.

Danny Espinosa “won” a utility job in spring training after hitting .226/.305/.415 in 59 plate appearances. Where to start with Espinosa?

The rotator cuff tear in 2012 that he never had surgically repaired? The broken wrist that he sustained in April only to be revealed/properly diagnosed in late May which allowed him to “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 167 PAs? The months of ineptitude in Triple-A (.216/.280/.286 in 75 games) after taking just two weeks off to let the wrist calm down?

Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads as his performance has fallen completely off the table as his injuries continued to mount. If Espinosa can return healthy — and that’s not a given — he can provide 20 homer power and speed with Gold Glove caliber defense. After spring training, and the waiver-wire pick-up of Kevin Frandsen, we’re still waiting to see him prove his health.

Frandsen can play all over the diamond and outfield, and he’s proven adept at pinch-hitting (which is a highly volatile “skill”), but he has no power and doesn’t run. He is the very definition of journeyman utility player.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview Part V: The Bullpen

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard pitched 8th inning and earned 10th hold against Baltimore Orioles, May 20, 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard in action of May 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.

THE BULLPEN

Rafael Soriano, RHP: The saves were there last year, the elite skills were not. Soriano’s ERA and WHIP were their highest in any season he’s been a team’s top closer. On top of that, his K rate went down precipitously as he transitioned from a pitcher with a slider out pitch to a fastball pitcher, one who’s lost velocity each of the past four seasons. He lowered his walk rate, which obviously is good, but his hit rate jumped. His ground ball rate has dropped the past three seasons as his line drive and fly ball rates have risen, more evidence of him abandoning anything but the fastball. If the walk rate goes back to his normal seasonal allowance, he could be in a world of trouble. As it is, the velocity and strikeout rate drops are a big warning sign for a 34-year-old pitcher who hates not closing.

Tyler Clippard, RHP: Clippard turned in another exceptional season for the Nats with a 2.41 ERA and ridiculous 0.859 WHIP. All was bolstered by an incredibly unsustainable 4.7 H/9 rate and .172 BABiP, which completely mirrored his 2011 All-Star campaign. Those types of numbers are just unheard of, so he’s unlikely to repeat them, but he’s a funky pitcher. He succeeds with high fastballs and a changeup that almost impossible to identify out of his unusual and, frankly, weird delivery. The strikeout and ground ball rates were down just a tick but not alarmingly so. Clippard should be just fine in his established role. The big thing to worry about him is the price tag. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $5.88 million contract and he isn’t a free agent until after 2016, so the price tags is just going to keep going up. That’s a lot for a non-closer reliever — albeit one of the best in the game.

Drew Storen, RHP: Oh boy. Where do we start? Storen was fairly terrible in the first half, pitching to a 5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP and outrageously high hit rate. The walks were fine, the Ks were fine, he was just simply unlucky as to balls finding their way into green space. He was sent to the minors on July 26 after wearing a the final inning of an 11-0 drubbing by the Mets on a day that he ran a 103 degree fever. When he came back Aug. 16, he was the same old Storen. Well, not really. He ditched the silly straight leg kick for a more conventional one that allowed him to have a more consistent delivery, but the results were more attributable to normalization. He held batters to a .200/.263/.214 line upon his return.

Jerry Blevins, LHP: Obtained from the A’s for Minor League Player of the Year Billy Burns, Blevins is more than a typical lefty specialist — he actually owned better numbers against righties than lefties last season. Overall, a 3.15 ERA and 1.067 WHIP were solid. He has a four-pitch repertoire and faced four or more batters in more than half of his appearance last season. Blevins won’t overwhelm with his fastball, and his K rates will keep him in a set up or LOOGY role, but he knows how to pitch. Has improved his walk rate each of the past three seasons.

Xavier Cedeno, LHP: Want the good news? Cedeno enjoyed his career year last season at age 26, earning a 1.50 ERA and 1.000 WHIP for the Nats. He struck out 9 per nine innings and walked just 1.5. Want the bad news? He also suffered his worst season as a big leaguer last year, as he allowed 11 runs (eight earned) in 6.1 innings for Houston before they cut him in April. Am I being dramatic? You betcha. But Cedeno’s numbers for the Nats came in just 6.0 over 11 games. Against lefties, Cedeno provided a .231/.333/.269 slash. Against righties, that jumped to .391/.517/.522. Granted, we’re talking 29 and 31 plate appearances here. Call me skeptical, but I just don’t see Cedeno coming anywhere near approaching his numbers for the Nats last season again. He’s not a kid, and nothing in his history indicates this was anything more than a couple of good appearances in a row against limited competition.

Craig Stammen, RHP: Stammen could start for half the teams in baseball. His stuff is that good. All his peripherals continue to go in the right direction and his traditional numbers are solid across the board. Is this a pitcher that has found his spot? Or are the Nats hiding a gem, either intentionally or not. Either way, Stammen has proven to be an absolutely invaluable arm in the long role that he’s occupied the past two season for the team. His walk rate dropped by 0.7 this year over last — if that holds, he should earn higher leverage late innings if Clippard gets too expensive.

Ryan Mattheus, RHP: On the other hand… Mattheus was unlucky, sure. His BABiP of .405 screams it. But look at the rest. Rising walk rate. K rate less than 6 per nine. Lost velocity on his sinker. Punching a locker, breaking his hand and being completely and utterly lost once he returned. The hit rate is going to stabilize somewhat, but how much is luck and how much is just erosion of skill? He’s 30, not a youngster that needs to figure things out. He needs to prove health and competence or there are plenty of arms that will push him out of a job.

Josh Roenicke, RHP: Roenicke is famous for being the son of former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke and also being Ian Desmond’s brother-in-law. Roenicke the pitcher, however, is mediocre at best. He was brought in as an NRI and will provide depth in Syracuse most likely. He walks way too many (5.2 per nine in 62 IP last season) without the high K rate (just 6.5/9) that allows you live with it.

Erik Davis, RHP: Davis made his MLB debut last season at age 26, compiling a 1-0 record, 3.12 ERA and 1.269 WHIP in 8.2 innings, striking out 12 while walking just one. This was after going 3-7 with 15 saves, 3.10 ERA and 1.433 WHIP in AAA, so small sample caveats abound. Davis was slated to compete for a role in this year’s pen, but was placed on the 60-day D.L. with an “elbow strain” on the same day the Nats traded for Jose Lobaton. It’s quite possible he never throws a pitch to Lobaton.

Christian Garcia, RHP: “If only Garcia could stay healthy…” Any Nats fan that knows more than just Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg will cite Garcia as their secret weapon. He’s got the stuff, he knows how to pitch, and he’s still young enough (27) that he could impact the MLB roster. Unfortunately, that part of staying healthy just keeps eluding Garcia. He’s already had two Tommy John’s while he was property of the Yankees and last season he was limited to 13.1 innings in the minors after suffering a torn wrist tendon, which triggered shoulder soreness and hamstring injuries. He owns four quality MLB pitches, he just needs to get on a mound to show them off. Problem is, he can’t.

Manny Delcarmen, RHP: Delcarmen, 32, hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2010 with the Rockies. Why is he here? Well, he’s always had good stuff and has had several full seasons of downright goodness at the big league level. In 07-08 with the Red Sox he was a quality righty in their pen and some thought he had closer written all over him. Problem is, his walk rate was always high and got higher the older he got and his K rate plummeted after he hit 27. When he should have been in the peak of his career, he busted. Read into that however you want. Last year in AAA, he went 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.222 WHIP in 54 innings, so there might be something left. At the triple-A level, anyway.

Aaron Barrett, RHP: Barrett was drafted four times: by the Dodgers in the 44th round of the ’06 draft, by the Twins in the 20th round in ’08, by Texas in the 27th round in ’09 and finally by the Nats in the 9th round in 2010 after his eligibility ended for the University of Mississippi. Barrett, at age 25, dominated AA last year for Harrisburg, going 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA and 1.093 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9 and outrageous 12.3 K/9. In fact, in 149.2 IP in his minor league career, Barrett owns a 12.0 K/9 rate. He does this all with an average fastball, but a slider that Baseball America deemed best in the Nats’ system. At 6’4″, 215 he has a big league build. He needs to pitch against players his own age this year but his arm is definitely intriguing.

Clay Hensley, RHP: Hensley is a slight (5’11″, 190) righty that for the past few seasons has been able to fool enough batters to keep getting chances in the big leagues. But at 33 now, he’s running out of gas. Last season for San Francisco in 50.2 IP he walked 5.3 per nine and his ERA (4.62) showed it. Coupled with a 5.19 ERA for Florida in ’12, Hensley’s hanging on to the end of his rope.

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.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part I: The Infield

Ryan Zimmerman gets Matt Kemp out in top of 5th (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to first baseman Adam LaRoche) - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Ryan Zimmerman is a key component to Nats playoff hopes. (stock photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page, Sept. 2012)

 

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.

With no further adieu… [Read more...]

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Roundtable Part 2

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is finally upon us! With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The first half of our roundtable posted Friday.

Also, for your enjoyment, here are links to out position previews:

Left Wings
Right Wings
Centers
Defensemen
Goalies

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com.


5) Where will Brooks Laich spend the majority of his time this season (wing, center, second line, third line, infirmary, whatever)? [Read more...]

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview: The Goalies

Braden Holtby -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Braden Holtby -Practice April 27, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Braden Holtby – Holtby enters the season as the unquestioned No. 1 between the pipes for Adam Oates and newly appointed goalies coach Olie Kolzig. Holtby was strong last season and into the playoffs, starting every single game in the second season. His athletic, almost hyper-aggressive style works for him, as he can dominate for long stretches of time.

On occasion, however that aggressiveness can be a hindrance. He’s terrific passing the puck, but he has a tendency to overplay the puck, which gets him in trouble now and again, as we saw in the Rangers series. He occasionally has a problem with positioning that sometimes he can make up with his athleticism, and sometime he can’t. He’s got a strong glove, but his unorthodox style of reaching for pucks with his glove instead of letting them come to him can also cause trouble.

This is a big year for Holtby. It’s rumored that he’s on the short list of goalies being considered for the Canadian Olympic team, and there would be no higher honor for Holtby, short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, than making that team and leading his countrymen to Sochi. Lots of eyes will be on his every start, and not just those of Caps fans this season.

Michal Neuvirth during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Michal Neuvirth during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Michael Neuvirth – Neuvy has settled into his caddy role for Holtby, though he’s still young enough that he’d be considered many franchise’s future in the position. Neuvirth is technically sound, responsible and mild-mannered – everything that Holtby is not.

Unfortunately for him, every time Neuvirth has a chance to put his stamp on the position, something out of his control seems to get in the way. Usually, that’s been a nagging injury or a random spate of poor play. He has the talent to play in this league a long time, but perhaps he’s just not leading-man caliber.

Neuvirth continues to be the good soldier, there for the Caps when they need a back up to a veteran netminder (Theodore, Vokoun) or to be the goalie in waiting while the “next big thing” (Varlamov, Holtby) jumps past him on the depth chart.

Philipp Grubauer at Caps 2011 Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Philipp Grubauer at Caps 2011 Training Camp (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Philipp Grubauer – The German native is the Caps current “next big thing” in goal. The Caps fourth round pick in the 2010 entry draft, Grubauer has extensive international experience, playing with the German national team in several tournaments, including the 2008 U18 Worlds, and the 2009 World Juniors. Grubauer was also a member of the 2010 Windsor Spitfires Memorial Cup Champion team.

Technically superior, Grubauer was named to the ECHL All-Rookie team with South Carolina in 2011-12. He split time in 2012-13 between Hershey and Reading, joining Hershey full-time after the NHL lockout ended.

Grubauer made his NHL debut in relief of Holtby on Feb. 27, stopping all 14 shots he faced in just over 25 minutes of play. He made his first start March 9, a 5-2 loss to the Islanders, stopping 40 of 45 shots.

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview: Defense

All week, District Sports Page has been previewing the 2013-14 Washington Capitals roster by position. Monday, Katie Brown looked at the left wingers, and Tuesday she previewed the pivots.

Today, here’s an in-depth look at the blueliners.

Karl Alzner - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner (24, 6’3″, 213, shoots left; 48 games 1-4-5, minus-6, 14 PIMs in 2012-13) – Like his then-partner John Carlson, “King Karl” got off to a slow start last season once the lockout lifted. It’s almost as if someone in the organization told the players there was no way in hell the season was going to happen and they all sat around playing Mario Brothers or something.

Political diatribes aside, Alzner recovered to do what he does best – play against every opponent’s top lines and keep goals out of his own net. He doesn’t shoot or score very often (though he was second on the Caps in shot attempts in the second round of the playoffs, but very few players are as dependable on defense than Alzner.

The only knock on Alzner is that despite decent size, he can get pushed around a bit along the walls, and not just by bigger players. Hopefully The King spent some time back in British Columbia in the weight room this summer.

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Carlson (23, 6’3″, 212, shoots right; 48 games, 6-16-22, +11, 18 PIMs) – Carlson had an interesting campaign last season. He started off considerably, um, rusty, after admittedly not skating much during the lockout. He seemed a step slow for the first 20 games of the season, as much as anyone on the Caps did during that horrendous stretch.

Head coach Adam Oates ended breaking the Carlson-Alzner duo up to try to spur better play from both. The more Carlson played and rounded into shape, the better he got and ended up in the top three in the league in blocked shots.

Still young, Carlson could be primed to have a breakout season. He’s gifted offensively and responsible on the back end. He will log plenty of minutes this season regardless who his partner is.

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine (33, 6’4″, 220, shoots left, 30 games, 3-3-6, +10, 34 PIMs) – Big John is the closest thing the Caps have to a true enforcer. He’s certainly the only player on the team, other than Ovechkin and until Tom Wilson is ready, that inspires any sort of a physical presence, especially guarding his own net.

But here’s the thing – Big John is slow, a poor skater to boot, and lacks any type of offensive skill or presence. He has a very heavy shot from the point, but can only get it off if the pass is soft or he’s left completely alone, which is usually the case as teams have no reason to fear Erskine making a play with the puck.

Oates, and presumably GM George McPhee, seem to love whatever positives Erskine brings to the blue line though. He should be candidate to sit every night, unless they’re playing Philly or Boston, but Erskine damn near earned top-4 minutes last season.

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green (27, 6’1″, 207, shoots right, 35 games, 12-14-26, minus-3, 20 PIMs) – Green led defensemen in goals last season. That really shouldn’t be a shocker. He also missed 13 games due to injury, which also shouldn’t shock anybody.

“Game Over” Green rediscovered his scoring touch last season and is certainly a boon to the team’s power play. He’s also made considerable strides in his own end. He’ll never be considered a shut-down defender, but he’s serviceable in his own end, where as a younger player he was a liability.

Oates’ offense not only encourages but darn near demands that defensemen get up in the play. Green doesn’t need much enticement to do so but he should be able to flourish in this system. With a full training camp, he should be ready to go out of the gate…as long as he can stay on the ice.

Jack Hillen - Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen – Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen (27, 5’10″, 190, shoots left, 23 games, 3-6-9, +9, 14 PIMs) – The stats love Jack Hillen. No the traditional ones so much, but his even strength Fenwick (differential in scoring chance opportunities) led all Caps defensemen last season. Hillen is a decent puck-moving defenseman, but his slight build and lack of upper body strength (his listed 190 lbs is more like 170, in my opinion) make him a liability defensively and injury risk pretty much any time he steps on the ice.

It’s not a sin to be a smallish defenseman. Hillen is pretty good at what he does for not much salary. He’s a pretty decent depth defenseman that can move the puck for you a little bit. And Oates used him primarily at even strength against weaker competition.

But as you’ll read below, I think the Caps have a much better option available to them that will eventually limit the amount of minutes, and ultimately, games Hillen will contribute to the Caps this season.

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek (23, 6’2″, 201, shoots right, 25 games, 1-6-7, minus-5, 8 PIMs) – Kundratek was an all-star in the AHL, going 16-15-31 in 49 games for Hershey in 12-13. He hardly looked overmatched with the big club either, and could be positioning himself for good minutes with the Caps this season.

Oates almost mandates that defensemen are paired with someone with an opposite shot, so this also may help Kundratek garner ice time. As a righty, he’s obviously seeded behind Green and Carlson, somewhere alongside Oleksy.

Considering Kundratek is a vastly superior offensive contributor over Oleksy, he might seem the apparent choice for the third paring at right-handed defense. Oleksy did an admirable job last season when pressed into duty. It will be interesting to watch if the league “catches up to him” this season. It may take an injury for Kundratek to crack the lineup, at least early in the season, but his overall game should overtake the overachieving Oleksy soon enough.

Steve Oleksy (27, 6’0″, 190, shoots right, 28 games, 1-8-9, +9, 33 PIMs) – Oleksy went 2-12-14 in 55 additional games for Hershey before being recalled due to heavy injury problems along the Caps backline in the middle of last season.

Oleksy is a hard worker and has persevered through a career that saw him playing independent hockey when most guys are in the middle of their NHL careers. He’s willing to mix it up, though he didn’t do much fighting with the big club, and he’s much more rugged physically than his actual stature might suggest.

What he can’t do is move the puck. He’s brutal offensively and he’s not a very good skater. He’s a typical “effort” guy, but his pedigree suggests that he’ll be overtaken on the depth chart by Kundratek very quickly. Still, a hard worker and good guy to have as a depth defenseman.

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitry Orlov (22, 6’0″, 210, shoots left, 5 games, 0-1-1, +5, 0 PIMs) – Orlov went 3-14-17 in 31 games in Hershey as he made his way back from concussion symptoms. Look, here’s the thing – I love Dmitry Orlov’s game.

Orlov could end up being the best two-way defenseman this team has. In 60 games his rookie season, Orlov went 3-16-19, +1 and exhibited terrific skating skills, a good idea of when – and when not – to jump into the play, and a little bit of snarl when the situation called or it. He also has tremendous timing on the old-fashioned hip check.

The thing that might hinder Kundratek, handedness, might play in Orlov’s favor. As a lefty, only Erskine and Hillen stand in his way to playing time. He should overtake both quickly to earn second pairing status and be well on his way to being a dependable two-way defender for the Caps for many years to come.

On the farm – Cam Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey, David Kolomatis

%d bloggers like this: