April 20, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 9 Review: Strasburg dominates, Desmond slams as Nats sweep Marlins 7-1

DESMOND’S SLAM IN THE EIGHTH PROVIDES CUSHION FOR 7TH WIN OF THE SEASON

The Washington Nationals burned through their long-men Wednesday night after starter Jordan Zimmermann managed just five outs. On Thursday afternoon, Stephen Strasburg bailed his beleaguered bullpen out, tossing a masterful 6 2/3 innings as the Nats played a tightly contested game for eight innings until Ian Desmond’s grand slam in the eighth inning opened the flood gates to a 7-1 win for the Nats before 20,869 at Nationals Park.

It was just the performance manager Matt Williams needed from the nominal ace of his rotation. Strasburg finished with 12 strikeouts, the 13th time in his career he has K’d more than 10 batters in a game. He threw 71 of his 98 pitches for strikes and struck out Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton twice, putting his newly developed slider to good use.

The Nats went up 2-0 in the third. With one out, Anthony Rendon drew a walk from Marlins starter Tom Koehler. Jayson Werth then clubbed a 1-0 pitch into the Marlins bullpen for his second home run of the season — and second in as many days.

From there, it was all Strasburg. The big righty plowed through the Miami batting order, generating strikeouts and ground outs with equal ease. Strasburg recorded 13 straight outs, including six Ks, between Derek Dietrich’s fielder’s choice in the first and Ian Desmond’s error on a grounder in the fifth.

Strasburg then struck out six of his last 10 batters faced. But a homer allowed to Marcel Ozuna in the seventh, followed two batters later by a walk to catcher Jeff Mathis, signaled the end of his day. Strasburg struck out 12 total in 6 2/3 innings with one walk and three hits allowed.

Jerry Blevins came on and retired pinch-hitter Reed Johnson following the walk to Mathis. He struck out lefties Christian Yelich and Derek Dietrich to start the eighth inning, and Williams then called upon rookie Aaron Barrett to face Stanton. Barrett fed Stanton slider after slider until the hulking slugger finally swung through for strike three.

The Marlins turned to Arquimedes Caminero in the bottom half of the inning, but the Nats battered the reliever. Rendon led off with a double, followed by a single from Werth. Adam LaRoche grounded out to first with the infield drawn in, but Caminero then walked Kevin Frandsen and Bryce Harper — the second forcing in the Nats third run.

Ian Desmond then delivered the big blow, a clout to the Red Porch for the Nats second Grand Slam of the series to make it 7-1.

NATS NOTES: Rendon’s eighth inning double extended his hitting streak to nine games, the longest such streak to begin a season for the Washington Nationals.

 

 

Statistically Speaking: Strasburg’s First Outing

Stephen Strasburg’s maiden outing of 2014 was a tad underwhelming, in spite of the end result, a 9-7 victory over the New York Mets. While horses must be held on the prognostication of an entire 30+ start season based upon one start, needless to say Game 1 was not vintage Strasburg, despite the double digit K’s racked up. In particular, the righthander’s typical command of his pitches and thus,  the strike zone were sub par, as this graphic from Brooks Baseball exposes:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

The first inning appears to have been troublesome for Strasburg, but after adjustments to the weather, umpire, and probably the regular season setting, his strike throwing improved until the fifth inning. However, the above shows the tone set by Strasburg, one where strikes were somewhat tough to come by and finding a way to get outs without your best stuff would rule the day. Let’s look at those hits briefly, with the help of some PITCHf/x data:

SS Hit point

First, we find one quirk of Strasburg’s outing—he neutralized left-handed hitters, with only righties putting meaningful wood to his pitches. He was hurt most trying to pound the inside part of the plate, with some of his offerings appearing to drift over the heart of the plate—Andrew Brown’s three-run homer in the first inning came off of a fastball that got too much of the plate, despite catcher Wilson Ramos calling for the pitch outside.

How did the outs he made by getting hitters to put the ball in play look like?

SS Out point

Here, we see that while Strasburg did flirt with the heart of the plate, he got away with it, getting hitters to just miss on offspeed and breaking pitches. However, you do see another subtle trend—pounding lefties down and in with the breaking ball.

Let’s again look at Strasburg’s misses—called balls—and see how those broke down pitch- and location-wise:

SS Balls

Here, we have the location and pitch type of each of the balls Strasburg threw Monday. 46% of his misses came from his fastball and another 30% coming from his changeup. He appears to have missed up in the zone quite a bit with the heater, with a lot of pitches just off the plate down and away to righties also dominating the landscape. We again see the plan against lefties—a steady supply of pitches down and in with a few fastballs up in the zone to change planes and eye-levels, more than likely to optimize his breaking ball.

Again, we can’t draw any grand conclusions based on one game’s worth of information, but we do have a glimpse of where Strasburg’s head is at with respect to his plan of attack; whether is arm has followed and is in lock-step with his mind is a point of contention for now. We also see that the touch on his pitches is still a work in progress, with the effortless painting of corners and burying of changeups in the dirt not quite to his usual standards just yet, despite an impressive strikeout total. None of this is foreboding and Nats fans should continue to enjoy the budding mastery of Strasburg as he continues to develop ace stuff into ace production and performance.

Washington Nationals Game 1 Recap: Nats comeback against Mets pen, win 9-7

If Opening Day was any indication, this will be a wild season of baseball for the Washington Nationals.

Stephen Strasburg allowed a three-run homer in the first inning, settled down to strike out 10 batters, and the Washington Nationals then came back against a porous New York Mets bullpen, capped by Anthony Rendon’s three-run homer off John Lannan in the top of the tenth inning to win 9-7 at Citifield.

The bad news: according to reports during the game, catcher Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his left hand and will miss up to six weeks. [edit -- After the game, manager Matt Williams indicated the x-rays taken on Ramos were "negative" and he would see a specialist in D.C. on Tuesday.]

The Mets got to Strasburg in their very first ups. Strasburg struck out Eric Young to start off the first, but Juan Lagares and David Wright singled back-to-back to put runners on the corners. Strasburg got Andrew Brown to 2-2, but a fastball that was designed to hit the outside corner tailed back into Brown, and he crushed it to left center for a three-run homer.

The Nationals got two back in the top of the second. Bryce Harper drew a lead-off walk and was erased on a fielder’s choice to short by Ian Desmond that would have been a double play were it not for Harper’s late, hard take-out slide. Harper was kicked in the head by Young for his troubles and stayed on the field for a few moments, but left the field under his own power and stayed in the game.

The next batter, Adam LaRoche, crushed an 89-MPH fastball 10 rows deep into the upper deck in right field to make it 3-2 Mets.

The Mets picked up another run in the bottom half. Travis d’Arnaud walked to lead off and Ruben Tejada singled. Dillon Gee’s sacrifice mived both runners up, and Young’s fly ball to right was dep enough to plate d’Arnaud.

After that, it was a pitcher’s duel, with both hurlers trading outs for the next three innings, until Strasburg departed after the sixth. The big righty settled down nicely, retiring his final 10 batters and 12 of his last 14. He finished with five hits, four earned runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts, with 64 of his 102 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Gee carved up the Nats, retiring 15 in a row until Harper reached on a hard-hit single off the glove at Young at second base. Desmond forced him again, but LaRoche followed with a walk. Anthony Rendon delivered a run-scoring double to the right field corner to plate Desmond, but the slow LaRoche was held at third.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth drew a four-pitch walk to set up a bases loaded, two out situation for Denard Span against reliever Scott Rice.

Rice couldn’t find the plate. Four straight balls handed Span first base and the Nats their fourth run of the day, tying the game. Jose Valverde was summonsed to pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, and the big righty got Zim to swing through a ball fro strike three.

The Mets breathed life back into the Citifield faithful in the bottom of the eighth, as Juan Lagares homered off Tyler Clippard leading off the frame.

But that only set up the Nats heroics in the top of the ninth. Ian Desmond led off with a single and went to second on Danny Espinosa’s tow-out, pinch-hit, eight-pitch base on balls. Denard Span then ripped a double to left center, which scored Desmond from second to tie the game at five.

For the second inning in a row though, Zimmerman ended a rally with a fly ball to center.

After a 1-2-3 MLB debut with two strikeouts for Aaron Barrett in the bottom  of the ninth, the Nats went back to work against reliever Jeurys Familia. Jayson werth led off with a sky-high fly ball that eluded the Mets in short left center, then Jose Lobaton (in for injured Wilson Ramos) sent a broken bat liner past second base.

Ian Desmond fought through an eight pitch at bat before delivering a fly to medium right that allowed Werth to walk home with the go-ahead run.

The Nats weren’t done. The Mets brought in old friend John Lannan to face LaRoche, and issued a five-pitch base on balls. Anthony Rendon then greeted Lannan’s first offering with a huge clout to left center. The three-run shot made it 9-5.

Jerry Blevins coughed up a two-run, two-out gopherball to David Wright in the bottom half, but it was too little, too late for the Mets.

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 dump Cards 11-1

Stephen Strasburg gave up one run on two hits and two walks in three innings, but the Nats offense pounded out 11 runs on 15 hits as the Washington Nationals dumped the St. Louis Cardinals 11-1 at Space Coast Stadium in Viera on Sunday.

Strasburg wasn’t the sharpest in his second appearance, as he walked the first two batters he faced and did not record a strikeout. He did generate five ground ball outs and induced two double plays.

The rest of the pitchers that followed were near perfect. Matt Purke, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia and Luis Ayala combined for six innings of shutout ball, allowing just one hit and no walks, striking out four — three by Garcia in his inning of work.

To be fair, the Cardinals brought very few major league players for the road trip up U.S. 95.

Anthony Rendon led off and went 2-for-3 with a homer, two runs and an RBI. Wilson Ramos — hitting .563 this spring — went 2-for-3 with a run and 3 RBIs and Koyie Hill drove in two. Tyler Moore added a pair of hits in two trips.

The Nats host the Houston Astros at 6:05 on Monday.

 

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats fall to Braves 8-4

For the Washington Nationals, spring training isn’t about winning games or even necessarily finding competition for the precious few spots that might be available for the last bench of bullpen spot. It’s primarily about getting their starting pitching ready, lined up and healthy for opening day.

Another step in that task was taken Tuesday, as Stephen Strasburg made his spring debut. Strasburg pitched two innings, allowing one hit and no walks, striking out one. He was followed by fifth spot candidate Taylor Jordan, who did not fare as well.

Jordan gave up two earned runs on five hits in two innings, He did not walk a batter and struck out three. A.J. Cole was next, and the prospect threw two perfect frames, striking out two.

Drew Storen, coming off an up-and-down 2013, had a rough go of it in his first appearance, allowing two earned runs on a hit and two walks — to the first two batters he faced.

On the other side of the ball, Ian Desmond went 3-for-3, including his first homer of the spring, with two runs and an RBI.

The Nats host the Mets Wednesday at 1:05 from Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

NATS NOTES: The Nats signed LHP Mike Gonzalez to a minor league deal to compete for a spot in the bullpen.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview Part IV: The Rotation

Washington Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg pitched five innings and earned his fourth win, May 20, 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg delivers in 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 ROTATION

Stephen Strasburg, RHP: Some will look at his W-L record last year and decry Strasburg a bust. Au contraire. His ERA went down as his innings went up. His hit rate went down and his walk rate remained steady. He traded a few Ks for more ground balls (from 44% in ’12 to 52% in ’13), though he struck out just six fewer in 24 more innings, and his homer per fly ball rate stayed level. He’s the very definition of elite skills and getting better with age. This could be the season he puts it all together – dominance with patience, pitching not throwing, winning and leading a top-rate pitching staff. The only thing he needs now is to eclipse the 200 inning mark to finally establish him at the top of the hill, if you pardon the pun.

Gio Gonzalez, LHP: Gonzalez’ ’13 season wasn’t nearly as good as his breakout ’13, but so what? It’s not like he fell off a cliff. His ERA jumped 0.40, but that can largely be attributed to his home run rate popping back up to his career norm. It’s all about limited walks with Gonzalez, and he held the gains he made in ’13 when he came over to the N.L. He takes the ball every fifth day and has done the same job for the past three seasons. He’s as dependable an asset in the big leagues as there is in the game right now. It might not be upper-level, top-five-in-the-game elite production, but he’d be the staff ace on a LOT of big league teams.

Jordan Zimmermann, RHP: Zimmermann was the same pitcher last season as he’d been for the previous two, only this time he was the beneficiary of league average run production and his win total exploded to lead the N.L. and garner enough Cy Young votes to finish seventh. Zimmermann had a rough July (7.18 ERA in five starts) but bounced back to post a 3.36 ERA the rest of the way. His walk rate (1.7 per nine) is elite and there are more Ks there if he wants them. But he’s steadily excellent as he is. He is scheduled to hit free agency following the ’15 season (as is Desmond), and he’s going to be expensive to sign to a long-term deal, as he’s already stated in the media he won’t settle for a “hometown” discount.

Doug Fister, RHP: Acquired in December from the Tigers for INF Steve Lombardozzi and LHP Robbie Ray, Fister has toiled mostly in anonymity for most of his career, first in Seattle, then in Motown. But Fister’s main skills are hardly those of a second fiddle. Fister is a command and control specialist who generates a ton of ground balls, almost never gives up home runs (0.6 per nine) and possesses an elite K/BB ratio. Fister should thrive in front of a defense that, while not quite elite itself, is far and above what he’s been used to in Detroit. He’s the No. 4 in D.C. only by default.

Ross Detwiler, LHP: Detwiler will be given the first opportunity to claim the No. 5 starter spot in Spring Training. The Nats would love to have a second lefty in the rotation, but it all depends on if Detwiler, not young anymore at 27, can stay healthy and show the gains he made in ’12 were real. His K rate, which has never been all that good, plummeted last season to 4.9 per nine innings, even though his walk rate was down too. The hip injury of two years ago robbed him of several miles an hour off the fastball, and he dealt with back and neck problems all last season. It’s incredible the amount of injuries this guy has gone through, but none to his arm. A move to the pen might help with velocity and longevity.

Taylor Jordan, RHP: Jordan took everyone by surprise last season, called up for an emergency start or two and ended up sticking around for nine starts to a 3.66 ERA and 1.355 WHIP. He’s another ground ball specialist with good control and middling strikeout rates, so he has a limited ceiling. But he certainly had the look of a big leaguer last season.

Tanner Roark, RHP: Ready for a stat? Roark threw 141 sliders to right handed hitters last season. The number of hits he gave up on that pitch: 0. As in zero. Roark is already 27, so the former 25th round pick is making up for lost time, but in 14 games and five starts he went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 0.913 WHIP. That’s silly. He’s not going to repeat those numbers, obviously, but he’s stingy with free passes and keeps the ball on the ground. Noticing a pattern?

Ross Ohlendorf, RHP: Ohlendorf, he of the old-timey windup, resurrected his career last season. After consecutive years of ERAs over 7.50, Ohlendorf was probably on his last big league chance. He practically ditched his slider and relied on several different fastballs, changing speeds and locations enough to keep hitter honest most of the time. His “stuff” doesn’t compare to most of the arms the Nats have on staff, but he survived on the edges and got himself another shot this season. Is willing to work from rotation or pen and won’t be overwhelmed if the Nats have to plug him into any one of a variety of roles.

Sammy Solis, LHP: Solis, now 25, returned from Tommy John surgery to make 13 starts last season between the Gulf Coast league and Potomac. He was considered a fast riser with middle ceiling when drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, so Solis will need to show very quickly at Harrisburg to regain the luster of a mid-rotation starter. If not, look for the Nats to quickly convert him into a bullpen arm, a role that he could enjoy a long, healthy MLB career at. It’s all up to his K/9, which took a hit last year in the first year back after surgery.

A.J. Cole, RHP: Mike Rizzo loves A.J. Cole. He drafted him in the fourth round in 2010, traded him to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal, then traded back for him in the Michael Morse trade. Cole was okay at the start of the year in Potomac last season, but really took off upon his promotion to Harrisburg, where in seven starts he went 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 0.904 WHIP and 4.90 K/BB ratio. If Cole can get his breaking ball on par with his big, heavy fastball and MLB-average change, he could challenge for the rotation in 2015.

Matt Purke, LHP: Purke is still young, just 23. But he’s only made 21 starts in the past two seasons while dealing with the same impingement in his shoulder that cost him his last year at TCU and a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Purke’s issue is a lot like Detwiler, a cross-body action with his arm that generates a lot of torque, which in turn causes body parts to revolt and destruct. His fastball and changeup are both fringy right now and he needs innings to prove he’s still worth the effort, but it looks more and more like the Nats $4 million gamble on him in the third round of the 2011 draft will end up bust.

Chris Young, RHP: The 6’10″ Young didn’t pitch in the Majors last season. Shoot, he hardly pitched at all, making just nine starts in the minors, including seven in Syracuse, where he went 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA and almost walked as many (3.9 per nine) as struck out (4.5 per nine). So why is he listed here? I’m not sure. The Nats invited him to Spring Training again and since he’s a MLB veteran I’m giving him all due respect by listing him here, but at 35, he’s done. He never had much of a fastball to begin with, relying on guile and his impressive frame, but I’ll be shocked if Young makes it through Spring Training.

Nats split doubleheader with Marlins in home finale, on brink of elimination

The Washington Nationals split Sunday’s day-night doubleheader against the Miami Marlins, but they remain five games out of the second NL Wild Card spot – with just six total games remaining.

Dan Haren accumulated the Nats’ loss in Game 1 after giving up a two-run shot to Giancarlo Stanton in the first inning and a solo shot by Christian Yelich in the third.

The Nats’ bats, in turn, were quiet. Washington tallied just four hits in Game 1, compared with the Marlins’ 12. And, the very team living on a prayer failed to cross home plate until the sixth after Denard Span walked and Ryan Zimmerman homered.

By that point, the Nats were a day late and a dollar short.

Donovan Solano’s RBI sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh gave Miami an insurance run to write a 4-2 win in the books.

Haren’s final line was less than impressive: 6.0 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 HR [Read more...]

Nats Nightly: Split doubleheader with Marlins; Strasburg’s future; Davey’s home finale

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington and Doghouse from Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals split of a doubleheader with the Miami Marlins, Stephen Strasburg’s future, and the home finale for manager Davey Johnson.

Washington Nationals Game 152: With 10 games left, Nats take hard fall back to reality

No one imagined that the Washington Nationals would ride a perfect stretch through the end of the season. But, after two dramatic wins against the Atlanta Braves Tuesday, the now 81-71 ball club dropped an early lead to fall 5-2 Wednesday night.

Ross Ohlendorf (L, 4-1) began his second start in place of Stephen Strasburg by retiring 10 straight batters.

In the meantime, the Nats finally got to starter Alex Wood in the fifth. Anthony Rendon led off with a single before taking third on Freddie Freeman’s fielding error, which allowed Denard Span to reach first safely. Ryan Zimmerman walked to load the bases before Jayson Werth walked in the first run of the game.

As Manager Fredi Gonzalez came out to calm Wood, Wood shouted some choice words at home plate umpire CB Bucknor. Of course, Gonzalez himself earned an ejection as he followed Wood’s  performance with one of his own. [Read more...]

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