Friday, July 20, 2012

Revolving Door

Yesterday, to the shock of many in NatsTown, Mike Rizzo and the Nationals organization cut ties with (journeyman?) pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel to make room for rehabbed reliever Drew Storen. So much for the fantasy baseball benefit. The decision was not as easy one for the team, leaving a short bench with only Bernadina, DeRosa, Moore, and Leon. It was, however, the right decision; .228/.282/.411 isn't going to cut it for a first place team.

And one of many Rizzo and Co. are going to have to make in the next few weeks.

There are not one, not two, not three, but four players returning to the Nationals in the next month - nearly all of them will require a corresponding roster move (we will get there):
- Jayson Werth
- Chad Tracy
- Chien-Ming Wang
- Xavier Nady

In a perfect world, only two of these players would be returning to the big-league ballclub but, knowing Nats brass, they all will be returning to the expense of other players.

Let's go down the list, in order of expected arrival:

- Xavier Nady
His rehab stint ends on Friday and the Nationals need to make a decision on his future. In Major League action, Nady hit for a whopping .157/.211/.275 slash-line and so far in 9 games of rehab he has somehow done even worse with a .143/.171/.211*. With the emergence of Roger Bernadina as a quality pinch hitter as well as Tyler Moore's impressive rookie campaign, Nady should be sent his walking papers.

[Ed. Note - I didn't know it was possible to do worse than that...]

Prediction: DFA.

- Chad Tracy
Leader of the 2012 Nationals "Goon Squad", Chad Tracy single-handedly won several games during the first month-plus of the year. He is currently tied for 10th in Pinch Hits in MLB with 6 and his 7 RBI are still 1st in baseball. It is a no brainer that he will be sliding back onto the bench as soon as he is healthy.

Prediction: He takes the place of Ryan Mattheus (who has an option) and brings the team back to a normal 7-man bullpen instead of the current 8-man 'pen.

- Jayson Werth
In just 27 games at the start the 2012, Werth was well on the way to erase the bad memories of his 2011 season. He had a higher average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate, and contact rate coupled with a lower strikeout rate - things were looking up until a diving catch derailed his season. I believe that Werth will be hitting 1st and 2nd in the lineup (depending on handedness of the pitcher), rotating with Bryce Harper.

Prediction: Tyler Moore will be sent back down to the minors to make room for Werth, specifically because of the option game.

- Chien-Ming Wang
The former Cy Young contender just doesn't have it anymore. The Nationals gave him a chance to return to his former glory but a 6.62 ERA, 2.264 WHIP, and .361 BAA just won't cut it for a team that is trying for its first ever postseason appearance. Move him to the 'pen? Nope. If anything, Wang was even worse coming out of the bullpen; posting a 10.50 ERA, 1.833 WHIP, and .423 BAA against in his 6 innings. It was worth the 3-year/$7.2 Million chance that Rizzo and Co. gave to him in attempt to see him return to his former glory, but not every gamble is going to pay off.

Prediction: Wang will be DFA'ed and probably won't pitch in the majors again in 2012 only to sign a minor-league deal in the winter with another club.

The 2012 Nationals team is in a place that this town hasn't seen before. A place where a player with 90 games started one year prior can be shown the door because he couldn't even cut it as the 5th outfielder on the current squad. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

What are your predictions for these upcoming roster moves? Sound off below!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Passive Aggression

Baseball, on the surface, is a passive sport. Waiting. For the pitch, for the play, for your team to lose or win or do something special. But underneath the platitudes and conventional wisdom, lies a game that requires aggression. And not just as an approach at the plate, or in the field.

Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond know this fact. They live it. Bryce Harper is, in the mind of passive baseball fans, brash and an anathema to the game they know. But to people who really watch the game, he is ideal; a heads up, put it all on the line player who will makes mistakes but also inspire his own team and simultaneously confuse and anger opponents. Ask Cole. Ask Ozzie. The kid is an emotional catalyst.

Ian Desmond seems to be the opposite. No national hype, no Sports Illustrated covers, no one targeting him. But he has become the hallmark of a hungry young team. Shortstop is a tough position (trust me, I play slow-pitch softball), equal parts leader, talent and emotional rock; not a position accustom to rash action or intensity. Desmond does not agree. Being aggressive, at the plate, on the bases or in the field has become his way. Swing, run, charge are his battle cry.

The two are no strangers to crazy expectations. Bryce was on the Sports Illustrated cover at age 16. Ian was heralded as the next Derek Jeter (the later claim was made by a less than unbiased observer and frequently mistaken GM). So what is it that captivated so called "baseball people" when it came to these two?

There in lies the difference between the 2012 Nats and all other incarnations. Aggression. The 2005 Nats, the only other team to even come close to contending, were happy doing just that, contending. The 2012 team is just getting started. Every player on the team is watching Bryce and Ian, and it is changing them. Every player's essence is starting to develop into a championship winning piece.

Winning. Its not easy, especially if you have never done it professionally. Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper will not tolerate anything less. Ryan Zimmerman is the best player on the Nationals. Mike Morse has the most power. Adam LaRoche has the best resume. Steve Strasburg has the most talent. Jayson Werth makes the most money. Bryce and Ian are the most important pieces on this team. Because they are young. Because they are aggressive. But just a little bit passive.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

5 Tool Player

Old football saying: If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don't have any.

Baseball is different. Baseball requires players. If you have 1 or 2 baseball skills, sorry, that is not good enough. Guys who can run, field and hit are worth millions of dollars a year.

Ben Zobrist is one of my favorite players in the league today. There are guys who play multiple positions in today's game, but few who play both outfield and infield. They are different disciplines, timing a ground ball's hops and making an accurate throw to first and reading a fly ball's slice or cut or knuckle are so different that it is rare for a player to master both at the major league level. Ben can do it. Steve Lombardozzi is on that path.

Ben has played most of the positions on the field over the last decade, but now he mainly occupies second base and right field. In the 2012 season, Steve Lombardozzi has played on both sides of the diamonds, fielding most of his time in left field and second base. The acceptance of this duty is wise for both the Nats, who create value, and Steve, who probably lengthens his career and increases the chances he will end up a coach, or even manager.

Steve Lombardozzi's dad was a major leaguer. He grew up in a baseball family. It's special club.

There are things valued by baseball people that aren't understood by people who don't love or appreciate baseball. They are the hardest things to learn about baseball and mark it's greatest players and appreciators. They are also all too rare in today's game, but there is hope.

Ben Zobrist and Steve Lombardozzi are the future. In the future, all MLB teams will have a guy (or 10 if I was a manager) that can play 3, 4, 5 positions, infield or outfield. A guy like Ben Zobrist or Steve Lombardozzi will be a difference maker for a manger and team. With Steve you can pinch hit for almost anyone in the line-up and expect him to move to a position with extreme competency.

The current Nats have a strategy that, I believe, will be slightly revolutionary. Steve Lombardozzi SS, becomes a LF, SS, 2B, 3B, CF. Tyler Moore becomes a 1B, LF, RF. Michael Morse is a 1B, RF, LF. I believe Ryan Zimmerman could play 7, or even 8 positions on the field (excluding pitcher, as his mechanics and control are always matters of debate). The organization's pieces are exposed to different positions and made to be more complete baseball players.

In Little League, your best player could play anywhere on the field. Why has that changed?

Steve Lombardozzi is in a position to impact the Nationals in a way Ben Zobrist has affected the Tampa Bay Rays. Given his background and training, Lombardozzi is capable of giving the Nats manager a huge degree of latitude in crafting a team, line-up and defensive strategy, while creating no offensive hole. He seems more than willing to play anywhere on the field if it means contributing to a winning major league franchise.

This is the tip of the sword. An organization based on athleticism, baseball knowledge and versatility is the new frontier of baseball. It is an inevitable evolution, from husky first basemen and unathletic catchers of the steroid era, to the quick minded and versatile players of today's game.

Mark it down, today. Steve Lombardozzi will be an important factor in the Nationals success in the future by A. providing an important player for the team and aptly playing many positions or B. being such a valuable trade piece that he returns to the Nats a special player.

Either way, smart, versatile players are on the way in. And it seems Mike Rizzo is smart enough to take advantage of it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Little Blue Pill

Yep. Another Wang joke.

I was pretty vocal on twitter and the podcast a few weeks ago was Ross Detwiler was unceremoniously removed from the Nats Starting Rotation after just a few mediocre starts. I felt that the hook was too short and that we were simply seeing a pitcher go through a slump - Davey Johnson felt differently.

Let's take a look at Ross's struggles leading up to his demotion - specifically his last three starts:
- May 14th vs San Diego - 5 IP. 7 H. 5 R. 4 ER. 3 K. 1 BB. 37 Game Score.
- May 19th vs Baltimore - 5 IP. 9 H. 6 R. 6 ER. 3 K. 1 BB. 27 Game Score.
- May 25th vs Atlanta - 4.1 IP. 5 H. 3 R. 3 ER. 5 K. 4 BB. 42 Game Score.

Not a great showing, but we should look a bit deeper than that.
- May 14th - 1st run scored on an error. 3rd run scored as Sandy Leon's leg bent in a horrible direction. 4th run scored, after a steal of 3rd on a just-entering-the-game catcher, on a sacrifice.
- May 19th - No excuses. Just not good.
- May 25th - Ross was pulled from the game after retiring 5 of the previous 7 batters. A double and a walk with a 3-run lead was apparently too much for Davey. And it should be noted that the very first pitch from Wang went for a 2-run double - both runs charged to Ross.

Alright - so by no means was Detwiler lights out, but he certainly wasn't as bad as the numbers seem to indicate. It should also be noted that at the time of his departure from the Nats Rotation Detwiler still had a sub-4.00 ERA; 3.88.

Now. On to Wang.

Chien-Ming Wang has now thrown three starts in the 2012 season. Let's take a look at how he has fared:
- May 30th vs Miami - 4 IP. 7 H. 4 R. 4 ER. 4 K. 3 BB. 33 Game Score.
- June 7th vs New York - 5.1 IP. 8 H. 2 R. 2 ER. 1 K. 3 BB. 42 Game Score.
- June 12th vs Toronto - 5 IP. 5 H. 2 R. 2 ER. 5 K. 5 BB. 51 Game Score.

Not very good either. Now, it seems to stand to reason that Wang is improving with each start - but 5 innings really isn't going to cut it. Initial indications are that both pitchers haven't been great as of late but...

Here is where we are really going to see their true colors...

Let's check out their stats for the year (as starters only):
Wang - 5.02 ERA. 6.40 FIP. 2.093 WHIP. .339 BAA. 0.91 SO/BB. -0.4 WAR.
Detwiler - 3.88 ERA. 3.57 FIP. 1.274 WHIP. .254 BAA. 2.40 SO/BB. 0.5 WAR.

Not only does Detwiler have better stats (by far) than Chien-Ming Wang, he is also younger, left-handed, and has a far higher upside than a 32 year-old recovering from major shoulder surgery.

Wang needs to be replaced by Detwiler, it is a no brainer.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Trade Reaction

Gio Gonzalez got an early Christmas present this previous year, as he was traded away from the middling Athletics to the up-and-coming Nationals just two days before the holiday. It was a landscape-shifting trade in the NL East as it gave the Nationals an All-Star caliber pitcher to match the Phenom (Strasburg) and Mr. Underrated (Zimmermann) - a force that would challenge the Phillies rotation for supremacy. In doing so, the Nationals gave up a hefty price, 4 of the Nationals top prospects, 2 of which appeared in the top 60 of Baseball America's Top 100 list. We've now reached the quarter pole of the 2012 season and it's time to check in on the performance of these 5 players.

Gio Gonzalez - MLB - Nationals
10 Starts. 7-1 Record. 2.04 ERA. 1.94 FIP. 0.94 WHIP. 11.53 K/9. 2.4 WAR.

What more can we say about this guy? Career bests in WHIP, K/9, ERA, BB/9, HR/9, and BAA. He is on pace for a 7.0+ WAR season. All concerns about his control issues have, so far, been unfounded. All concerns about how he is a different pitcher outside of Oakland have, so far, been unfounded. Barring a standard Nats injury, Gio is destined to be one of the Nats (several?) representatives to the All-Star Game.

Tom Milone - MLB - Athletics
10 Starts. 6-4 Record. 3.64 ERA. 4.19 FIP. 1.13 WHIP. 4.90 K/9. 0.7 WAR.

Milone was definitely a more polished pitcher than his colleague, Brad Peacock, but with far less upside. At the time of the trade he was certainly MLB-ready and his control is going to play very well in the Oakland Mausoleum... errr... Coliseum. So far this year he has seen his K-rates decrease and his BB-rates increase, not something you want to see from a pitcher in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in an AL division (see: DH).

Brad Peacock - AAA - Sacramento River Cats  
10 Starts. 6-2 Record. 4.91 ERA. 3.15 FIP. 1.45 WHIP. 8.35 K/9.

Peacock has a higher ceiling than Milone, but he was also a bit less polished - having only made 9 AAA starts in his career. As you can see by his FIP, his ERA is quite deceiving as opponents have a .353 BABIP against him. The only thing that is concerning about Peacock's performance is that his WHIP sits at a career high. Peacock will be joining the A's rotation soon.

Derek Norris - AAA - Sacramento River Cats
44 Games. .287/.324/.503. 11 2B. 7 HR. 32 RBI.

In a shocking turn of events, Derek Norris, upon moving to the Billy Beane "Moneyball" A's, has seemingly abandoned his OBP prowess to hit for more power. Not being an insider, I have no idea whether this is an organizational philosophy forced upon him to swing more or a personal decision. That being said, Norris currently possesses the lowest OBP of his career and the highest SLUG since A+ Potomac. I am curious to see how long the A's stick with Kurt Suzuki with his .204/.244/.260 slashline before they call up Norris to play everyday.

A.J. Cole - A+/A - Stockton Ports/Burlington Bees
Combined - 10 Starts. 1-7 Record. 7.16 ERA. 1.82 WHIP. 8.1 K/9

Wow. This has been a two months to forget for the young 20 year-old Floridian. Cole was hit-or-miss for the Hagerstown Suns last year but always seemed to flash the brilliance enough times to be the main piece of this trade (and the piece that Nats fans fear the most). He began the year in A+ Stockton and struggled so much he earned a demotion to A Burlington. Although Cole is very young I think that it is time to start worrying that he won't be able to put it together in the long run - he has a career ERA over 5, career WHIP over 1.4. The only saving grace is that he is still missing bats; 8.1 K/9 this year.

My initial impressions of this trade after a few months of action are that this is going to turn out to be a win-win trade - both teams are going to get exactly what they needed. The Nats got an All-Star pitcher to enhance their chances for success in 4 year window. The A's got some salary relief of an All-Star while stockpiling inexpensive quality players with upside - Cole having the most upside.

It's rare in this day to see a trade that works for both teams, and although it is incredibly early to judge this trade, it appears as though this could be one of those deals. It sure is working for the Nationals so far!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Closer Watch

The Nationals are now on their 4th string closer and no one has a clue who it actually will be.

Drew Storen is finally rehabbing after surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. Brad Lidge is throwing a baseball and should begin a rehab assignment soon after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. And Henry Rodriguez came down with Daniel-Cabrera-itis and forgot how to throw a baseball.

Instead of going over just how bad the flamethrower has been over the past few weeks (minus a few fantastic performances), let's review the candidates for interim closer until Storen is healthy enough to return.

Tyler Clippard - The Frontrunner - 1 Career Save

He wants it. What a trooper this kid has been for the team, doing whatever they have asked when in reality the righty has coveted the closer's job for years now. According to comments the other day (h/t Kilgore) Clippard had this to say, "'I want it bad, I’ve been fighting for the opportunity for three years now. I feel like I’ve been over-stepped a few times along the way for the opportunity to get those saves, for whatever reason'". He has earned it.

His numbers as a reliever have been nothing short of staggering: 201 Games. .185 BAA. .599 OPS Against. 10.6 K/9. 1.063 WHIP. 2.57 ERA.

Ryan Mattheus - The Young Gun - 0 Career Saves

Oh wait. He is hurt. Just like everyone else. Nevermind...

Sean Burnett - The Lefty - 10 Career Saves

When Henry Rodriguez has failed in the past week Burnett has been there to pick him up in spectacular fashion. The first time he came in the bases were loaded after Henry Rodriguez chose to walk them loaded and, with one out, Burnett only needed one batter to get the job done. A double play later and the Nationals were 8-5 winners. Last night, Rodriguez's leash was much shorter - as Burnett started warming immediately after the first batter was walked. Burnett actually entered the game mid-at-bat. He got the job done yet again with a fly out and a line out. 

Burnett has been there when the team has needed him and he could very easily slot into that 9th inning role.

Craig Stammen - The Underdog - 0 Career Saves

If you listen to Nats Talk on the Go (Available on iTunes!) you know that Joe and I are huge fans of Craig Stammen. Like Clippard, Stammen is a player that failed as a starter and was successfully turned into a fantastic reliever with some incredible reliever splits.

40 Games. .231 BAA. .622 OPS Against. 9.9 K/9. 1.183 WHIP. 2.93 ERA.

He is sporting even better numbers this season (his first as a full-time reliever) - .200 BAA. .517 OPS Against. 9.7 K/9. .920 WHIP. 1.44 ERA.

He is definitely capable of filling in with a bit more consistency.

Ultimately it's wise that the Nationals use a "Closer-by-Committee" instead of naming a new closer. Brad Lidge will slide in the role as "Interim Closer" when he returns from his injury, but for now the Nationals are making the right call going with an all-hands-on-deck approach. It will help keep the competition on their toes. Though if you ask me, Clippard.

Who would you pick for the Nationals closer? The comments section awaits!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Nats Talk On The Go: Episode 19

In this week's podcast, we talk about Bryce Harper's defensive struggles and offensive success. The Nats pitching has still been great, and we talk about that in some detail, and of course, we discuss injuries. We go over the Ross Detwiler vs. Chien-Ming Wang debate, suck up to Steve Lombardozzi a bit more, and talk about how awesome it is that Ian Desmond is batting fifth. There's a lot more fun in this hour plus podcast, so tune in and enjoy.

Subscribe and rate us on iTunes, stream it below, or download it.