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.