Friday, March 26, 2010

Shaking Things Out

GM Mike Rizzo had to hope a few more positives would fall into place this March. Alas, many things have looked much the same. There has been the bullpen, erratic starting pitching, poor defense, and an inability to push across as many runs as the other hitters. But not all has gone wrong, some guys have seized the day and proven that they are worthy of playing in the Show.

Seized the Day: Willie Harris
When Elijah Dukes was released, it is hard to imagine that Willie was atop of the pecking order for at bats representing the right field position. The Nats clearly wanted one of the younger options to win the job. All Willie has done is gotten on base, scored runs, and done as much as possible to keep the Nats in games. His defense in one of the corner slots should be well above average, so for a team the received negative value at the 9 last season, this is extremely good news.

Choked on the Bit:
Justin Maxwell
Several years ago, the A's brought young 5-tool prospect they thought could be their franchise center fielder for years to come. Ryan Christienson shredded his way from low A to AAA in a year, enough so that the A's relegated projected starter, 26-year old Jason McDonald, to mop up duty. He stuggled with strikeouts as a rookie, getting on base the next year, and despite being handed the starting job three times on a loaded team, never could hold it down for more than a couple weeks at a time. Eventually the A's were forced to trade for Johnny Damon. Justin Maxwell was given a shot last May to do something Dukes on the DL with a hamstring and responded with an 0-16 binge with 10 strikeouts... even Austin Kearns cringed. Excusable given the circumstances, he earned more playing time in September, responding with a .292/.370/.554, albeit with 21 strikeouts and a slightly inflated but not insane BABIP of .375. This spring was supposed to be Maxwell's oyster. His defense, speed, and youth are fact. He was given the opportunity- the only player getting to the dish more is Ian Desmond (talk about contrast)- and shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that he needs another season in AAA, learning how to bat. Sure, he can hit, yes, when the ball hits his bat. However, in the NL East, there are plenty of guys who are pretty good at missing bats. Roger Bernadina should be the extra outfielder when the team breaks camp. If the Nats believe Dukes was expendable because Maxwell is his eventual replacement, they cannot force the issue as outlined in the Oakland example above.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Marquis Seizes the Day, Olsen Does Not

It has become apparent that Scott Olsen is not quite ready to face major league hitting, and should be relegated to the Wang/Detwiler status. The guy needs three more weeks to see if he can stretch it out. He should be penciled into the "mop-up" role, with Stammen working the number five and Batista working leverage long relief. Detwiler should really be allowed to test his stuff for a good 2-3 months in AAA before coming back, so that buys Olsen a little time, but come June, when Wang, Strasburg, Storen, and possibly Detwiler are ready for the big club, he is probably SOL.

Marquis had better location, which will go a long way toward keeping runners off base. He still has some work to do the last week, but confidence should be riding high that he can perform at or better than league average. The rotation looks much better than it did last opening day, with Lannan and Marquis leading, Mock and Stammen throwing effectively, and Livan Hernandez keeping Strasburg's seat warm.

Other looks at players who have seized their opportunities will continue through the week.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Right Field Situation

In 2008, Willie Harris seized the opportunity presented when half the Nationals roster went on the DL or was named "Austin Kearns" (who may be stumbling into a roster spot in Cleveland). He will never be a long term solution, or a guy that will bat .300, but his ability to play defense and capitalize on mistakes (via the walk, occasional long ball, or heady base running) make him a fairly valuable player against right-handed pitching. He posted a WAR of 3.3 in 2008, and will likely be in the range of 3 wins again with 400 plate appearances. Elijah Dukes, on the other hand, after showing that 3-4 win potential in 2008, did nothing with the additional playing time, somehow cratering out negative value.

Many fans and personnel felt sorry that Willie Harris took the shaft last season, complimenting him on his professionalism despite his offensive numbers suffering in the limited playing time. Moving forward, everybody knows Willie is hardly a long term solution at the position, but given the right opportunities, such as platooning against righties and batting behind a running threat like Nyjer Morgan, he should thrive in 2010. And given Dukes' negative clubhouse impact, who is to say a simple move like this isn't worth more than 3 wins?

Next season, maybe Willie Harris gets squeezed out by a free agent, but this year, even with a bat like Jermaine Dye lurking out there, the Nats should trust their locker room. Dye is likely worth negative value (trust me, I had him on my fantasy team and his second half was pretty special) both on the field and in the clubhouse. Yes, maybe if Dukes or Dye had played to their ABSOLUTE BEST, the Nats are a 76 win team as opposed to a 72, but more than likely the team wins 68 instead.

Jason Marquis' Start Today

For all the "consistency" he is supposed to bring, so far he has been knocked around like a pinata. Because one of his starts was rained out, the sample size is small, but the 30+ WHIP will always catch someone's eye. Progress needs to be made today in locating the strike zone, as for what ever reason, Marquis seems to have lost it. Getting knocked around in the spring happens to many good pitchers, but that is usually because their velocity and movement doesn't catch up until they are loose after several throwing sessions. This is an important start, as he needs to start confidently hitting the zone before going up against major league hitters in April. He will not magically rediscover it once Chase Utley steps in on April 7th.

Remember, guys like John Lannan and Jason Marquis are only successful because of their ability to minimize home runs and walks... when one of those variables increases, they are hardly major league caliber. It happened to Barry Zito and he is still trying to figure it out.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Closing the Book on Logan Kensing

Not nearly as dramatic as the Elijah Dukes firing, Logan Kensing was also sent packing. Kensing was one of the most frustrating Nationals to watch last season. He was claimed from Florida to bolster the leaky bullpen. After several dicey outings, he was sent to Syracuse, where he dominated. Enough so, Rizzo gave him a second audition in July when all the other young pitchers were ailing. He was better, but failed not only to match his form with the Marlins, but even to go more than a few outings without torching the stadium like Jim Brown in "The Running Man."

Prior to Tommy John surgery in 2006, Kensing had been a solid starting option in the minor leagues. In preparation for bringing him up to the big club and a young, crowded rotation, they converted him to a reliever. That is when the elbow issues arose. After recovering from the surgery, Marlins management never moved him back into a starting role, and he became labeled as a reliever. He never really developed the control required to consistently get major league hitters out, but always appeared to be better than replacement level...

Until last season.

Honestly, I don't know where the strikeouts went, but with out the ability to get one per inning to offset the 4+ BB/9, he was doomed. Maybe 2009 was an aberration, but starting off slow didn't help his cause. The front office knows he is capable of crushing the International League, and unless they were going to allow him time to try his hand at starting again (not the worst idea), he offered little value to the 2010 Nats.

Put Up Your Dukes

Or put them down.

Or just cut them off.

Once again, Dukes was a Jim Bowden experiment that never really exploded in everyone's face. He just sat there simmering like a dormant volcano. His numbers had regressed, as had his patience. There was a slight injury history. If Rizzo felt there was any chance Dukes was not cemented in as the right fielder, he should have tried to move him. Instead, Dukes reported late to camp, started slow, and voila, Justin Maxwell will likely be the answer to a trivia question.

Releasing Dukes is not a WRONG decision. Clearly he has shortcomings that prohibit him from becoming a great baseball player. This is not Matt Kemp that the Nats are giving up on. The Nats clearly feel that he was closer to Austin Kearns than Matt Kemp, so he wasn't worth the investment. The WRONG decision was to not invest in a corner outfielder (whether by free agency or trading for a prospect) to fill the void if this was a possibility.

Sure, Maxwell showed a pulse in September, Morse has a decent bat, and Bernadina is a blank slate. None of those guys, even at their best, is as good as average Elijah Dukes. It is possible that Dukes' value diminished when he failed as a center fielder, but there are several teams in the market for a corner outfielder that would have given up a C+/B prospect for him. And that is way better than the headline "Dukes Cut."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

14 strikeouts, 2 walks

And the Nationals find themselves with two wins in one day.

Hopefully the Front Office Gets the Hint

I think most of the Natmosphere has been screaming this for years now.

Dave Cameron, Marc Hulet, and Dave Golebiewski all have similar opinions on the 2010 and 2011 Nationals: there have been missed opportunities, but now that there is stability, the Nats can really improve with a few shrewd moves.

Hell, I love the Hammer and Donkey as much as the next guy, but their value to a contender far outweighs what the Nats can get for them on the field and at the gate.

"We're Having Trouble Holding Wang Back"

That is quite alright Mr. Rizzo, because the Nats need him BAD.

The pitching staff, especially the bullpen, isn't quite coming together as well as anyone might have hoped, so the key will be to get good innings out of the starters. Strasburg will be capped for both innings and pitches when he arrives, so the bullpen will see extended action those days. Both John Lannan and Jason Marquis can go deep when they are on, but when the ball isn't staying down, they can be chased quickly as well. Then there is a host of oft-injured or AAAA guys fighting for spots... because that always works.

There is no argument; a healthy Wang would immediately be this staff's ace. A near healthy Wang would be the #3. A broken Wang does the Nats no good at all, so Rizzo is correct to monitor his Wang closely and protect his Wang from anything that would prevent him from making a full recovery. Just because he looks good now doesn't mean he will look good in June if he steers from his rehab assignments. That is what submarined his 2009.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What We Have Here Is a Natural Disaster

Nationals Baseball: where a rainout is the most effective way to beat a losing streak. Hey, it worked for the Durham Bulls.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Phantom Waiver Claim

I remember driving around PG County somewhere when I heard the news that Cristian Guzman had been claimed off waivers by somebody. He was the perfect candidate for a fresh start, as he had lost the leadoff spot to Nyjer Morgan, and DC critics were ripping him for, well, being Cristian Guzman. Instead, Guzman hears the news and voices his displeasure through all channels. To make matters worse, the waiver claim turns out to be some faulty reporting on the Boston side, and Washington is forced to pull him back, stroke his ego, and tell him everything will be OK.

Cristian Guzman is the old dog that cannot learn new tricks, and he knows it. His overall abilities are regressing, and his desperate bat has to jump on the first hittable pitch he thinks he sees. His K:BB ratio will probably be in excess of 7 this season, yet the plan is to trot him out there in the #2 spot and hope Morgan can steal on the first pitch each time. Double plays increase exponentially despite his speed. To tell the truth, without Nick Johnson around, the Nats don't have that patient presence to anchor down that spot. The clever thing to do would be move Zim, Dunn, and the Hammer up a spot in the lineup, but Riggleman is scared to death of innovation (and I feel like I can write this freely as I am sure he is yet to discover "The Internets"). Dukes and Desmond aren't quite developed enough as hitters to be reliable, and Kennedy, while more patient, isn't going to provide the offensive threat. Sure, batting Zim second will probably shave 10 bombs off his yearly output, and if Morgan does steal, it opens up first base to pitch around him, but honestly, pitching around him to get to Dunn is just foolish.

The only thing Guz has going for him batting second is his ability to bat left-handed... to bad he sucks at it. In the AL, Guzman bats 8th or 9th; too bad the Nationals don't feel they can share this luxury.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nationals Baseball

In a Spring swing that saw the Nats dropping 50 runs in 3 days, there were plenty of opportunities to poke fun at their bumbling ways. I am so glad I held out for this one though.

Nationals Baseball: Where opposing groundballs become grand slams.

Seriously, this is almost rich enough to serve as the tagline for MLB Disney or something.

Friday, March 5, 2010

15-5, 10-4

The Spring Training results do provide some insight as to where the club is and where it is going. Split squad games are especially demanding for the Nats due to their lack of depth, especially in the deeper end of the AAA bullpen. It looks as if most of the players that they expect to get major league contributions from showed up in decent shape, aside from Flores. It is the guys that Syracuse is going to rely on that are overmatched.

Whatever happened to Martis... holy cow.