We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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Rafael Soriano to the Nationals—Conspiracy Theories and Truth

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Rafael Soriano has agreed to a 2-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals. There is significant deferred money and a third year option that automatically kicks in based on games finished in 2013-2014. You can read about the details here.

Let’s look at the ramifications, theories and reality of the Soriano signing.

Did Scott Boras hoodwink the Nats again?

Boras represents both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper—both of whose contracts will eventually be an issue for the Nationals—along with Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon. Accompanying that, there’s the concept that he’s using the same Svengali-like sway he has on his clients to hypnotize Nationals’ owner Ted Lerner into overpaying for a player he doesn’t need.

Boras’s ability to convince Lerner that this (Werth, Soriano, the Strasburg shutdown) is what the club needs to be successful certainly helped, but Boras is a businessman whose clients are his main motivating factor and if the Dodgers, Yankees or whomever had presented a better deal for Soriano, he would have taken it. Boras didn’t make any promises to package his players and make Harper, Strasburg or anyone else more signable for the Nats because, apart from probably being both illegal and against MLB rules, he’s not going to cost one player to serve another one. Sure, he’ll plan and steer clients to certain destinations that will pay that player the most money and simultaneously open up a spot in the prior location for another client, but that’s different from overtly saying, “Sign Soriano and I’ll make it worth your while with Strasburg and Harper later.”

It didn’t happen.

For Rafael Soriano

Boras’s intent was to get Soriano a 4-year, $60 million deal. If Soriano reaches his incentives for games finished (and barring injury or poor performance, he will), the deal will be $42 million for three years. That’s not $60 million over four, but given the market and the draft pick compensation that was attached to Soriano serving to scare away suitors who were unable or unwilling to swing the dowry, it’s a great deal for the pitcher.

The planets aligned perfectly for Soriano in 2012. He was an afterthought as the seventh inning man for the Yankees but the following happened:

  • Mariano Rivera’s knee injury
  • David Robertson’s brief foray as the Yankees’ closer left him with a look on his face like a victim of the creepy kid from The Ring
  • Soriano took over as Yankees’ closer and pitched brilliantly
  • He had the opt out in his contract

All of these factors secured more money and a guaranteed closer’s role for Soriano and it’s with a team on the short list to win the World Series—something that as of now cannot be said about the Yankees. Had he returned to the Yankees, his role would have been either the eighth or back to the seventh inning. His numbers and financial opportunities would’ve suffered for it in his next chance at free agency and his age would affect his marketability as well.

He had his chance to get paid and, wisely, he took it.

For the Nationals

Is Soriano something of an overkill? Yes, if—and it’s a big if—Drew Storen’s elbow is healthy and, more importantly, his head isn’t still muddled by his disastrous game 5 meltdown in the NLDS loss to the Cardinals in which he blew a 2-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning. He wound up surrendering 4 runs as the Cardinals won the game and the series.

Presumably, his elbow isn’t the problem. His head might be.

Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson saw firsthand what can happen to a pitcher who blows a game like that when he was managing the Mets and they rallied against Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi in 1986 in both games 6 and 7 of the World Series and Schiraldi’s career as a significant contributor was essentially done after that. Johnson likes to have a deep bullpen, but he also likes to have a closer he knows isn’t going to panic in a big game. He had that with the Mets and Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers; he had it with the Reds with Jeff Brantley; and with the Orioles with Myers again. There might have been that underlying fear with Storen that he wouldn’t recover.

Soriano’s not exactly trustworthy in the playoffs either, but he did replace Rivera and do the job in New York, doubly-massive pressure situations.

The argument could be made that the Nationals, if they no longer trusted Storen, could simply have switched roles between him and Tyler Clippard permanently. Clippard closed in Storen’s absence and even after Storen returned last season, so he can do it. But when Rivera got hurt and the Yankees stuck Robertson in the closer’s role adhering to a misplaced rule of succession, it was a mistake. Robertson, like Clippard, did the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth innings as the set-up man. It won’t be a glorious role until there’s a catchier and more definable stat than a “hold,” and until these pitchers are paid commensurately for the job they’re doing, but it’s sometimes more important to have a good set-up man than the closer, whose job is to accumulate saves and whose main attribute is to handle the job mentally. Clippard can close, but he’s more valuable setting up.

Historically, Johnson has also liked using more than one closer, so it’s possible Storen might get a few save opportunities. With Soriano’s mentality, though, that too would be a mistake. As the “established closer paid to get the saves,” Soriano doesn’t want to hear statistical reasons as to why he’s not pitching the ninth inning in a save situation. He wants the ball and he wants the saves. If anyone else is used in the ninth inning when Soriano is healthy, feeling good and available, he’ll see that as a threat, making it a potential long-term issue.

Johnson will use Soriano to close. Period. It’s not because he doesn’t want to think for himself or do something against new conventional orthodoxy, but because it’s easier for him and the team to do it that way.

The draft pick and the money

According to Forbes, as of September 2012, Ted Lerner was worth $3.9 billion. He’s 87-years-old. Could the player the Nationals would draft at 31 in the 1st round make a difference to them in Lerner’s lifetime? Possibly. Is it likely that the player will be more useful than Soriano? No.

Maybe they’re going to package Storen with Mike Morse in a trade to get another starting pitcher and a lefty specialist; maybe they’ll use them to bolster the farm system with better prospects than they would have gotten in the 2013 first round. If that’s the case, then they’ve benefited themselves in multiple ways.

The Nationals aren’t building. They’re built. Any player they drafted at number 31 isn’t going to be a significant contributor to this current group unless they draft what they just signed—a short reliever. And the likelihood of a college draftee closer showing up and taking over as the Nationals’ closer and anchoring a championship team in 2013-2014 is almost non-existent. The number of college closers that have been drafted as closers and made it to the big leagues quickly to contribute significantly starts with Gregg Olson and ends with Chad Cordero. It’s more probable that they’d end up with a Jaime Bluma—a great closing arm that never made it.

They have the money and the draft pick was negligible. They’re a better team today with Soriano than they were yesterday without him and the 31st pick in the draft. The Nationals are trying to win right now and, considering what was available, Soriano helps them to do that better than the other options. There were no conspiracies nor was it buying for its own sake. They wanted to improve immediately and that’s what they did.

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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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It’s a Gio!!!!

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Let’s look at the Gio Gonzalez trade and its ramifications for all parties.

B-B-B-Billy and the Nats.

As I said in my prior posting, based on the flurry of trades he made and prospects acquired, the floating barometer of genius for Billy Beane is back in the green zone.

Of course it’s nonsense. The players may make it; they may not. You can get analysis of the youngsters here on MLB.com. The way the trade is being framed, it looks like the Nationals overpaid for a talented but wild lefty in Gonzalez.

The A’s are building for a future that may never come in a venue they don’t have assurances will be built—ever.

The Nationals are again hopping between two worlds. On one planet, they’re building for the future with young players Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper—along with the top-tier prospects they’ve accumulated in recent drafts; on the other, they’re signing to massive contracts background talents of advancing age like Jayson Werth.

Which is it?

If he’s healthy and throws strikes, Gonzalez will add to the Nats improving starting rotation.

Those are big “ifs”.

Right now, if things go right for the Nationals, you can make the case that they’re better than the Marlins, are going to be competitive with the Braves and maybe even the Phillies if they begin to show their age.

That would be an extreme case of things going “right”, but we’ve seen it happen in recent years as the 2008 Rays came from nowhere to go to the World Series.

The Gonzalez Chronicles.

The Red Sox were said to be pursuing Gonzalez as well; with their limited cupboard of prospects, they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) match what the Nats traded away.

What their decision to bid on him at all does it open up a series of questions as to how much influence new manager Bobby Valentine is having on the composition of his roster.

When he was the manager of the Mets, Valentine was against GM Steve Phillips’s acquisition of Mike Hampton at Christmastime 1999; Valentine felt Hampton was too wild.

If that’s the case, then what does he think of Gonzalez, who’s walked over 90 batters in each of the past two seasons?

It could be that Valentine has evolved from his earlier beliefs.

Maybe he thinks Gonzalez would’ve been worth it.

Perhaps he’s being conciliatory and flexible in his first few weeks on the job.

Or he’s being ignored.

The Yankees stayed away from Jonathan Sanchez because GM Brian Cashman didn’t want a pitcher that wild. He wasn’t going to mortgage the system for Gonzalez when they’re still after Felix Hernandez.

Other teams were chasing Gonzalez, but the Nats blew them away.

Those teams were smart to steer clear; Beane was savvy to deal Gonzalez now and use the A’s teardown as a cover; and the Nats are taking an enormous leap of faith with a pitcher who’s going to aggravate them with his inability to find the strike zone.

There are better pitchers on the market via free agency (Edwin Jackson; Roy Oswalt); and trade (Gavin Floyd, Jair Jurrjens)—all are superior options to Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a deep and risky bomb for the Nats that I wouldn’t have attempted.

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Werth Batting Second?

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The Washington Nationals have announced their intended lineup to start the season. Their big free agent signing ($126 million to be exact), Jayson Werth is going to bat second—Washington Post column.

There will be undisguised outrage at this decision.

I’m not as ironclad in lineup beliefs as others—I prefer the old-school style of having a speed/on-base guy leading off; followed by someone with a little pop, on-base skills of his own and reasonable speed to prevent the double play; the best hitter in the lineup batting third; the most feared hitter fourth; and RBI men fifth and sixth.

But it all depends on the personnel.

If the Nationals are going to think outside the box with Werth and bat him at the top of the lineup for the reasons presented (he walks and has power), why not bat him leadoff?

It’s not as if they have a prototypical leadoff batter; if they plan to use Ian Desmond in the role, it defeats the purpose of batting Werth second. I like Desmond, but he doesn’t get on base and strikes out a lot.

Werth strikes out a lot as well.

This concept of having a runner or runners on base for the middle of the lineup to drive in is, more often than not, going to be sabotaged.

Batting Werth leadoff might not be a conventional approach, but he would be a potential rally-starter. He gets on base, has power, hits plenty of doubles and can run. There have been players of this kind—who also struck out a lot—that have been very good leadoff hitters. Bobby Bonds was one such player.

In his early years with the Giants, Bonds would bat leadoff with Willie Mays and Willie McCovey behind him and he’d score well over 100 runs a year. He’d either strike out, homer or start something with his speed.

The Nationals don’t have that kind of power behind Werth, but there are hitters who will drive in runs—Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse.

If they so desperately want to bat Werth at the top of the lineup, I’d bat Werth first; rookie Danny Espinosa second (he can hit—watch); Zimmerman third; LaRoche fourth; and Morse fifth.

Batting Werth second is an attempt to be too clever. Rather than that I’d prefer to go for the bomb early, especially considering how outmanned the Nationals are in terms of talent when comparing them to the rest of the National League East and NL proper.

Either bat him leadoff or bat him fourth.

Not second.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

The book is available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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