The Week Ahead: Nats at 'center of the universe'

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harper-bryce-100606.jpgThis is a pretty good time to be a Washington Nationals fan. Yes, they are currently sitting in their customary position at the bottom of the NL East, but if you’re a follower of the artists formerly known as Les Expos, you’ve got to be brimming with optimism this week.

On Monday, the Nats will pick first in the First-Year Player Draft, and all indications are that they will select catcher Bryce Harper (pictured), a record-setting junior college slugger who would have just finished his junior year of high school had he not enrolled in college to become eligible for the draft a year early.

There have been some questions about Harper’s attitude, as well as thoughts that he should be moved to a different position (courtesy of his agent, you know who). But there is no denying his talent.

Then before the Harper hype even gets a chance to die down, the Nats will grab the attention of the baseball world again on Tuesday when they unveil their No. 1 pick from last year’s draft, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who will make his first big league start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Strasburg never really looked like he belonged in the minors, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA in 55 1/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A, and even the Nationals brass is having a hard time keeping their expectations in check. Here is team president Stan Kasten talking to MLB.com:

As we have been building, we have been a very low-profile team, which is a frustration when you are in a big and important market as we are in D.C. Strasburg has certainly changed that dynamic. We are now the center of the universe in terms of attention in the world of baseball. We will be the center of attention on Monday night with the first pick of the Draft. We’ll be the center of attention again Tuesday. And we hope, soon thereafter, we’ll become a team that is worthy of constant attention as we become more competitive.

Center of the universe? Sure why not? Let the man enjoy the moment. And maybe, just maybe, his team will feature the most dynamic battery in baseball in years to come. Now, Washington probably won’t be able to afford any other decent players after paying for their two wunderkind, but let’s not worry about that right now.

Instead, let the Nationals be the center of the universe. We can always let things get back to normal next week.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Cardinals at Dodgers, June 7-9:
The last time these two teams met, Matt Holliday was dropping fly balls in the playoffs to help L.A. reach the NLCS. The Cardinals enter the week on a three-game winning streak, and the Dodgers have been on the rise as well.

Blue Jays at Rays, June 8-10: The Blue Jays made it through a difficult week with a 3-3 record and sit only four games back in the AL East entering the week. It’s another rough week ahead, but it’s getting harder to doubt this Toronto club.

Phillies at Red Sox, June 11-13: The second-place Phillies vs. the third-place Red Sox? What happened here? Not to worry, both teams will remain in the thick of their division races all season long.

Braves at Twins, June 11-13: A couple of quiet, unheralded division leaders lock horns in Minnesota. Should be some good baseball, folks.

Angels at Dodgers; A’s at Giants, June 11-13: It’s time for some California dreamin’ as the L.A. and Bay Area rivals meet up. None of these teams are great, but they’re all competent. Yes, even the A’s.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 7:05 p.m. ET: Padres at Phillies (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:10 p.m.: Cubs at Brewers (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Phillies at Red Sox (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Cubs (FOX)
Sunday, 1:35 p.m.: Phillies at Red Sox (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: White Sox at Cubs (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Kevin Gausman to start Opening Day for the Orioles

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The Orioles have tabbed Kevin Gausman to start on Opening Day, April 3 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports. Chris Tillman started the previous three Opening Days for the O’s. This will be Gausman’s first Opening Day nod.

Gausman, 26, finished the 2016 season with a 3.61 ERA and a 174/47 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2012 draft and moved him through their minor league system quickly. Gausman debuted in the majors in May 2013.

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central