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.

Marlins acquire starter Dan Straily from the Reds

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Straily #58 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on September 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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The Miami Marlins have acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Reds will receive right-handed pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfield prospect Isaiah White.

For the Marlins, they get a solid starter who logged 191.1 innings of 113 ERA+ ball last year. Straily has moved around a lot in his five big league seasons — the Marlins will be his fifth club in six years — but it was something of a breakout year for him in Cincinnati. The only troubling thing: he tied for the league lead in homers allowed. Of course, pitching half of his games in Great American Ballpark didn’t help that, and Miami will be a better place for him.

Castillo is 24. He split last season between high-A and Double-A — far more of it in A-ball — posting a 2.26 ERA over 24 starts. Austin Brice is also 24. He pitched 15 games in relief for the Marlins last year at the big league level with poor results. He seemed to blossom at Triple-A, however, after the Marlins shifted him to the pen. White was a third round pick in the 2015 draft. He played low-A ball as a minor leaguer last year, hitting .214/.306/.301.

A mixed bag of young talent for the Reds, but stockpiling kids and seeing what shakes out is what a team like the Reds should be doing at the moment. For the Marlins: a solid mid-to-back end starter who may just be coming into his own.

Have Hall of Fame Voters actually made the PED thing More complicated?

Sammy Sosa
Associated Press
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The story coming out of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting is that the BBWAA voters are finally easing their antipathy toward players with performance enhancing drug associations.

Jeff Bagwell — the subject of unconfirmed PED rumors — made the Hall! Pudge Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s book and who had a . . . curious physical transformation around the time PED testing came online, made it on the first ballot! Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose PED use was well-documented, saw their vote totals advance above the 50% mark, making their future elections look more likely!

It’s an interesting development, and one I’m obviously pleased with, but I wonder if the BBWAA’s new approach to PED guys, while far more forgiving than it used to be, has actually become more complicated in practice.

I ask this because I look way, way down the ballot and I still see Sammy Sosa scraping by with around 8% of the vote. I ask this because I still see Gary Sheffield at 13%. I ask this because when Mark McGwire was on the Today’s Game ballot in December, no one really stumped for him at all. I ask this because, even though Bagwell and Mike Piazza got in eventually, they still had to go through a lot of hazing first and I suspect, if they hit the ballot for the first time again tomorrow, the same arguments and delay would occur with respect to their cases.

In light of that, what I suspect has happened has not been a wholesale surrender of the anti-PED voters. Rather, I think it has been a transformation. One in which a moral test — did he use PEDs or not? — has been discarded as a threshold question and a scientific/physiological test — would he have been great even without the PEDs? — has replaced it. In essence, voters are becoming “PED discounters” in the aggregate. Making calculations as to whether a guy was, in their mind, a creation of PEDs or not.

Such an approach explains these new voting patterns as well as those in recent years.

  • Ivan Rodriguez may have been called out by Canseco and may have noticeably shrunk over an offseason, but his calling card was his defense behind the plate and voters, I suspect, have told themselves that such a thing is not PED-aided.
  • Bonds and Clemens may have been PED users, but each of them was undeniably talented and, if you discount for the PED use, hey, they’re still all-time greats.
  • Sammy Sosa’s case rests disproportionately on homers and, as everyone knows, PEDs = instant dingers, so no, he’s not gonna cut it.

And so on.

As I said, I’m glad that the strict moral test — did he use or not? — is losing its hold on Hall voters. But I do not think the “did PEDs make him who he was test?” is a good approach either. Baseball writers are in no better a position to assess the physiological and performance enhancements caused by pharmaceuticals than they are to be judges of character and morality. Given the identities of players confirmed to be PED users, the old eye test implicit in these cases is famously faulty (Neifi Perez, anyone?). The idea that PEDs only affect home run totals — and not, say, the ability for a player to take the abuse of the catcher position for 21 seasons — is crude and ignorant.

I suppose it’s naive to expect voters to completely disregard PEDs in their assessment of players. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. But while we may, thankfully, be moving away from a moral test with respect to drugs, it’s been displaced by a scientific test that is no more reasonable in practice.