Jim Riggleman

Springtime Storylines: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?


Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Strasburg-less Washington Nationals.

The big question: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

In a word, yes.

It’s not wrong to call Jayson Werth’s contract excessive — in fact, I’d be shocked if the Nationals don’t regret it down the road — but more than anything, I found the signing as an acknowledgement from ownership that they weren’t content with returning to being an afterthought in the D.C. market, at least in the short-term.

Whether they’ll admit or not, the Nationals needed to inject some excitement into their fanbase this offseason. They already knew they were going to be without Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season and the signing came less than 48 hours after Adam Dunn — a fan favorite — bolted for Chicago. They needed something to sell the team for 2011, even if they had to massively overpay in order to do it. This was a P.R. move just as much as it was a personnel move.

The main objective for the Nationals this season is to stay relevant long enough until Strasburg returns and Bryce Harper is ready for the major leagues. If all goes well, that could happen in September. Then in 2012, the real fun can begin.

So what else is going on?

  • I don’t mean to short this current squad. There are some interesting pieces here. Ryan Zimmerman continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated players in baseball. Werth helps soften the blow of losing Dunn in the middle of the lineup while Adam LaRoche adds some balance from the left side. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have some flaws, but are a pretty talented middle infield combo. Wilson Ramos, who was acquired in the Matt Capps deal, should be fun to watch behind the plate. And while he entered spring training without a clear role on the team following the signing of LaRoche, it looks like Mike Morse has won the starting left field job.
  • Where I’m less optimistic is center field. The Nationals appear poised to give the starting job to Rick Ankiel, which probably says how much the organization has soured on Nyjer Morgan over the past year. Yuck.
  • Nationals starters had a 4.61 ERA last season, which (sadly) was their lowest since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. They averaged around 5.5 innings per start. If everyone stays healthy, they should be able to improve on those numbers, at least by a little bit. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny aren’t great options, but they’re better than the cannon fodder they’ve sent out there in years past. And I haven’t even talked about Jordan Zimmermann yet. The former 2007 second-round pick is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and has the potential to a be a frontline starter.
  • Who’s gonna close here? If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Drew Storen, but now I’m not so sure. There are even some rumors that he could begin the season in the minors. The good news is that the Nationals actually have some pretty decent depth here, including Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. They should do OK.

So how are they gonna do?

I’m tempted to pick the Nationals for fourth place, but the other four teams in this division all have the potential to be better. With the Nationals, nearly everything would have to break right in order for them to play .500 ball. I’ll give them 73 wins and their fourth straight last-place finish. They’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait another year for things to get interesting.

The Days of Chief Wahoo are numbered

Fox Entertainment

One of the more common responses to what I’ve posted about Chief Wahoo lately is “it’s just a cartoon character! Nobody cares!”

Well, looking at that guy in the photo above and many others dressed like him at Progressive Field the past two days is evidence that it is not just a cartoon character. A certain swath of Indians fans think that, because of their team’s name and mascot, it’s totally acceptable to show up in public looking like this. Wahoo as an official trademark of a Major League Baseball club gives people license to dress up in redface — or in this case, red and blackface — with headdresses on, turning a real people and a real culture into a degrading caricature. It’s not just a cartoon character by a long shot. To many it’s a get-out-being-called-a-racist-free card.

As for “nobody cares,” well, yes, someone does. Go read this from Sterling HolyWhiteMountain over at ESPN, talking about both Chief Wahoo as a symbol and America’s treatment and conception of Native Americans as a whole. It’s moving stuff that puts lie to the idea that “nobody cares.” It likewise puts lie to the false choice so many Chief Wahoo defenders reference in which they argue that people should care more about actual injustices visited upon Native Americans and not mascots. One can and should care about those injustices. And one can do that while simultaneously finding Chief Wahoo to be an odious symbol that serves to dehumanize people. Once people are dehumanized, it’s far easier to treat them as something less-than-human, of course.

But it’s not just Native Americans or anti-Wahoo folks like me who care. While I have been critical of Major League Baseball for not taking its own stand against Wahoo publicly, it seems pretty clear at this point that the league is weary of Wahoo and is looking to pressure the Indians to eliminate it. Last night, at the Hank Aaron Award ceremony, Manfred spoke more expansively about Wahoo than he did the day before. Manfred is a lawyer and he does not choose his words carelessly. Read this and parse it carefully:

“I know that that particular logo is offensive to some people, and all of us at Major League Baseball understand why. Logos are, however, primarily a local matter. The local club makes decisions about its logos. Fans get attached to logos. They become part of a team’s history. So it’s not easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive to some segment.

“I’ve talked to Mr. [Indians owner and CEO Paul] Dolan about this issue. We’ve agreed away from the World Series at an appropriate time we will have a conversation about this. I want to understand fully what his view is, and we’ll go from there. At this point in this context, I’m just not prepared to say more.”

Yes, he’s still trying to be diplomatic, but note how he (a) acknowledges that Wahoo is offensive to some people; (b) that “all of us at Major League Baseball understand why” and (c) does not validate the views of those who do not find it offensive. He acknowledges that they feel that way due to history, but he does not say, as I inferred from his previous comments the day before, that both sides have merit. Indeed, he says he’d like to hear Paul Dolan’s side, suggesting that while he’ll listen to argument, he doesn’t buy the argument as it has yet to be put.

I still wish that MLB would come out hard and strong against Wahoo publicly, but the more I listen to Manfred on this and read between the lines, the more I suspect that Major League Baseball is finally fed up with Wahoo and that it wants to do something to get rid of it. That it’s not just the hobby horse of pinko liberals like me. I believe Manfred realizes that, in 2016, Chief Wahoo is an embarrassment to an organization like Major League Baseball. Maybe, because of p.r. and political considerations, he doesn’t want to stand on a soapbox about it at the World Series, but I believe he wants to put an end to it all the same.

You can call me names for being against Wahoo all you want. But you can’t say it’s a non-issue. You can’t say that it’s just a cartoon character and you can’t say that nobody cares. To do that is an exercise in denial. I have come to believe that Major League Baseball cares and that it’s going to push hard to make the 2016 World Series the last time it is embarrassed by anachronistic racism on its biggest stage ever again.

Game 2 is going to be the poster child for pace of play arguments this winter

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Zach McAllister #34 of the Cleveland Indians is relieved by manager Terry Francona during the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images

In August, it was reported that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred would like to implement pitch clocks, like those in use in the minor leagues for the past two seasons, to improve the pace-of-play at the major league level. You can bet that last night’s Game 2 will be the lead argument he uses against those who would oppose the move.

The game was moved up an hour in order to get it in before an impending storm. By the time the rain finally started falling the game had been going on for three hours and thirty-three minutes. It should’ve been over before the first drop fell, but in all it lasted four hours and four minutes. It ended in, thankfully, only a light rain. The longest nine-inning game in postseason history happened a mere two weeks ago, when the Dodgers and Nationals played for four hours and thirty two minutes. There thirteen pitchers were used. Last night ten pitchers were used. Either way, the postseason games are dragging on even for those of us who don’t mind devoting four+ hours of our night to baseball. It is likely putting off more casual fans just tuning in for the Fall Classic.

It’s not all just dawdling, however. Yes, the pitchers worked slowly and a lot of pitching changes took place, but strikeouts, walks and the lack of balls in play contribute to longer games as well. We saw this both last night and in Game 1, which was no brisk affair despite each starting pitcher looking sharp and not working terribly slowly. Twenty-four strikeouts on Tuesday night had a lot to do with that. Last night featured 20 strikeouts and thirteen — thirteen! — walks. It’s not just that the games are taking forever; the very thing causing them to drag feature baseball’s least-kinetic forms of excitement.

But no matter what the cause for the slower play was — and here it was a combination of laboring pitchers, the lack of balls in play and, of course, the longer commercial breaks in the World Series — Manfred is likely to hold Game 2 up as Exhibit A in his efforts to push through some rules changes to improve game pace and game time. So far, the centerpiece of those efforts is the pitch clock, which has proven to be successful and pretty non-controversial in the minor leagues. It would not surprise me one bit if, at this year’s Winter Meetings in Washington, a rule change in that regard is widely discussed.