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 Blue Jays removed reliever Brett Cecil from their ALDS roster on Saturday, one day after he suffered a “significant” tear of his left calf muscle. Ryan Tepera has been added to take his place in Toronto’s bullpen.
Cecil suffered the injury while tagging Mike Napoli in a rundown in Game 2 on Friday. Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca reports that the injury won’t require surgery, but he’s done for the remainder of the postseason.
Cecil hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 37 appearances dating back to June, so this is a huge loss. His absence leaves Aaron Loup as the lone lefty in Toronto’s bullpen. Tepera had a solid 3.27 ERA and 22/6 K/BB ratio in 33 innings during the regular season. While it was a small sample, he actually had more success against left-handed batters than right-handed batters.
Hall of Famer and Orioles legend Cal Ripken, Jr. was a guest on “The Rich Eisen Show” on Friday and naturally he was asked about the managerial opening with the Nationals, a job he was connected to as recently as 2013. Per Chase Hughes of CSNMA.com, Ripken said he’d be interested if the opportunity presented itself.
“I’d answer the phone,” he said on ‘The Rich Eisen Show.’ “Everybody wants a phone call like that.”
Matt Williams was fired by the Nationals this week after two seasons on the job. While he won NL Manager of the Year honors in his first season at the helm, he reportedly lost the clubhouse this year en route to a disappointing 83-79 record.
Williams had no previous managerial experience prior to being hired. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said this week that he would prioritize experience during his search, a factor which could impact Ripken’s chances of getting the job. Ripken acknowledged that he sees how it could be perceived a “risk,” but he still thinks he can manage at the major league level:
“The baseball background that I have — you’re a student of the game — there’s a lot said about experience or lack of experience in managers coming through. To me, it’s all about your philosophy — how you handle things, what you’re going to do. And then it’s being able to apply it.
“I haven’t had a chance to apply that, so no one knows. So that would be a risk, I suppose. I’m in the business world now and all the time, it seems like I’m asking for experts to come around and tell me what to do because I don’t have that background to fall back on. But in baseball, I have that background to fall back on and I would know how to deal with whatever situations there because I’ve seen it.”
Ripken has a good relationship with Rizzo and he’s obviously an icon in the Mid-Atlantic area, so you can understand the appeal, but there’s going to be plenty of competition for this job. After all, on talent alone, it’s not hard to envision them vaulting back to the top of the National League East next season.
James Wagner of the Washington Post reports that former Padres manager Bud Black has a “strong case” to land the job. Meanwhile, the Nationals have requested an interview with Diamondbacks Triple-A manager Phil Nevin.
Here are the Cubs and Cardinals lineups for Game 2 of the NLDS. First pitch is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis:
CF Dexter Fowler
RF Jorge Soler
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Austin Jackson
C Miguel Montero
SP Kyle Hendricks
SS Addison Russell
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has made a number of changes with a left-hander on the mound for St. Louis. Jorge Soler will start in right field and bat second base while Kyle Schwarber is on the bench. Meanwhile, Austin Jackson will start over Chris Coghlan in left field. Miguel Montero is behind the plate after David Ross caught Jon Lester in Game 1 on Friday. Finally, Kyle Hendricks will bat eighth while Addison Russell will hit ninth, which he did often during the regular season.
3B Matt Carpenter
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
CF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
1B Brandon Moss
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
SP Jaime Garcia
The Cardinals’ lineup isn’t much different from Game 1 against left-hander Jon Lester, but there is one notable change with a right-hander on the mound. Randal Grichuk is out while Brandon Moss is in. Stephen Piscotty played first base in Game 1, but he’ll be in right field this afternoon. This means that Moss will start at first base. Yadier Molina reported no issues with his thumb in Game 1 and is right back in there to catch Garcia.