Davey Johnson, Stephen Strasburg

Springtime Storylines: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

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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 2012 season. Up next: the upstart Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

After three straight last-place finishes, the Nationals finally found their way out of the cellar last year. Thanks to going 17-10 in September under new skipper Davey Johnson, they finished in third place at 80-81, securing the team’s best record since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. And there’s every reason to believe that the best is yet to come.

The Nationals didn’t make the big splash for slugger Prince Fielder over the winter, but they managed to improve their starting rotation in a big way. GM Mike Rizzo swapped a package of prospects to the Athletics for left-hander Gio Gonzalez in December, signing him to a contract extension only a few weeks later. Then they added Scott Boras client (surprise!) Edwin Jackson on a low-risk one-year, $11 million deal in early-February. Throwing them into the mix with staff ace Stephen Strasburg and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann gives the Nationals one of the deepest and most formidable starting rotations in the game.

While the starting pitching should be a strength, I have my doubts about the offense. Getting a whole season out of Ryan Zimmerman would certainly help matters and Jayson Werth can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year, but this is a team that projects to have Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel as regulars, at least to begin the season. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have shown flashes of being impact players, but they also have plenty of flaws and neither profiles as an ideal leadoff man. Wilson Ramos surprised with the bat last season, so the Nats would probably be satisfied if he managed to duplicate his production. And while Michael Morse has flown under the radar as one of the best hitters in the National League over the past two seasons, his recent lat strain is somewhat troubling, especially since he’s expected to play left field.

It’s a bit of a baseball cliche, but the Nationals will likely only go as far as their pitching takes them. If they are in contention around the All-Star break and Bryce Harper is eventually thrown into the mix, things could get interesting in a hurry. But realistically, this is just the beginning of the franchise’s upswing.

What else is going on?

  • Two years ago, the date of Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut was the only thing that mattered. While Nationals fans actually have a pretty good team to follow in 2012, Harper’s inevitable arrival will be a constant topic of conversation. It’s not surprising that the 19-year-old was recently sent down to Triple-A Syracuse given the obvious service time implications, but remember that he batted .256/.329/.395 with three homers and a .724 OPS over 147 plate appearances after being promoted to Double-A last year. That’s mighty impressive for an 18-year-old, but it’s probably not the worst idea for him to get more at-bats in the minors. It’s also an ideal environment to see if he can be a viable option in center field in the short-term.
  • Chien-Ming Wang was expected to begin the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter, but he’s now likely to miss most of April after straining his left hamstring last week. John Lannan reportedly drew trade interest from multiple teams this spring, but he figures to stay put at this point. The 27-year-old left-hander is making $5 million this season and projects to be a non-tender candidate this winter, so the Nationals wouldn’t get much in return, anyway. And Wang is hardly a good bet to stay healthy.
  • The Nationals’ bullpen was fifth in the majors last season with a 3.20 ERA. This included a 1.83 ERA over 88 1/3 innings by set-up man Tyler Clippard and a 2.75 ERA over 75 1/3 innings from closer Drew Storen. They are one of the best late-inning duos in the game, but one wonders if Johnson will be able to lean on them as much this season. Storen has been limited to just two appearances this spring due to strep throat and soreness in his bicep and triceps area, but he has downplayed any long-term concerns.
  • Perhaps the most interesting situation to watch is how the Nationals will handle an innings-limit for Strasburg, especially if the team is still in the race late into the summer. The current plan calls to cut him off around 160 innings, similar to how Zimmermann was handled last season in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. For what it’s worth, Zimmermann made his final start last year on August 28.

How are they gonna do?

This is easily the best team the Nationals have fielded since moving to D.C., so anything less than a .500 season would be a surprise. I think they’ll hang around long enough to make things interesting, but I doubt they’ll score enough runs to secure one of the wild cards. Still, this season figures to be an enticing sneak preview for 2013 and beyond.

Rangers Reliever Jeremy Jeffress arrested for DUI

CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 23:  Jeremy Jeffress #23 of the Texas Rangers pitches in the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on August 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati defeated Texas 3-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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WFAA-TV in Dallas is reporting that Texas Rangers reliever Jeremy Jeffress has been arrested for drunk driving. Details of the arrest are not yet available. He was jailed just after 5AM today.

Jeffress was traded to Texas by the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline at the end of July. Overall he has a 2.52 ERA and 27 saves in 56 games. He has appeared in nine games for the Rangers and has allowed four earned runs in nine innings pitched.

More details when they become available.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rays 2, Red Sox 1Mikie Mahtook had been hitless in 34 straight at-bats before hitting a go-ahead double in the seventh. If it first you don’t succeed, try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try try again.

Nationals 4, Orioles 0: The Nats break a four game losing streak thanks to Max Scherzer‘s eight shutout innings and ten strikeouts. Jayson Werth homered in the fourth and Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper each doubled home run(s) in the eighth. Moral victory for the Orioles, though, in trotting out Ubaldo Jimenez and seeing him actually pitch well (6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER) instead of watching him start a tire fire.

Angels 6, Blue Jays 3: A 3-for-4, 4 RBI night for Mike Trout, which puts his batting line at .316/.432/.555. He’s on a pace for 30+ homers, 100+ RBI, nearly 30 stolen bases, leads the league in walks and, as always, has been playing gold glove-caliber defense. My guess is that he finishes third or fourth in MVP balloting.

Mets 10, Cardinals 6Alejandro De Aza hit a three-run homer and drove in five runs in all. That homer doesn’t happen at all if the Cards record out number three on the play before. Which they almost did and would have if not for one of the strangest dang plays you’ll ever see.

Rangers 9, Indians 0: Cole Hamels goes eight shutout innings and allows only two hits to win his 14th game and lower his ERA to 2.67 but, nah, he’s not an ace. Carlos Gomez homered in his first game as a Ranger. Can you imagine the agita Astros fans will feel if Gomez rakes down the stretch for Texas after stinkin’ up the joint as an Astro? In other news, Adrian Beltre drove in three and Jason Kipnis had a lot of fun with Rougned Odor. I’m sure Jose Bautista finds absolutely NOTHING funny about it at all.

Pirates 3, Brewers 2: Andrew McCutchen hit a home run and a pair of RBI singles, one of which proved to be the game-winner in the tenth. Pittsburgh breaks a nine-game losing streak in Miller Park.

Giants 4, Dodgers 0: Obviously the big story here — the one that will lead headlines everywhere this morning — was Matt Moore’s near-no-hitter. I mean, what else could there possibly be to take away from this ga–

Yes. That was EXACTLY the story of this game.

Braves 3, Diamondbacks 1: Lost in Moore’s near no-hit bid was Matt Wisler’s. The Braves starter didn’t allow a hit until the seventh inning and allowed only two overall, producing one run, in eight total innings. Freddie Freeman took a bad tumble trying to make a catch in the stands, smacking his back on an empty seat:

He stayed in the game, but man, that’s one that could’ve been way, way worse.

White Sox 7, Mariners 6: Todd Frazier struck out in his first three at-bats but made his last two count. Frazier tied the game up with an RBI single in the seventh inning and won it with a walkoff single down the left-field line in the ninth. Also in the ninth: three fans running on the field in two separate incidents. David Robertson was on the mound and he didn’t much care for the interruptions:

“The first two guys I was like, `Ok. All right. They’ve got it under control,” Robertson said. “The next guy, I got a little angry there.”

More like Guaranteed Irate field, amirite?

Royals 5, Marlins 2: Alcides Escobar homered, doubled, and drove in two runs but, wow, Jarrod Dyson, man:

Tigers 8, Twins 5: James McCann had four hits including a three-run homer as the Motor City Kitties sweep the Twinkies (note: if MLB is serious about getting young people into the game, all team names should be changed to their cutest possible variants, thereby securing the hearts and fandom of the five-year-old set).