Springtime Storylines: Are the Nationals ready to contend?

13 Comments

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.

Noah Syndergaard refused an MRI for his sore biceps

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mets’ right-hander Noah Syndergaard will take the hill on Sunday afternoon, just three days after he was scratched from a start due to right biceps tendinitis and shoulder discomfort. Syndergaard told reporters that he refused recommended medical testing on his arm because he felt “ready to go” after taking anti-inflammation medication and tossing a bullpen session on Friday. “I think I know my body best,” the right-hander said. “I’m pretty in tune with my body, and that’s exactly why I refused to take the MRI.”

It’s an unusual decision for a pitcher who has already succumbed to several serious arm issues, some as recent as last season, but as club GM Sandy Alderson told the New York Times’ James Wagner, the Mets aren’t in a position to force the issue.

This is a tense time for the Mets, whose lineup has been fraught with injuries of nearly every variety, from Yoenis Cespedes‘ hamstring issue to Steven Matz‘s elbow inflammation and David Wright‘s cervical disc herniation. Syndergaard’s setback last week didn’t appear too serious, but it would make sense for the team to take things slowly with their best still-healthy hurler. Instead, they’ll push forward on Sunday against the Nationals and hope that Syndergaard’s read on his biceps issue is an accurate one.

The 24-year-old righty is 1-1 through his first four starts of 2017 with a 1.73 ERA, 0.0 BB/9 and 10.4 SO/9 in 26 innings. He’s scheduled to make his first start against the Nationals on Sunday at 1:35 PM ET.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

Getty Images
4 Comments

Saturday’s games featured Jake Lamb‘s record-setting home run, Ivan Nova‘s sterling outing against the Marlins, and an impressive walk-off at Dodger Stadium. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Yankees 12, Orioles 4: So much for the Yankees blowing past their quota of runs on Friday night. They returned in full force on Saturday, dominating the Orioles in regulation innings with a 12-run display. Home runs were, again, the name of the game, with Brett Gardner going deep twice for his first two homers of the season and Austin Romine and Aaron Judge tacking on an extra couple of blasts to pad the Yankees’ eight-run lead. (That’s home run No. 10 for Judge, by the way, a record-tying total by a rookie in his first month of big league games.)

Mets 5, Nationals 3: The Mets are still dealing with a slew of injuries, some of which have drastically thinned their outfield reserves over the last several weeks. With Brandon Nimmo and Yoenis Cespedes hampered by hamstring issues, left fielder Michael Conforto rose to the occasion, hitting two home runs in the Mets’ 5-3 win over the Nationals on Saturday. He boosted the club to their first lead in the fifth inning, plunking a two-run homer into the right field bleachers, then reemerged in the eighth with an insurance home run off of Enny Romero.

Blue Jays 4, Rays 1: The Blue Jays still have the worst record in the majors, but you wouldn’t know it from their dominant outing on Saturday. Francisco Liriano limited the Rays to one run over five innings, backed by a strong showing from the ‘pen to maintain the club’s three-run lead. Kendrys Morales put Toronto on the map in the first inning, scoring on a fielding error by Tampa Bay’s Tim Beckham, while Russell Martin and Justin Smoak decorated the Jays’ efforts with an RBI double and two-run home run to even the series.

Cubs 7, Red Sox 4: Hanley Ramirez may not own the longest home run of 2017, but he set a record that may take longer to beat: the longest home run hit at Fenway Park.* Ramirez belted a 469-footer off of Cubs’ right-hander John Lackey in the third inning, catapulting a 1-0 pitch over the Green Monster to break the season record set by Kris Bryant’s 449-foot homer on Friday. He even snuck in a few celebratory kisses after rounding the bases.

Ramirez’s home run beat his own previous mark, measured at 468 feet last May.

*In the Statcast era

White Sox 6, Tigers 4 (10 innings): We’re only through one month of the regular season, so it’s pointless to fret about slumps and slow starts right now. Still, the White Sox were able to breathe a sigh of relief when veteran slugger Melky Cabrera finally recorded his first home run of the year, a 10th-inning game-winner off of Detroit left-hander Justin Wilson. It’s the sixth consecutive win for the White Sox, which keeps them just half a game ahead of the Indians in the AL Central.

Pirates 4, Marlins 0: It’s hardly exaggerating to call this the best game of Ivan Nova’s career. The right-hander tossed a three-hitter at Marlins Park on Saturday, striking out seven and setting down nine scoreless frames. Not only did it mark Nova’s fifth complete game in a Pirates’ uniform, but it was the third complete game shutout of his eight-year career.

Indians 4, Mariners 3: It only took one inning to decide the Mariners’ fate on Saturday. They got on the board with consecutive home runs from Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager in the first, then promptly erased their three-run lead when the Indians lassoed four runs in the bottom of the inning. From the second inning through the end of the game, neither team advanced a runner past second base, preserving the Indians’ one-run lead and bringing them within half a game of the division lead.

Rangers 6, Angels 3: Sure, hitting for the cycle is a rare feat in and of itself, but how many major league players can do it with one shoe on?

Carlos Gomez completed his second career cycle on Saturday, beginning with a first inning double that cost him exactly one cleat:

He returned (with both cleats) for a triple, base hit and a two-run homer, becoming the first Rangers’ player to hit for the cycle since Adrian Beltre defeated the Astros with his third career cycle in 2015.

Braves 11, Brewers 3: The Braves have played with a short-handed bench lately, forcing manager Brian Snitker to engineer some creative alternatives (including, but not limited to, the use of starter Julio Teheran as a pinch-hitter and -runner). Thankfully, no such alternatives were needed on Saturday, especially after Matt Kemp helped vault the Braves to an eight-run lead with the first three-homer game of his career:

Athletics 2, Astros 1: Andrew Triggs is looking more and more like a bonafide starter these days. He anchored the A’s 2-1 win with seven shutout innings, allowing five hits and fanning nine before handing the game over to the bullpen. The A’s were similarly stymied by Houston right-hander Joe Musgrove through the better part of seven innings, but rallied with a pair of home runs from Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis to secure the lead — and their 11th win.

Rockies 7, Diamondbacks 6: Is it even worth bragging about hitting the longest home run of the year when the record gets shattered every other day? Perhaps not, but it’s difficult to imagine someone hitting a ball much further than Jake Lamb’s 481-foot two-run shot off of Colorado’s Tyler Anderson this weekend:

Lamb’s home run ranks eleventh in estimated home run distance during the Statcast era. Only nine hitters have recorded longer home runs, topping out at Giancarlo Stanton‘s 504-foot blast last August.

Dodgers 6, Phillies 5: No one would have blamed you for turning off the Dodgers’ game last night. Few would have faulted you for trying to beat L.A. traffic by skipping out of Dodger Stadium in the eighth inning, when the Phillies padded their three-run lead with Andrew Knapp‘s first home run of the season. If you had, however, you would have missed a true storybook ending.

Down 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Yasiel Puig worked an eight-pitch at-bat against Philadelphia right-hander Hector Neris, prevailing with a 416-foot home run that sank into the center field bleachers. Neris wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. His at-bat against Cody Bellinger only lasted one-eighth as long, ending on a long fly ball that ricocheted off of the right field foul pole for the rookie’s second major league home run. Justin Turner provided the game-tying knock, going back-to-back-to-back with Puig and Bellinger, while Adrian Gonzalez polished off the rally with a two-out, game-winning base hit.

 

Padres 12, Giants 4: The Padres leapfrogged their injury-riddled division rivals on Saturday with their first double-digit win of the year, breaking out in the sixth with an eight-run inning that saw 11 batters, an RBI double, two RBI singles, a bases-loaded walk, an RBI force out, Wil Myerssixth home run of the season, and the complete implosion of the Giants’ bullpen.