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.

Red Sox analyst Remy struck by monitor as wind causes havoc

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AP Photo
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BOSTON — Red Sox TV analyst Jerry Remy was hit in the head by a falling TV monitor as swirling winds caused havoc during the first inning at Fenway Park.

Remy was sent home from Boston’s game Saturday night against the Minnesota Twins but is expected back Sunday. Former player Steve Lyons, also an analyst during some games, came in for Remy.

The strong winds made for an interesting first.

Minnesota’s Robbie Grossman hit a fly that appeared headed for center, but a gust blew it to right, sending right fielder Michael Martinez twisting as the ball fell for a triple.

There were a handful of stoppages as dirt and litter swirled around the field. Batters stepped out to wipe their eyes and Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez headed to the dugout to have a trainer help him clear his left eye.

White Sox ace Chris Sale scratched for ‘clubhouse incident’

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Getty Images
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CHICAGO — Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale was scratched from his start against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night after he was involved in what the team said was a “non-physical clubhouse incident.”

Sale, who was to attempt to become the majors’ first 15-game winner, was sent home from the park.

“The incident, which was non-physical in nature, currently is under further investigation by the club,” general manager Rick Hahn said in a statement. “The White Sox will have no additional comment until the investigation is completed.”

The White Sox clubhouse was open to reporters for only 20 minutes before it was closed for a team meeting before the game. Manager Robin Ventura did not discuss the incident later in his pregame availability.

Right-hander Matt Albers started in Sale’s place and the White Sox planned to use multiple relievers. The crowd booed when Albers was announced as the starter as the teams warmed up.

Sale had been shown as the starter on the scoreboard until about 15 minutes before the scheduled first pitch, which was delayed 10 minutes by rain.

With the White Sox fading from playoff contention, Sale’s name has been mentioned as a possible trade target for contending teams.

The left-hander, 14-3 with a 3.18 ERA, has been outspoken in the past.

Sale was openly critical of team president Ken Williams during spring training when he said the son of teammate Adam LaRoche would no longer be allowed in the clubhouse. LaRoche retired as a result, and Sale hung LaRoche’s jersey in his locker.

The 27-year-old Sale has said he’d like to stay in Chicago. He was the 13th overall pick out of Florida Gulf Coast in 2010 and has been selected as an All-Star five times. He started for the American League in this month’s All-Star Game.

Sale, who is 71-43 in his career, entered the day leading the majors with 133 innings pitched and three complete games.

In his last outing Monday, Sale allowed one hit over eight shutout innings before closer David Robertson gave up four runs in the ninth in Chicago’s loss to Seattle.

The White Sox, who started 23-10, had dropped eight of nine games before Saturday and sat in fourth place in the AL Central, creating speculation that Sale and fellow lefty Jose Quintana could be dealt.

Hahn said Thursday the White Sox were “mired in mediocrity” and hinted at possible big roster changes.

Tigers GM Al Avila said before the game that many teams were looking for starting pitching.

“Yet there are not as many good starting pitchers available,” Avila said. “And the guys that may come available are going to come at a steep price.