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.

Bruce Maxwell on anthem protest: “If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it”

Associated Press
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For the second straight day, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the national anthem before the A’s game against the Texas Rangers. Afterward, he said he did not care what the repercussions might be:

“If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it. This is bigger than a monetary standpoint, this is bigger than the uniform I put on every day. This is about the people in this country and we all deserve to be treated equally. That’s the whole purpose of us taking a knee during the national anthem.”

And make no mistake, there will be repercussions of one kind or another. The immediate ones are pretty predictable: Maxwell says he has received threats since his first protest on Saturday night, including racial epithets and warnings “to watch [his] back.” These came via the Internet and Maxwell has brushed it off as the act of “keyboard warriors.”

The more interesting question will be whether there will be career repercussions. He has received support from the A’s, but even the supportive comments come with at least a hint of foreboding. Here’s his manager, Bob Melvin:

“It does take a lot of courage because you know that now the potential of the crosshairs are on you and for a guy who’s not as established, I’m sure, and I’m not speaking for him, but I’m sure there were some feelings for him that there was some risk. I do know that he felt better about it afterwards because there’s a lot of uncertainty when you take that type of step.”

I don’t feel like Melvin is referring to the threats exclusively, there, given the reference to Maxwell not being “as established.” That’s a phrase used exclusively to refer to a player’s standing within the game. As long as Melvin is the A’s manager and Maxwell plays for him, sure, it may very well be the case that only Maxwell’s ability as a player will impact his future. But Melvin seems to be acknowledging here — correctly — that this act of non-conformity on Maxwell’s part could be career limiting. Heck, his teammate, Mark Canha, voices concern over the fact that he merely put his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder in support. He’s worried that that might be seen as bad for him.

And if you don’t read that into Melvin or Canha’s words, fine. Because it’s very clear based on the words of others around the league that Maxwell’s sort of protest might be considered . . . problematic. From the story that Ashley linked yesterday, let’s focus again on the words of Pirates GM Neal Huntington:

“We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Does that sound like a man who is going to judge a player based solely on his baseball contributions? Heck no it doesn’t. How about if Maxwell lands on the Dodgers?

Make no mistake: Matthews is taking a risk with his protest. There are a number of teams — likely more than will admit it publicly — who will hold this against him as they evaluate him as a player.

You can react to this in a couple of ways, I figure. You could nod your head like a sage, adopt the tone of some inside-baseball guy and say “Well, of course! There are consequences for one’s behavior and only those who are naive don’t believe that.” If you do, of course, you’re ignoring the fact that Maxwell has already acknowledged that himself in the quote that appears in the very headline of this story.

Another option: acknowledge his bravery. Acknowledge that he knows damn well that, especially in baseball, that this kind of thing is far more likely to harm his career than help it. If you acknowledge that, you have no choice but to then ask why Maxwell nonetheless continues to protest. Why this is so important to him despite the risks.

That’s when your reacting and your second-guessing should stop and your listening should begin.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Oh, and here is the reason why, Bruce Maxwell notwithstanding, you’re not likely to see all that much protesting in Major League Baseball like we saw in football yesterday. Here are the highlights:

Diamondbacks 3, Marlins 2J.D. Martinez hit a two-out, bases-loaded RBI single in the bottom of the ninth to secure the walkoff win and, more importantly, to clinch the top Wild Card position for the Diamondbacks. They had learned they had clinched a postseason spot when it was announced in the fourth inning that the Cardinals and Brewers had each lost, but the hit and home field clincher gave them a nice boost for their postgame celebration.

Rockies 8, Padres 4: The Rockies have been faltering of late, but so has everyone else on their tail for the second Wild Card, so a split with the Padres is Ok for the moment. Gerardo Parra hit a tiebreaking single in a two-run third inning and Pat Valaika and Charlie Blackmon hit back-to-back home runs in the ninth for some insurance as Colorado extends their Wild Card lead to two games. They’ll be the last team playing meaningful games in the 2017 regular season.

Twins 10, Tigers 4: Eduardo Escobar continued his torrid second half, hitting a three run homer, as the Twins complete the four-game sweep. The other teams in the hunt for the second Wild Card should complain to the league office, though, because Minnesota getting to face a Tigers team which is mailing it in so badly that it almost insults the concept of mailing it in as many times as it does in the season’s last ten days is super unfair. They now lead the Angels by four and a half, so the entire AL playoff picture is all but over.

Blue Jays 9, Yankees 5: Jose Bautista probably played his last home game as a Blue Jay — maybe his last home game for anyone — and got a nice sendoff. He also got a couple of hits and  a walk. Aaron Judge hit a couple of homers in a losing cause and is now only one back of Mark McGwire for the rookie record. Fun thing: Jays starter Marcus Stroman warmed up in the bullpen before the game wearing a vintage black Jose Bautista jersey. He had asked a clubhouse attendant to find one for the purpose. The attendant found it in a stadium display case. Stroman: “It’s authenticated. They took it out and let me wear it. I guess they’ll probably wash it and put it back.” Someone should do that with, like, a Babe Ruth or a Willie Mays jersey.

Red Sox 5, Reds 4:  The Reds had a 4-1 lead heading into the eighth, but Mookie Betts doubled with the bases loaded to tie it and then scored from second base on a Rafael Devers infield single for the go-ahead, rally-completing run. The Red Sox’ magic number for the AL East crown is three.

Nationals 3, Mets 2: Max Scherzer struck out ten while allowing one run over six innings to pick up his 16th win of the year. Trea Turner hit a two-run bomb. The Nationals clinched home field advantage for the Division Series, which will probably be against the Cubs.

Orioles 9, Rays 4: J.J. Hardy homered and scored twice. In other news, J.J. Hardy is alive. Nice moment for him, though, as this was almost certainly his last home game as an Oriole.  Chance Sisco also homered, though you’re not going to convince me that his name wasn’t made up by a b-level Hollywood writer trying to create a franchise character. Not sure if “Chance Sisco” is a detective or a bounty hunter, though. I could see it going either way.  Between “Chance Sisco,” “Trey Mancini” and “Manny Machado,” the O’s have to have the best names, aesthetically speaking, in baseball. They should sign a utility infielder named “Cellar Door” to achieve perfection.

Phillies 2, Braves 0: Nick Pivetta and three relievers combine to shut out the Bravos. Maikel Franco homered and Aaron Altherr doubled in a run. The Braves end their inaugural season in Sun Trust Park. Not as terrible a season as some suspected.

Pirates 4, Cardinals 1Starling Marte hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth and Jameson Taillon and five relievers held the Cards to four hits. St. Louis falls two and a half games back of the Rockies for the second Wild Card and are six back of the Cubs with only seven games to play.

Cubs 5, Brewers 0: Jose Quintana pitched a three-hit complete game shutout to push the Cubs to the brink of the NL Central title. Last week’s sweep of the Cardinals and this weekend’s three-of-four from the Brewers was quite the statement from Chicago. They’ll almost certainly clinch the division in St. Louis this week.

White Sox 8, Royals 1Lucas Giolito allowed one hit and one run over seven innings and Avisail Garcia drove in three. The future looks better on the South Side than the past. That’s all that was supposed to be accomplished this season and it has been.

Athletics 8, Rangers 1Jharel Cotton pitched five shutout innings of one-hit ball and Khris Davis hit his 41st homer to give the A’s their seventh straight win. When the series started the Rangers had a legit shot at the second Wild Card. The A’s ended their season for all practical purposes.

Dodgers 3, Giants 1: Clayton Kershaw bounces back nicely from his last start to allow one run on eight hits over eight innings. He picks up his 18th win on the year and reduces his ERA to 2.21. Yasmani Grandal knocked in all of L.A.’s runs via a two-run homer and a sac fly.

Indians 4, Mariners 2: Corey Kluber joins Kershaw in the 18-win club after allowing only two unearned runs and striking out ten over seven innings. It’s his 15th start of the season in which he’s struck out at least ten dudes. I know Ks are cheaper these days, but that’s still pretty dang impressive. Jose Ramirez’s 29th homer of the year broke a 2-2 tie.

Angels 7, Astros 5Luis Valbuena hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the seventh to help the Angels snap a six-game skid that, unfortunately, ended their season for all practical purposes. Brandon Phillips hit his first homer since being traded Aug. 31. In other news, I had forgotten that Brandon Phillips had been traded to the Angels on August 31. It’s been a long season, folks.