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2013 Preview: Washington Nationals


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 2013 season. Up first: the Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Washington Nationals the best team in baseball?

It’s probably easier to make a case for them above any other team.

Let’s start with the rotation. It was a clear strength of the team last season, and now it has a new, improved look. Stephen Strasburg remains at the top but, unlike last year, he should be available all season. Gio Gonzalez was merely the third place Cy Young finisher last season.  Then comes Jordan Zimmermann who had perhaps the quietest sub-3.00 ERA, 195 innings pitched season in recent memory. With the departure of Edwin Jackson and John Lannan, Ross Detwiler – who, it should  be noted, turned in the Nationals’ strongest postseason start as Strasburg’s playoff rotation replacement – settles in as a strong fourth or fifth starter. Finally, there’s an intriguing gamble: free agent signing Dan Haren who, if his hip and back troubles are behind him, could prove to be the bargain signing of the offseason, providing the Nats with top-of-the-rotation quality on a relatively risk-free one- year deal.

The lineup was fourth in runs scored last year and, while there aren’t many changes apart from the addition of Denard Span in center, it’s not hard to see how it could improve. Bryce Harper is another year older, much more confident against big league pitching and is poised for a breakout season (if you don’t count what he did a 19 year-old as a breakout, which one very well could). Jayson Werth missed a lot of time last year with a bum wrist, but when he came back he was an on-base machine. With the return of Wilson Ramos the Nats have a nice 1-1A setup at catcher with Kurt Suzuki.There is not one lineup spot the Nats are punting offensively.

The bullpen, even if it remained the same as it was in 2012, would have been a strength as — its NLDS Game 5 meltdown notwithstanding — it ranked fourth in the league with a 3.20 ERA. But it didn’t remain the same. Rafael Soriano is now in the fold which allows Davey Johnson to move everyone else down a notch in terms of leverage.

Obviously they don’t play the games on paper, and if the best-looking team in the game always prevailed, the Nats wouldn’t have bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last year. But at this point in the year paper is really all we have. As far as that goes, it’s hard to say that anyone in baseball is better-constructed and more overall talented than the Washington Nationals.

What else is going on?

  • To the extent you worry about the pressure/expectations game, Davey Johnson didn’t do Nats fans any favors when he said “World Series or Bust” during the offseason. For a team that has had exactly one year of success to now be in the position where anything short of the World Series is considered a failure is, well, unusual. Johnson is a deft hand, obviously, but the Nats being anointed baseball’s best when the roster, more or less, has one playoff series under its collective belt may lead to a lot of hand-wringing if and when they go through rough patches.
  • As noted above, Strasburg is now fully armed and operational. But do they have to worry about losing Gio Gonzalez at some point this year? The early reports suggest that out of all of the players named in the Biogenesis documents Gonzalez is the least likely to be suspended for using performance enhancing drugs (at the moment it seems like everything he was given was OK under baseball’s rules), but there is something of a Damoclean sword hanging over the head of everyone who has been implicated. The Nats can’t do anything about it, but if Major League Baseball decides to suspend the Biogenesis players, the Nats could lose one of their best pitchers for 50 games.
  • Ryan Zimmerman had shoulder surgery in November. He’s apparently OK — in limited spring training action thus far he has tattooed the ball — but it’s worth watching the health of a guy who is a superstar when healthy but who has had some problems when the shoulder has acted up. And maybe the biggest worry is his throwing at third base.
  • When your expectations are “World Series or Bust” you don’t think too much about the prospects, but it’s worth noting that the Nats have an excellent one in infielder Anthony Rendon. He doesn’t have a position and his manager has noted that he needs reps in the minors — he only has one partial season and a nice Arizona Fall League stint under his belt — but if Zimmerman, Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa go down, he could get his chance.

One can look at any team and find some nits to pick. But I dare say the Nats have the fewest nits. Being named baseball’s best team in March and a buck gets you nothing more than a soda, but that’s all we can do now: I’m calling the Nats baseball’s best team.

PREDICTION: First place, National League East

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar

Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.

Astros top Royals in Game 1 of ALDS

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, left, celebrates with teammate Luis Valbuena after scoring a run during the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After shutting out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday, the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. Road teams are now 4-0 to begin the 2015 postseason.

The Astros grabbed an early 3-0 lead against Yordano Ventura through two innings. Chris Young took over for the Royals after a 47-minute rain delay and was very effective for the most part, allowing just a solo homer to George Springer over four innings while striking out seven batters. Colby Rasmus, who homered in the Wild Card game, took Ryan Madson deep in the eighth inning to give the Astros’ bullpen some extra breathing room.

Collin McHugh stayed in after the rain delay and ended up tossing six innings while allowing just four hits and one walk. Kendrys Morales did all the damage against him with a pair of solo homers. He’s the first Royals player to hit two home runs in a postseason game since George Brett in the 1985 ALCS.

The Royals’ offense showed some signs of life in the bottom of the eighth inning with back-to-back two-out hits against Will Harris, but Oliver Perez got Eric Hosmer to foul out to end the threat. Luke Gregerson tossed a scoreless ninth inning to finish off the victory.

Consistent with their identity during the regular season, the Astros won despite striking out 14 times. The same goes for the Royals, as they struck out just four times. Despite putting the ball into play more often, the Kansas City lineup wasn’t able to muster anything aside from the home runs by Morales.

Game 2 of the ALDS will begin Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET. Scott Kazmir will pitch for the Astros and Johnny Cueto will get the ball for the Royals.

George Springer homers to extend Astros’ lead over Royals

Houston Astros' George Springer (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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After Kendrys Morales brought the Royals within one run in the bottom of the fourth inning with his second solo home run of the game, George Springer took Chris Young deep in the top of the fifth to extend the Astros’ lead to 4-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS.

According to Statcast, the ball traveled an estimated 422 feet and left Springer’s bat at 109 mph. Royals fans are happy it was just a solo home run. It could have been worse, as Jose Altuve singled to lead off the fifth inning before being thrown out trying to steal second base during Springer’s at-bat.

The Royals will try to answer as we move to the bottom of the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.