Nationals getting healthy, yet still searching on offense

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After getting Adam LaRoche back from a quad injury on Sunday, the Nationals are getting increasingly close to full strength.

Though Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t have a specific timeline to return, he will begin swinging a bat on Tuesday. Once he takes the field again – as long as no one else goes down in the interim – the Nats will be without only one member of their Opening Day lineup.

All season the theory has been that once the Nats get their guys back, the offense will start clicking. But when, exactly, will that happen?

Wilson Ramos has been back for three weeks and LaRoche for two games, but neither has proven a magical solution to their offensive woes. Even with a nearly complete lineup, the Nationals still can’t score.

In the month of May, Washington has scored 72 runs through 23 games and gone 9-14 during that stretch. As a team they’ve hit just .223 this month, worst in the majors. Their .289 on-base percentage, .334 slugging percentage and .623 OPS in May: all worst in baseball.

Their problems continued on Monday where they mustered just one hit through their first 6 1/3 innings against Nathan Eovaldi. LaRoche hit a two-run homer in the seventh for the Nationals’ only two runs in a 3-2 loss against the Marlins.

It was only LaRoche’s second game back from the disabled list, and he looks to be rounding into the form he exited with. The first baseman was the Nationals’ best hitter in April and could be heating back up. For now, as manager Matt Williams explained, they have to take the good and build on it.

“Some positive signs today, certainly, from [LaRoche]. Back in the lineup and got one today. Some positive signs coming… regarding our health, out of our training room, which is good,” Williams said.

The Nationals have lost five of six with an average of 1.8 runs in those losses. In those six games overall, the Nats’ pitching staff has allowed an average of 2.7 runs per game. Though their rotation hasn’t been as advertised this season, it has not been their fault. The offense simply isn’t giving them a chance to win.

Williams is aware of that and spoke to it after Monday’s game.

“They expect more from themselves. We’ve got to give ourselves a better chance. And everybody knows that. It’s well-documented. Everybody’s been talking about it.”

Tanner Roark was the latest Nationals’ pitcher to take a tough loss on Monday, despite going seven innings with three runs allowed against the sixth best offense in the majors. Afterwards he said the mood in the clubhouse is remaining positive as they continue to search for wins.

“We’re fine. We’re still having more fun than ever and that’s the biggest thing. Morale is up. It will turn around, we just gotta keep plugging away and not dwell on anything.”

As LaRoche continues to play and as Ramos keeps improving, the Nationals should start showing progress on offense. They were the seventh best offensive team in April, so they have proven very recently they are capable of scoring. But at some point very soon, they’ll need to begin showing it.

Jose Canseco to join NBC Sports California as an A’s analyst

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Hey, I have a new coworker: Jose Canseco has been hired by NBC Sports California as an Athletics pregame analyst.

OK, maybe he’s not technically a coworker, as the folks at NBC Sports California — formerly CSN Bay Area — and I do not hang out at the water cooler, have potlucks in the conference room or exchange secret Santa gifts at Christmas time, but dang it, I’m gonna TELL people I work with Jose Canseco. The only downside will be people assuming that, because he and I are on the same team, my performance is something less than authentic. Or, perhaps, Canseco may write another book and tell all of my secrets.

Anyway, Canseco will be part of NBC Sports California’s A’s Pregame Live and A’s Postgame Live shows. Live TV can be hard. I’ve done a bit of it, and there is certainly more to that gig than meets the eye. You can’t always prepare for what happens on the fly. I’m sure Canseco will do well, however, as he’s great with coming up with the best stuff off the top of his head.

2017 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.