Springtime Storylines: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Strasburg-less Washington Nationals.

The big question: Is this just another season in limbo for the Nationals?

In a word, yes.

It’s not wrong to call Jayson Werth’s contract excessive — in fact, I’d be shocked if the Nationals don’t regret it down the road — but more than anything, I found the signing as an acknowledgement from ownership that they weren’t content with returning to being an afterthought in the D.C. market, at least in the short-term.

Whether they’ll admit or not, the Nationals needed to inject some excitement into their fanbase this offseason. They already knew they were going to be without Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season and the signing came less than 48 hours after Adam Dunn — a fan favorite — bolted for Chicago. They needed something to sell the team for 2011, even if they had to massively overpay in order to do it. This was a P.R. move just as much as it was a personnel move.

The main objective for the Nationals this season is to stay relevant long enough until Strasburg returns and Bryce Harper is ready for the major leagues. If all goes well, that could happen in September. Then in 2012, the real fun can begin.

So what else is going on?

  • I don’t mean to short this current squad. There are some interesting pieces here. Ryan Zimmerman continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated players in baseball. Werth helps soften the blow of losing Dunn in the middle of the lineup while Adam LaRoche adds some balance from the left side. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have some flaws, but are a pretty talented middle infield combo. Wilson Ramos, who was acquired in the Matt Capps deal, should be fun to watch behind the plate. And while he entered spring training without a clear role on the team following the signing of LaRoche, it looks like Mike Morse has won the starting left field job.
  • Where I’m less optimistic is center field. The Nationals appear poised to give the starting job to Rick Ankiel, which probably says how much the organization has soured on Nyjer Morgan over the past year. Yuck.
  • Nationals starters had a 4.61 ERA last season, which (sadly) was their lowest since their inaugural season in D.C. in 2005. They averaged around 5.5 innings per start. If everyone stays healthy, they should be able to improve on those numbers, at least by a little bit. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny aren’t great options, but they’re better than the cannon fodder they’ve sent out there in years past. And I haven’t even talked about Jordan Zimmermann yet. The former 2007 second-round pick is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and has the potential to a be a frontline starter.
  • Who’s gonna close here? If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Drew Storen, but now I’m not so sure. There are even some rumors that he could begin the season in the minors. The good news is that the Nationals actually have some pretty decent depth here, including Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. They should do OK.

So how are they gonna do?

I’m tempted to pick the Nationals for fourth place, but the other four teams in this division all have the potential to be better. With the Nationals, nearly everything would have to break right in order for them to play .500 ball. I’ll give them 73 wins and their fourth straight last-place finish. They’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait another year for things to get interesting.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

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Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.