Ominous portents on a sunny day

The Nats won again last night, their ninth in the past ten games. That’s good! Winning is always good. They’re 20-17, they’ve escaped fourth place for the first time since April 11th, and they’re just a game and a half back of Atlanta. All good things. What’s been powering this stretch? Well, for one thing, Matt Adams. Adams in his last 12 games has hit .415/.510/1.049 with 8 homers and 20 RBIs. He had a stretch with 7 homers in 7 games. On the season, he’s been far and away the team’s best offensive player — all this stuff you know. For the record, I was wondering how Adams’ two weeks compared to Bryce Harper’s two week stretch in May 2015, and, well, it… doesn’t. From May 6-22 that year, Bryce hit .522/.621/1.348 (!!!!!) with 11 homers. Makes Adams’ two weeks look like child play. That’s the kind of stretch that can carry a team all on its own, and did.

Speaking of Bryce, what the team has done recently they’ve basically done without him. He’s hitting .188/.328/.458 over the past two weeks, and while he hit 4 homers in that stretch (including the longest homer hit by a Nat at Nats Park), he’s basically done nothing else, and he’s 0 for his last 19. Part of that’s bad luck (he hit 4 screamers on Monday with nothing to show for it), but he’s also not walking anymore — he’s had only 2 walks in the 8 games he’s been in the leadoff spot, which was by design, but the design only works if he’s hitting the pitches he’s getting to see. He looks gassed, and tonight is a good time for his first day off. The guys who’ve been supporting Adams have been Trea Turner (.362/.464/.553 over the past two weeks), Howie Kendrick (.319/.360/.532) and… Wilmer Difo? Difo’s at .378/.478/.595, including two dingers. He’s been worth almost a win over that stretch. The .400 BABIP says it’s not real, and the fact that he’s Wilmer Difo would suggest that too, but he’s a useful guy to have around even when his offense is 80% league average.

The other thing that’s been propelling the hot streak (and buoying the team when they weren’t hitting) is the starting pitching. In the last two weeks they’ve been phenomenal: 2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 10.4 K/9, averaging 6 1/3 innings a start. And their full season numbers are great too: first in the NL in starter ERA, FIP, K/9, and innings pitched (by a pretty wide margin too). Individually, there’s not a ton to worry about — Scherzer’s been even better than ever, Strasburg’s strikeouts are down and homers are weirdly up but his velocity’s stable and he looks fine, Gio’s striking out more batters than ever even when his velocity’s never been lower, and Roark’s been decent even though it doesn’t seem like he’s fully recaptured the runback fastball he had in 2016. The one outlier in the bunch is Hellickson, who was phenomenal again last night. The man throws slop, and he’s obviously not gonna be this good even with Davey limiting his times through the order exposure, but Hellickson’s always thrown slop, and he’s had varying degrees of success with it before, so there’s no reason he can’t keep fooling hitters over a full season.

So why’d I title this post “Ominous Portents on a Sunny Day”? Well, contrary to my Twitter presence, I’m not really a worrier by nature. But I’m still not feeling confident in this team. For one thing, the bullpen (which has already been bad, with the 4th-worst ERA in the NL) is constructed in such a way that makes its collapse feel likely. The team has three relievers it can trust, Madson, Kintzler, and Doolittle. All three of those relievers are over 30, and two of them have terrifying histories of arm trouble which make them the types of guys that should be protected early in the season. But they’ve been worked really hard in a way that isn’t entirely reflected in the stats — only Kintzler is in the top 30 in the NL in innings pitched — but there have been a lot of games where they have been forced to throw in the bullpen without getting into the game. This is a direct result of the fact that Davey feels (justifiably) that he can’t trust his non Big Three relievers with any lead: take Monday for instance, where after Trevor Gott put two runners on with no outs in the eighth inning of a 5 run game, Davey felt he needed to get Ryan Madson warm, and then did the same with Doolittle when Carlos Torres put multiple runners on in the ninth. All that work in the bullpen can lead to injury — Aaron Barrett, for instance, has blamed Matt Williams’ warming him up near-constantly for the arm troubles that derailed his career. And even if it doesn’t lead to injury, it can certainly lead to ineffectiveness down the line, and without even one of the Big Three at their best, the Nats bullpen is cooked.

But obviously the bullpen isn’t the number one red flag surrounding this team; the most terrifying thing is the injuries. I don’t know when or even if Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton are coming back, and what kind of players they’ll be if they do. Microfracture surgery on your knees isn’t a surgery you just come back from, especially when like Murphy your swing relies so much on leg drive. The fact that he can’t run without discomfort, 7 months after the surgery, is terrifying, and makes the date of his return an open question. Eaton seems to be going backward, unable to do any baseball activities a full month after his “minor” bone bruise, and after you blow up your leg that severely, recovery from any leg injury should not be taken as a given. The Nats can cover for those injuries as well as can be expected: if everyone is hitting as expected, a Harper/Turner/Rendon/Adams/Zimmerman/Kendrick/Wieters/Pitcher/Taylor lineup certainly looks like a major league lineup. The problem is that a) not everyone is hitting: Zimmerman’s got an 80 OPS+ on the year, Taylor only 57, and b) having to plug your depth into the lineup on an everyday basis weakens your team and makes it impossible to cover for any further injuries. With Goodwin and Robles also on the DL, the Nats only have Wilmer Difo left as major league-quality depth (plus Mark Reynolds whenever he gets here). As we saw when Rendon got hurt, making Moises Sierra the 5th hitter, this team simply cannot withstand any more injuries and be competitive offensively. All it takes is one more injury to make the whole thing collapse.

The Nats are playing well, and it’s more likely than not that they’ll keep doing so — they’re a very talented team, and I’d put their odds of winning the division at around 60%. But they’re in a fragile position where even one more injury for a prolonged stretch could send them reeling for a while. And with the Braves looking pretty legit, with a run differential even better than the Nats and Acuna playing like everyone expected them to, and the Phillies looking solid too, it’s not a given that they could withstand an elongated stretch of poor play. Anyway, there’s your wet blanket.

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Celebrate whatever you want

I’m not a Caps fan or a hockey fan, and for about half of their playoff runs I’ve been actively ambivalent about their success, mostly because I can’t stand the thought of other people in the same fanbase as me being happy while I’m stuck here being miserable. But even as a barely-involved person, I don’t understand the policing of DC Sports fans who want to celebrate getting out of the second round with all the fervor of a championship.

First, it should be mentioned that the DC Sports conference finals curse story doesn’t exist merely because they’ve had no teams make the finals, but because they’ve had a lot of teams that were good enough to do it and haven’t. Those teams are exclusively concentrated in the Caps and Nats; the anguish of being a Redskins fan comes from the fact that the team is both a three ring circus and one of the most cringe-inducing teams in an already morally-dubious sport, and the suffering of Wizards fans comes from the fact that their team is locked into a Sartreian hell of perpetual mediocrity from which their is no escape. The conference finals drought story comes from the fact that the Nats and Caps have had so many teams with bona fide championship aspirations get tripped up before they could even get as far as the conference finals. So the reason people are celebrating, obviously, is that there’s this sense that once they get past this stumbling block, anything’s possible.

And honestly, why try and take away that feeling from people? It’ll be a nice alternative from the dumb fatalism that every DC sports fan seems to adopt. The problem with fatalism is that it’s really a form of narcissism: thinking that the universe has cursed your teams to fail suggests that the universe gives a shit about you and your teams, which it doesn’t; the universe is cold and unfeeling, and your sports teams fail because sports are like that. Or maybe it’s because you didn’t love them enough.

But more importantly, why begrudge people for celebrating anything in sports? If it makes you happy, you should celebrate it. Acting like you’ve been there before is for people who’ve actually been there before. You never know if that next series victory is ever gonna come. Besides, what’s the harm in celebrating? If the Caps win this series, they’ll be playing Tampa in the conference finals whether or not the fans celebrate the second round victory. And if the Caps win that series, the fact that fans celebrated the previous serious win isn’t gonna bridle their enthusiasm for the next one. There isn’t a limit to the amount of sports joy that you can have.

Listen, believing in sports curses is dumb, and at worst, can lead to a fanbase with a sense of perpetual cosmic aggrievement even when the wins eventually come (fuck you, Boston). But if the conference finals mean something to you, go nuts celebrating it. Sports are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

Taking stock

The Nats’ homestand went about as well as could reasonably be expected given the teams they faced. They lost two of three to the Diamondbacks, who have played like the best team in baseball and whose odds at winning their division I’d put at over 50% (although I, a frail human, am prone to recency bias and also would prefer to see the Dodgers dethroned). They swept the Pirates, who are somehow 4 games over with a positive run differential, and I guess if you squint really hard you can see mediocrity there instead of abject terribleness (although I would love to see the team suffer for their refusal to commit to building a pennant contender during their window, then auctioning off their franchise cornerstone and a guy who’s looking pretty ace-y right now for parts — picking up Corey Dickerson when another team went blatant salary dump looks pretty smart though). Winning the series against the Phillies probably felt more important to me than it actually was —  it coincided exactly with the 6th anniversary of the Nats’ “Take Back The Park” series, and there were a lot of similarities between the Phillies now and the Nats then (upstart team playing well even though people assumed they were a year away from really contending) and between the Nats now and the Phillies then (older team at the end of a window whom everyone expected would dominate their division but instead were plagued with early injuries). Even if I’m the only one who saw any symbolic significance in a early-May series, I think we can all agree that winning is better than losing in general.  Winning: good. Losing: less good.

The Nats should send the Phillies a nice thank you note in exchange for that win they gift-wrapped and handed over. The eighth and ninth inning “rallies” consisted of: a walk to Moises Sierra (!), another walk, a squibbed infield single, a two-run single (actually well hit!); and a Matt Wieters infield single (I don’t know how it happened either), a two-base pickoff error, a hit by pitch, a walk to Michael Taylor (!), a bases-loaded walk (!) to Pedro Severino (!), and a pop up to center, which happened to be vacated (good work Gabe!). Credit to the Nats for not rejecting this generous gift, but this was an instance of bad pitching beating itself more than anything else.

Anyway, the Nats won, and they’re over .500 again, and they’ve got a pythagorean winning percentage two games better than their actual record. They’re still in fourth place, but thanks to the Mets metsing all over the place and the division self-immolating a bit in general, they’re only a game back of second and two back of first. Reports of their early-season demise may have been a bit exaggerated.

The bats woke up for a brief stretch in the Pirates series (although that may say more about the Pirates pitching than anything else), and you may not believe it, but the Nats are actually second in the league in OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. The problem is that up until this week, the offense had largely been concentrated in one player (the one with the good hair), making it difficult to score runs when he wasn’t up, and making it difficult for him to drive in runs due to the constant pitch-arounds and “unintentional” walks. Moving Harper to the leadoff spot has led to fewer pitch-arounds, and Matt Adams suddenly deciding to share something other than a body type with Babe Ruth, along with Anthony Rendon’s return should help with that problem. Rendon, by the way, seems to be moving just fine, and that brace on his foot absorbed the impact of a foul ball enough that Rendon didn’t so much as wince. Obviously, you never want a player playing on a broken toe, and the possibility still exists that he either a) re-injures it or b) compensates for the injury by changing his swing mechanics, and sucks for a while, but with the offense in the dire straits it was in, you didn’t really have a choice but to risk it and bring him back.

The strength of this team is in its starting pitching, as always. “Max Scherzer is taking it to new levels” is a phrase I feel like I say every year, but that’s what he’s doing. He leads the NL in most significant categories, including strikeouts; Scherzer already has 20 more strikeouts than any other NL pitcher (he’s got 80 in 51.2 innings, Patrick Corbin is second with 60). He struck out 15 in 6 1/3 innings today, as you know, and was disappointed in himself — correctly! He didn’t have his good command, and kept falling behind batters to create long counts. And he still struck out 15! He’s amazing.

Elsewhere around the starting rotation, Strasburg’s been just OK, for him, and he’s got a weird home run problem that he hasn’t had at any other point in his career. 7 starts in, it’s probably nothing, especially since everything else (velocity, K rate, walk rate) is where it should be. Gio has been even better than last year, somehow, and he’s even striking out guys at what would be a career-best rate. I can’t believe he’s made the “guy with crafty lefty stuff and buckshot command” thing work, but he has, somehow. It almost seems like he doesn’t throw a strike unless he absolutely has to, which can make his starts excruciating to watch, but hey, if it’s working don’t change a thing. Roark’s been perfectly good, although he still seems to be struggling to find the runback two-seamer that made him so good in 2016 on a consistent basis. And Jeremy “The 60 Pitch Wonder” Hellickson’s been great so far in his limited deployment; I happen to agree with the short leash for him, because while I don’t think the twice through the order penalty should be applied as broadly as it is in the modern game, Hellickson is the exact type of slop-thrower whom you’d expect hitters to hit better the more times they see him.

The bullpen’s got issues. Brandon Kintzler looks like Brandon Kintzler again, so he’s not one of them. Doolittle’s been as lockdown as they come. Madson’s looked shaky since Davey pushed him within an inch of his life (probably shouldn’t have done that), but the velocity’s fine and I wouldn’t classify him as a person to worry about just yet. The real problem is in the dregs. The Nats have one lefty reliever other than Doolittle, and it’s Sammy Solis, a guy with an injury list almost as long as Ryan Zimmerman’s. Because Davey likes to play matchup ball, he’s been using Solis as you would a typical LOOGY — a ton of very short stints. Solis leads the entire league in appearances (19), but stands fourth on his own team in innings pitched (13.1). Solis has been reasonably effective in this role (he’s holding lefties to a .470 OPS), but it’s the worst possible way to use a guy with his history as a starter, his stuff (which can play against righties), and most importantly his injury history. A LOOGY gets dry-humped (warmed up in games he doesn’t pitch) more than any other relief role; that’s no place for a guy like Solis. Matt Grace’s incipient return should help Solis’ workload, but it won’t help the team, because Matt Grace sucks. Elsewhere amongst the dregs, Shawn Kelley is coming back, so if you’re going to any Nats games in the future and planning on sitting in the outfield seats, probably bring your glove. And Wander Suero’s got a magic cutter, but it’s way too soon to tell with him. I’d keep him up and DFA Torres/send down Gott when Grace Kelley gets back, but who knows what they’ll do.

Which brings us to the manager: how’s Davey doing? Well, moving Harper to leadoff was inspired and it’s had its desired effect: Harper is seeing pitches again. It’s also the kind of thing Dusty probably wouldn’t have done — Dusty prioritized letting players get comfortable with their roles within a lineup. But, Davey seems to have a problem with bullpen management; there’s no reliable measure for how many times he’s dry-humped a reliever, but anecdotally it seems like that’s been happening way more than last year, and it’s something rookie managers in general seem to struggle with (which is why it might be a good thing to have a veteran team with veteran bullpen arms managed by a veteran). But on the “intangible factors” front, Davey seems to be doing fine; the players seem to like him (especially Bryce, who may not have the best taste in this category) and seem ok with the particular brand of Maddon-esque “look how much fun we’re having” antics that I find grating. So I’ll reserve judgment on Davey until a later date.

The bottom line is, despite playing well below their best baseball for the first 35 games of the season, the road to the division still runs through DC, at this point I’d take the Nats over the field for the division (Fangraphs has their division odds at 77%, which seems a touch high to me, but not ludicrously so). The division is improved from last year, but it’s still too early to say how much; I like the Braves and the Phillies, but projecting young talent is hard to do, and the Mets, as we’ve seen, can up and mets all over the place at any moment. The Nats have a six game road trip coming up, 3 with the Padres and 3 with the DBacks. The Padres are awful; the DBacks are really good. I’d say a 3-3 trip is fine, and a 4-2 trip would be a success. This is the team they’re gonna have for a while — who knows when Murphy and Eaton will be back — so they’ve gotta stay afloat with it.

Here’s Some Content

What’s up? You might know me from Twitter. I’m Jacob Rasch, I’m a law student, and I tweet a lot about the Nats. Law school is stressful as hell, so now I’m gonna blog. You may ask yourself: what can this random internet guy add to The Discourse, which is already oversaturated and not in particular need of the voice of another stressed out young professional white guy? Well, here’s my deal.

I don’t know crap about stats: I took one stats class in college; it was a “statistics for political science majors” course, and it did not go well. I understand the basics, obviously: I can tell you how the linear weights in wOBA work, and I get the basic tenets of FIP even if I can’t calculate it myself. Basically, I know enough about the #fancystats to criticize them. But if you’re looking for some in depth stuff, you won’t find it here. I appreciate the work that Robs Arthur and Mains do, even if I don’t understand it for shit, but I’m not capable of it.

I don’t give a shit about your goddamn prospects: I will never understand the joy some people find in prospect-gazing. Why idealize players that might be around someday when you could be appreciating the ones that are already in front of you? Anyway, this is mostly me making an excuse for the fact that a couple months ago, when I said I was a huge baseball fan, someone asked me about Heliot Ramos, and I’d never heard of him, so I said “oh, he’s a hard thrower, but he’s gotta find his command before he can advance.” This generic line applies to just about every pitching prospect that has ever existed, so I figured I’d be fine. Unfortunately, Heliot Ramos is an outfielder.

So, if I can’t do the two types of baseball writing that exist in the world, what do I bring you? My favorite type of baseball writing, the type that guys like Patrick Dubuque and David Roth and Rachael McDaniel and a lot of the Short Relief staff do really well, is the type of writing that connects baseball to the outside world and tells a personal story about one’s relationship with the sport. But that kind of stuff is way out of my league; basically the only cool thing I can do is describe any Nats game over the past 7 years if you give me the date and the team they were playing (oh, and I can also tell you every World Series matchup from 1939 on off the top of my head). However, what I can provide is a bunch of half-baked and poorly-researched hot takes about the Nats, that I’ve littered with anecdotes about some player you vaguely recall in some game you have no reason to remember. I started my Twitter account to release my inchoate baseball rage onto the world; now I’m gonna be doing it here too, but with more words (again, you don’t have to read). Anyway, I hope you enjoy whatever this turns into, even if I don’t know what that’s gonna be.

P.S.: I tried this once before, 4 years ago. For a whole offseason. I was trying to imitate somebody else’s style (Rob Neyer’s — I have since learned my lesson), writing in a mode I wasn’t particularly well-equipped for. I’m using this address because I already had it registered; please do not read any of my old posts, they’re awful.

Best Case/Worst Case: 2014 Washington Nationals Season Preview

The 2014 baseball season is finally upon us, and while everyone likes to take their best stab at making predictions, thankfully, no one has any idea how it’s going to turn out — if we did, there’d be no point in watching.  With that in mind, we’ve decided that rather than make predictions, we’d rather just talk about the two extremes in a way a season can turn out — the best case and worst case scenarios.  Below is a reasonable best case scenario for each Nationals’ player, alongside a reasonable worst case scenario.  And we couldn’t help but make a few predictions, wrong though we know they’ll be — you’ll find those at the bottom of the page.

PITCHERS

Aaron Barrett

Best Case: Barrett builds off his remarkable spring, in which he pitched 10.2 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, by putting together a very strong rookie campaign.  After striking out more than 12 batters per nine at AA Harrisburg last year, Barrett fans more than a batter an inning at the big league level.  He throws more than 60 innings with an ERA under 3.00, solidifying the sixth inning, and gives the club confidence that he can be used as a set-up man or even a closer in the future.

Worst Case: Barrett’s diving slider, the reason for his success in the minors, doesn’t fool big league hitters, causing his strikeout rate to drop and his walk rate to rise.  After giving up runs in his first couple outings, Barrett sits collecting dust at the back of the bullpen, and gets sent down to Syracuse by the middle of May.

Jerry Blevins

Best Case: Blevins does exactly what he was sent to Washington to do — get lefties out.  He holds left-handed batters to a .220/.270/.350 batting line (just better than his career averages).  But he also has success against right-handers, becoming a reliable southpaw set-up man in the mold of Sean Burnett in 2012.

Worst Case: In 2013, Blevins had a surprising reverse platoon split, allowing a .741 OPS to lefties against a .581 OPS to righties.  The trend continues, as while Blevins still manages to be an effective reliever, he cannot seem to put away left-handed hitting.  The Nationals still struggle to match up against the tough lefties in their division, like Chase Utley and Freddie Freeman.

Tyler Clippard

Best Case: Clippard continues his six-year run as one of the most successful relief pitchers in the major leagues, throwing 75 innings, striking out 10 batters per nine, and ending up with an ERA around 2.00.

Worst Case: Over the past five years, Clippard has thrown more relief innings than any pitcher in baseball, and the heavy workload finally catches up to him.  His strikeout rate, which dropped from 10.4 batters per nine in 2012 to 9.3 in 2013, continues to fall.  Clippard had a career low and league low .170 batting average on balls in play last year — that rises, drastically curtailing Clippard’s success.  And for the first time in his career, Tyler Clippard spends time on the Disabled List.

A.J. Cole

Best Case: Cole dominated in a 45 inning stint at AA Harrisburg, posting a 2.19 ERA, a WHIP under one and a 9.7 K/9 ratio.  His second stint at the level is so successful that after another 45 innings, he forces his way to AAA Syracuse.  He dominates there as well, and by September, the 22-year old has earned a call-up to the majors.

Worst Case: Cole spends the entire year at Harrisburg, posting an ERA in the mid-fours and only a league-average strikeout rate.  He never seems to master the level in his season in the Eastern League, and is forced to begin 2015 right back at Harrisburg.

Ross Detwiler

Best Case: Detwiler adjusts well to his new role in the bullpen, and gives the Nationals a unique weapon — a left-hander who not only can throw in the mid-nineties, but who can be used as both a long reliever and a situational reliever.  His strikeout rate, which stands at 5.4 K/9 for his big league career, nearly doubles out of the bullpen this year.

Worst Case: Detwiler struggles to make the adjustment from pitching every fifth day to pitching out of the bullpen.  He is not the dominant reliever the Nationals envisioned, as his strikeout rate fails to improve, and his lack of an effective off-speed pitch still haunts him, even when pitching an inning at a time.

Doug Fister

Best Case: Fister returns from the disabled list in mid-April, and he becomes everything the Nationals envisioned when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire him.  The 6’8″ righty still manages to throw 200+ innings, and buoyed by a defense much more agile than the one he pitched in front of in Detroit, nearly equals a career low 2.83 ERA.  He proves to be the best fourth starter in baseball, manages to win 18 games, and even receives a couple votes in the Cy Young balloting.

Worst Case: The lat issue proves more serious than Fister and the Nationals had hoped, and while Fister rushes back from the injury, he never fully recovers.  He never seems healthy, and is ineffective when on the mound.  The lat issue forces Fister to change his mechanics, leading to arm soreness, which causes the Nationals to shut him down in the middle of August.  Meanwhile, Robbie Ray ascends rapidly through the Tigers’ minor league system, earning a September call-up, and Steve Lombardozzi hits .298/.369/.411 (his minor-league averages) in 400 plate appearances with the Orioles.

Lucas Giolito

Best Case: Giolito is simply spectacular.  He starts the season at low-A Hagerstown, but manages to finish the season at AA Harrisburg after dominating both the South Atlantic League and the Carolina League.  His 2014 performance earns him both a place in Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects list and an invite to major league Spring Training in 2015.  A major league debut before his 21st birthday (which will be on July 14th, 2015) becomes a distinct possibility.

Worst Case: The only true worst-case scenario for Giolito would be a recurrence of the elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2012. If Giolito stays healthy for a full season, the Nationals will surely count the season as a success.

Gio Gonzalez

Best Case: Gonzalez’s 2012 season was easily the best by a starting pitcher in the short history of the Washington Nationals — 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 199 innings, leading to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young balloting.  While his performance regressed in his second year with the club, the peripheral numbers stayed largely constant — his walk rate stabilized, while his strikeout rate dropped only slightly (the biggest change was a spike in his home run rate, which nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013).  The best case scenario for Gonzalez would be a reprise of that 2012 season.

Worst Case: Gonzalez’s walk rate, which has sat around 3.5 BB/9 for the past two years, ticks up to around 4 per nine in 2014.  He regresses somewhat, posting an ERA somewhere in the mid-threes — still valuable, but not dominant by any stretch of the imagination.

Taylor Jordan

Best Case: Jordan firmly entrenches himself in the Nationals’ rotation with a powerhouse sophomore season.  His pinpoint control keeps the free passes to a minimum, while the slider that has so impressed scouts enable him to put away big league hitters.  His ERA hovers around 3.00, and alongside Fister, he gives the Nationals one of the most impressive 4-5 pitching duos in the league.

Worst Case: Before his stellar 2013 campaign, Jordan simply hadn’t been very good in his professional career — in 2012, he had posted a 5.13 ERA as a 23 year old splitting time between short-season A Auburn and low-A Hagerstown.  Jordan cannot seem to repeat his 2013 success, as he is hit hard in four big league starts, then gets sent back to AAA Syracuse, where he continues to struggle.

Tanner Roark

Best Case: Roark seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the major leagues in 2013, posting a minuscule 1.51 ERA in 53.2 innings.  While that performance is clearly unsustainable (he gave up only one home run in that time, with a home run/fly ball rate that would have been the lowest in the major leagues had he qualified), he continues to succeed thanks to his low walk rate and high ground ball rate.  At age 27, Roark becomes a reliable major league starter, and a part of the Nationals’ future.

Worst Case: Roark’s 2013 turns out to be a fluke — once his home run rate and BABIP normalize, his ERA skyrockets, and Roark quickly finds himself falling out of favor with the Nationals’ brass.  When Doug Fister returns, it is Jordan, not Roark, who gets to keep his starting spot, with Roark heading back to Syracuse for a third straight season.

Rafael Soriano

Best Case: Soriano, who spent the offseason working on his slider, finds renewed effectiveness with his breaking pitch.  While the fastball is no longer what it was three years ago, Soriano can still use the pitch effectively thanks to the improvement in his off-speed.  He posts another 40 save season, and makes the Nationals give serious thought to exercising his club option for 2015.

Worst Case: Last year, Soriano posted the lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season, and with his fastball velocity declining steadily (down almost a mile and a half from two years ago), that does not figure to improve.  No longer armed with that blazing fastball, Soriano struggles to put away both hitters and games — each of his save opportunities are nail-biting marathon innings.  He loses the closer’s job in June, leaving the Nationals $28 million investment in him looking foolish.

Craig Stammen

Best Case: After a poor (at least by his standards) first half of the 2013 season, Stammen returned to dominance in the second half, holding the opposition to a .228 batting average and posting a 1.41 ERA from the All Star Break on.  Stammen picks up right where he left off the year before, striking out more than a batter an inning and using his heavy sinker to get weak contact when batters do connect (his ground ball rate was around 60% last year, the highest of his career).

Worst Case: Stammen, like Clippard, has been used heavily over the past two years, and the cumulative toll of back-to-back 80 relief inning seasons takes its toll.

Drew Storen

Best Case: Storen is the pitcher who returned from minor league assignment and allowed only 3 runs in 19.1 innings; he finally manages to erase the doubts about him that have lingered since Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

Worst Case: Storen is closer to the pitcher he was before that minor league assignment, when his ERA sat at 5.95 and he allowed opposing hitters to hit .295/.346/.486.  He is once again demoted to the minor leagues, and leaves tremendous doubt that he will be ever become the closer of the future he had been touted as.

Stephen Strasburg

Best Case: Strasburg finally has the breakout year that has been predicted of him since he was at San Diego State.  He strikes out 11 batters per nine, has an ERA under 2.5, and most importantly, cracks the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career.  He wins the first Cy Young Award of his career.

Worst Case: It seems the worst case scenario for Strasburg in 2014 (aside from a major injury) is a repeat of his 2013.  He misses time thanks to some minor injuries, and his numbers, while strong, are be no means transcendent.  The league is left wondering whether Strasburg will ever become the player he was expected to be.

Jordan Zimmermann

Best Case: Over the past three years, Zimmermann has posted a 2.58 ERA in the first half of the season; if extended over a full season, that would rank second in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw.  Zimmermann finally manages to find the same success in the second half as he has in the first, and he ends up as one of the top five pitchers in the National League.

Worst Case: Zimmermann is effective but hardly dominant in the first half of the season, and once again fades in the second half (his second-half ERA over the past three years is 4.33).  He goes another 200 innings this year, but with his ERA in the mid-threes, is more of an innings-eater than an ace.

HITTERS

Wilson Ramos

Best Case: Ramos manages to stay healthy, playing in over 120 games for the first time in his career. He also keeps on playing like he did from his return from the Disabled List on July 4th last season, when he hit .276 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs in 62 games.

Worst Case: While running down the first base line, Wilson Ramos re-tears his hamstring, causing him to miss 60 games. He never really gets healthy, and his power numbers suffer because of it.

Jose Lobaton

Best Case: After Wilson Ramos goes down with an injury, Lobaton steps in and starts 80 games for the Nationals. Lobaton improves on his last season, hitting around .260-.265 with 10 home runs.

Worst Case: Wilson Ramos stays healthy throughout the year, giving Lobaton only 20-30 starts. The lack of playing time hurts Lobaton’s rhythm, causing him to hit below .200 as the back up.

Kevin Frandsen

Best Case: Frandsen returns to his 2012 form, hitting over .270 off the bench, with power. His success causes the Nationals to platoon him with Adam LaRoche at first base, starting Frandsen in games against tough lefties.

Worst Case: Frandsen hits under .220, and fails to replicate the pinch-hitting success he had last year. He is cut by the Nationals mid-June in favor of Tyler Moore.

Adam LaRoche

Best Case: Adam LaRoche shows that 2013 was a fluke, and while he can’t to replicate his incredible 2012 season, his batting average and slugging percentage return to their career norms. He also manages a .244/.300/.439 against left-handed pitching (his career averages), meaning he plays his way out of a platoon.

Worst Case: Age continues to take its toll on the 34 year old first baseman, and LaRoche’s numbers continue to decline. The Nationals have to remove him from the lineup against tough lefties. LaRoche’s struggles cause the Nationals to decline his option, leaving them without a solution at first base heading into 2015.

Danny Espinosa

Best Case: Anthony Rendon struggles out of the gate, causing the Nationals to start Espinosa more often. In the starting role,  Espinosa finally is able to hit consistantly from both sides of the plate and by midseason, Espinosa regains the role of starting second baseman. Espinosa cuts down on his strikeouts, while his power swing returns, and he hits 20 home runs for the second time in his career.

Worst Case: Espinosa’s 2013 was the worst possible scenario for him — he hit below the Mendoza Line, dealt with wrist injuries, and lost his starting job to Anthony Rendon, perhaps for good.  In 2014, the offensive struggles continue, and though his defense still draws rave reviews, the Nationals cannot continue to put his bat in the lineup.  They once again demote him to AAA, then end up trading him to the Astros.

Anthony Rendon

Best Case: Rendon improves on his strong rookie year; he raises his average over the .280 mark, and is finally able to find his power swing at the major league level, hitting 20+ home runs. He also gets more comfortable at second base in his second year, cutting his errors in half.

Worse Case: Rendon’s injury problems that let him slip to the 6th pick in the 2011 draft return, as Rendon has troubles staying on the field throughout the season. While Rendon is off the field, Espinosa takes over at second, and shows the Nationals why he should have been the starting second baseman all along. When Rendon finally gets healthy, he finds himself sitting on the bench behind Espinosa.

Ryan Zimmerman

Best Case: Zimmerman manages to stay fully healthy, avoiding the DL for the entire season for the first time since 2010. He comes out of the gate showing the power that he flashed last September, hitting 18 home runs by the All Star break. His throwing woes gone, he also improves defensively, allowing the Nationals to keep him at his natural position of third base for the forseeable future.

Worst Case: Zimmerman still cannot seem to shake the throwing problems that have dogged him for the past three years, committing a league-leading 18 throwing errors.  Worse yet, Zimmerman, a very streaky hitter, never seems to get truly hot, and finishes with an OPS under .800.  He ends up playing the majority of September at first base.

Ian Desmond

Best Case: Desmond builds on his recent success; he hits 28 home runs and steals 25 bases, becoming a member of the 20-20 club for the third straight season. He is able to stay on the field for the entire season, playing in more than 150 games. His success leads to his second all-star performance and his third silver slugger.

Worst Case: Desmond’s performance dipped in most major offensive categories from 2012 to 2013, and it continues to dip in 2014.  He plays in 145 games and hits .270/.310/.420 — good numbers for a shortstop, but hardly all-star caliber.  He begins to regret not signing the 7 year, $90 million deal the Nationals placed in front of him in the offseason.

Zach Walters

Best Case: Walters works on his defense in the minors, and thanks to Danny Espinosa’s struggles, finds himself in the majors by June.  Shifted into the utility infielder role, Walters shines, hitting 10 home runs in 250 at-bats.  He establishes himself as a talent worthy of a starting job in the major leagues.

Worst Case: Both Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon put together solid seasons, leaving no room for Walters in Washington until September.

Scott Hariston

Best Case: Hariston does what he was brought to D.C. to do; kill lefty pitchers off the bench. He slugs .500 against left-handed pitching (in line with his career average), getting some key hits off the bench, and even earns himself a couple of spot starts a week.

Worst Case: Hariston hits .177 in the first two months of the season, and it seems like the end of the road for the 11-year MLB veteran. Because of his struggles, the Nationals decide to cut ties with Hariston, releasing him mid-June.

Bryce Harper

Best Case: Bryce Harper proves that when he is healthy, he is the best player on the planet. He hits over .300 for the majority of the season, and finishes the season with over 40 home runs. His great season doesn’t just earn him an all-star game start and a silver slugger award, but it also wins him the NL MVP.

Worst Case: Held back by injuries and his struggles against lefties, Harper fails to make the jump from stardom to superstardom.  He plays in 120 games and hits .280 with 25 home runs — fantastic numbers for any other 21 year old, but they fail to live up to the lofty expectations the media has for Harper, and Harper has for himself.

Nate McLouth

Base Case: McLouth sees significant playing time, and makes the most of that playing time, hitting .260 with 10 home runs and ranking among the team leaders in stolen bases.

Worse Case: McLouth only sees the field as a pinch hitter, and doesn’t get much time in the field.  He regresses to something resembling the form he displayed in 2011 (when he hit .228/.344/.333), and the Nationals regret being stuck with him for the 2015 season.

Tyler Moore

Best Case: In the minors, Moore is able to find his groove, hitting over .300 with 15 home runs in the first two months of the season. After Hariston is released, Moore is called up to replace him on the bench.

Worse Case: Moore struggles in the minors, causing him to stay there until September.  The organization accepts that Moore is not a part of their long term plans, and looks outside the organization for Adam LaRoche’s replacement.

Denard Span

Best Case: Span is able to recreate his September performance (when he hit .316/.352/.412 in the teams last 29 games) over a full season. Under new manager Matt Williams’ tutelage, Span finally learns to be aggressive on the basepaths, swiping 40 bags for the first time in his career. He continues his impeccable play in center field, earning him his first career Gold Glove.

Worse Case: Span plays like he did for the majority of last season, forcing Matt Williams to move him to the eighth hole in the lineup. Because he can’t get on base, he can’t steal bases, ending up with only 15 on the season. Span’s platoon problems (he had a .539 OPS against lefties last year) continue, and by August, he no longer starts against left-handed pitching.

Jayson Werth

Best Case: Werth proves that 2013 was no fluke, hitting .310 with 26 home runs. Werth manages to stay healthy, playing in over 140 games for the first time since 2011.  On top of that, Werth makes the all-star team for only the second time in his career, and finishes top-20 in MVP vote for the fourth time.

Worse Case: Werth’s injuries continue, as a now 35 year old Werth plays in fewer than 130 games for the third straight year. He also returns from the spectacular heights of 2013 to his career averages, and hits a respectable-but-unspectacular .265/.355/.440 in the 2014 season. His 2014 play reignites the debate over the $126 million contract the Nationals gave him in 2011.

14 QUESTIONS for 2014

Who leads the team in wins? With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, 19

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, 18

Who are the Nationals’ All Star Representatives?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg

Who leads the team in saves?  With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Rafael Soriano, 22 (replaced mid-season)

Jonny Rasch: Tyler Clippard, 15

When does Doug Fister return?

Jacob Rasch: April 26th vs. Padres

Jonny Rasch: April 30th @ Astros

Who will lead the team in Batting Average?

Jacob Rasch: Anthony Rendon, .308

Jonny Rasch: Jayson Werth, .314

How many games does Ryan Zimmerman play at first?

Jacob Rasch: 5 games

Jonny Rasch: 0 games

How many games does Wilson Ramos play at catcher?

Jacob Rasch: 110 games

Jonny Rasch: 125 games

Who will start more games at the end of the season: Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, or Ross Detwiler?

Jacob Rasch: Tanner Roark

Jonny Rasch: Taylor Jordan

How many innings does Stephen Strasburg throw?

Jacob Rasch: 210 innings

Jonny Rasch: 214.2 innings exactly

Where does Stephen Strasburg place in the Cy Young race?

Jacob Rasch: 3rd

Jonny Rasch: 5th

How many home runs does Bryce Harper hit? Does he lead the team?

Jacob Rasch: 36 home runs, yes

Jonny Rasch: 42 home runs, yes

Where does Bryce Harper place in the MVP?

Jacob Rasch: 5th

Jonny Rasch: 1st

How many games do the Nationals win?

Jacob Rasch: 93 games

Jonny Rasch: 95 games

When does the Nationals’ season end?

Jacob Rasch: NLCS in St. Louis

Jonny Rasch: World Series loss to Rays

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Final Spring Training Game (Nats vs. Mets)

If this doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will — the Nationals wrapped up their Spring Training schedule today against the Mets, and will soon be boarding a plane and heading back to Nationals Park.  It’s been a long offseason, but baseball is finally upon us once again.  As far as Spring Training contests go, today’s game was about as compelling as the rest; the Nationals were backed by quality pitching, took an early lead, and added on once the regulars were out of the game.  Here now, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from the final contest in Florida, a 4-0 Nationals victory.

THE GOOD

Jordan Zimmermann was dominant all spring long, and today’s start was no exception.  In five innings, Zimmermann made 71 pitches, struck out 3, allowed 4 hits, walked none, and did not allow a run.  In the first inning, he got into a jam, putting runners on second and third with one out. However, he escaped the jam by striking out Curtis Granderson with the help of a slider that Stephen Strasburg would do well to take notes on:

zimmermann slider granderson

Coming to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the second, Zimmermann even helped his cause by legging out an RBI infield single.  His final line for the spring: 18 innings pitched, 11 hit, 1 earned run, 1 walk, and 15 strikeouts.  He’ll make his first start of the regular season against these Mets a week from today.

— Plenty of Nats bats finished Spring Training in fine fashion.  Denard Span went 3-5 with a run scored, raising his average for the spring to a remarkable .370.  Bryce Harper went 2-4 with two singles, including this lined shot for an RBI, which flew over pitcher Jeurys Familia’s head at 107 MPH (according to the notoriously unreliable stadium gun):

harper linerDanny Espinosa went 2-3 with a double and a walk, while Kevin Frandsen lined a double to left in his Nationals’ debut.

— Three players who figure to be key members of the Nationals’ bullpen — Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen — all closed their springs on a positive note.  Each allowed a hit in a scoreless inning, but combined for five strikeouts on the day, including two apiece by Clippard and Soriano.  Soriano was put in a jam thanks to an error by Anthony Rendon, but escaped by striking out Granderson looking on a slider.

Jerry Blevins was even more dominant, allowing just an infield single while striking out the side to close out the Grapefruit League season.  For the spring, Blevins gave up only three hits and a run in 9.1 innings, with 11 strikeouts to 3 walks.

THE BAD

— Harper may have been good with the bat today, but he struggled on the basepaths in the sixth inning. Against Mets’ lefthander Scott Rice, Harper rocketed a line drive to the wall in left, but jogged out of the box and was held to a single.  Then, Harper went first move on Rice, but Rice threw over, and Harper was thrown out.

THE UGLY

— Anthony Rendon left five on base in the game, going 0-5 and dropping his spring batting average from an impressive .325 to a still-healthy .289.

The Nationals finish up Grapefruit League play with a 15-13 record (not that it really matters).  They head back to Nationals Park on Saturday for one exhibition game against the Tigers; Tanner Roark will get the start, while Taylor Jordan will enter in relief.  Then, it’s off to Citi Field for Opeining Day against Dillon Gee and the Mets; the game starts at 1:10 PM.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Nats vs. Cardinals, 3/26/14 (Spring Training)

Seeing as there are no real stakes and the games are essentially meaningless, spring-training contests are generally pretty uneventful. Most veteran players go about their business, doing so without the passion that comes when the games that matter begin. But in today’s Spring Training game between the Nationals and Cardinals, the second-to-last on the Grapefruit League docket for the Nats, we got a little action, courtesy of the always passionate Bryce Harper. Here now is the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals’ 3-2 loss.

THE GOOD

Gio Gonzalez’s final spring outing of 2014 was solid if unspectacular; he struck out four in five innings of work, allowing seven hits and three runs (just one of them earned). Gonzalez was victimized by some poor defense behind him, including a passed ball and a botched double play, but also struggled to put innings away, allowing two two-out RBI singles to Yadier Molina. Gonzalez finishes with a 2.94 ERA in 18.1 spring innings; he made 81 pitches in today’s game, setting himself up nicely for his first start of the regular season.

Ross Detwiler threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning, throwing 12 pitches and striking out the left-handed hitting John Jay on a good curveball. In four relief innings this spring, Detwiler allowed three runs (all in one outing) on three hits, walking three and striking out two.

— A day after finding out he had made the Opening Day roster, Aaron Barrett demonstrated exactly why the Nationals had so much faith in him.  The 26 year old righty put together another 1-2-3 frame, inducing two groundouts and a strikeout, while showcasing the slider considered to be the best in the organization by Baseball America:

barrett sliderIn 10.2 scoreless innings this spring, Barrett has given up just five hits, walked none, and struck out eight.

THE BAD

The Nationals’ offense once again seemed unable to figure out Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright. Wainwright went five innings today, allowing just one hit (a third inning single by Anthony Rendon), walking none, and striking out six. Wainwright has now thrown 14 scoreless innings against the Nats this spring, and went 2-0 with a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings against the team last year.

THE UGLY

— Leading off the top of the fourth inning, Bryce Harper hit a slow roller past Wainwright and towards the right side of the infield.  In one motion, second baseman Mark Ellis barehanded the ball, and flipped it to first, just in time to get Harper in the estimation of first base umpire Jeff Gosney.

harper ejected 2Harper was frustrated, either with the call or the fact that he had made an out.

harper ejected 4We won’t be sure exactly what Harper said until he tells us, but whatever it was, it caused Gosney to toss Harper from the game.  Because the games are meaningless, Spring Training ejections are fairly rare; I can only find only one other example of a player being ejected this spring.  At any rate, Harper not only had to leave the game, he had to leave the stadium as well:

harper ejectedThroughout his career, Harper has been given far less leeway to make mistakes than the average player due to the hype and reputation surrounding him — this ejection seems like another example of that fact.

The Nationals have just one more game in Florida; tomorrow, they head to Port St. Lucie to face the New York Mets.  Jordan Zimmermann will get the start for the Nats in the 12:10 contest, which will be televised on ESPN and MLB.tv.