2014 NL Preview

The long wait is over, and baseball has finally arrived. And rather than enjoy the festivities of Opening Day, every baseball fan and his or her mother will mark the occasion by attempting to predict the outcome of the 2014 season. As baseball fans, we at Serious Jammage feel obligated to do our own predictions, even though they are almost guaranteed to be wrong. Today is the NL Preview, with the AL Preview coming out tomorrow.

EAST

 

How will Doug Fister impact the Nationals?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Washington Nationals (93-69)

2. Atlanta Braves (87-75)

3. New York Mets (75-87)

4. Miami Marlins (70-92)

5. Philadelphia Phillies (69-93)

SLEEPER TEAM – Miami Marlins: 

Last year, the Marlins not only finished last in the division, but also finished last in the NL, ending the year with a 62-100 record. The 2013 Marlins suffered from an historic lack of offense, as they finished dead last in batting average, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs. In fact, the Marlins hit just 95 home runs in 2013 — two fewer than the combined totals of Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis.  However, their young rotation brimmed with talent, headlined of course by Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, whose 2.19 ERA was the lowest by a rookie since Dave Righetti in 1981.  But the rest of the rotation managed success in Fernandez’ shadow, with Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs under 4. Over the offseason, the Marlins made some to improve their offense, bringing in former Boston Red Sox’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs in 121 games last season. They took fliers on former Pirate Garrett Jones, who is coming off of a down year, as well as Rafael Furcal, who missed 2013 with injury, and Casey McGehee, who spent the year in Japan. On top of those additions, the Marlins will get full seasons from top outfield prospects Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Look for the pitching to improve as well in 2014, as probable regression from Fernandez will be mitigated by improvements from Turner, Eovaldi, and Alvarez, each of whom are no older than 24.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Philadelphia Phillies

The 2013 Phillies finished with the franchise’s worst record since 1997, and none of their moves this offseason suggest that they will be able to turn it around. Already this season, the Phillies have already lost pitcher Cole Hamels to bicep tendonitis, which will likely keep him out for at least the first month of the season.  Age is the biggest problem the Phillies face; their projected Opening Day lineup will have an average age of about 31, and their starting rotation (including Cole Hamels) will have an average age of about 33. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (given the derisive moniker “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.” by his detractors) did nothing to make his team younger — his biggest offseason signings were Marlon Byrd (36), Carlos Ruiz (35), and A.J. Burnett (37).  With a lack of major league talent in their farm system, the Phillies may be trapped if one of those aging stars go down with an injury. The Phillies may be looking for a redux of their famous Wheeze Kids team of 1983 — that club won the pennant despite an average age over 32.  But with the talent level on this year’s team, it seems the Phillies’ dynasty has finally run out of breath.

WHY WILL THE NATIONALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

Last season, the Nationals were one of the biggest disappointment in baseball. After winning 98 games and the division in 2o12 , the Nationals slipped in 2013, winning only 86 games and finishing 4 games out of the playoffs. A lack of offense for most of the season, injuries to star players like Bryce Harper, and a lack of pitching depth restricted the Nationals from becoming they team prognosticators thought they would be. However, the Nationals greatly improved their chances this year with possibly the biggest steal of the offseason, acquiring Doug Fister from the Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. Fister will slide into the fourth spot in the Nationals rotation, behind all-stars Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, giving the Nationals arguably the best rotation in baseball. As for their offense, full seasons from Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos will help give the Nationals plenty of depth in their lineup. If the Nationals are able to stay healthy in 2014, they have the potential to be as good as any other team in baseball.

CENTRAL

 

The Pirates lack of starting pitching will keep them from repeating their 2013 playoff run.

 

PROJECTED FINISH

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

2. Cincinnati Reds (88-74)

3. Pittsburg Pirates (82-80)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)

5. Chicago Cubs (68-94)

SLEEPER TEAM – Milwaukee Brewers: 

Heading into 2014, there are a lot of questions revolving around the Brewers. How will Ryan Braun play after his PED suspension? Can Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura repeat their success from last year? Is Matt Garza finally healthy? Will Yovani Gallardo return to his 2012 form? Who would name their child Scooter? Last season, the Brewers were a middle of the pack offensive team. However, they only got half of  a season from Braun, inarguably the most talented hitter on the roster; Braun has picked up where he left off this Spring, hitting .379/.468/.690 with 2 home runs. But the Brewers success this season comes down to their starting pitching, and more specifically, Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo. Garza, who signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this offseason, is coming off back to back seasons that have been shortened by injuries. If Garza can stay healthy in 2014, then the Brewers will have a strong 1-2 punch of him and the always-consistent Kyle Lohse. But Gallardo is the true lynchpin of the team’s success.  In 2013, Gallardo posted career worsts in almost all statistical categories. He pitched the fewest innings in his career, striking out the fewest he has in a season, while still giving up the most earned runs he has ever given up in a season. The Brewers need Gallardo to return to the form he displayed from 2009-2012 — when he had a 3.64 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning — in order for them to succeed this year. With a full season from Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, and a hopefully healthy Matt Garza, the Brewers have a chance to turn many heads this year. Plus, how can a team do poorly with this guy as their mascot?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Pittsburgh Pirates: 

One year removed from finally making it back to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the Pirates seem destined to find themselves sitting outside of the playoffs once again in 2014. After losing pitcher AJ Burnett to free agency, the Pirates didn’t do anything to replace them besides adding reclamation project Edison Volquez, who hasn’t had a season with an ERA under 4 since his rookie season in 2008. While a low risk/high reward signing worked out very well for the Pirates last year with Fransisco Liriano, Volquez hasn’t had the same career success as Liriano had heading into last season. And it’s impossible to be sure which Liriano the Pirates are going to get in 2014; the 2013 version who had a 3.02 ERA and a 117 ERA+, or the 2012 version, who finished the season with a 5.34 ERA, which was 4th worst among all qualified pitchers. By not re-signing AJ Burnett, the Pirates have lost the man who functioned as their staff ace over the past two seasons. If the Pirates rotation, now anchored by the mercurial Liriano and the young flamethrower Gerrit Cole, cannot hold together in 2014, it will be a long season in the Steel City.

WHY WILL THE CARDINALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

There is no team in baseball that has fewer holes on their roster than the St. Louis Cardinals. After losing to the Red Sox in the World Series, the Cardinals made two moves that help stack their lineup from top to bottom – signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and trading David Freese to the Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjous. By making these moves, the Cardinals can now move Matt Carpenter, who had a career year in 2013, back to his natural position of third base, start top prospect Kolten Wong at second, platoon Jon Jay, who had a down year last season, with Bourjous, and replace the offense-challenged Pete Kozma with the offense-heavy Peralta. Even when the Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran in free agency, they had a viable plan to replace him, moving Allen Craig to the outfield and handing Matt Adams the starting job at first base. Not only do the Cardinals have a fantastic lineup, they also have a rotation filled with young starters — like Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and postseason hero Michael Wacha — who have been successful at the major league level, alongside one of the best pitchers in the game in Adam Wainwright. On top of that, the Cardinals have one of the best young relievers in baseball in Trevor Rosenthal, whose fastball hits triple digits with regularity. With one of the most complete teams in baseball, look for the Cardinals to win their division again.

WEST

Can the Padres return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

2. San Diego Padres (89-63)

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83)

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (77-85)

5. Colorado Rockies (67-95)

SLEEPER TEAM: San Diego Padres

The Padres are the team with the most potential to surprise heading into 2014. Their rotation is headed by one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball in Andrew Cashner, who has had health issues in the past, but also has one of the best fastballs in baseball — Fangraphs had it as the fifith most valuable fastball in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Cliff Lee, and Max Scherzer. The Padres also have Eric Stults, who pitched more than 200 innings last year with an ERA under 4, and Tyson Ross, a 27-year old journeyman who finally found success at the big league level last year.  They have added reclamation projects Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy, both of whom have at one point been among the best pitchers in baseball, though both have struggled recently (Johnson has already been placed on the DL with a flexor strain in his right arm). Their lineup is full of players who had strong years last year, though their numbers were suppressed by their cavernous home park.  Outfielder Wil Venable and rookie second baseman Jedd Gyrko both showed that they could hit for power, hitting 22 and 23 home runs respectively. The Padres will be getting all-star shortstop Everth Cabrera back after a PED suspension cost him 50 games in 2013. And if Chase Headley can return to his 2012 form (when he finished 5th in the league in MVP balloting), the Padres will have a strong lineup in addition to an extremely deep bench, with players like Chase Hundley and Kyle Blanks being used as backups. If their pitching can hold up, and one of their reclamation projects can recover some of his former glory, the Padres will be able to compete with anybody in the NL, and will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks have finished 81-81 for the past two seasons, and this year, they might not even reach that mark.  In one of the most confusing moves this offseason, the Diamondbacks gave up starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs and outfielder prospect Adam Eaton for Mark Trumbo, who will be playing left field for them. While Trumbo is known for his power at the plate, his on-base percentage dropped below .300 last year, and his defense in left is Adam Dunn/Lucas Duda bad:

Like many other team this spring training, the Diamondbacks have been bit by the injury bug, losing ace Patrick Corbin and reliver David Hernandez for the season to a torn UCL. Losing Corbin for the season will cause the Diamondbacks to use either Josh Collmenter or Randall Delgado in their rotation. While neither of those player are bad, they will not be able to fill the void that Patrick Corbin left. Even with the signing of Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks will finish the season on the bad side of 81 wins.

WHY WILL THE DODGERS WIN THE DIVISION?

When you beat out the Yankees for the biggest payroll in baseball ($235 million, almost $30 million more than New York), you’re likely to be pretty good. The Dodgers have superstars at almost every position: Hanley Ramirez at short, Adrian Gonzalez at first, Yasiel Puig in right, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke in their rotation. Like the Cardinals, this team has very few holes. This offseason, the Dodgers did a good job fortifying their bullpen by re-signing Brian Wilson to a one year deal and signing former Indians closer Chris Perez. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, was a good as any other closer last season, compiling a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves. Outside of second base (where the team neglected to sign Mark Ellis, instead opting to replace him with untested Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, the Dodgers lineup projects to be a nightmare for opposing teams. And their rotation, with reigning Cy Young winner Kershaw alongside Greinke and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, seems likely to be one of the best in baseball. The Dodgers are not only the best team in the West; they might be the best team in baseball.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

NL CY YOUNG: Jose Fernandez. Miami Marlins

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

FIRST NL MANAGER FIRED: Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

NL WILD CARD GAME: Reds over Padres

NL DIVISION SERIES: Cardinals over Reds, Nationals over Dodgers

NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: Cardinals over Nationals

STAY TUNED FOR THE AL PREVIEW, COMING OUT TOMORROW.

Advertisements

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.

Nationals Sign Kevin Frandsen

frandsen philsYesterday afternoon, the Washington Nationals made a series of cuts that seemingly left their bench a man short — the two most obvious candidates for the last bench job, Tyler Moore and Jamey Carroll, had been optioned to AAA and given release papers respectively.  Manager Matt Williams stated yesterday that he was considering using extra catcher Sandy Leon or utility speedster Jeff Kobernus to fill the spot, but the moves caused speculation that the Nationals could look outside the organization.

Late last night, the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore mentioned that the Nationals were “one of two or three teams who reached out” to utility infielder Kevin Frandsen, who had been cut by the Phillies just hours before.  While not yet officially confirmed by the team, it seems the Nationals and Frandsen have reached an agreement:

Frandsen, 31, is a right handed bat with experience at all four infield spots in his major league career. Used primarily as a first baseman last year with Philadelphia, Frandsen posted a triple-slash of .234/.296/.341 in 119 games, with 5 home runs and 26 runs batted in.  According to both DRS and UZR, Frandsen is around league average in the field at first, second, and third base (he hasn’t played shortstop at the big league level since 2009).

For his career, Frandsen has marked platoon splits that make him a valuable bat against left-handed pitching — he has a .778 career OPS against lefties, versus just a .626 career OPS against righties (in 2013, the split was even more pronounced; .869 to .536).  If you recall, the Nationals were said this offseason to be interested in Jeff Baker, another right-handed corner infielder with career success against lefties — Frandsen’s skill set is that of a poor man’s Baker.

Frandsen also led baseball with 14 pinch-hits last year; for his career, he has hit .265/.318/.343 in a pinch-hitting role.  For perspective, the Nationals last year pinch-hit at a .208/.250/.358 clip, making Frandsen a clear improvement.

The Nationals decided Frandsen’s positional flexibility made him an improvement over Tyler Moore, and his relative youth and prowess against left-handed pitching made him preferable to Jamey Carroll.  His arrival leaves the Nationals with a bench that will break down like this:

IF Danny Espinosa (bats switch)

IF Kevin Frandsen (bats right)

OF Scott Hairston (bats right)

OF Nate McLouth (bats left)

C Jose Lobaton (bats switch)

There seems to be limited redundancy on that bench, as the balance in handedness and position ensures every player on it is likely to have a different role.

UPDATE: One other ramification of this deal, as mentioned by CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman:

As Zuckerman mentions, Perez is a candidate, as is catcher Jhonatan Solano.

UPDATE 2: The deal is now official:

In order to clear space for Frandsen on the 40-man roster, the Nationals removed Ross Ohlendorf from the 40-man by placing him on the 60-day disabled list with a “right lumbar strain.”

 

Nationals Roster Cuts — Down to 27

Aaron Barrett has made the Opening Day roster

Aaron Barrett has made the Opening Day roster.

Following their last home game of Spring Training, the Nationals made a series of roster cuts that have finally given shape to parts of their Opening Day roster.  All told, the Nationals cut five players today — they  optioned RHP Ryan Mattheus, LHP Xavier Cedeno, and 1B/LF Tyler Moore to AAA Syracuse, while serving outright release papers to utility infielder Jamey Carroll and RHP Chris Young.  Additionally, they have informed righty reliever Aaron Barrett that he has made the Opening Day bullpen.

Coming into today, the Nationals had active competition for three spots on their roster — the fifth starter, the final reliever, and the final bench spot.  So how do these cuts affect the composition of the team?

Carroll and Moore were thought to be the only two players competing for that final bench spot — if one of them didn’t get it, it seemed likely that the other would.  But having either one on the roster would seemingly create redundancy on the roster.  Moore’s value is as a right-handed bat to platoon with lefty swinger Adam LaRoche, but Ryan Zimmerman’s ability to play first seemingly eliminates the need to keep a roster spot open for such a player.  Similarly, Danny Espinosa fills Carroll’s presumed role of utility infielder quite nicely, as he has displayed the ability to play excellent defense at multiple positions over his career.  So instead, the Nationals are going in a different direction:

Kobernus, who recorded 45 stolen bases last year in time at Syracuse and in DC, would provide the Nationals with a pinch runner in key situations — a position on the bench previous manager Davey Johnson eschewed in favor of “hairy-chested bench bats.”  Meanwhile, keeping Leon on the roster would allow the Nationals to use Wilson Ramos as a pinch hitter in days where he doesn’t start (and the fact that they are considering utilizing a roster spot just to have Ramos pinch hit shows how highly the Nationals rate his bat).

Meanwhile, adding Barrett, a 26-year old reliever with a killer slider who, nonetheless, has never pitched beyond AA, to the Opening Day roster completes the Nationals bullpen.  It means the Nationals’ bullpen will initially contain five right handers (Barrett, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Rafael Soriano, and Tyler Clippard), and two lefties (Ross Detwiler and Jerry Blevins).  Furthermore, it means that the loser of the fifth starter battle — either Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan — will not then make the team as a long reliever.  Instead, they will be sent back to AAA Syracuse, where they will continue to start, ready to head to Washington in case of injury or ineffectiveness.  The Nationals were said to have been only considering using Roark in long relief, not Jordan, so this move might be a slight tip of the hand that Roark has earned the fifth starter job:

Keep in mind that major league rosters are extraordinarily fluid — the 25 men who will have their names announced at Citi Field on Monday are not going to be the same as the 25 men who are announced September 28th against the Marlins.  But after a long spring, today’s cuts have made manager Matt Williams’ vision of an ideal Opening Day roster quite clear.

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — Nats vs. Mets, 3/25/14 (Spring Training)

Editor’s note: We haven’t covered the last couple Spring Training games — frankly, after watching games that count in Australia, it’s kind’ve hard to get excited about the meaningless contests going on in Florida.  But we will have full recaps of the final three exhibition games, along with plenty of other great content leading up to Opening Day.

Today marked the final time the Washington Nationals will take the field at Space Coast Stadium, a welcome fact for players and fans who are ready to see their team leave Viera and head north for the regular season.  The contest against the Mets (the Nationals’ opponents on Opening Day) also marked the final Spring Training tuneup for Nationals’ ace and Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg; Strasburg was backed by a lineup that featured Jose Lobaton in place of Wilson Ramos, but otherwise contained all regulars.  The Nationals, on the backs of a 5-run third inning, took down the Mets by a score of 6-3.  Here now, the good, the bad, and the ugly from the game.

THE GOOD

— In 2013, Bryce Harper had a mammoth spring — .484/.507/.734 — that he then followed up with a .344/.430/.720 April.  This spring, however, had been a different story, as Harper had gone just 8 for 36 with two extra-base hits.  But if there was any doubt that Harper was fully healthy and ready for Opening Day, he erased it today with this mammoth blast:

harper homerThat 3-run home run was Harper’s only hit on the day, though he added a walk in the sixth.  But Harper’s shot — a 420-footer to the opposite field, off the flagpole in left-center — is a good indication that Harper will be just fine in the regular season.

Denard Span continued a hot spring with a near-perfect day today.  He dropped a bloop single over second in the first, lined an infield single to second in the third, walked in the fourth, and singled again in the fifth.  Matt Williams seems intent on using Span in the leadoff spot, and the key function of a leadoff man is to get on base.  Span’s 3-4 performance today, and his .347/.360/.449 spring triple-slash — have shown he has the ability to do just that (though the fact that he has only one walk is odd indeed).

— The best thing about Stephen Strasburg’s outing is that it was his last of the spring — the next time we will see him, it will be on March 31st at Citi Field.  The second best thing about the outing was Strasburg’s pitch count — 84 over 5 2/3 innings, meaning Strasburg will likely be able to near 100 pitches on Opening Day.  And the third-best thing about Strasburg’s outing was how successful it was.  In those 5 2/3 innings, Strasburg struck out seven.  He had one poor inning — the Mets’ three-run third — but otherwise dominated.  All four of his pitches looked strong, including his brand-new slider:

strasburg slider strikeoutHe even added a base hit for good measure.  See you Monday, Mr. Strasburg.

Ryan Zimmerman seems to always find his swing in Spring Training, and this year is no exception.  Today, he went 2-4 with three RBIs, including a two-run single and this solo home run:

zimmerman home runThe homer was Zimmerman’s second of the spring, and it raised his batting average to .325.  He has also looked strong on defense, including on this play, where he ranged far to the right of second base on a shift.

THE BAD

— The Mets put together a three-run inning off Strasburg in the third, including a Travis d’Arnaud home run and an Eric Young RBI triple.  During the inning, Strasburg appeared to be squeezed by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstadt.  In the at-bat against d’Arnaud, Strasburg fired a 1-2 fastball that appeared to catch the outside corner, but was called a ball by Wendelstadt — the very next pitch was d’Arnaud’s home run.  There have been times throughout his career — this game against the Cubs comes to mind — when Strasburg has let someone else’s mistake derail his outing.  Today, however, Strasburg regained his composure, pitching several more strong innings after the third.

THE UGLY

— Spring Training camera angles are notoriously shoddy, and on this day, it meant that that we couldn’t see on television exactly where Harper’s homer landed.  Other than that, not too much ugly on the day.

The Nationals have two more games left to play in the Grapefruit League.  Tomorrow, they head to Jupiter to play the Cardinals, while tomorrow, they once again head to Port St. Lucie to play the Mets.  Wednesday’s game will be at 1:05, while Thursday’s will be a 12:10 start — both games will be televised on ESPN.

Can Aaron Barrett or Blake Treinen Break Camp?

We’ve neared the end of Spring Training, and the Nationals roster is beginning to take shape. Players who impressed this Spring, like Zach Walters. Brock Peterson, A.J Cole, and Sammy Solis have departed for the minor leagues. But there are two names of the thirty left in big league camp who are both surprising and intriguing: relievers Blake Treinen and Aaron Barrett. With the news that Ross Detwiler would be moved to the bullpen, it seems that there is only one bullpen spot left with a whole host of pitchers (Ryan Mattheus, Mike Gonzalez, Xavier Cedeno) vying for that coveted last spot. So do Barrett and Treinen stand a chance?

In 2010, the Nationals drafted  Aaron Barrett with the 266th pick of the draft. Barrett, who was a starter at the University of Mississippi, immediately struggled in rookie ball, allowing 22 earned runs in 21 innings in his first season. His struggles were so bad, that he was considering giving up baseball. After his atrocious 2010 season, Barrett gave up starting pitching and was moved to the bullpen, where, in 2011, he continued to struggle with his command. However, something changed for Barrett in 2012. Barrett started the season in single-A with the Hagerstown Suns, where he impressed many by dropping his ERA to 2.60 in 34.2 before getting called up to single-A+ Potomac in July. In Potomac, Barrett continued to improve, compiling a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings. In 2013, Barrett played the entire season in AA Harrisburg, where, from the pen, he had a 2.15 ERA in 50.1 innings, while striking out 69 batters, and only walking 15. This offseason, Barrett received his first invite to major league camp, and thus far, he has not disappointed. In 8.2 innings this spring, Barrett has yet allowed a run, and has only allowed 4 base runners, while striking out 7. What makes Barrett so effective is his slider, which has been his main pitch throughout his career. Barrett also features a low-90’s fastball with sink, that Harrisburg Senators pitching coach Chris Michalak has described as a “bowling ball”.  What would give Barrett an edge over Treinen is the fact that last November, Barrett was placed on the 40-man roster, meaning that if he were to start the season in the majors, the Nationals would not need to designate any of their players for assignment.

Blake Treinen’s time in the Nationals organization has been much shorter than Barrett’s as Treinen was acquired last offseason along with AJ Cole and Ian Krol in Michael Morse trade. In his first season in professional baseball, Treinen was exclusively used as a relief pitcher. Then, in 2012, the single-A+ Stockton Ports shuttled Treinen from relief to starting pitching. By the end of the season, Treinen was almost exclusively used as a starting pitcher. After the before mentioned Michael Morse trade, Treinen was sent up to AA Harrisburg, where he started in 20 of 21 games he appeared in, posting a 3.64 ERA in 118.2 innings pitched with 2.61 K/BB ratio. Similarly to Barrett, this spring is Treinen’s first with a major league club. Even though his stats this spring haven’t been all that impressive, his stuff wows the scouts. Treinen’s repertoire is headlined by his 97 MPH slider, which has one scout saying that Treinen is absolutely one of the Nationals best 12 arms in the organization. However, Treinen’s raw stuff has not led to dominance in the minor leagues. His career K/9 of 7.7 is not particularly eye-popping. His 1.28 career WHIP is similarly uninspiring. On top of that, Treinen is not currently on the Nationals 40 man roster, which means that if he were to make the team, the Nationals most have to designate a player for assignment, with the most likely candidates being catcher  Jhonatan Solano or utility man Jeff Kobernus.   

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there are other pitchers also competing for that final bullpen spot. Mike Gonzalez, who was signed to a deal on March 4th, has struggled, compiling a 9.00 ERA in 4 appearances this spring. Xavier Cedeno has look good, but it is unlikely that the Nationals will want to carry a third lefty. Ryan Mattheus has been hurt the entire spring, and will most likely be ready for the start of the season. So that leaves Treinen and Barrett as two of the strongest viable candidates for the job. Even though Treinen’s raw talent is good enough to start in the majors, he has not yet harnessed it to become the dominate pitcher that his talent suggest. Barrett does not have the stuff that Treinen does, but he has shown more consistency in his last two seasons and against major league hitting this spring. If one of the two were to win the last spot, the Nationals would be wise to pick Aaron Barrett over Blake Treinen.