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, Bad, and Ugly: Spring Training Game 20 (Nats @ Astros)

In the road game of today’s split-squad doubleheader, Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals traveled to Osceola County Stadium to face Scott Feldman and the Houston Astros. While the regulars stayed back in Vierra to face the Tigers, the Nationals back ups and minor leaguers (with the exception of Anthony Rendon) went up against Bo Porter’s squad. The Nationals defeated the Astros 4-3. Here are the Good, Bad, and Ugly from today’s game.

GOOD

Just like his last outing against the Astros, Gio Gonzalez started off strong. The only difference was that in today’s game, Gio didn’t implode. In his first two innings, Gonzalez was on top of his game, striking out two without allowing a runner. After allowing a single to 6-4 315 pound Japhet Amador to start the third, the batter was quickly erased on a 5-4-3 double play. After retiring the side in the fourth, Gio started to struggle, giving up a run with two outs on a L.J. Hoes single. Hoes would be the last batter Gio would face, as he was removed after going 4.2 innings, striking out 4, and only allowing one run on three hits.

Steven Souza Jr. had the game of his career today, going a perfect 3-3 with two home runs and an RBI triple. Souza’s first home run put the Nationals on the board, hitting a solo shot to deep left field off of former Baltimore Oriole Scott Feldman. His second homer also came off of Feldman, but this one was hit straight to center field. Then, in the top of the seventh, Souza hit a triple down the right field line to score Brock Peterson from first.

Both Brock Peterson and Brian Goodwin checked into today’s game with a pair of hits. Goodwin drove in a run with an RBI single in the top of the fifth, while Peterson scored a crucial run in the seventh inning on the Steven Souza triple.

Manny Delcarmen was able to bounce back from his bad performance against the Mets on Thursday, going two scoreless innings and recording a save in today’s contest.

BAD

Rafael Soriano and Christian Garcia had almost identical mediocre pitching lines in today’s game. Soriano, who was able to bail Gio Gonzalez out of a jam in the fifth, struggled in the sixth, giving up one run on two hits with two strikeouts before being removed with two outs left in the innings in favor of Garcia. Similarly to Soriano, Garcia successfully got the previous pitcher out of a pickle, getting Matt Dominguez to fly out with a runner on third. After retiring the first two batters in the seventh, Garcia gave up back to back doubles to uber-prospects Carlos Correa and Jonathan Singleton, which gave up a run. Garcia finished the day going 1.1 innings with one strikeout and two hits.

UGLY

The Nationals offense had a lot of missed opportunities to add on runs today, all starting in the top of the first. With runners on first and second and only one out, Tyler Moore and Zach Walters were unable to give the Nationals their first lead of the game, grounding out and striking out respectively. Then, in the second inning, Danny Espinosa came up with runners on first and third and two outs, and grounded out to third. In the third inning, Zach Walters (who ended up going 0-5 in today’s game) wasted a runner on second with only one out by grounding into a fielders choice. In total, the Nationals were an atrocious 2-10 with runners in scoring position in today’s game.

The Nationals face the Tigers again tomorrow at 1 PM, this time at Joker Marchant Stadium. Tanner Roark takes the mound for the Nationals against Anibal Sanchez. This game can be heard through the Tigers broadcast, either on MLB.com or on the MLB At Bat app. 

The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Spring Training 16 (Nats vs Mets)

Today marked the half way point for Spring Training, as the Nationals took on the New York Mets in Vierra in a game that was neither televised or radioed. Ross Detwiler took the mound for the Nationals, facing former Boston Red Sox pitcher and Japanese superstar, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Unfortunately, the Mets went home with the victory, beating the Nationals 7-5 in thrilling fashion. Here are the good, bad, and ugly for today’s game.

GOOD

From innings 1-7, every National pitcher had a stellar performance, only allowing five base runners, and striking out six. Ross Detwiler started today off with three very strong innings. In those three innings, Detwiler got All-Stars David Wright and Curtis Granderson to strike out. In the fourth inning, Detwiler gave up a one out single to David Wright, who scored two batters later on a Josh Satin double. That would be Ross Detwiler’s last batter, as Christian Garcia would come in to relieve him. After allowing a walk to Travis d’Arnaud, Garcia was able toend the Mets threat by getting Andrew Brown to fly out to Denard Span. Garcia would go on to pitch the fifth inning, retiring the side in order. Then, came in Rafael Soriano, who in 1.2 innings of work this Spring, had given up 7 runs. Luckily for the the Nationals, Soriano was on top of his game today, facing only three batters in one inning of work, including a strike out of David Wright. Tyler Clippard came in after Soriano in the seventh, and got the Mets to go 1-2-3.

Adam “Wheels” LaRoche did what he does best in today’s game, go 3-3 with three singles and a stolen base. In fairness, his stolen base did come off of Matsuzaka, who is known for his extremely long pitching motion.

Coming into Spring Training as a nobody, Brock Peterson really has made a name for himself so far this spring, hitting .389 with 7 RBIs in 18 at bats so far this Spring. Today, Peterson made a 3 run deficit disappear with one swing of the bat, hitting a long home run off Jacob deGrom in the bottom of the eight to tie the game 5-5. Peterson sure is giving Tyler Moore a run for his money so far this Spring.

BAD

Outside of Brock Peterson and Adam LaRoche, the Nationals offense was basically non-existent. Not including LaRoche and Peterson, the Nationals went a combined 2-27 with 10 strikeouts. Especially bad was Jeff Kobernus, who went 0-3 with 2 strikeouts in today’s game.

Sometimes in baseball, just giving up one single can get you a loss. This was the case for pitcher Robert Gilliam, who came in in the eight inning with the bases loaded. After throwing a wild pitch to score Anthony Seratelli, Gilliam got Josh Satin to hit a sac fly to minimize the damage. Then, in the ninth, Gilliam remained in the game and got the first two outs very quickly. After Omar Quintanilla singled, Matt Williams decided that that was enough for Gilliam, as he took him out in favor of  Brian Dupra. Unfortunately for Robert Gilliam, Dupra was unable to get that last out before it was too late.

UGLY

Brian Dupra came into major league camp today to help fill out the Nationals roster as they took on the Mets. In a key situation in the ninth, Dupra was called on to pitch with a runner on first with two outs in a 5-5 game. Dupra proceeded to give up a single to Mets second baseman Anthony Seratelli who advanced to third on an error by Eury Perez. Then, after a Brandon Allen walk, Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a single that scored Quintanilla from third and Seratelli from second, giving the Mets a 7-5 lead that they would not relinquish.

Manny Delcarmen came into today’s game already with an outside shot to make the team, and his efforts today did not help him. After striking out the first batter he faced, Delcarmen went on to walk the next to batters to set up  Anthony Seratelli to tie the game at 2 with a single to score Matt den Dekker. After giving up a single to load the bases, Delcarmen walked Kirk Nieuwehuis to score the runner from third. Delcarmen was pulled after that, but was still on the hook for two more runs that scored that inning.

The Nationals take on the Tigers tomorrow at 1:05 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. Taylor Jordan takes on TBA for the Tigers. The game can be heard on the MLB At Bat app through the Tigers broadcast. 

Balfour’s All the Rage: Why He Would Make Sense In DC

Is there room in the Nationals bullpen for Grant Balfour? We think so.

Earlier this morning, Ken Rosenthal from Fox Sports reported that the Nationals are interested in free agent closer Grant Balfour. Balfour, who turned 36 in December, had agreed to terms on a two year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles earlier this offseason before a reported knee and wrist injury caused Balfour to fail his physical. One might wonder why the Nationals would even be considering Grant Balfour, since just last season, the Nationals added veteran closer Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already had two pitchers with extensive closer experience in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

Since becoming the Oakland A’s closer in 2012, Balfour has been one of the best closers in baseball, converting 93% of his save opportunities. His 2.56 ERA and 150 ERA+ put him towards the top among qualified closers over the past two seasons. While Balfour flourished in Oakland, Soriano struggled in DC. On first glance, Soriano’s numbers don’t appear to be that bad, with a respectable 3.11 ERA and 43 saves, which ranked second in the National League. However, when you dig deeper, Soriano’s struggles become more apparent. Soriano’s 1.23 WHIP is his highest since becoming a reliever, and his K/9 was the lowest it has ever been. The velocity on both his fastball and his slider were down almost a full mile per hour, and his slider had less movement in 2013 then in any other season, making Soriano more hittable. Soriano no longer has the stuff he had in 2010, when he came 8th in the Cy Young voting.  If the Nationals are looking at the same metrics we are, they likely don’t feel confident about having Soriano as their only option at closer in 2014.

The Nationals already have two players in their bullpen who could serve as the closer in the event that Soriano melts down; Tyler Clippard.  Over the past three years, Clippard has been among the most valuable relievers in baseball — since 2011, he has a 2.60 ERA, and has thrown 232.0 innings in relief, the most in baseball. But the Nationals have been reluctant to move the one-time all-star from the setup role.  Storen is an even riskier proposition; his struggles in the first half of 2013 have been well-documented (a 5.95 ERA before being demoted to AAA), and his fastball has lost both zip (95.1 to 93.8 MPH) and effectiveness (it was a negative pitch in 2013) from his 43-save 2011. But it would be unwise for the Nationals to trade Storen now, at the point where his value would be lowest — remember, Storen was the centerpiece in a near-deal for Denard Span just two years ago.

With Balfour in the fold, the Nationals will have a lot more flexibility in their bullpen. Balfour is unlikely to seek more than the 2 year, $15 million deal the Orioles reneged on, making him one of the cheaper options among upper-echelon relievers. And signing Balfour doesn’t necessarily mean that the Nationals have to trade Drew Storen either — they could always move Storen to a sixth/seventh inning role for this season, with Balfour and Clippard becoming the primary setup men. Balfour is an unlikely signing for the Nationals, but adding him would strengthen a strength, making the Nationals bullpen one of baseball’s best.

10 Bold Predictions For the Nationals in 2014

2013 was a year of disappointment for the Nationals. After being everybody’s favorite to win the World Series, the Nats fell flat on their face, missing the playoffs by a handful of games. As we turn the calendar to 2014, we make several bold predictions for the Nats this year.

10. They are not done this offseason

Over the course of this offseason, the Nationals have traded for Doug Fister and Jerry Blevins, and have signed Nate McLouth. To many experts, the Nationals have completed everything that they needed to this offseason and are ready to start the 2014 season. However, I still believe that Mike Rizzo and Co. have one more trick up their sleeves. Earlier this off season, the Nationals were rumored to be in on several free agents, including catcher John Buck and infielder Eric Chavez. Since then, Chavez has re-signed with the Diamondbacks. However, Buck is still available. While the Nationals seem content with Jhontan Solano and Sandy Leon being the backup catchers, and Buck’s asking price being a little hefty for a backup, the Nationals might surprise people by making this small move. They could also still be in the market for a utility infielder or a lefty power bat. Be on the look out for the Nationals to make another under-the-radar move.

9. Wilson Ramos plays 125+ games this season

In an interview during the winter meetings, GM Mike Rizzo was asked about signing another catcher. Rizzo responded that he thinks Ramos can play most of the season. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t know what the average everyday catcher caught … what, about a 125-128 games? I think he can take on that load.” Many people thought that this claim was ludicrous, since in the past two seasons, Ramos has played in a total of 103 games. However, it is possible for Ramos to achieve this feat. In 2011, Ramos’s rookie season, he was able to play in 113 games, while still sharing time with Ivan Rodriguez. However, in 2012, Ramos tore his ACL, and missed the majority of the season, and this year, Ramos dealt with numerous hamstring issues. The injuries have caused people to lose faith in Ramos’s abilities to stay healthy. However, Ramos changed his approach on the basepaths later in the season last year, so that he wouldn’t injure his hamstring again. That change in approach allowed Ramos to stay healthy and fresh in the second half of the season. It also allowed Ramos to play in 20 consecutive games at catcher, before a double header forced Ramos to sit. If Ramos can pick up where he left off, there is no reason to believe he won’t play at least 125 games.

8. Doug Fister will receive Cy Young votes at the end of the season.

By far the Nationals’ biggest move this offseason was the acquisition of starting pitcher Doug Fister in exchange for Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, and Steve Lombardozzi. By making this trade, the Nationals filled out their rotation, adding one of the most undervalued pitchers in baseball. This upcoming season, Doug Fister will show baseball how good he is by not just being one of the best pitchers in the vaunted Nationals rotation, but in all of baseball. Over the past three seasons, Fister has, in terms of fWAR, been the ninth best pitcher in the major leagues, just behind Cy Young Winners Justin Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. Fister is also making the transition from the AL to the NL — in 12 career starts against the senior circuit, Fister has a 2.09 ERA. Although that is a small sample size, it bodes well for Fister’s transition.

7. Strasburg won’t be ready by Opening Day

A few weeks after the season ended, Stephen Strasburg underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. While Strasburg wasn’t the only National to get surgery (Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche also had surgery to repair various injuries), Strasburg’s is the most worrisome, as he has already dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career. This new injury that Strasburg suffered this season is only another addition to Strasburg’s long and well-documented injury history. Historically, the Nationals have been very careful when handling Strasburg and his myriad injuries. Don’t look for him to be rushed back if he the Nationals don’t feel that he is ready.

6. Danny Espinosa will play 120+ games this season in DC, and will start in at least half.

Espinosa’s 2013 was an unmitigated disappointment for both himself and the Nationals organization. After a very good rookie year, Espinosa suffered a slight “sophomore slump” in 2012, batting .247/.215/.402 and leading the league in strikeouts with 168. In 2013, things only got worse for Espinosa, as his average dropped to .158, and he whiffed in 28% of his at bats. Then, in June, Espinosa was sent to the minors, where he continued to struggle, batting .216/.280/.286 in AAA Syracuse. While Espinosa struggled all of last year, both in the majors and the minors, he still has a good shot of making the major league roster out of spring. His plus defensive abilities make him valuable as a defensive replacement in the later innings. However, I think that Espinosa will be used for more than that. At the end of the last season, the Nationals had first round draft pick Anthony Rendon as their starting second baseman. Rendon had a good rookie year, hitting .265/.329/.396 with 1.5 fWAR. However, one of the Nationals main concerns with Rendon is that he is often injured. Throughout college and even in his pro career, Rendon has dealt with various injuries, including one in 2012 which cost him most of the season. Of course, no one can really predict an injury. But the Nationals will want to keep Rendon healthy, and one way that they could do that is by limiting his playing time, and having Espinosa make starts at second. Combine that with the fact that Rendon will see some time at third base, with Ryan Zimmerman seeing occasional time at first, and it seems likely that Espinosa will get some solid playing time this year.

5. Denard Span will hit over .300

In the 2012-2013 offseason, the Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer in the hopes that Span could be the franchise center fielder that the Nationals have long sought out. Span’s first year in D.C. was decent — while his offensive numbers were slightly below his career norms, he was one of the top defensive center fielders in baseball. However, in 2014, Span’s offensive numbers will make him as valuable on offense as he is on defense. In 2013, Span started off the year on a bad note, and was hitting .265/.320/.355 through the teams first 90 games. Then, on July 22nd, the Nationals fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein and brought in minor league hitting coach Rick Schu. Schu’s arrival brough marked improvement from Span, as Span managed to hit .303/.337/.418 through the teams final 62 games. Another reason for Span’s success might be a change of approach at the plate. On August 25, Denard Span received a text from his mom telling him “to swing the first pitch more often.” From August 25, until the end of the season, Span hit .336/.374/.451, including a 29 game hitting streak. While the league will probably adapt to Span’s new approach, his offense will still be more of a factor in 2014.

4. Jayson Werth will regress, a lot.

Last year, Jayson Werth had his best season as a Washington National, and possibly the best in his career, hitting .318/.398/.512 with a 4.8 WAR. Werth also finished 13th in the NL MVP vote, and was probably the best the NL offensively last season. While he did suffer a hamstring injury that kept him out for almost all of May, it didn’t detract from his amazing season. That being said, there is very little chance that Werth will be able to keep that up next season. In the past two seasons, Werth has missed almost 115 games with various injuries. Werth, who is turning 35 in May, is the Nationals oldest position player. Every year Werth gets older, he will be more likely to get injured, and it will be more and more difficult to overcome those injuries. While it is impossible to predict injuries, Werth might be the most likely offensive player to get injured.

3. Rafael Soriano wont be the closer by the end of the year.

After signing a two year, $22 million deal in the offseason of 2012-2013, Soriano became the closer for the Nationals. The team hoped that he could repeat his 2012 performance with the Yankees, where Soriano saved 42 of 46 opportunities and had a 2.26 ERA while replacing Mariano Rivera in the back of the Yankees pen. On the surface, Soriano’s 2013 campaign seems pretty good; Soriano saved 43 games, putting him in the top five in that category, and converted 88% of his saves, which was above league average last season. However, if we dig deeper into Soriano’s season, we see more troubling signs. According to Brooks Baseball, Soriano’s average fastball and slider speed were down almost a full MPH from 2012 to 2013. On top of that, almost all of his pitches had less vertical movement than in years past, making Soriano more hittable. His contact percentage was up to 88%, the highest in his career, and his WHIP was also a career high. Soriano is on the downswing of his career, and it is unlikely that he will improve in 2014. Moving Soriano from the closer role will be made easier because…

2. Drew Storen will return to his 2011-2012 form.

From 2010-2012, the Nationals seemed to have their closer of the future in Drew Storen. In his three season, Storen converted 52 of 60 save opportunities, including 43 of 48 in 2011, his first and only full year as closer. There were times in those three years where Storen looked like one of the top closers in baseball. Then, on one fateful night in October, everything changed. Come April, Drew Storen was no longer the Nationals closer. After being demoted to set-up man, Storen struggled through his first 47 appearances, collecting a 5.65 ERA with a .355 BABIP (batting average of balls in play). After a July 24th outing where Storen gave up 3 runs in 2/3 of an inning, he was demoted to AAA to work on his mechanics. After about a month in the minors, Storen was called back up to the majors. After that, he was a different pitcher. From August 16th (the day he was called up) to the end of the season, Storen gave up just 3 runs in a little over 19 innings, giving him a 1.40 ERA during that stretch. That Storen resembled the Storen who got those 43 saves in 2011. If Storen can keep that up in 2014, he will return to the closer role by the end of the season.

1. Bryce Harper will finish top 3 in the NL MVP vote.

Last April, this seemed like it was going to happen in 2013. Harper started off the season on a tear, hitting .356/.437/.744 with 9 home runs in the month of April. Then, on April 29th, Bryce Harper flung his body against the wall in Atlanta, bruising the entire right side of his body. After that night, Harper wasn’t the same player. From April 30th until May 13th, Harper batted .138/.297/.241. His batting average dropped almost 50 points in the matter of two weeks. Then, on May 13th, Harper made things worse by running face first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, further injuring his side and his knee. These injuries kept Harper in and out of the lineup for the next two months. He ended up missing the entire month of June due to his injuries from running into the walls. After his various run-ins with the wall (see what I did there?), Harper’s performance dipped considerably. While it wasn’t expected for him to keep hitting at a .356/.437/.744 pace, he was surely expected to do better than what he did. If Harper hadn’t run into those walls, he could have had a year for the record books. Barring another wall collision, Harper will have a phenomenal third season.