Archive for the ‘Stephen Strasburg’ Category

Watching Prince Albert

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It’s possible to pitch to Albert Pujols — but you do so at your peril. Scott Olsen knew this of course (every major league pitcher knows it), but that didn’t keep him from missing an up-and-in pitch to the St. Louis powerhouse, who promptly deposited it in the left field seats. That was home run number 35 in the slugger’s season, a plus-30 total that he has now reached in each of the last ten seasons. The Pujols’ dinger (number 401 of his career, after he hit number 400 on Thursday) was not the difference in the Cardinals’ 4-2 victory on Friday night, but on a day that saw Washington’s top pitching prospect announce that he would undergo Tommy John surgery, the appearance of Prince Albert at Nationals Park might prove reason enough for Nats fans to make the trek to Half Street.

How good is Pujols? A 2008 manager’s survey named him as the most feared hitter in baseball — and for good reason. The slugger’s numbers draw comparisons to Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Babe Ruth — and Lou Gehrig. The Gehrig comparison seems appropriate: both Pujols and Gehrig won one batting title when they were under 30, and Gehrig stroked thirty home runs and hit over .300 for nine consecutive seasons — a mark broken by Pujols last year. In truth, Prince Albert has already matched Gehrig’s greatness (a claim that is heresy in New York), for while Gehrig was an RBI machine (175 in 1927, 184 in 1931), Pujols is arguably the better slugger: Gehrig stroked over 40 home runs five times in his 17 year career, while Pujols has hit over 40 six times in ten years. If Pujols stays health, he’ll add to that record next year and quite possibly for many years after. Additionally, Pujols’ slugging numbers are breathtaking: he has led the league four times in ten seasons, Gehrig did it twice.

Stan “The Man” Musial remains the most iconic Cardinal (as Pujols readily admits), but he never had Pujols’ power (Musial stroked 475 home runs in 22 seasons, Pujols has hit 401 in ten), or his RBI potential — Musial had ten seasons of plus-100 RBIs, which Pujols has already equaled. But what Musial lacked in power he made up for in hits: he led the N.L. in hits in six seasons, Pujols has led his league once. Pujols’ power is Willie Mays’ power: Mays hit 40-plus home runs six times in 22 years, Pujols has done it five times in ten. Pujols’ strike out rate compares favorably with Henry Aaron’s and his power is similar. Aaron hit 30-plus home runs in 15 of his 22 seasons, a mark that Pujols could equal (with that important caveat — if he stays healthy) in five years. And Pujols hits for a higher average.

While feeding a comparison compulsion is a pastime for baseball fanatics, it has its rewards — it compels us to understand just how great the truly great were: Ted Williams led the majors in walks six times, Pujols has never done it once, though Pujols will undoubtedly eclipse Williams’ RBI totals. Then too, while pitchers fear Pujols, they were petrified by Williams (who led the A.L in walks eight times); that, or Williams had the better eye (or both). But Pujols (on the other hand) has a much better eye than Frank Robinson, who sported high OBPs — but absolutely hated to walk. Robinson won the MVP twice, Pujols has done it three times. Mel Ott (underrated and below-the-radar Mel Ott) was a horse, playing and playing and playing without injury year after year. Pujols will outhit Ott, but he’ll have to stay healthy to equal his total games mark. Oh, and Ott knew how to walk and (arguably) had a better eye at the plate. But just barely. And while Pujols does not have the power of Barry Bonds, he could add something (and this year) that Bonds never had — a Triple Crown.

So while Nats fans justly mourn the loss of a potentially great pitcher (and a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, no less), they might take modest solace that — at least when the St. Louis Cardinals visit D.C. — they can watch one of the very greatest players who ever played the game. Pujols is so good that he is not only drawing comparisons to Ruth and Gehrig and Musial and Williams (and maybe half-a-dozen others), he has already equaled or surpassed many of their more celebrated stats. Albert Pujols is already the Lou Gehrig of St. Louis and he already has Hall of Fame numbers — and he’s only getting started.

Tommy John . . . And Stephen Strasburg

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The player for whom Tommy John surgery is named was one of the smartest and tenacious pitchers to ever throw from a major league mound. Check the record: John pitched for 26 years, compiling a 288-231 record with a career 3.34 ERA and 162 complete games. He threw well (he led his league twice in winning percentage and three times in shutouts) and often brilliantly for four good teams: the White Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Yankees. It’s a shame, truly, that Tommy John is remembered best for the surgery that was performed, first, on him — after he “blew out his arm.” For while we credit medicine with inventing “Tommy John Surgery,” the procedure that repaired his arm was really his idea and was performed at his insistence by Dr. Frank Jobe. That fact is important, because most (and damn near all) pitchers before Tommy John who suffered from “forearm stiffness” or “a dead arm” (the names then given to symptoms that pointed to elbow ligament damage) simply left the game. Tommy John didn’t.

Baseball commentators (Peter Gammons, Steve Kurkjian and others), sports talk junkies (ESPN  980’s Tom Loverro and Rick “Doc” Walker) and Nationals’ fanatics (me and you and God knows who else) seem to have come to three conclusions about the news that Stephen Strasburg will have to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The first is that the Strasburg injury is “devastating” and potentially career ending, that the injury derails Nationals’ plans to contend in 2011 (or even 2012), and that the news reflects the fragility of modern pitchers — whose susceptibility to blowing out their pitching arm shows they aren’t as tough as “old school pitchers.” All three conclusions are false. And here’s why.

Okay, okay: the Strasburg news is “devastating” for Strasburg because it will keep him off the mound for 12 to 15 months; but the news is not fatal either to his career or to the long-term prospects of the Washington franchise. Others have had the surgery, many others, and have come back as good as new — or better. After having “Tommy John surgery,” Tommy John went on to win 164 games. A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Arthur Rhodes, Carl Pavano and Billy Wagner have all had the procedure and have come back — in some cases they actually pitched better after the surgery than before. Tommy John surgery does not simply repair a damaged ligament, it replaces it. The goal of the procedure is to make the arm stronger than it was before the surgery. And isn’t it an irony (or, if you prefer, isn’t it nauseating) that the Nationals got the news on Strasburg on the same day that Jordan Zimmermann returned to the mound 12 months after having his own Tommy John procedure — and was able to throw well and without pain.

Is the news “devastating” for the Nats? It would be crazy to argue that the Strasburg news will have no impact on the club. It will. There’s little doubt that the 2011 rotation will suffer without his presence. But to believe that Stan Kasten or Mike Rizzo (or Jim Riggleman), have stated that they are “stockpiling pitchers” because they just happen to love pitchers is perverse. They know. They know that a certain percentage of pitchers will blow a ligament, tear a cuff or strain an elbow — and somebody will have to come in to take their place. The Nats have plenty of young pitchers who want to be in the show, and while none of them have the talent of the phenom, the team is not without hope. Then too, the era of free agency ensures that, should a team lose its best talent to the D.L, it’s possible to sign a savvy and healthy veteran (like, well . . . Tommy John) who can revive a franchise’s fortune. In 1974, while Tommy John was rehabbing from the first-ever Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers finished in second place in the N.L West. But two years later (in 1977) the Dodgers won the pennant — because of Tommy John, who had his best year ever (20-7, 220 innings, 2.78 ERA). Tommy John’s injury was “devastating” for Tommy John, but not for the Dodgers — who did just fine without him. They did what all ball clubs do: they compensated.

Is the kind of injury that sidelined Tommy John — and that is now sidelining Stephen Strasburg — a new development? Does it somehow signal some kind of systemic problem with developing major league pitchers? Weren’t pitchers just “tougher” in past years, and aren’t “these kids” being coddled just a bit too much? This is complete nonsense. The reason that Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal (the two examples most prominently cited, because of the Spahn-Marichal marathon) were able to pitch as effectively as they did for as long as they did is not because they “sucked it up,” but because they never suffered career ending ligament damage. If they had (in the era before Tommy John surgery) their careers would have been over. They weren’t tough, they didn’t “suck it up” — they were lucky. High school baseball, football and basketball squads of the 1960s were littered with coaches whose damaged arms ended their careers. They didn’t refuse to tough it out: they were out of baseball because their arm was “dead.” The difference between then and now is not a difference in “character,” it’s that now we have Tommy John surgery — back then we didn’t.

The news on Strasburg is bad news. It’s very bad news. But Tommy John surgery is not a death sentence. Not even close. It’s an injury — and it will take time to heal. There will be months and months of rest, even before rehab. “The kid” is in for a long journey. But my bet is that he’ll return. Wouldn’t be nice for him to know that when he does — we’ll be there, cheering him on. It’s not time for Stephen Strasburg to suck it up, it’s time for Nats fans to suck it up.

Nats Pound Philadelphia, 8-1

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Led by the defense of Ian Desmond (who also had a 4-5 night) and the hitting of Roger Bernadina, the Washington Nationals pounded out 12 hits and eight runs on Saturday, to defeat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The offensive outburst came at the expense of Phillies’ starter Kyle Kendrick, who had trouble making it out of the first inning. Desmond looked like “the wizard” at short, making barehanded plays behind Strasburg, Stammen and Slaten, while Bernadina slugged his eighth home run (putting the game out of reach) in the ninth. But the win was marred by an injury to starter Stephen Strasburg, who was forced to leave the game in the 5th after suffering a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm; it’s not known how serious the injury is — an MRI will be conducted to determine the damage on Sunday. The injury detracted from one of the team’s most solid performances against the Phillies, who trail the Atlanta Braves for the N.L. East lead.

Once again, as was apparent in Atlanta, the Nationals’ bullpen proved key in the Philadelphia victory. After Strasburg departed, Craig Stammen, Doug Slaten, Tyler Clippard and Miguel Batista combined to shut down the Phillies — throwing 4.2 innings while giving up just two hits and no runs. Tyler Clippard was particularly effective. After suffering a fall-off in his performance in late July, the righthander has lowered his ERA to 3.04, solidifying his reputation as one of the National League’s premier set-up men. Stammen also seems to have found his place: the former starter is now filling a first-out-of-the-bullpen role, being used by skipper Riggleman when someone in the rotation collapses. Washington’s bullpen is now ranked seventh in the majors, and fourth in the National League — and is one of the real success stories of the Nationals’ season.

The Nats, Harper — and the Lerners

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.

But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.

It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.

But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium market  baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?

The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .

Nats Win Snakes’ Series

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 at Nationals Park on Sunday, taking two games of a three game series. The game marked the second return of Stephen Strasburg following his stint on the D.L., and “the kid” pitched well, despite giving up a home run to Adam LaRoche and making an errant throw to first baseman Adam Dunn. “I was talking to Stephen a little bit ago. He said that it is the best he felt,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman said, following the victory. “The ball was coming out of his hand good. Stras did a great job and gave us a chance to win.” The Nats trailed the D-Backs 3-1 into the bottom of the fourth, when slumping Josh Willingham shook loose from his doldrums and launched a pitch off of D-Backs starter Barry Enright to tie the game. The Nats won the game on a single by Ian Desmond, with Ryan Zimmerman providing an insurance homer. Typically, the Nats’ bullpen closed out their opponents, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen shutting down the Arizona order.

The Ghost of Kerry Wood: Nats’ fans at the ballpark on Sunday probably didn’t get a chance to see Strasburg’s frustration with being lifted after pitching just five innings, but “the kid” was clearly angered by the move. Strasburg, mouth set and eyes flashing, sat the bench after the end of the fifth inning fuming. At least that’s what the fans at home saw, with Strasburg’s irritation coming in waves through the camera lens. Nats pitching czar Steve McCatty intervened with an explanation, speaking with animation as Strasburg shook his head on the bench. This isn’t the first time that Strasburg has been angered, though he never mentions it in any post game interview. But if Strasburg is angry it’s only because he has a right to be. And he’s not the only one. Jim Riggleman’s reputation as a manager with an early hook is well-earned. He’s got a shepard’s staff as big as Little Bo Peep (oops … well, let’s go with this version) — the result of his time as the manager of the North Side Drama Queens, when he oversaw the 1998 rookie campaign of strikeout king Kerry Wood.

The ghost of Kerry Wood seems ever-present with Riggleman, who coached the Slugs when they were going somewhere and the young Wood was the talk of baseball. The problem was that Wood had a raw elbow, with his ligaments tearing and bleeding everytime he threw. And in 1998, after a stint in the minors when he rarely threw even close to 100 pitches, Wood was carrying the load for a contending team — and throwing 115 to 120 pitches per game. Eventually (after sitting out the ’99 season with surgery, and pitching just so-so over the next three years), the elbow blew itself out for good and Wood, with successive stints in rehab, became a reliever. It was a loss, for Kerry Wood might have been, perhaps could have been (and maybe even should have been), one of the best starters in the game.

Riggleman, Wood’s skipper, blames himself. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently,” he told the Washington Post back in March. “And we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, ‘C’mon, Riggs, leave him in.'” Wood disagrees: the ripping in his elbow had been happening for several years (he says) and it was bound to explode at some point. It was inevitable. “My elbow was going to go,” Wood told the Post. “If it didn’t go with [Riggleman] it would’ve gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time.”

Which is only to say that there’s a good reason why Jim Riggleman is as careful with Stephen Strasburg as he is. But Riggleman’s decision today — to sit Strasburg after the 5th — struck many fans as overly careful. After all, pitchers strain their arm, or throw out their shoulder, all the time. And not simply because they throw a lot of baseballs, or have a predisposition, or because they’re not on a pitch count. Pitchers blow out their arms because they’re pitchers. Wood understood this: in the end it didn’t matter how many pitches he threw, his “elbow was going to go” anyway. “It was a matter of time.” This is not an argument for having Rizzo, Riggleman & Company allow Strasburg to throw 110 to 120 pitches each and every game. It’s an argument for perspective and practicality — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher, not a piece of fine China.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a recognition that Washington Nationals fans aren’t going to show up at the park on Half Street to watch “the kid” throw 70 pitches over five innings — especially when it’s clear that (as happened on Sunday), he’s just starting to hit his stride.

Fish Wrap

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

The Washington Nationals loss to the Florida Marlins on Tuesday was yet another example of the Nats’ good-news-bad-news season. The good news is that Stephen Strasburg is healthy, the bad news is that the Florida Marlins roughed up “the kid” — who lasted just 4.1 innings in his worst outing of the year. If that comment seems unfair, it’s only because it is: while Nats fans have expected a stellar outing whenever Strasburg steps on the mound, the simple truth is that any old 22-year-old phenom can get hit, as can any Hall of Famer or Cy Young winner. Strasburg is not the only very good pitcher who, after trying out his best stuff, finds himself tramping to the dugout. That said, there are reasons for Strasburg’s indifferent outing on Tuesday. Reasons. Not excuses.

Strasburg had not pitched in three weeks and, in the wake of his activation from the D.L. was not given the luxury of a rehab start in Triple-A. It was Strasburg who said it best: “Everybody is human. They are going to have these days sooner or later,” he said after the game. “I’m a little disappointed in myself, because I really went out there not focusing on the one thing that you really have to focus on: Just going out there and competing, and going with what you had. I spent the whole time worrying about trying to fix what was going wrong instead of just letting it go — just throwing the ball.”

And credit the Marlins. If Hanley Ramirez were to spend his career playing only the Nationals he’d be the next Stan Musial, while Dan Uggla hit the pitches he wanted (mostly up-in-the-zone fastballs that went wicked fahhh). The barrage, when coupled with 6.2 innings from a tough Anibal Sanchez and nearly spotless Fish relief spelled the difference. Oh, and the failure of Nationals’ hitters to take advantage of the few chances they had to score runs. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is Josh Willingham’s continued drought, a slump that has now reached epic proportions. Willingham was 0-3 with a strikeout; his down-the-drain average is at .262, his power numbers plunging. The slump hasn’t really lasted all that long — only since June.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: You’d have to be an insensitive lout to not be overtaken by the emotion of Andre Dawson’s appearance at Nationals Park on Tuesday. The former Expos great teared up during his induction into the newly inaugurated Ring Of Honor — as good an idea as the Nationals front office has had since the hiring of Mike Rizzo. Dawson was joined by former Expos catcher Gary Carter, who told MASN broadcasters Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble that he was honored by his name being included, but that the night was “really about Andre.” The Ring of Honor celebrates Hall of Fame inductees who played for the Montreal Expos (the home franchise team of the Nationals), the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays of the old Negro League, who played their games in D.C. for many years. Those honored include Dawson, Carter, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Walter Johnson and Harmon Killebrew. You have to have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame to be considered — hence the non-inclusion (alas) of Washington Senators’ first baseman Mickey Vernon, perhaps the most deserving veteran who has not yet been voted into the shrine. So change the rules: Mickey’s name belongs on that ring.

Auctions and Auditions

Friday, August 6th, 2010

It is that time of year, when contending teams stock up for a final run to the flag and non-contenders send unsubtle signals to their players about their plans for the future. In Kansas City (for instance), the Royals designated Jose Guillen for assignment and signaled that they would be open to dealing him to a contending N.L. team, perhaps the San Francisco Giants. The message couldn’t be plainer: after their three year $36 million splurge on Guillen, the Royals are calling it quits on the outfielder, who’s on the brink of free agency. And if the Royals can’t find a taker? Well, Guillen is free to find work elsewhere. Guillen isn’t the only one on the hot seat. In Florida, Cody Ross is getting unmistakable signs that he’s not in the team’s future plans, while in Chicago, baseball yakkers say that Kosuke Fukudome is so unwanted that the Cubs will not only ship him out to a team that wants him, but will pay a large part of his remaining salary if only he will go elsewhere.

The Washington Nationals are sending signals of their own. On Thursday, the Nats placed Nyjer Morgan on the 15-day disabled list. The Nats’ center fielder wasn’t pleased: “”It [freaking] sucks,” Morgan said. “I feel fine. But, whatever.” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman ignored the comment, putting his best this-is-really-terrible face on the move. “I hope it’s just two weeks,” he said. It seems likely that Morgan, despite his protest, gets it; he might “feel fine,” but the Nats don’t. By putting Roger Bernadina (.277, 8 HRs) in center and Michael Morse (.330, 7 HRs), in right, the Nats are auditioning their 2011 outfield: which would be younger and more potent– a good outfield, sans Morgan. The same kind of a signal was sent by Riggleman to Jason Marquis, who was recently reactivated and is set to pitch in Los Angeles on Sunday. After a season of elbow woes (and surgery to remove bone chips), Mike Rizzo & Company would love to include Marquis in their future plans. But whether Marquis is around for 2011 is an open question. He wants to contribute,” Riggleman said. “If he’s the real Jason Marquis, the guy who is sinking the ball and getting ground balls and attacking hitters, he can really help us and be a part of our future.” And if not?

After splitting their four game series with the woeful D-Backs in Phoenix, the Nats are 14.5 games back in the N.L. East. While there’s no chance that they’ll contend for a playoff spot, the rest of the season is hardly a wash: the team will spend the rest of the current campaign auctioning and auditioning — the Morgan-to-the-D.L. move is just the beginning. And based on what the Nats are doing now, you have to believe the future is bright. While the team cannot overtake the Chops or Ponies, the underfunded and disappointing Fish and the New York Palookas are within striking distance. If the Marlins (losers of four straight) have a plan (except for stockpiling young arms), we can’t find it, while the listless New York Tailspins are beset by “anxiety” and regularly “mailing it in.” For the first time in three years, the Nationals have nowhere near the same set of problems. The team has moved younger and better hitters (Bernadina and Morse) into key spots and are days away from a series of “you’re going to Hollywood” bookings that will start with Marquis and continue with appearances by Jordan Zimmermann (below), Yunesky Maya, Wilson Ramos and (even) Danny Espinosa. Which is not even to mention the continuing American Idol-like tour of “the kid” — who is now slated to start against the Marlins on Tuesday. The news is good for Nats fans: a team that was so filled with hope in April will be filled with even more hope come September.

Not A Dunn Deal

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The best move the Washington Nationals made before the trading deadline was the one they didn’t. As the witching hour struck 4:00 pm, the Nationals front office didn’t budge — and thereby decided that keeping a fan-popular 35-to-40 home runs per year hitter in D.C. was better than moving him to Chicago for a sometimes-very-good and sometimes just so-so righthander. The news that Adam Dunn was staying in D.C. began to circulate 60 minutes before the deadline, with a variety of sports reporters (including SI’s Jayson Stark) saying that Dunn was staying put. Even so, there seems little doubt there was a last minute attempt to land the Nats bopper: the Pale Hose dangled newly acquired righty Edwin Jackson (the Nats wanted Jackson and prospects), while the Giants inquired about Dunn but thought the price (Jonathan Sanchez) was too steep.

Nationals’ G.M. Mike Rizzo was always hesitant to deal Dunn, the centerpiece of a formidable 3-4-5 line-up that features Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. Even talk of trading Dunn caused consternation, with Zimmerman saying flatly that it would be a mistake to break-up the trio. Apparently team president Stan Kasten agreed. According to the MLB Network, Kasten (a Dunn partisan) met privately with the first baseman on Friday night to reassure the slugger that the Nats were doing everything they could to retain him. One of MLBN’s commentators described Kasten as “tearful” during his one-on-one talk with Dunn. Over at Nationals Daily News, Mike Henderson quotes Mike Rizzo as saying that the Nats “never got a deal that we thought was equal or greater value to Adam Dunn.” Good. There arn’t many every day major leaguers who can hit 35 to 45 home runs each year.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We here at CFG always attempt to respond to the flood of correspondence we receive from our dedicated readers. A recent missive upbraided us for our lack of coverage on the before game problems of what’s-his-name. “Dear editor:  Three days later, how could CFG not write a single word about the biggest Nats story of the year — Stephen SoreArm?  Are you and your staff covering the team or not?  At least offer a little commentary, or insight, or historical perspective on similar injuries . . . If nothing else, think about your foreign readers and their need-to-know…….. Sincerely, A concerned reader.” Hmmm. Point taken.

Okay, so here goes: we stayed away from “the kid’s” arm issue because, honestly, we don’t have a damn thing to add to what is already being said. Except that, oh yeah, we are attempting to sort through two conflicting views: that with a $15 million investment it’s hard to blame the Nats front office for playing it safe and (second), having said that we know that the very best way to protect “Stephen SoreArm” is not to pitch him at all. Put another way, we couldn’t decide between “phew, good move” and “oh c’mon.” Mmmmmm: whaddawegonnado? There’s an idea abroad in the land of baseball that today’s pitchers just aren’t as tough as the old codgers who used to pitch complete games and go entire careers without a complaint. The Warren Spahn-Juan Marichal game is cited as an example of this toughness.

But polemicists for this viewpoint fail to add that the era before rotator cuff surgery and bone chip removal is littered with the bodies of young hurlers who blew out their arms and had no recourse to bone marrow scoops or ligament replacement surgery. We here at CFG know one, for sure — who (designated as a power arm in the Kansas City A’s  rotation of 1959) blew out his arm and ended up coaching high school football. He had no choice. The reason we didn’t hear much about arm trouble in the good old days is that once you had arm trouble you had two choices — you could wait it out, or you could quit. Most times, you were simply finished. Which is to say: arm toughness isn’t the rule, it’s the exception and if there’s anything that can be done to save a young pitcher’s young arm early in his career, why then that ought to be done. The Nats are doing that and will continue to do that. But with this caveat: while the Nats have made an investment in Stephen Strasburg, they’ve also made an investment in winning baseball in D.C. Weighing the two is the challenge.

Willingham’s Gapper Lands Fish

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Josh Willingham’s sixth inning double into the gap in right center field scored three and the Washington Nationals went on to shut out the Florida Marlins, 4-0 on Saturday night in Miami. Starter Stephen Strasburg notched the win with six complete innings of four hit ball. Strasburg struggled in the first two innings of the game (attempting to pinpoint his uncooperative fastball) before settling down and registering seven strikeouts. Willingham’s gapper scored Nyjer Morgan, Cristian Guzman and Adam Dunn — accounting for three of the Nats’ four runs. Dunn just barely beat the throw home to account for the Nats third run. Nats reliever Drew Storen kept the Marlins at bay in the 7th and 8th innings, while Matt Capps closed out the game in the 9th. This was the team’s first shutout since the Nats subdued the Dodgers on April 25, 1-0.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We must be getting close to the trading deadline. Ray Knight subbed for Rob Dibble in the MASN booth and immediately focused his attention on the top of the Nats’ order — noting the poor on base percentages of Nats leadoff man Nyjer Morgan (.313) and number two hitter Cristian Guzman (.342). Knight mentioned the lack of production in the number one and two spots no less than four times during the game; at one point Knight went on at length about the poor OBP performance of the Morgan-Guzman tandem while a MASN camera lingered on the two in the dugout. In the 9th, when Alberto Gonzalez replaced Guzman at second, Knight pointedly gave his opinion of the shift: “Gonzalez is the best defensive infielder on the team after Zimmerman,” he said. As if to celebrate this notice, Gonzalez registered the third out with a circus snag of a hot up-the-middle grounder to end the game . . .

Jim Riggleman was in a semi-permanent snit during the Nats 4-0 win against the Marlins, the apparent result of missed signs, missed bunts and indifferent fielding. His patience might be running out — a sure sign that changes are in the offing. But what kind of changes? Moving Guzman will be difficult (he’s a 10-5 player, so can veto a trade) and he’s owed a chunk of money. And it’s not clear that the Nats are sold on Gonzalez at second — Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson sure isn’t: “I will tell you that Gonzalez is not the answer,” he wrote in a recent column. “He was given a chance last year and didn’t do a good job. He stopped hitting and wasn’t very good defensively. I think he is a very good utility player. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel about Gonzalez.”

The CFG team doesn’t agree even a little bit with Ladson, but there are a lot of people who do: Gonzalez was the target of widespread fan grumbling during the ’09 campaign and only really started to hit in September, when it was too late. And while Gonzalez is good defensively (or even very good), he’s not a top-of-the-order guy (his OBP stands at .333, about the same as Guzman’s). Of course, none of that may matter now: the Nats are the poorest defensive team in the NL and the front office is desperate to find a way to stop the bleeding. Guzman is popular and when he could have sulked in April (when Ian Desmond replaced him at short), he sucked it up and dedicated himself to team play. Even so, Rizzo-Riggleman & Company have to do something and, since they’re not going to sit Desmond (and why should they?), Alberto’s time may have come. It’s overdue.

Alberto Gonzalez #12 of the Washington Nationals hits a two run RBI against the Florida Marlins during their MLB game on August 6, 2009 at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Nats Struggling At The Break

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Just  two games ago it was possible to think good things about the Nats. They had taken two of three from a very tough San Diego team and grabbed an easy first game in a three game set against the Giants. And the Nats were beginning to hit. The toughest teams of the west seemed suddenly vulnerable to a line-up filled with a hot home run hitter (in Adam Dunn), a suddenly tough pitching staff (headlined by Stephen Strasburg) and a revived bullpen (with solid arms Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps). But successive losses — one in which the bullpen collapsed and another in which steady Livan Hernandez was anything but — have put a cloud over the Nats’ first half and sparked continued speculation about whether the team will make major moves as the trading deadline approaches. Even Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman, ever the optimist, seemed puzzled (we just have to find a way to play better, he said after the second loss to the McCoveys), while Mike Rizzo evinced some disappointment: “I think we have underachieved a little bit, and I don’t think we played as good as I think we can. I’m looking forward to a better second half.”

While successive losses to the Giants ended the symbolic first half of the season on a low note, the team’s improvement has been undeniable: Stephan Strasburg has arrived (and he’s here to stay), Adam Dunn has emerged as a team and fan favorite (with unacknowledged defensive improvements at first base), the team remains relatively healthy (the notable exceptions being Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis), the bullpen has been sure and steady (in spite of the recent setbacks), Ian Desmond has proven he can hit major league pitching (okay, he’ll need to field major league hitting), and (surprise, surprise) Roger Bernadina has shown he can play with the big guys. There are disappointments — Nyjer Morgan has not been the spark plug he was last year, the team remains unaccountably soft on defense and no single starter has emerged to complement Strasburg and Hernandez. Oh, and the team is in last place in the NL East.

Amidst the talk of trades (Dunn for whomever, prospects and a bat for Haren, a pocket of maybes for a middling arm) — and front office prayers for the return of someone, somehow (Marquis in July, Zimmermann in August, Olsen sometime) — it’s hard to know just what would vault the team into contention. Magic wands seem out of reach and blockbusters rarely happen to teams whose farm system is still so-so. Mike Rizzo might be willing to swap three or four of the system’s top prospects, but none of them seem major league ready. They’d be here if they were. And there’s this: while Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham seem a fine 3-4-5 combination and are good friends to boot (and no one but no one wants to see them broken up), it’s hard to defend a combo that, for all it’s power, fails to plant a stake in the heart of an on-the-ropes Jonathan Sanchez or a wet-behind-the-curve newbie like Madison Bumgarner. Mike Rizzo says that he is looking forward to a better second half. So are we. But contending is another major bat and another good starter (and, truth be told, at least another half season) away.