Archive for the ‘trades’ Category

Birds Of Prey vs. Crippled Sparrows

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

If there were ever any doubts that starting pitching makes a huge difference in a team’s success, that doubt was put to rest during Washington’s recent three game visit to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Phillies “book-ended” the Nats by throwing two of baseball’s best starting pitchers against them, and taking two of three games from the still struggling Anacostia Nine. The one Nats win might have been predicted, as it came against Phillies’ hurler Kyle Kendrick (a young high-ERA righty who is still learning his trade), while the Nats’ losses came against two of the game’s best starters: Roy “Doc” Halladay (in a 1-0 squeaker on Friday) and Roy Oswalt — in a 6-0 blowout on Sunday. The Nats might have won on Friday, with successive runners in scoring position, but Halladay was the difference — lowering his ERA to 2.16 in seven innings of steady if unspectacular work — but the issue was never in doubt on Sunday, when Roy Oswalt sliced and diced the Nats line-up through seven innings of brilliant work.

And the Chicago Cubs? (If you have the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might consider putting it on now.)

The Chicago Cubs are an entirely different story. The North Side Drama Queens, who open a series against the Nationals on Half Street on Monday night, have no one to compare with either Halladay or Oswalt — and the standings show it. The rotation that carried the Cubs into the post-season in 2008 is now past its prime, and the Chicago front office knows it. The once effective Carlos Zambrano (14-6 in 2008) is battling his anger as much as opposing batters, Ted Lilly has been shipped off to L.A. for a passel of minor league wannabes, Jason Marquis was rendered to Colorado (and then signed as a free agent here in D.C.), and Rich Harden (beset by arm problems) is struggling in Texas. The only appendage of note belongs to Ryan Dempster who, now into his mid-30s, is the staff “ace” — which means he’s won more than ten games. That Dempster stands out at all is due more to his rotation mates: a gaggle of Fisher-Price kids who look like they’d be more comfortable on the dance floor of the 9:30 Club than on the mound in Wrigleyville.

Chicago’s one young hurler of note is Randy Wells, a surprise-surprise arm who was drafted by the Slugs as a catcher in the 38th round of the 2002 amateur draft. Wells came to the show in 2009 as a fill-in for the then-injured Zambrano and pitched himself into a regular spot in the Chicago rotation — yielding a jaw-dropping 12-10 record. Tom Gorzelanny is the Cubs’ lefty, a former Buc who has had his tires recapped in Chicago after one good year in Pittsburgh. Gorzelanny “has battled injuries and inconsistency” — a Zen-like phrase for Cubs fans. Dempster, Wells and Gorzelanny are hardly the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance of the future Chicago rotation, but the Cubs have high hopes for rookie Casey Coleman, a young righty whose grandfather (Joe) and father (Joe) were both major leaguers. But let’s not get all gooey: Coleman (who will pitch against the Nationals tonight) is not only untried and untested, he’s been lit-up in the 12 innings he’s pitched.

That leaves Thomas Diamond, a former Texas Ranger fast-track product sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in 2007 (at least he’s gotten that out of the way), who’s “all up-side,” which means he doesn’t have a clue. The bottom line? While there’s no guarantee the Nats will have an easier time against the Cubs than they did against the Phillies, there will be no Halladay or Oswalt trooping to the mound to face them. The Phillies have built an elite staff. They are birds of prey. And the Cubs? The Cubs are crippled sparrows — they’re starting over.

Photos: Roy Oswalt (AP/H. Rumph Jr). Randy Wells (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Nats Defeat Lowe (Again)

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Atlanta Braves hurler Derek Lowe is puzzled: while the Braves sometime ace remains an effective starter against much of the National League (even while sporting a so-so 11-11 record), he can’t seem to beat the Nats. The last time Lowe beat the Anacostia Nine was last August, but he’s been winless against the Nats Nine since, a record of futility that the imposing righthander (6-5, 230) has trouble squaring with Washington’s losing record. “I can’t remember the last time that I beat the Nationals,” Lowe said in the wake of the Tomahawks’ 6-2 loss to the Nationals on Thursday. “They’ve given me a rough time.” But it was not so much Lowe’s pitching (seven innings with 6 hits), as it was a combination of the pitching from Washington starter John Lannan (who went a strong 5.1) and a no-hits bullpen that caused the Braves fits. When coupled with big hits from Michael Morse and Willie Harris, the Nats looked unstoppable, picking up a much-needed win (that’s number 52 on the season). The Nats now head into Philadelphia, where they’ll face the red-hot Ashburns.

The Quicker Picker Upper: The inevitable has happened in Chicago, with Cubs’ General Manager Jim Hendry cleaning out the stables of the sinking-like-a-stone North Side Drama Queens. The trade of the ever-popular Ryan Theriot and Ted Lilly (their most effective starter) to Los Angeles at the trade deadline was followed by the careless unloading of steady but unimpressive Mike Fontenot to the McCoveys. Now, in what can only be considered an official waving of the white flag, the Cubs have unloaded their most productive, good-glove-and-bat first baseman Derrek Lee, who went to the Braves for three maybes. The successive trades mark a generational shift in the future of the Cubs, as the front office has apparently decided that Theriot-Lilly-Fontenot-Lee powerhouse of just a few years ago has gotten too old and too mediocre to bring a pennant (or World Series championship) to the Windy City. The issue is not whether the trades should have been made, but why they weren’t made earlier. “None of us thought this was going to happen this year. We really didn’t,” Hendry said in annoucing the trade of Lee. ”It will be good for (Lee) and from that regard, I’m happy for him. But the overall situation we’re in kind of makes us all stumble between miserable and sad every day.”

Miserable? Sad? The Cubs just dropped four straight to the Padres and are a worse team than the Nats — much worse. So while Cubs fans might have been expected to be marching on Wrigley in protest at Lee’s departure, the Cubs blogosphere has viewed the trade as inevitable — and necessary. Al Yellon over at Bleed Cubbie Blue probably said it best, mixing respect for Lee with a sighing confirmation that the Cubs’ future did not include the impressive first baseman. “I salute D-Lee for his classy demeanor on and off the field,” Yellon wrote. “Some here complain that he wasn’t demonstrative enough on the field and though he was seen as a team leader, many wanted him to ‘show it’ more, though I’m not quite sure how you do that.” While Cubs fans remain oddly contemplative (there’s usually lynching parties at this point) the scapegoating of Hendry (well, perhaps for good reason) and the coaching staff has begun.

That’s probably unnecessary. The imminent departure of Lou Piniella is bound to be followed by the displacement of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, as the Ricketts’ family retools to a younger staff that reflects a younger team. Is there reason for hope? Yes. And no. The Cubs are able to field one of the game’s best young outfielders in Tyler Colvin and one of its best young shortstops in Starlin Castro. But the team’s starting pitching is a catastrophe — with few young phenoms coming up in the minors. Which is why Hendry is trading his front line for a few maybes, all of them arms. Which means that the Cubs new rotation and bullpen (with some exceptions) is now filled with a gaggle of no-names, like Thomas Diamond, Justin Berg, Mitch Atkins, Marcos Mateo and James Russell — each of these guys with (as they say) “a tremendous upside.” Roughly translation: we might, or might not, ever hear of them again.

Snakes: Bitten

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

On Monday night in Phoenix, Livan Hernandez showed once again why he remains the acknowledged ace of the Washington Nationals staff. In  7.1 innings of solid in-and-out and up-and-down pitching, Hernandez surrendered just five hits to his former teammates in Arizona and the Nationals notched a much-needed road win 3-1. “[Hernandez] was outstanding,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the win. “I hated that last walk he had, because I was going to let him finish that inning and maybe finish the ballgame. When he’s throwing like that, hitting spots and keeping hitters off balance, it is one of those nights where he can go nine [innings].” Livan’s performance was matched by Nats’ catcher Ivan Rodriguez, whose second inning dinger was his 300th as a catcher. Sean Burnett closed the game, striking out two of the D-Backs last five hitters.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: Sunday’s loss to the Phillies, a contest in which the Nats might have notched a sweep against their I-95 competitors, was emotionally churning, in large part because of the flood of Phillies fans — in town to cheer on their favorites. The tide of Pony partisans left Nats’ fans as embittered on Sunday as they had been at the end of Opening Day. “These people ought to stay the f — home,” a Curly W supporter muttered in the 6th inning. “This is sickening, not necessary,” another said. “Are we required to sell these people tickets?” But unlike Opening Day, the Nats apparently had it all figured out: MASN broadcaster Bob Carpenter kept talking about the “growing rivalry” between the clubs, as if to protect that Nats front office from the decision to fill the seats — no matter what.”It’ll be a rivalry when we put 20,000 fans in PNC Park,” a Nats fan growled, “and not until.” Cooler heads did not prevail: “It’ll turn around,” a Nats fan opined, and was answered by a glum rooter in one of the forward rows. “Yeah, it’ll turn around,” he said, “when the Nats get into the post-season.” There were also mutterings when a fan arrived late, proudly sporting a new Donovan McNabb jersey: “Wrong jersey, wrong ballpark, wrong team, wrong sport . . .”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The exchange on the health of “the kid” between CFG and one of our readers has become a torrent. Here’s the latest: “Dear editor: Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful response. Since that give-and-take worked so well, one further suggestion if I might: as the days pass with Saint Stephen on the sideline (now hopefully on the mend), could CFG please regularly update his physical and mental condition as warranted — including any medical info/predictions and gossip picked up from the various sources/websites perused constantly by CFG’s staff.  Many of your readers don’t always have the time to collect this valuable information — and rely on you to provide it. Please don’t lose track of the essential truth of this situation:  the fate of his sore arm is the big story of this franchise . . . Sincerely, An appreciative reader . . .”

Well, well, well. This is right in our wheelhouse. And yet the head of our research staff (here he is, with a group of CFG interns) is feeling the pressure. “Yes, big boss, I jumps in it,” he said. “I leave no stone on ground.” Several hours later we had our answer: “I think Mister Stephen in Arizona, mmmmm … chance maybe not so good,” he said. “Maybe boy in L.A. pitch good. Maybe, maybe not. I dunno.” And then he puckered his lips and kissed his miniature giraffe . . .

The pride of the N.L. Central, the Phillies of the Midwest, the North Side Drama Queens are “sinking like a stone,” have “bought the baseball farm,” have “reached the bottom of the barrel.” There is no cliche perfect enough to describe the extinction level event that has become your Chicago Cubs. Think it can’t get worse? It can, because it has. The Wrigley’s have now lost six in a row, and it hasn’t been pretty. The North Siders dropped what might have passed for a softball exhibition game to the Brew Crew last night by a score of 18-1. Repeat after me: 18-1. You can expect some of those kinds of games (where nothing in the world goes right), but the Cubs play them regularly, with aplomb and with no apparent loss of sleep. Over the last six games, the Cubs have been outscored 63-17.

The cataclysm has Cubs’ fans in an uproar. And the promised makeover might be years, not months, away — the Baby Bears are stuck with huge contracts to a number of perennial head cases (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano) and, as of July 31, were only able to rid themselves of their two best players. Way to go Jim, nice job. When in doubt, get rid of those keeping you afloat. This just in: after thinking about it for less than a milisecond, Ryan Theriot told a reporter (stop the presses) that he likes being in L.A. Really? No kidding. Worse yet: this team went nova entirely on its own; this has nothing to do with fan interference in foul ground. It’s their own damn fault, as even the most diehard Wrigleyville partisans will now admit. It’s a sad and sorry story, but (like a car wreck) you can’t avert your eyes. In a strange (and sick) kind of way, it’s almost fun to watch. Unless you’re Lou.

Praising Arizona

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Once upon a time, and not so terribly long ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the class of the National League. And for good reason — the Snakes had the best pitching staff in baseball (anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), a quality innings eater with a history of winning (former Fish Livan Hernandez) a group of fast, punch-and-judy hitters (Orlando Hudson and Stephen Drew), a classic high strikeouts player with punch and panache (Mark Reynolds) and a faster-than-spit closer (Jose Valverde) who was the envy of major league baseball. Plus (plus!), the D-Backs had a solid philosophy of winning, based on the foundation that had brought them a World Series Championship in 2001: the club would focus on pitching, pitching, pitching (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling anchored the staff in ’01), and build a strong farm system based on development and scouting. But those days are gone. The Diamondbacks of 2010 are 23 games back of the Friars and the face of the franchise, savvy righty Dan Haren, is living in Los Angeles. So what happened?

Injuries happened — and overspending. Brandon Webb hasn’t pitched in forever and is still attempting to recover from shoulder surgery (his arm still hurts, but he’s agreed to pitch out of the bullpen), Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton have been on-and-off the DL with a series of nagging everyday bumps and bruises, D-Backs President Derrick Hall and Interim General Manager Jerry DiPoto are still living with the effects of their predecessors’ decision to hand Showboat Eric Byrnes a three year $30 million paycheck — one of the worst contract decisions made in D-Backs history — and the farm system was plundered for short term satisfaction and is devoid of any perceivable talent. Worse yet, the once can’t-get-enough-of-baseball Phoenix fanbase has been dribbling away, making a $75 million player payroll untenable. The result has been a classic baseball fire sale, albeit one that began long before the trading deadline, and had nothing to do with players. Manager A.J. Hinch was tossed on the scrapheap on the night of July 1 and G.M. Josh Byrnes was disposed of 24 hours later. The firings signaled the beginning of a trend: the Diamondbacks wouldn’t just be sellers at the trading deadline (and before), they were dedicated to taking the team apart and starting over.

You can hardly blame Arizona fans for being skeptical. The current DiPoto salary dump looks as desperate as Byrnes’s decision to denude the D-Backs farm system two years ago — when Scott Hairston and Alberto Callaspo were shipped off for relief pitcher no-accounts (and Valverde’s salary was embarrassingly dumped) and Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez (a curse, now, on Arizona pitching — in Colorado) were shipped to Oakland to land Haren. Earlier this year Byrnes attempted to compensate for these sins by sending Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (a good swap by any standard), but the trade came way too late to silence the rising chorus of critics who noted that dumping young talent almost never works.

While skepticism about the Rattlers’ future is in order, Arizona fans can be thankful that their franchise’s tradition of trading for and developing young pitching seems to be intact. While DiPoto received good value for Haren (Joe Saunders is no slouch) and simply cast off catcher Chris Snyder for three below average players (one of whom, Ryan Church, I wouldn’t let in my outfield), his decision to buy Edwin Jackson a ticket to Chicago for Daniel Hudson (below, pitching against “the Kings of Queens”) is paying immediate dividends: the young righty (nearly a Nationals’ property, in a proposed trade for Adam Dunn), threw a gem against the Amazins, whose death spiral (“trades? sorry — we’ll play these”) is now nearly an established fact. Hudson looks like he’s in the Diamondbacks’ rotation to stay after throwing eight innings of three hit ball — a game that, by itself, is far better than any that Danny Haren threw all year. Sure, the Diamondbacks look like a mess and, yes, there’s likely to be more moves in Arizona in the offseason. But the arrival of Hudson, when coupled with the promise of a developing Ian Kennedy, holds hope for the future. In truth, the Diamondbacks of 2010 look now like the D-Backs of 1999. That team, an embarrassing but young mess, was just two years from a world championship.

Zim Corrals Ponies

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

After enduring the adventures of a shakey bullpen — which squandered a workmanlike outing from Nats starter Ross Detwiler — a Ryan Zimmerman blast in the bottom on the ninth inning propelled the Anacostia Nine to a nail-biting 7-5 walk-off win against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Zimmerman walk-off marked the seventh time “the face of the franchise” had provided the necessary difference in a key win, a major league leading mark that has baseball abuzz with talk of just how important the former Cavalier is to his team. The victim this time was Phillies’ reliever Brad Lidge, who entered the ninth inning at Nationals Park with a 5-4 lead and the game apparently well in-hand. “He has his moments,” Philllies’ manager Charlie Manuel said of Lidge in the wake of Zimmerman’s blast. That seemed an understatement: the legendary late-innings strikeout king (more than one per inning, on average) Lidge sports a 5.57 ERA and has given up 21 hits in 21 innings — never a good sign.

The blown save highlighted the challenge the Phillies face in their race to catch the Chops for the N.L. East crown. While Phillies’ fans (and the national media) are oohing and ahhing about the addition of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies are struggling to find some stability in the back of their bullpen. The search has become nearly interminable. The Pony bullpen is ranked 10th in the National League with a spiraling ERA and no, ah . . . relief in sight. Phils’ skipper Manuel is feeling the pressure, as evidenced by his testy answers to reporters’ questions about whether choosing to pitch Lidge over, say, Ryan Madson remains the team’s best option. “I hear you guys say that for two years,” Manuel said. “I hear this and that, this and that. What the hell? We try this guy. We try that guy. We try this guy. Then I hear you [complain] to me sometimes about their roles. ‘Guys don’t know their roles.’ I can go on all night now. Let’s just drop it right there.”

The Guzman Swap: Less than twenty-four hours after baseball’s July 31 trading deadline, the game’s pundits are weighing in on the deadline’s “winners” and “losers.” In this, at least, there seems to be a growing consensus. The Yankees (with the addition of Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood), Padres (who signed up a needed bat in Ryan Ludwick) and Rangers (who snagged Cliff Lee, Jorge Cantu and Cristian Guzman) were the winners, while the Red Sox, Tigers and Giants (who did little — or nothing) were the losers. The judgments sound about right, but only if you are attempting to calculate what moves would put a team into the post-season. Garnering less attention are those teams (like the Nats) that traded over-welcome veterans to pursue longer term strategies. In fact, it’s possible to argue that in terms of value-for-value (and in terms of strengthening a franchise), the Nats can claim to be one of baseball’s trade deadline winners. Not only did the Nationals hang onto fan favorite Adam Dunn (true: it remains to be seen whether he can be signed long-term), they obtained a needed catcher of the future in Twinkie catching phenom Wilson Ramos.

An even stronger case for a Nats “win” can be made in a cursory study of Mike “the Don” Rizzo’s decision to swap team holdover Cristian Guzman for two minor league Texas Rangers’ pitchers. While Baseball Tonight and MLBN’s late night pundits cite Guzman’s incontestable value for a surging Rangers’ squad (Guzzie made a nearly spectacular play in last night’s Rangers’ triumph over the limping Belinskys), the acquisition of Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark, two semi-spectacular speedballers from the Rangers AA affiliate in Frisco of the AA Texas League, can be counted as solid additions. Tatusko and Roark are keepers and, if their current arc is any indication, could be stalwarts in a Nats starting rotation in 2012 — or even earlier. Both Tatusko and Roark are rough cuts (young, but built for baseball), who were drafted by the Nolan Ryan-driven Rangers vision, which rewards fastballs, control and endurance. Ryan Tatusko’s fastball is 91-95 on the gun, while Tanner Roark is a strike-em-out fastballer who rarely gives up walks. Tatusko has been back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen at Frisco, but he could go either way, while Tanner is a straight starter, albeit with a history of posting higher-than-we-would-like ERAs.

There’s a growing handful of commentators who pooh-pooh the acquisitions. The genetically anti-Nats blog Bleacher Report views the two as “fringe” pitchers, plowing away through the minors, while the predictably smug SB Nation mouthes a “me too, me too” judgment. Call to the Pen’s views are far more credible. CTTB projects both Tatusko and Roark as likely to get good looks at Triple-A before any possible stint in the majors (perhaps a year away), and opines that both have plus (but not plus-plus) upsides: “The Nationals made a solid trade here.” Then too, both Tatusko and Roark have stellar records, even for the Texas League. Tatusko is 9-2 with a 2.97 ERA at Frisco while Roark is10-5 with 75 strikeouts. It’s hard to imagine the Ryan-led Rangers would draft just anybody to make a walk to the mound, or that Mike Rizzo would swap-and-pay Cristian Guzman to travel to Dallas in exchange for anyone he believes is a “fringe” prospect. And we all know: if past performance is the best guide to future production, David Clyde would be in the Hall of Fame and Gregory Alan Maddux would be coaching the junior varsity baseball squad in San Angelo, Texas.

tatuskor08.jpg Ryan Tatusko image slucas66

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.

Duck Duck Goose

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I thought it only appropriate that “the loyal opposition” should return at precisely the moment that my first date in Washington (here she is, and take a good look) arrived for our lovely evening. And if by “lovely evening” you mean watching the Washington Nationals and turning their victory into fake reporting then you’re right: but I have no choice but to do this in my current state. This CFG thing, this new-wave-inter-net “we’re down with the twitter blog,” is struggling, really struggling, so I just know that most of this blog’s readership revolves around my pen. And for the benefit of you all, here finally is a picture of me . . .

Tonight Roy Oswalt was out for a stroll with his new team –11 million dollars in tow — when, out of the blue: it’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . no, no, no — it’s the most interesting man in the world. Nyjer Morgan!  Nyjer who? In his first at bat, Morgan hit the ball 400 feet into the center-right gap, flipped off his helmet as he sped around second base, and went totally horizontal, belly first, into third. Nyjer Morgan? It was like watching lightning strike on a clear day. Former Astro Oswalt was so confused by the entire thing he had to pay someone to tell him who it was that just did that to him. “What the hell is going on! Who is that guy on third?” It’s Nyjer Morgan, channeling Ricky Henderson. “Naw, can’t be.”

Morgan wasn’t the only Nats superhero “lifting tall buildings” on Friday night. Adam Kennedy arrived in the clubhouse before the Phillies game to find Cristian Guzman’s assistant sitting (morose and weeping) in the Nationals’ locker room. Kennedy got the message — in the first inning (and with “Rickey” Morgan on third) he hit the ball hard enough to the right side (just as he was instructed) to allow Morgan to lope across the plate: Nats 1, Phillies 0. Oswalt was even more confused — “what the  . . .” But “The Miracle on Half Street” continued. Roger Bernadina began his night by gunning out a sprinting Oswalt at first. Oh, and Craig Stammen was lights out: hitting spots, keeping his pitch count low and quietly sauntering from the mound, as if he was Greg Maddux. Oswalt wasn’t the only one surprised. As I sat watching this team’s Friday night tidal wave I could only repeat Oswalt’s words — “Who the hell are these guys . . .”

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been watching this team with vigor, knowing that on a good day they’re only mediocre. It’s a self-inflicted baseball passion. They lallygag, throw the ball over the dugout, crash into each other, slam into outfield walls, miss the cutoff man — and their “phenom” pitcher can’t go past the All Star break. It’s fantastic fun. I expected the same on Friday against the Citizens Bank Bullies. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Nats showed up to play and made glue of the Ponies, embarrassing Oswalt and frustrating Rollins and Howard and the rest of them. So . . .  what happened? The answer is obvious: Mike Rizzo is a psycho. The proof is this photo of Rizzo sitting in Jim Riggleman’s office as players arrived for Friday’s game.

More specifically, on Friday afternoon (just hours before Miss Iowa and the Phillies showed up in Washington), Mike Rizzo decided he’d had enough of his team’s mediocre performance, and that it was time to play “duck, duck, goose.” In “Rizzo Land” the game is not as simple as it was when I was a kid, but it’s the same concept: you line up the players (in any old order) and you raise your right hand and go down the line — “in, in, traded . . . in, in, traded . . .” You only change your tune when you get to Morgan: “in, in . . . and if you don’t hit a triple Morgan, I swear to God you’ll be spending August in Oakland.” Message received. The only player not really frightened by this show of Rizzo passion was Ryan Zimmerman . . . and “the kid.” Even Adam Dunn was included. As for the rest of them. Well, we might have seen the fear in Morgan’s eyes: Rizzo’s antics was placing his bobblehead night in jeopardy. Rizzo didn’t care: “do something Nyjer, or I swear we’ll woodchip those things.”

The Mike “Corleone” Rizzo, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is more than just a cute kids’ game — it’s like rendering someone to Burma for “questioning.” It’s more like playing in the Olympics for Iraq. Okay, I admit. It could be that the appearance of Katie Conners helped to spark Friday night’s outbreak of unusual excellence, but I really doubt it. For as this mammoth publication goes to press, the Nationals are fast becoming a new team. And it’s because of their general manager. They’re getting better, a lot better, and they’re doing it quickly.

The word in baseball is that you can always get a closer and Rizzo showed that this week as he dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota. And you can always deal, at the very last minute, a slap-hitting veteran infielder for a handful of prospects, especially if the other team’s All Star second sacker ends up on the DL. As Cristian Guzman learned. Adam Dunn may be next: or maybe not. But the truth it, it doesn’t really matter. Mike Rizzo — the Washington Nationals’ true fearless leader — is playing “duck, duck, goose” in the clubhouse. And he’s made it clear to those who are staying with the team: “play hard and play hard now  – – – or you’ll be shaking your head somewhere else a year from now and wondering where it all went wrong.

“Prying” Adam Loose

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Adam Dunn hates to talk about trades, hates to even think about them. He’s made it clear — he’s happy in Washington and would like to stay with the Nationals. And Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo agrees: Adam is good for the team, good at the plate, good in the clubhouse and is a plus, plus, plus all the way around. But it’s hard to deny the rumors that the Chicago White Sox are bidding for Dunn and would love to bring him aboard, though at a price they dictate. Rizzo doesn’t deny this. He simply says that the Nationals must be overwhelmed by any offer, which could or would or might include Pale Hose second sacker Gordon Beckham and right fielder home run hitter Carlos Quentin. Or both. The White Sox have recoiled from this, knowing that Beckham is a long term talent and that Quentin is one of the guys that led their surge into contention in the A.L. Central. They would like Rizzo to focus, instead, on accepting a much more modest package that would, could or might include young righty Daniel Hudson (above) and heavy hitting youngster Dayan Viciedo.

There are problems here: Beckham is a young guy who would solve Washington’s problem at second base for years to come, but he’s having a lousy year at the plate (.237, 4 HRs), while Quentin, after a breakout year in 2009 (21 HRs., albeit without a MLB standard BA), is having trouble finding his groove (.244 BA, .344 OBP). But shifting away from Beckham or Quentin also presents problems. Daniel Hudson has a lot of promise, but it’s really only promise and while the young righty’s “upside” (gag) seems good, the Nats know all about “upside.” They need a proven pitcher (right now) who can fill the second (or third, if you count Livan) slot behind “the kid.” Hudson would look good in that spot, or he might end up being John Lannan’s roomy in Harrisburg. Mr. Dayan Perez Viciedo has his own set of challanges: he is a freeswinging Pablo Sandoval (or “kung fu house cat” as one of our readers opined) in the making. This guy couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of a boat. Well, okay — Viciedo is a good hitter and potentially a great hitter and when he does hit it it goes a long, long ways. Translation: Dayan can really hit the ball, but he strikes out a lot. Still . . . still. The simple and blunt truth is that the more that you study Hudson and Viciedo, the more tempting they become.

The White Sox end of this, at least according to Chicago Sun-Times baseball guru Mike Cowley, is that Rizzo is asking for way too much — he’s dangling Dunn like he’s Ryan Howard. The White Sox are hesitant. They’re willing to pay a good price for Dunn, but Chicago G.M. Kenny Williams is simply not willing to part with a package of top prospects and major pieces. He is countering with a package of minor leaguers (probably Hudson and Viciedo), that would keep Beckham and Quentin in Chicago. Pale Hose partisans apparently agree with this strategy, as does the White Sox clubhouse. Williams is just unwilling to trade away parts of a surging squad that has put together one of the more astonishing June and July winning streaks in recent memory. And Rizzo’s attitude? Well, Mike seems to be standing firm. In truth, he’d like to have them all — and much as we love Adam Dunn, we have to agree. We would love to have them all too. But let’s be realistic. A package that would include Hudson, Viciedo and just one of Beckham (which would be our preference) or Quentin is tempting. Very tempting.

“One Long, Losing Slog”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The Nats 7-2 loss in Cincinnati on Monday night might have been averted — of only the Nats had hit, pitched and fielded like a major league team. The defeat stretched the Nats losing streak to three games and means that the Nats have now lost six of their last eight. Reaching the .500 mark, which might have been hoped for in April and even in May, now seems a distant and fantastical dream, as the team struggles to find its legs. The losing spiral sparked Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore to describe the Nats season of hope as “one long, losing slog.” That seems about right. So too the team itself seems infected by frustration: “We do have a great lineup. We just can’t get everyone hot at the same time,” Adam Dunn said after he loss. “It seems like we haven’t had two guys hot at the same time. If Guzzie is hot, then me and Zim aren’t hot. And then if Zim is hot, we are not. It’s bad timing, really. I don’t know how else to put it.” Luis Atilano is set to face Cincinnati rookie sensation Mike Leake tonight at The Great American Ballpark.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Baby, It’s A Chopper: On this day in 1958, Tiger’s ace Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, clinching a victory in a 3-0 contest. Bunning seemed to have Boston’s number — he once struck out Ted Williams three times in one game (also in 1958), spurring “The Splendid Splinter” to rip off his jersey (buttons popping) and throw it to the clubhouse floor: “I’ll get you Bunning,” he said and began searching for a schedule to determine when he’d face him again. Baseball legend has it that Williams hated Bunning so much that he would use him as a foil during batting practice, leaning into the ball and swinging as he yelled “here comes Jim Bunning. Jim F — ing Bunning and that little shit slider of his.” Williams little trick didn’t seem to work: Bunning struck out Williams more than any other player.

The key to Bunning’s success was a sidearm slider, a pitch he could control from nearly any angle. It fooled Williams, as it did nearly everyone else. Bunning led the league in strikeouts in 1959 and 1960 (with 201 each year), while gaining a reputation as one of the most durable pitchers around (he was regularly in the top five in the A.L in innings pitched). He never seemed to get injured. The oddest thing about Bunning’s career came after his greatest success: in 1963, the Tigers trades Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran outfielder Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton, a fireballing reliever with a lot of promise. It was a forgettable trade, one of the worst in Detroit history. Demeter was just okay, while Hamilton was slowed by arm injuries. While never living up to his promise, Hamilton became a kind of legend: in 1967 he threw a pitch to Boston’s Tony Conigliaro that shattered the upper left side of Conigliaro’s face and ended his career. It also ended Hamilton’s. The fireballer lost his speed after the incident, as well as his willingness to pitch inside. He left baseball and now runs a restaurant in Missouri.

Bunning’s fate was quite different. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1964 as the great new hope — the pitcher who would put the perennial losers at the top of the National League. He damn near did. The Phillies had a great line-up in ’64, led by power hitters Dick Allen and Johnny Callison and a slick defense centered on catcher Clay Dalrymple, second sacker Tony Taylor and slap hitting expert Bobby Wine (another one of those obnoxious little “pepper pots”). Bunning was complemented by starter Chris Short (a pitcher of almost unbelievable promise), Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp. The Tigers might have gotten a hint of the mistake they’d made when Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets on June 21, and the big righty went on to notch a remarkable 19-8 record.

But if Bunning was a success, his team wasn’t. 1964 was the year of “The Foldin’ Phillies” — as the ponies lost ten in a row and a seven game lead with 17 games to play. Phillies manager Gene Mauch panicked in the midst of this debacle — pitching Bunning in three games in seven days: Bunning lost all of them. Philadelphia dog-paddled its way into second place, while St. Louis passed them at a full sprint. It was the worst fold in major league history, until the Mets eclipsed it in 2007. The Phillies ’64 cataclysm seemed to unhinge the team in the years that followed, haunting Dick Allen’s successors who struggled, and struggled and struggled. But “Big Jim” Bunning continued to thrive, accounting for 70 wins over the next four years. Never mind: the Phils sputtered along, never quite putting it together again until 1980 — when they won a World Series. Their first.

After his stint in Philly, Bunning went on to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before ending up in the Hall of Fame (it was a vote of the veterans committee that finally confirmed his entry)  and the U.S. Senate, where he now serves as a controversial and conservative voice from Kentucky. He retains the reputation he gained from his years on the mound, as a head hunting foul-mouthed lug whose stock-in-trade was a quickie under the chin — he led the N.L. in hit batters all four of his years in Philadelphia and was widely loathed for his beanball habits. Bunning’s critics say he hasn’t changed: he remains a ramrod straight, if somewhat embarrassing figure. When asked to describe Bunning’s legislative prowess, the late Senator Robert Byrd thought for a minute before issuing his praise: “a great baseball man.” But the people of Kentucky seem to love him, voting him back to his Senate seat every six years. Then too, even if Bunning is as controversial now as he was in Detroit and Philly, there is little doubt that he once threw one of the best, if not the best, slider in the game. At least that’s what Ted Williams thought.

Assessing The Second Half

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Just one year ago, in 2009, the Washington Nationals opened the second half of their season not only in last place in the NL East, but as the worst team in baseball. The problems then were obvious: the bullpen had imploded, regular outfielder Austin Kearns was slumping, there was no starting pitching and the team seemed uninvolved and detached. The challenge then was different than it is now: to change what was happening on the field, the Nats needed to change what was happening in the front office — a view reflected in ownership’s mid season open letter to fans that contained an embarrassing, but necessary apology. No such apology is needed now. While the Nats are yet again in last place in their division, the rebuilt bullpen is solid, Austin Kearns (DHL’d to Cleveland) has been replaced in the outfield by slugger Josh Willingham, the team’s starting rotation is filled with promise and the clubhouse is tight and optimistic. But perhaps the biggest revolution has been where the fans can’t see it: the front office is retooled — with an engaged general manager and a core of scouts and development experts who are competing with the best in baseball.

The challenges facing the 2009 Nats were obvious, the needed changes reflected in the standings. That’s less true now, particularly considering that the franchise controls one of the game’s premier young pitchers (Stephen Strasburg), has one of the most formidable 3-4-5 line-up combinations in the National League (Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham), is steadied by a future hall of famer behind the plate (“Pudge” Rodriguez), and has — waiting in the wings — a crowd of injured starting pitchers that could energize a second half surge (Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang). Which is not to say that there aren’t problems. There are. The Nats defense is weak, the team’s set-up men are struggling, their center fielder is having problems on the base paths (and at the plate) and (pending the uncertain return of a quartet of tweeky arms) their starting pitching is shaky.

In 2009, these same problems (and their hypothetical resolution) spurred overly optimistic talk; that the Nationals were actually “only a player or two” from being good. That wasn’t true in 2009 — not even close, but it’s true now. The question for Mike Rizzo is whether he busts up a good thing to continue building, or whether he tweaks the team at the edges, hoping that the return of the Marquis-Zimmermann-Olsen-Wang quartet will provide the necessary spur to vault the team out of last place. It’s not an easy decision: busting up the team means trading popular and productive players (Dunn or Willingham, or both), while tweaking it at the edges probably (probably) means accepting that the Nats future is not now, but sometime next year. If there’s good news here, it’s this: Nats fans won’t have to wait until August or September to determine the team’s fate — that tale will be told before the July 31 trading deadline.

The Wisdom Of Secton 1-2-9: The CFG contingent arrived at the first game of the McCovey series with a new set of fans seated firmly in the row behind the regulars. That the two (I swear) looked like the spitting image of Omar Little and Stringer Bell was tempting: “hey, you two were great in The Wire.” The moment, thankfully, passed. The two turned out to be charter members of the Nyjer Morgan fan club, pumping their fists at every Nyjer moment: “My man,” one said, when Nyjer came to the plate. A row mate was not impressed, mimicking Casey At The Bat — “strike two said the umpire” and then the smile “not my style said Nyjer.” There were titters. When Morgan flipped his bat in disgust at a strike out served up by Matt Cain, the potential for a debate seemed electric, but one of the Morgan partisans smiled:  “You’ll see,” he said, to no one in particular. And he was right: Morgan was 2-5 and knocked in a run. “Hey man,” one of the Morgan fans said, but so we could hear it, “some of these fans don’t remember what Nyjer did for us last year.” His row mate nodded in agreement. “Yeah man, I know. Short memories.” This was greeted by silence. And chagrin. They were relentless, boring in for the kill. One of them tapped me on the shoulder: “That was a rope,” he said, after Morgan put a streaking line drive down the right field line. Okay, okay, okay . . .

“The problem with Clippard is that his curve just isn’t working,” one of the section’s middle relief experts opined in the second game of the San Francisco series. He didn’t need to keep making the point, Clippard was making it for him — “see, look at that.” Clippard looked terrible and shook his head as he came off the field. “He feels it,” and then there was just a tick before this, from a fan down the row: “Yeah, well, he should.” But the section remained optimistic (“he’ll get it back”), even as the Nats squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead (“yeah, but not this inning”). There were some few Giants fans in the seats, complete with newly minted, black and orange, Buster Posey jerseys. One Frisco fan (“San Francisco natives never use that term,” I was told) was tweeting with a family member, even as the Nats compiled a five runs lead. The message was pointed: “My boy Posey will regulate!” He did: 4-5 with 3 RBIs.