Posts Tagged ‘Mike Rizzo’

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Zimmerman Becomes A Leader

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Over the past two days Ryan Zimmerman has demonstrated, quite publicly, that he has become comfortable being the Nats’ team leader. Some people are born leaders and some figure out how to do it as they go along. Zimmerman is in the latter camp. And now that he has figured it out the team will be better for it. Zimmerman is no rush-the-parapets kind of guy. He’s much more of the quiet, lead-by-example, give-praise-where-it’s-due and criticize-in-private type. Given that the Nats are a pretty young team, Zimmerman’s personality fits that just fine.

After his walk off single Tuesday night a reporter asked Zim about the error by newbie shortstop Ian Desmond that led to San Diego scoring the tying run late in the game. Zim’s response was unequivocal:  “He’s very, very talented, and he thinks he can get every one out, which is a good thing,” Zimmerman said. “He’ll learn when not to throw balls, when to throw balls. It’s going to be part of the stuff we have to go through with him. I think it’s way more worth it to have him out there.” So there it is: for a kid like Desmond to have a guy like Zimmerman covering his back so publicly says a lot about Desmond’s talent (one of me Droogs reminded me that All World Cubbie Ernie Banks had 34 errors at short as a rookie)  — and a lot about Zim’s leadership style. By sticking up for a guy that the media would love to pick at Zimmerman was basically telling the wags to lay off the kid. And telling skipper Jim Riggleman that the kid will be okay.

In today’s edition of the Post, Zimmerman was at it again. Laying his cards on the table regarding trade rumors about Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, Zimmerman was outspoken: “It’s really, really hard to find a 3-4-5. Look at what we’ve done for the past two years. We enjoy playing together, and we kind of push each other. It’s a good group we have. It would be bad if we broke it up, I think.”  He couldn’t have been more clear than if he said “Mr. Rizzo, please don’t screw this up.” Zimmerman may be feeling his oats a bit too. When asked about Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo he said they “are very smart guys” and then added this coda — “they’ve done a great job so far.”  So far! Not beyond the pale. Just making his point. And a very good one methinks.

A note to Rizzo, Kasten and Riggleman: don’t overthink this. Play follow the leader — and leave Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Ian Desmond right where they are.

Nats Staff Still Unsettled

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The New York Mets provided the fireworks on July 4taking an 8-0 lead against the Washington Nationals and going on to register a “no contest” 9-5 victory at Nationals Park. The heat wasn’t the only thing that was unbearable at the stadium: up-and-down sometime starter Craig Stammen inaugurated the contest by serving up batting practice middle-of-the-plate pitches, which were duly deposited by Mets batters to all parts of the field. “I wasn’t very good. That’s the reason we lost. We move on,” Stammen said after the game. “It’s not anything physical. It’s how I’m thinking out there, a little bit, and sticking to the game plan little more — having conviction with my pitches.” Stammen’s outing, after a superior appearance last week versus the Bravos, was evidence enough that the Nats pitching staff still needs some kind of help.

The team’s pitching stats tell only a part of the story: while the Nats are just below the middle-of-the-pack in ERA (17th of 30, at 4.14), every other NL East team leads them with, not surprisingly, Atlanta at the very front of the division. While Washington’s bragging rights bullpen has been stellar (it ranks 9th in major league baseball), the stats don’t tell the entire story: the numbers imply that the Nats are bullpen dependent, calling on their middle relievers and closers in 35 of the first 40 games — more than anyone else except for three other MLB teams: proof positive (it seems) that the Nats starting pitching (while better than last year) is still woeful. Pitching into the 7th is a huge problem for the Nats rotation. A part of the team’s starting pitching problem is injuries (the DL list is a pitching graveyard), but it’s also true that the Nats simply lack the horses at the front of the rotation to climb out of last place in the “NL Least” — and there’s no guarantee that the return of Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen, Jason Marquis or Chien Ming-Wang will solve that problem.

The San Diego Padres roll into town today (with a game tomorrow night at Nats Park) with the best pitching staff around: a 3.07 ERA that is provided by a bevy of kids and veterans — Mat Latos has been the surprise, but he’s supplemented by a noted ground ball guru (Jon Garland) and a legendary closer. How did they get there? They followed the Rizzo Principles: they drafted and developed young pitchers (Latos was drafted in the 11th round in 2006, Wade LeBlanc was a second round pick in the same year) and then traded a veteran (Jake Peavy) for a passel of young prospects. If Mike Rizzo follows the same pattern he will wait on Zimmermann, Olsen, Marquis and Wang — and set aside the enormous temptation of trading Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham, whose middle-of-the-order bats are essential to transforming the young staff into winners. That’s probably a pretty good strategy for a team that’s still rebuilding, but it’s near-beer for Nats’ watchers. Which means? Which means that the Nats staff is not only unsettled, it’s likely to remain so.

Strasburg Getting Better, Nats Not

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Stan Kasten was pretty adamant in talking about Stephen Strasburg on Sunday, telling Nats beat report Bill Ladson that, as good as Stephen Strasburg is now, he’ll get even better. That’s good news for Nats fans, because the team itself seems to be getting worse. On Sunday, the Nationals lost their fourth in a row and their third in a row to the league worst Baltimore Orioles, 4-3. It was the third consecutive game in which the Nationals dropped a contest in which they led, and should have won. The team is now ten games under .500 — and sinking fast. But for skipper Jim Riggleman, at least, the glass is (as he is fond of repeating, and repeating) half full: “I like the fact that we scored runs early,” Riggleman said. “We had a chance to win the ballgame, and we didn’t get blown out. It’s a small consolation. We had runners out there to be driven in. We got some of them in. We are going to have to get more in. We have to get [good] pitching performances. There are a lot of good things to draw from.” We love Jim, really we do. But what glass is he talking about? Because the one that is half empty is filled with errors.

Kasten’s comments were fairly predictable, while signaling that the Nats will continue the Kasten-Rizzo philosophy of focusing on pitching — and building from within: “His [Strasburg’s] role as a symbol is very important,” Kasten told Ladson. “When we came in four years ago, we talked about wanting to build through scouting/development with an emphasis on pitching. Continuing with the fulfillment of that commitment, I think it’s very important that fans could see that we are close to turning the corner. We are close to having a really terrific, good, stable young rotation as some of our guys come up from the Minor Leagues and come back from rehab. But clearly the symbol of that movement is Stephen.”

Kasten could not have been more explicit; rather than depending on a big free agent signing, or making a blockbuster trade, the Nats will sink or swim with their young arms, and likely await the arrival (and return) of Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang. Nats fans would be pleased if any of those four (but particularly Marquis and Wang) returned to form — filling in a now shaky rotation that is having trouble pitching into the seventh inning. Sadly, as the Nats triumverate of Kasten, Rizzo and Riggleman would undoubtedly agree, if Desmond, Kennedy, Guzman and Gonzalez could field as well as Strasburg pitches, the Nats would have emerged from Baltimore as winners, instead of also-rans.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The CFG Board of Directors (here they are, remember?) has directed our editorial staff to conduct a reset of some earlier predictions. We have refused. While the “Amazins” are contending for the division title, we stand by our claim: the Nats will finish ahead of the Apples in the NL Least. There’s a long way to go. And this we say — while everyone is focusing on “The Rise of Ike Davis” and the expertise of some guy named Pelfrey (oh, and R.A. Dickey, whoever that is), we know the truth. The truth is that the key to the New York Metropolitans is Jose Reyes. Always has been, always will be. Without him, they’re lost . . .

But in at least another instance we are inclined to offer a “redo” on our too outspoken view that the Pale Hose, which was sinking like a rock when we (arrogantly, and filled with confidence) wrote that the South Siders would be sellers and would eventually be forced to shop Jake Peavy. The day after we wrote that, the White Sox launched a breathtaking winning streak, with Peavy in the lead. They have now recouped their season and their team and the confidence of their manager. Their win streak ended at 11 yesterday, in a loss to the North Side Drama Queens. Our bet now is that, barring the resurrection of Joe DiMaggio (and his agreement on a trade to the City of Big Shoulders), Jumpin’ Jake ain’t goin anywhere . . .

And we note with interest that in spite of Stanley’s talk of focusing on development and arms in the minors, the Nats are scouting D-Backs ace Dan Haren. Here’s our question: what’s to scout? Long into the night (and we’re deadly serious), we dream of that delivery, the same delivery every single time, like the mechanism of a finely tuned watch: head down, right leg up (then, the hesitation), the head snaps to the plate, the glove is thrown out (into the face of the batter) and the arm coming perfectly over the top. It’s a thing of beauty. I swear. It’s enough to send you back to church. Go get ’em Stan, go get ’em Mike . . .

Duo In The Sun

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Washington Nationals fans, all agog over new team ace Stephen Strasburg, have come back to earth. That reality is reflected in team blogs, in newspaper reports — and in the young phenom’s own judgment. In a classic pitcher’s duel, Strasburg went head-to-head against Kansas City’s Brian Bannister, whose command of the strike zone and an up-and-down-in-and-out fastball and curve made the difference in the game. The result was a 1-0 Royals’ win, albeit with a dink and dunk, Texas leaguer contest in which the Monarchs refused to fold and (over the course of nine innings) slapped out nine hits. Strasburg lost the game, but took the booby prize: he eclipsed Herb Score’s strikeout record for the first four games of an MLB career — Score had 40 strikeouts in his first four, Strasburg had 41.

Jim Riggleman praised Strasburg, but there was a back handed caveat: “This time he was really good. The other times, he’s been spectacular,” the skipper said in his post game comments. Riggleman also took note of the difficulty of taking on the Royals’ order, a deceptively productive line-up that produces serial singles and station-to-station runs — if not wins. “The Royals have the highest batting average [in major league baseball] and Stephen competed with less than his best stuff today. They know how to hit.” Former Nats outfielder Jose Guillen was more specific: “He still has a little to learn about how to pitch in certain counts,” Guillen said. “He got me 1-2 or something and threw me a fastball right down the middle.” Those who sat through the sweltering oven of a game will add this — that Brian Bannister, lacking the Strasburg fastball (and slider, and change, and hook for that matter), won the duel, pitching six complete and giving up five hits. Bannister walked two (Strasburg none), but the final tally told the tale. When the Nats needed hits, Bannister shut them down.When the Royals needed hits, they got them.

Despite the loss, Strasburg remains the ace of the staff, garnering praise from teammates and opponents alike. It’s not everyday that your manager calls you a “treasure” (a descriptive used by Jim Riggleman in a post game interview), or that your teammates are lavish in their support. Ryan Zimmerman has, at least lately, been outspoken in his support and it seems that Pudge Rodriguez actually seems to like the kid. It shows that Strasburg is starting to fit in — not an insignificant challenge for a 21-year-old who just arrived and needs to show that he can not only pitch, but wants to win. He seems to have convinced the doubters, if there ever were any. This morning Tom Boswell reported that Strasburg summarily dismissed a reporter who asked about an auction of his rookie card on eBay. “Let’s focus on the game,” Strasburg said. “It was a tough loss for us.”

That kind of comment has to bring a sigh of relief to Riggleman and Rizzo, who have focused a lot of their attention on building a united clubhouse, which (at least in baseball) is a minimal condition for building a winning team. Gone now too (we hope) is all this talk of whether Strasburg should be an All Star, that he deserves to have his name mentioned among the NL’s probables — who might well constitute the best group of senior circuit starters in many years: Jimenez, Halladay, Lincecum, Carpenter, Pelfry, Hudson, Latos, Johnson, Wainwright, Cain, Oswalt and Silva. That’s a veritable gaggle of greatness. If Wednesday’s rare-back-and-throw hot-as-a-firecracker duel in the sun proves anything it’s that Strasburg is not there. Yet.