A Nationals Hot Sheet in the Offing
A young man called in to the “Outta the Parkway Show” on Friday night and wanted to know whether the Nationals are headed in the right direction and how long it will take before the Nationals are a competitive presence in baseball. How long before the Nationals run at the front of the pack?
As the horses hit the club house turn and head down the September stretch, it looks like a long climb to get back in the race. Well off the pace for 2011, the Washington Nationals are evaluating talent for next year. Ross Detwiler and Chien-ming Wang are trying out for the starting rotation. Ian Desmond is hitting leadoff to see if his inability to do so early in the year was Riggleman or some other force of nature.
The experiments looked promising when the Nationals took two of three from the Phillies. But the Diamondbacks and Reds limited the offense to less than two runs per game and the DC nine lost five in a row to show where the biggest problems lie. Scoring runs has been a challenge for Washington like no other team in the National League that does not have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain at the head of the rotation. Jayson Werth is just the highest paid bust on the team, but he has plenty of company as five of the starting nine are hitting less than .250
So where will the team look to add punch in 2012? Jayson Werth has probably given free agent signings a bad name in DC and it is unlikely the team will look to that avenue first as it seeks to rebuild for 2012. Jose Reyes is one of the big names that will be available and his lack of intensity on the field and frequent trips to the dl are a red flag across which Jayson Werth is writ large. The Nationals are the favorite team thought to have claimed B.J. Upton on waivers at the end of last week and may work out a deal before tomorrow. But if not, it is likely just the beginning of negotiations between the two teams that are likely to carry into the winter.
The rumors about Upton point to two of the most likely places the Nationals can add offense, center field and short stop. B.J. Upton could add punch and speed without any slack off in defense from the current office holder: Rick Ankiel. Ankiel opened the season in center, lost the job like a Democrat at a Tea Party hanging, then regained it only to fall back to the mean. He has handled the glove flawlessly, but his bat is one of the least potent in the lineup.
Shortstop Ian Desmond has done even less after his fine rookie season. Like Ankiel there are glimpses of the player that the Nationals wanedt to see consistently. But Desmond’s prodigious strikeout rate makes belief in his long term viability problematic. He has hit for neither power nor average and cannot get on base. If he were not so young that would be the end of it. But Desmond is a good team player who has always been willing to work on his game, so there are still believers in his talent.
With so little to cheer as the season heads into the final month, Nationals fans are content to wonder whether Strasburg will return at 100 percent. Every thing the young man has said about his rehab starts tell you he will be not only the same pitcher but better. His velocity is much the same. He is pitching at 96-98 mph most of the time in his rehab starts. Velocity has not been the issue, rather command of his secondary stuff. His command was so absolute in 2010 and it is easier to see that returning than anything else. He believes he will be better because of the strength he has added by working out during his rehab.
So he joins a long list of talented candidates for the 2012 rotation, headed by Jordan Zimmermann. Brad Peacock and Tom Milone have been among the best pitchers in the minors with Peacock named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, and Milone leading the International League in strikeouts and sporting one of the best ERA in the league. John Lannan will be back along with Detwiler. Wang may be willing to sign, but the Nationals put him on waivers in hopes of trading him, so it is not certain whether he figures into the 2012 plans. But it is easy to see how the Nationals could put together a pitching staff that is better than the one that will finish among the National League leaders in 2011.
No, pitching is not the problem. And for the first time, there are no problems with defensively challenged players from the Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham (read as Jim Bowden) era. The enduring problems are the ones that Jayson Werth was supposed to solve and has not. It was filling in for Dunn like Adam LaRoche was supposed to do, but did not.
The problem has been the lack of offensive muscle, whether it is from the transplants like Werth and LaRoche, or from those coming up through the organization. Desmond and Danny Espinosa have been a great double-play combination and Espinosa vacuums every thing hit to the right side of the infield. But his hitting has dropped off severely in the second half and leaves a big question mark. There is Steve Lombardozzi who is tearing up the minors along with Tyler Moore. But how good are they and are they the answers for 2012.
Which brings us to this week’s “Outta the Parkway” Show. Our guest will be Jim Callis of Baseball America. He will be talking about Anthony Rendon and the other new Nationals signed several weeks ago. How do they impact the organization’s depth? Will Alex Meyer be a closer or quality starter? How good is the Nationals organization now that it is fronted by something more than just Bryce Harper. How good was the kid’s first year?
When you are running back in the pack and looking up at the Tampa Bay Rays, you remember all of those many years that Tampa (sic) wandered in the desert before becoming a regular contender in the very tough AL East. They did it with a great minor league organization, but it took time.
So Callis should have more answers about the Nationals’ future than most others could provide. He may have a few for the Orioles as well and they are running even further back than the Nats. So I encourage all fans of Nationals baseball–and the Orioles as well–who want to understand just how bright the future may be to call in this Friday night (347-945-7172). Jim takes questions frequently about baseball prospects over at Baseball America. This is a chance to focus on the Mid-Atlantic only, so make the most of it. Join Chip Greene and I as we enjoy getting the latest from Jim and his friends at Baseball America.